Rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu makes his leaping forced fumble on Rams tight end Jared Cook Sunday. The Cardinals recovered the ball but the Rams ultimately prevailed, 27-24.
ST. LOUIS – Andre Roberts had been battered through a game in which he had eight catches Sunday, and afterward, the wide receiver admitted he was hurt.
"I feel like crap really, honestly," Roberts said. "But it's not from the hits. It's from the score."
The Cardinals opened Sunday as a team that looked improved, especially on offense. A team that built an 11-point lead going into the fourth quarter. But by the end of the game at Edward Jones Dome, Greg Zuerlein was booting a 48-yard field goal with 40 seconds left for a 27-24 Rams' victory, and the Cards were left wondering how they let one slip.
The equation was painfully simple. The Cardinals (0-1) couldn't pressure Rams quarterback Sam Bradford enough to avoid three scoring sequences in the fourth quarter. And the Rams pressured Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer enough that coach Bruce Arians was left to lament the missed third-down conversions.
"Usually the team that plays the best on the d-line wins the game," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "They outplayed us on the d-line today."
That was never more evident than in a tie game with two minutes left. Facing a third-and-2 at
their own 41 and in a great situation to drive a short field for the game-winning points, Arians called what turned out to be a perfect play – a wheel route out of the left side of the backfield by rookie running back Andre Ellington.
Ellington streaked past linebacker James Laurinaitis and looked like he could have run forever – except Palmer put the ball on his outside shoulder near the sideline when Ellington was looking inside and up the numbers. The ball dropped incomplete.
"That was my fault," Palmer said. "I need to give him a chance to make a play on that ball and I didn't."
That was all Bradford needed to engineer a game-winning drive of his own, keyed by a 25-yard catch by tight end Jared Cook on a day in which the Cards couldn't seem to slow the Rams' catch-and-runs. Cook finished the game with seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns and would have had a third had safety Tyrann Mathieu not made an amazing forced fumble from behind that Karlos Dansby recovered.
"It seemed like the tight end was running free all day," Mathieu said.
It offset what could have been a very good day. Mathieu had made his play. Linebacker Matt Shaughnessy knocked a pass in the air that was intercepted and returned two yards for a touchdown – improbably – by nose tackle Dan Williams. The Cardinals ran the ball OK and outrushed the Rams, and Palmer was mostly on point, passing for 327 yards and finding Larry Fitzgerald twice for touchdowns – Fitzgerald's first two-touchdown game since 2011.
The St. Louis pass rush was a pain all day. Rams defensive end Robert Quinn, who had three sacks in St, Louis against the Cardinals last year, beat Levi Brown for three sacks Sunday, including a strip of Palmer in the fourth quarter that lead to the game-tying field goal.
It wasn't a good day for Brown, and Arians anticipated that post-game, saying in his opening statement, "No, I'm not concerned about our offensive line. They are our guys." Later when asked if he would consider replacing Brown, Arians answered, "To who?"
"He's our guy," Arians added.
Palmer was still able to complete 26-of-40 passes and his lone interception was a miscommunication with Larry Fitzgerald rather than pressure-related.
"Until we watch the film, I don't know," center Lyle Sendlein said of the pass protection. "Any pass protection, there are a lot of facets to it. Anytime he gets hit it's not acceptable. So we want to fix that."
The Cardinals did convert 50 percent on third downs. They held the Rams to 4-for-11 on such plays. They outgained St. Louis. They just didn't win.
"It hurts to come in and lose a division game," Palmer said. "But you can't look at it any other way than we have 15 more."
Running back Rashard Mendenhall ended up with 60 yards rushing on 16 attempts. Roberts (eight catches for 97 yards), Fitzgerald (eight for 80 and two scores) and Michael Floyd (four for 82) all took off as expected playing with Palmer.
"We're a lot better than we were," Campbell said. "But the close ones are the ones you have to have."