Rams can’t avoid another meltdown in the desert

Since leading his team to a game-winning field goal at Tampa Bay, Austin Davis has looked helpless nearly every time he's taken the field with his team trailing in the fourth quarter. 

Mark J. Rebilas/Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS — The Rams needed a spectacular blunder by San Francisco to reverse a trend of poor finishes a week ago.

Arizona offered no such favors Sunday, and St. Louis responded by collapsing in the fourth quarter of a 31-14 loss. The NFC West leaders scored 21 unanswered points, including two defensive touchdowns, to close out their fifth straight win.

Since leading his team to a game-winning field goal in the final minute of a 19-17 win Sept. 14 at Tampa Bay, Austin Davis has looked helpless nearly every time he’s taken the field with his team trailing in the fourth quarter. Sunday might have been his worst performance yet with 15 minutes filled with inaccurate passes and costly turnovers.

A remarkable pick-six by Patrick Peterson began Davis’ nightmare, but the great tip and catch was made possible by a high pass off the hands of wide receiver Kenny Britt. On the Rams’ next drive, Davis fumbled on a sack by Kareem Martin, and Antonio Cromartie easily scooped it up for a 14-yard touchdown.

Davis would finish 8 of 19 for 100 yards with two interceptions and three sacks in the final quarter, but it was actually the defense that lost the lead. Drew Stanton replaced Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer after an injury and promptly shredded the secondary with four passes for 89 yards, the last of which was a 48-yard pass to John Brown for the game-winning touchdown.

Other than Colin Kaepernick’s botched snap in San Francisco, the Rams haven’t gotten many breaks in the fourth quarter this season. They’ve also shown little ability to create their own opportunities, something Arizona has done better than anyone while outscoring opponents 91-34 in the final 15 minutes.

FIRST DOWN: Starting on the right foot

The first quarter continues to be the best quarter for the Rams.

An impressive seven-play, 62-yard drive and two more sacks highlighted another hot start to put St. Louis ahead 7-0 after 15 minutes. The Rams have outscored opponents 38-6 in the first quarter in five games since a 34-28 loss at Philadelphia, including a 7-0 lead before Kansas City put up 34 unanswered points.

As usual, the key was establishing the run with starter Tre Mason, who ran four times for 27 yards on the way to the end zone. Wide receiver Tavon Austin took an end-around for 10 yards and running back Benny Cunningham finally capped things off with a 3-yard touchdown run.

More blitzing from defensive coordinator Gregg Williams held the Arizona offense to negative-two total yards on three drives, plus a 2-yard run by Andre Ellington to end the quarter. The defensive line came out swinging again, and safety T.J. McDonald got his first sack of the year and continued to tackle well all over the field.

St. Louis still hasn’t found a way to keep up its energy and intensity for all four quarters, but it remains a positive sign that this team can compete with just about anyone. That doesn’t make a 1-4 record when leading after one quarter any less troubling.

SECOND DOWN: More passing woes

Flip through our photo album of NFL cheerleaders.

The shine has clearly worn off for former practice squad quarterback Davis.

A bit of regression was always to be expected for the third-year quarterback during a brutal portion of the schedule featuring some of the NFL’s best defenses. But his numbers have plummeted drastically since he threw for 375 yards in an admirable 34-28 loss at Philadelphia.

Over the past five games, Davis has averaged just 174.4 yards per game and thrown six interceptions to go with six touchdowns. Both times he threw for more than 200 yards, those numbers were tempered by a costly interception returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Although he made a nice read and throw to tight end Jared Cook for a season-long 59-yard touchdown late in the first half at Arizona, Davis has often looked out of sync with his receivers and rarely thrown the ball downfield. That caution worked when he completed 17 of 20 passes for 155 yards in an expertly managed 28-26 win over Seattle, but teams have learned they normally won’t pay for being aggressive against St. Louis.

An injury to top wide receiver Brian Quick three weeks ago in Kansas City may have been a crippling blow, and such players as Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin aren’t living up to their potential. But Davis’ limitations are showing, leaving the Rams with few good passing options on offense.

THIRD DOWN: Third-down trouble

Nearly every week, Rams coach Jeff Fisher emphasizes the importance of third downs.

His words proved prophetic Sunday, when St. Louis converted just 1 of 10 third downs. The defense actually beat the team’s season percentage by giving up 6 of 15 third-down conversions, though one was a critical third-and-5 by the Cardinals in their own territory that kept alive the drive that tied the game at seven.

The Rams’ offense came into the game ranked 19th in the NFL and will surely drop after their season conversion percentage fell to just 38 percent. An inefficient running game shoulders most of the blame, as Davis has actually been surprisingly good at picking up third-and-short.

FOURTH DOWN: Gaines shines again

The Rams started their top two corners for the first time all season, but it was the rookie from Missouri who made two of the most impressive plays in the secondary.

Gaines denied two touchdowns with spectacular plays in the end zone, limiting Arizona to just three points rather than 14. Both times, linebacker Alec Ogletree followed up to ensure the Cardinals didn’t keep their drive alive.

John Brown’s double move didn’t fool Gaines in the second quarter, when he used great position to knock the ball out of Brown’s hands as he tried to reach over the top of the shorter defensive back. Ogletree broke up a pass on the next play to force an Arizona field goal. Arizona tight end Rob Housler looked to be wide open for an easy six until Gaines came out of nowhere to knock the ball away in the third quarter, and Ogletree intercepted Palmer in the red zone two plays later.

St. Louis’ young defense continues to show a lot of potential through adversity, even if it hasn’t often been good enough to win.

You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter at @FS_LukeT or email him at lukegthompson87@gmail.com.