Running back Beanie Wells gets through a large hole cleared by center Lyle Sendlein (left) and guard Daryn Colledge (right) during his 228-yard day Sunday in St. Louis.
The running game had been promising, coach Ken Whisenhunt thought, yet lately it wasn't.
The Cardinals had slumped on the ground, in part because of Beanie Wells' sore knee. It was more than that, Whisenhunt thought, that led to struggles against the Rams in their first meeting. He didn't want it to happen again.
So he let Wells know it. He let the offensive line, and the offense as a whole know it. "We have to do better" was the challenge.
"Obviously we try to do it every week," center Lyle Sendlein said. "But when the head man stands up there and challenges us, we try to respond in the manner we did."
That manner was a team-record 228 yards from Wells. It was 268 rushing yards total on the ground, the most for the franchise in a game since the Cardinals had 330 at New Orleans back on Oct. 5, 1980 – almost eight years before Wells was even born.
Challenges have come from Whisenhunt before. "We just took it more personal," Wells said.
Both Wells and the offensive line have absorbed their share of criticism, a reason why Whisenhunt thought it was important to put Wells back in for a final carry, the one that gained 14 yards and allowed Wells to have the record to himself after tying LeShon Johnson's mark of 214.
Yet the production triumphed the record. Wells downplayed it after the game and did again Monday – "It is good to run for a bunch of yards, of course, but it is what it is," he said – and even Sendlein chuckled at the idea the offensive line was part of team history.
"We just want to go out and be able to control the line of scrimmage," Sendlein said. "You ask any of the guys up here (on the line), we don't really care to be players of the week or to be doing interviews. We'd like to leave that to Beanie."
Sendlein paused, before adding with a chuckle, "Because his suits look good."
The challenge, after all, wasn't to set a record but to run the ball better. In the first 10 games of the season, the Cardinals had run for more than 100 yards only twice – 156 against the Giants, and 109 against the Ravens. Most of the time, the run game had sputtered, and in five of the six games before the trip to St. Louis – excluding the one in Baltimore – the Cards had a high of 88 yards rushing as a team.
Wells wasn't the only one with some key runs either. Quarterback John Skelton struggled, but he converted a key third-and-13 on a scramble to keep alive the drive on which Wells scored his touchdown. And at the end of the game, on third-and-4 coming out of the two-minute warning, it was LaRod Stephens-Howling getting five yards inside on a draw play that meant the Rams wouldn't get the ball back.
"That was the game," Sendlein said. "If LaRod doesn't get that, we've got to punt. And there have been many times around here where we didn't get it in that situation."
There was plenty of praise to go around, which is what happens when a guy runs for 228 yards. Both Whisenhunt and Sendlein brought up on their own the blocking done by receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts and Early Doucet. Todd Heap returned at tight end and spent the day blocking with Jeff King and Jim Dray. Rookie fullback Anthony Sherman was back in the starting lineup.
The line of Sendlein, tackles Levi Brown and Jeremy Bridges, and guards Daryn Colledge and Rex Hadnot still had to be graded, but then again, after 268 rushing yards, their marks figure to be high.
That doesn't even include Wells himself, who came back from a twisted knee that even Whisenhunt thought was going to be serious. Punctuating the day with the post-knee 53-yard run and then the record seemed fitting, given how he has been perceived about injuries.
"That's what we talk about all the time in the running back room, getting an opportunity to dominate," Stephens-Howling said. "Beanie took it on his shoulders. It was just an amazing game for him and I am just so happy for him because I have seen him get discouraged when he doesn't get the carries. He got the carries and did what he did."
The dynamic changes again, with the Cards about to play more difficult defenses in the Cowboys and then a rematch with the 49ers. Skelton will likely be replaced at quarterback by Kevin Kolb, who should be ready to return from injury this week.
And a record doesn't mean any bonus wins in the standings.
The challenge now – whether Whisenhunt presents it or not – is to keep running the ball effectively. Perhaps that's why Sendlein ended up reconsidering his stance on being part of Sunday's achievement.
"Actually, records can be important, especially for a struggling offense like we have had," Sendlein said. "Maybe doing something like that will help us spring forward. Anything positive is going to be good for us as an offense for us right now."