The St Louis Rams and the Tampa Bay Bucs were similar teams on paper, with the Bucs holding one huge advantage - a deadly efficiency when they get into the red zone. The Bucs were the league's fourth-best team in touchdown scoring, converting on 66% of their red zone possessions.
Here's how the Bucs fared in their four red zone trips, thanks to the Rams defense: field goal, field goal, turnover on downs, turnover on downs.
The Rams scored 21 points off Josh Freeman turnovers - including a brilliant pick-six runback by Janoris Jenkins that put the Rams on the scoreboard and gave them a lead they wouldn't surrender.
Despite allowing 370+ yards passing on the day, the defense picked off Josh Freeman four times on Sunday, and forced three more turnovers on downs. (Even the Rams offense got into the act, forcing a fumble of their own on a Bucs first-quarter fumble recovery that could have been a momentum-changer.) It was a classic bend-but-don't-break performance by Jeff Fisher's defense. But unlike the Detroit game, the Rams offense held up its end of the bargain.
Meanwhile, for the Bucs, this was the second four-INT game in a row for Josh Freeman. Time and again, the Bucs offensive coordinator put the ball in his quarterback's hands with a mandate to make a play. Time and again, the Rams defense made one instead.
Spotless Day for Sam
Sam Bradford had a much quieter game by comparison, dropping back to throw a mere 27 times after a 55-throw game the week before. And with help from Paul Boudreau's hastily rebuilt offensive line, Bradford's jersey was kept entirely clean. For only the second time in his career, and the first time since November 2010 against the Falcons, Bradford played an entire game without taking a sack.
However, despite being a poorly-ranked pass defense, the Bucs did not make it too easy on Sam. He had to make contested throws all day, and was set up with third-and-longs for most of the afternoon. He did throw one unnecessary interception to snuff a scoring drive, and hit a spell late in the third quarter where his receivers could not hang on to quick-timed throws, but otherwise had a spotless outing.
Bradford's day was punctuated by a pair of touchdown throws to Lance Kendricks and Austin Pettis that broke a tight contest open, a rare time when the Rams had a chance to put their foot on an opponent's throat and actually did so. Consider this stat: Coming into this game, Bradford had thrown a total of three passes all season long with a two-score lead. At the very least, he got to patch that little divot in his situational stats this afternoon.
Just short of a milestone day for SJ
The game situation strongly favored pounding the rock to run out the clock in the second half, and Steven Jackson got 11 of his 19 carries in the downhill portion of the game. However, an active Bucs linebacker crew led by rookie Lavonte David held SJ to 81 yards rushing, ten short of the mark needed to hit 1,000 yards rushing for the eighth consecutive season, one week after crossing the 10,000-yard career plateau in the home finale.
Jackson will be able to opt out of his contract after the season, as he is widely expected to do, which leaves Kevin Demoff with the difficult job of figuring out a fair market value contract for a 30-year-old workhorse. Jackson has been everything you want from a franchise running back for the Rams, and has seemingly reversed the age trend for NFL runners, getting healthier and sturdier as his career lengthens.
Neither Daryl Richardson or Isaiah Pead appear well-positioned to take over full-time duties, or even at this point form an effective platoon by themselves. Richardson's hot start to the season has faded badly, averaging fewer than two yards per carry in each of his last four games. While I would not be shocked to see Jeff FIsher draft another runner this season (he has a history of loading up at the position), at this point I would be shocked (or at least unpleasantly surprised) to see Jackson in another team's uniform.
Lance Kendricks has a big-league day
One of the bigger -- and least-often-told -- stories of Jeff Fisher's first season as head coach has been the rehabilitation of several young players that were inherited from the previous coaching staff, and were seen as damaged goods. None stands out more than Lance Kendricks, who has quietly had a huge turnaround season.
Kendricks has benefited greatly from working with esteemed position coach Rob Boras, who previously coached the Bears' Greg Olsen and coaxed a breakout season from the Jaguars' Marcedes Lewis. Boras was an offensive line coach before he focused on tight ends; likewise, Kendricks' rehabilitation started with a focus on blocking. He now sees the field on 80% of the Rams' offensive plays, a big jump up from his rookie season, and he has fully supplanted Brit Miller as Steven Jackson's lead blocker.
More importantly, Kendricks has become a legitimate threat in the offense, and a reliable third-down target for Bradford. After suffering a crisis of confidence in his rookie season, Kendricks has an astounding 73% catch rate this year, and caught four of five passes thrown his way on Sunday.
However, after today's game, we may have to omit the "quiet" part of his turnaround season. Kendricks got left all alone up the seam on the frist play of the second half, and Sam Bradford found him. It might have been Kendricks' easiest catch of the year, and certainly his longest run. Helped by a hustling block from Danny Amendola, the big tight end ran eighty yards down the field for a touchdown.
That gave Kendricks his first-ever 100-yard receiving day as a pro, and helped put an exclamation point on his successful sophomore year. It also cemented a Rams win that propelled them to 7-7-1, and gives them a chance to finish the season above .500 for the first time since 2003.