MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – There was a familiar formula at work on the Sun Life Stadium field Sunday afternoon as the Rams looked for their first road victory of the season against the Dolphins.
Team A controlled the ball, controlled the clock and outgained the other. Team B won the turnover battle, avoided costly mistakes and scored timely touchdowns.
Through the first five weeks of the season, the Rams had been – for the majority of the time – the latter team. On Sunday, against the Dolphins, the tables were turned as Miami took advantage of the Rams’ numerous missed chances and emerged with a 17-14 victory.
“We had a lot of opportunities today to win this game and we didn’t do it, particularly in the first half,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “(It’s) disappointing but the effort was outstanding. This team played hard and had a chance to tie it up and couldn’t get it done.”
The disappointing loss drops the Rams back to 3-3 on the season in a game that they statistically dominated in nearly every category except the one that mattered most: the scoreboard.
Despite the team’s dominance, they still found themselves with an opportunity to tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter.
Rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein, who missed two field goals earlier in the game wide left, had a chance to redeem himself as time expired. After quarterback Sam Bradford scored on a sneak from the 1 and found running back Steven Jackson for the two-point conversion, Bradford and the Rams drove into Miami territory after starting at their 3.
Bradford was sacked for a loss of 3 on third down with 37 seconds left. With just one timeout left, Fisher opted to send Zuerlein out for a 66-yard field goal, a would be record rather than attempting to convert on fourth-and-7 with one timeout left.
“We had a good wind,” Fisher said. “The odds of Greg making that kick from that distance, I thought were much greater than us converting that fourth down. I didn’t think about it. I counted off and knew it was 65, 66 and he’s got that kind of leg.”
With a wind at his back, Zuerlein got a lot of it as the ball sailed into the net. But, like the previous two misses, it sailed wide left. The rookie, who had made 15 consecutive field goals for a rookie record, missed his final three.
“Anytime I can help the team win, I definitely want the opportunity, especially with what happened earlier,” Zuerlein said. “It just didn’t work out for me.”
All told, the Rams outgained Miami 462 to 192, had 22 first downs to Miami’s 12 and owned time of possession by almost seven minutes.
Bradford threw for 315 yards on 26-of-39 passing for a rating of 91.3. Running backs Daryl Richardson and Steven Jackson combined with Bradford for 162 yards on 27 carries, an average of 6 yards per attempt against the league’s best run defense.
What should have been a breakthrough offensive performance left the Rams exasperated by missed opportunities that were the results of costly penalties, missed connections and all the other factors that keep a team out of the end zone.
“As an offense we have got to learn how to put the ball in the end zone,” Jackson said. “We came out and ran the ball pretty well. On the road, it is really hard to win so we have definitely got to turn those opportunities for touchdowns into seven points.”
In the first half, especially, the Rams repeatedly missed golden opportunities to extend an early 6-0 lead. The lead vanished quickly when, of all things, Zuerlein’s streak of 15 consecutive field goals makes ended.
After converting from 48 and 32 yards to stake the Rams to an early lead, Zuerlein’s 52-yard field goal had plenty of distance but sailed to the left for the first miscue of his young career.
“Just based on feel, I think I came across the ball a little bit but I’ll have to watch film and see,” Zuerlein said of the balls sailing left. “I just didn’t do my job. It cost my team the game.”
Miami wasted no time taking advantage of the field position afforded by the long miss as it moved quickly into Rams territory.
On second-and-5 at the Rams 29, rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill caught Rams rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins staring into the backfield as receiver Marlon Moore raced past for a wide open touchdown.
Suddenly, instead of a 9-0 lead, the Rams were down 7-6 and the momentum shift continued to favor the Dolphins on the ensuing kickoff.
“It was just bad eye,” Jenkins said. “Bad eye, I was just trying to make a play.”
Miami kicker Dan Carpenter booted a kickoff that sailed short and to the left where fullback Brit Miller attempted to field it. He scooped it up and attempted a return but he coughed it up as he neared the 20 and Miami’s Marcus Thigpen recovered at the Rams 25.
“Looking back, letting it hit the ground would probably have been the best thing to do, maybe it goes out of bounds it was such a duck,” Miller said. “But it was the first time I touched the ball and I fumbled it so I have got to go back to work.”
Carpenter booted a 42-yard field goal to make it 10-6.
Through all of this, the Rams offense was busy posting its best first-half performance of the season. In the opening 30 minutes, quarterback Sam Bradford and Co. surged to 294 yards of total offense, the ninth best total in franchise history and the most by a Rams team since Dec. 2001.
Included in that output was 137 yards rushing on 16 carries against Miami’s vaunted run defense.
There were also a couple of big plays that nearly became very big plays. Richardson broke a 44-yard run and was barely caught down the sideline. Rookie wideout Chris Givens caught a 65-yard pass that he couldn’t believe didn’t end with him in the end zone as he was tracked down from behind.
“I am very surprised,” Givens said. “I don’t know what happened. The guy just made a good play, it won’t happen again.”
Also included was an old nemesis of the Rams so far this season: an inability to finish drives with touchdowns. They made it inside Miami’s red zone twice and came away with no points either time.
In fact, on those drives, the Rams ran five plays inside Miami’s 20 for a net of negative-3 yards. That inability to produce touchdowns allowed Miami to hang around.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Bradford said. “Anytime you are able to move the ball like we did and accumulate that many yards and only score six points, it’s probably one of the most frustrating things there is.
All of that added up to a 294-99 total yards advantage in the first half but a deficit of 10-6.
The Dolphins put the game out of reach on their opening possession of the third quarter after a 44-yard kickoff return by Thigpen. Tannehill finished the drive with a 1-yard scoring strike to tight end Anthony Fasano to make it 17-6.
Now, the Rams must find a way to take some lessons from their second near-miss on the road in six weeks. When the film comes on Monday morning, there will be plenty for the Rams to like which will only make the result more maddening, especially as an offense.
“Obviously it’s frustrating,” Bradford said. “It’s hard to see those things right after a loss. I’m sure after we see the tape; we’ll see a lot of things we can learn from. We are a very young group and one of the greatest things about being young is the opportunity for improvement. I think this offense still has a long way to go before we hit our ceiling. Hopefully we’ll learn from it and it will be a great experience for us.”