Rams take stance with defense, beat Eagles in OT, 20-17

St. Louis gets big lift from unit, wins on FG

September 10, 2001|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - The NeXturf at Veterans Stadium got mixed reviews. The replacement refs got passing grades. But it was the St. Louis Rams' defense that got the most attention yesterday.

For a change, virtually all of it was laudatory.

Getting a major lift from their much-maligned defense, the Rams outlasted the Philadelphia Eagles, 20-17, when Jeff Wilkins cashed in a 26-yard field goal 7:56 into overtime.

All the usual offensive playmakers came through at one time or another for the Rams. Running back Marshall Faulk flashed his MVP form. Quarterback Kurt Warner threw for 308 yards. And wide-out Isaac Bruce, after a quiet game, came down with two huge catches in overtime to set up Wilkins' game-winner.

But in a matchup that could be replayed next January in the NFC playoffs, the Rams' defense made the boldest statement against one of the league's elite quarterbacks in Donovan McNabb.

"The way this game unfolded really takes a lot of pressure off our defense," Faulk said. "Now they know they can do it. It's one thing to do it at home, but here, in a hostile environment. ... I think everybody wanted to talk about our defense and what they're going to be like. I think they really showed their character today.

"They made plays when they had to make plays."

A defense that was strafed for 471 points a year ago showed up yesterday with nine new starters, a new coordinator in Lovie Smith, and a new resiliency. The bottom line will show it gave up 334 yards and two long scoring drives of 98 and 69 yards in the fourth quarter.

But after letting the Eagles back in the game, the Rams' defenders gave up just one first down in overtime."[McNabb] got out and got the scramble for one big first down," said Rams coach Mike Martz, "but by and large [the defense] did a great job of containing him."

Without a running game, the Eagles' Duce Staley was held to nine yards on nine carries, McNabb resorted to the pass. He completed 32 of 48 for 312 yards and a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. He scrambled for 48 more yards on nine runs.

As it was, McNabb also gave the Rams their first touchdown. He never got the center snap on the game's first play from scrimmage, and the resulting fumble was recovered by defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina. Two plays later, Faulk was in the end zone with a 7-yard scoring run.

The Rams' defense set up their second touchdown, though. Former Ravens safety Kim Herring forced a fumble in the second quarter that turned into a 2-yard scoring pass to Rams' tight end Ernie Conwell.

St. Louis added a field goal in the second half to take a 17-3 lead and was perched at the Philadelphia 2 late in the third quarter with a chance to ice the game. But Warner's pass for fullback James Hodgins caromed into the air and was picked off by cornerback Troy Vincent.

McNabb answered with a 98-yard scoring drive that got the crowd - and the Eagles - back in the game.

Martz berated himself over making the play call on the goal line.

"It was a blitz call and they didn't blitz us," Martz said. "We had a chance to go up 20-3, and you have to play a little more conservative. ... I know better than to make that call. It's a stupid call and it darn near cost us the game."

The Eagles tied it with scoring passes of 1 and 7 yards to fullback Cecil Martin, the first a reversal of a call on which Rams cornerback Aeneas Williams appeared to knock him back off the goal line.

After Philadelphia failed to threaten on its only possession of overtime, Warner took the Rams 56 yards in seven plays. Just across midfield, he found Bruce for a 20-yard pass to the Eagles' 29. Then, on second-and-20, Warner stepped up in the pocket and hit Bruce again for a 27-yard play to the 12.

"I gave Isaac a game ball," Martz said. "Like in the Super Bowl, when you need the guy, he's always there."

The Rams ran a curious tight end reverse - Conwell gained 4 yards to the 8 - and then Martz sent Wilkins in to kick on second down.

The infamous artificial turf, which caused a cancellation of a preseason game against the Ravens, did not get any rave reviews.

"It was iffy," Faulk said. "At times, you could feel yourself losing your footing. I had to play like it was a wet field and try to keep my feet under me."

As for the replacement refs, Martz allowed that they did "an excellent job," the touchdown reversal notwithstanding.

On opening day, the Rams were elated to rediscover their defense.

"Looking at this game, we can become pretty dominant," Herring said. "We've got 11 guys who can play and we can get to the point where teams have got to game-plan us."

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