ST. LOUIS — It felt like the Rams gave just about everyone on their roster a chance to solve their offensive woes in Sunday’s opener against the Minnesota Vikings.
Wide receiver Tavon Austin got three carries at tailback and Benny Cunningham took his turn behind a mostly ineffective Zac Stacy. Quarterback Austin Davis even made his NFL debut in the second half, thanks to a thigh injury to Shaun Hill, who completed five straight passes to start the game before Stacy dropped a screen pass on the Rams’ second drive.
None of it worked in the 34-6 blowout, St. Louis’ worst home loss since New England won, 45-7, behind Tom Brady’s four touchdowns in October 2012. The Rams never even got past the Minnesota 25-yard line against an athletic defense that got a lot of help from St. Louis penalties.
"They’re pretty stout up front," coach Jeff Fisher said. "You have to get in a rhythm. We didn’t get in a rhythm."
The defense held Adrian Peterson to less than four yards per carry and did an admirable job holding the Vikings to six points in the first to 28 minutes. Fisher said when the Rams took over at their own 25 with just 1:38 left, they were just trying to get to halftime without further damage.
Instead, Hill nearly lost a fumble on first down and then threw an ill-advised pass to the sideline that was intercepted by Josh Robinson. The Vikings took advantage of the short field to score the game’s first touchdown and Fisher said Hill suffered a quad strain on the interception that kept getting worse, leaving him unable to come back in the second half.
Regardless of who’s playing quarterback, the Rams will almost always be in trouble when they can’t establish a solid running game. It’s safe to say that happened Sunday, when St. Louis averaged less than 3.3 yards per carry, and only 2.8 in the first half.
"It’s the catalyst for the offense," right tackle Joe Barksdale said. "When you can’t light a powder keg, it’s just a powder keg. That’s definitely an area of focus that we’re going to look at along with everything else today."
Fisher also emphasized the importance of the running game for the offense, which began the game with a 23-yard completion from Hill to wide receiver Brian Quick. The two provided perhaps the lone bright spot, combining for 70 of St. Louis’ 109 first-half yards on just four completions.
Quick finished with career highs of seven receptions and 99 yards, but even he wasn’t immune to making critical mistakes. A facemask penalty at the end of a 21-yard gain in the second quarter knocked the Rams out of field-goal range, and Jared Cook’s offensive pass interference three plays later effectively killed the drive.
No. 1 receiver Kenny Britt may as well have been invisible in his Rams debut. The first pass allegedly intended for the 6-foot-3 veteran sailed at least 10 feet over his head as he stopped for a curl route on the sideline, and the other two passes thrown his way could hardly have been considered catchable.
By the time Cordarelle Patterson gashed the crumbling Rams defense for a 67-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, the boos had already started to rain down on an offense clearly incapable of erasing a 20-3 deficit. In fact, Davis would make it worse with a poor throw that Vikings safety Harrison Smith intercepted and returned 81 yards for his team’s final touchdown.
Fisher didn’t hesitate to dole out individual blame for some costly penalties, and Hill accepted full responsibility for his interception. As for everything else that went wrong, Fisher and many of his players said film study should tell them a lot more.
"All around, we didn’t play good enough, especially on offense, just too many penalties," left tackle Jake Long said. "It’s all things we can change and things that we can get better at and we know we’re good at."
Long also credited Minnesota for some of its effective blitzes that kept both St. Louis quarterbacks under pressure all game long. In the end, though, it’s easy to see why the Rams felt many of their problems were self-inflicted.
Fixing the mental mistakes will be the obvious place to start for a team that stressed the importance of moving on quickly from one of its most embarrassing losses in recent memory. But the more difficult part — especially if Hill is out — will be finding the players capable of becoming reliable and effective offensive weapons.