Blog by the Stat Doctor Richard Winer for TonySoftli.com

Exactly three months separated the two games played between the Rams and the Cardinals this season. The Rams had rallied for a 27-24 win in the season opener at the Edward Jones Dome that put them above the .500 mark for the only time this season. Since then, the Rams have won one-third of their next 12 games, while Arizona entered the win column in two-thirds of its next 12 contests. Last Sunday’s game in Arizona proved to be frustrating and disappointing, as the Rams suffered their fifth double-digit loss of the season, 30-10. Some of the numbers from the day really help tell the story why the Cardinals prevailed.

Arizona took the opening kickoff and marched right down the field 80 yards in eight plays to take the lead only 4:28 into the game. This was the fifth time an opponent scored first in the opening 10 minutes of the game, never trailed thereafter and maintained the lead for at least 50 minutes of the proceedings. (The Rams themselves are undefeated in three games when they have led for at least 50 minutes, and they have only trailed once in the second half of their five wins.) Last season, the Rams pulled off the extremely rare record of 6-3 when the opponent scored first. That has certainly not been the case this year, as the Rams are 2-5 when they have spotted their opponents the opening score. There have been no lead changes in the last five games, so the trend was not an encouraging one when the Rams fell behind 7-0.

Going into the game, the Cardinals had scored only 17 points in the last two minutes of the first half and but six points in the closing two minutes of the game. However, Arizona scored touchdowns with 50 seconds and 1:55 left in the respective halves on Sunday. To compound the difficulties of the afternoon, that late second-quarter touchdown pass from Carson Palmer to Larry Fitzgerald was followed just 68 seconds later with a Karlos Dansby 24-yard interception return. The Fitzgerald score and the pick-six took the Cardinals from a four-point lead to a 21-3 advantage early in the second half.

The Rams and the Cardinals have faced off twice each season since realignment put them together in the NFC West in 2002. In those 12 seasons, Arizona has tallied 13 return touchdowns against St. Louis and eight of those scores have been on pick-sixes, with Dansby’s touchdown being the shortest of the bunch. For the day, the Cardinals outscored the Rams on turnovers by a 7-0 count. In the Rams’ five wins, they are plus-14 on turnovers, outscoring the opponents 61-14 off of those turnovers. In the nine losses, the Rams are minus-seven in the turnover ratio with the opponents scoring 59 points to the Rams’ eight points off of the turnovers.

Penalties were a major issue for the second consecutive week as the Rams tallied double-digit penalties in back-to-back games. This also happened last year in the New England and first San Francisco game. The last time the Rams had at least 10 penalties in three straight games was in 2006 against Arizona, Chicago and Oakland. St. Louis followed the six penalty first downs allowed against the Niners by helping the Cardinals move the chains five times after penalties. Those 11 penalty first downs in the last two games matched a total in those 2006 games against the Cardinals and Bears – the highest total since the first downs were broken down into rushing, passing and penalty in 1981. To put the penalty situation into perspective, the Rams in the last two games allowed more penalty yards (195) than rushing yards (190) and gave up more penalty first downs (11) than rushing first downs (8).

For the second straight week, the Rams’ average drive start was at least 10 yards worse than their opponent’s drive start. Conversely, the Cardinals have had the better of the average drive start by at least 10 yards in five of their eight wins. Yet, at the half, the Cardinals had four drives that had all started at their 20-yard line, while the Rams’ average starting point was only two yards less (at their own 18-yard line). In the second half, Arizona had no drive start worse than the 20-yard line, while the Cardinals’ average was their own 40-yard line. That translates to 142 “hidden” yards that the Rams had to make up just to get to where the Cardinals were starting, and that total represented more than one-half of the Rams’ total offense for the day. As it turned out, the Rams only crossed midfield on three of their 12 drives and ran only nine of their 50 plays for the game past the 50-yard line.

Third-down plays were also telling, as the Rams converted only three out of 11 third downs. Ironically, two of those successes came on plays requiring at least 10 yards for a first down. The third-and-11 conversion on a Kellen Clemens pass to Lance Kendricks good for 15 yards was only the second time in 32 tries the Rams made good on third down with more than 10 yards to go. Also, the Rams had no third-down attempts of less than three yards to go, and they went 0-for-2 on third-and-3.

When a team struggles on third down, you can often point to first-down yardage to help explain why there were problems. The Rams were again quite balanced in first-down play selection with 11 pass plays and 10 runs. Clemens was only 5-for-11 for 41 yards and an interception on first down, for an average of only 3.9 yards per first-down pass play. Excluding Tavon Austin’s 56-yard scamper on a first down play late in the third quarter, the Rams only rushed for 17 yards on the other nine first-down carries. Nearly one-half of the Rams’ first-down yardage for the day came on Austin’s run; without it, the Rams averaged only 2.9 yards on all other first-down plays.

Let’s get back to that Austin 56-yard run for a moment. Prior to that play, the Rams only had 40 yards rushing on 15 carries – a 2.9-yard average. The Cardinals had not allowed a run of more than 32 yards all season before that play. As it turned out, Austin’s run accounted for 56 percent of the Rams’ rushing offense, and he was the leading rusher of the game for either team just based on that one run. In fact, Austin’s “one-hit wonder” was the longest run ever by a Rams player on his only carry to lead the team in rushing. Only Kenneth Darby with a 51-yard run against the Titans in 2009 and Todd Kinchen with a 44-yard run against the Niners in 1994 gained more than 30 yards on their singular carry of the day to be the Rams’ leading rusher in a game.

Here are some other tidbits from the game worth noting. The Rams’ defense forced a red-zone turnover for the seventh time this year when Janoris Jenkins recovered a Jim Dray fumble in the end zone. This was the first red-zone fumble recovery to go along with six red-zone interceptions, and the Rams as a defense have created the most red-zone turnovers since 2006, when they had nine red-zone takeaways. On the other hand, the Rams allowed a safety for the first time in 10 years when Seattle’s Orlando Huff tackled Marc Bulger in the end zone. Then, in the hard-to-believe department, the Rams had their first successful challenge of the season and in three years on a punt that was eventually ruled a touchback. Exactly three years ago in New Orleans, Steven Jackson had “fumbled” at the one-yard line and the ball was returned 82 yards by the Saints’ Roland Harper. The ruling was challenged and then reversed as Jackson was ruled down before the fumble.

This Sunday, the Rams face a major challenge at home when they face the Saints. The last time the Rams hosted New Orleans, it was right after the Cardinals won the 2011 World Series. The Rams prevailed that day, 31-21, and they will be looking for similar results this weekend against a team that is hoping to clinch a playoff berth at the Edward Jones Dome.