But the Rams and their rookie quarterback weren’t able to overcome Larry Fitzgerald’s go-ahead 21-yard touchdown reception with 6:13 remaining and the Arizona Cardinals escaped with a 17-13 victory in front of 52,440 at the Edward Jones Dome.
“What I just told the football team was, I know we battled our butt off,” Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “There’s a couple plays you’ve got to make in there if you’re going to win a close football game like that. I think we’re headed in the right direction. I think we’re doing the right things.”
Bradford completed 32 of 55 pass attempts for 253 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions, with the final turnover coming on a Hail Mary desperation pass as time expired.
“I was hopeful that this was going to be the first game, he was going to run a two-minute drill, and we were going to win a football game,” Spagnuolo said. “It didn’t work out that way.”
Bradford was obviously disappointed by the loss.
“Thought we had a chance to win that football game,” he said. “I thought I handled some things well, didn’t handle some things so well, but I think tomorrow when I get in there and watch the tape there’s going to be a lot of things to learn from. I think there’s a lot of positives on the tape, but there are negatives. I think as long as I take from those negatives and build on those and don’t make those mistakes next week, we’re going to be alright.”
The Rams (0-1), who will next travel to Oakland to play the Raiders next Sunday, received several strong performances on Sunday.
Wide receiver Mark Clayton, acquired in a trade from Baltimore on Monday, started and had a single-game career high 10 receptions for 119 yards in his Rams debut. It was his 10th 100-yard receiving game in his career.
“I came here and for me it was just, I believe in this team,” Clayton said. “It’s a really good team. And we want to win. We want it bad and it hurt. We fought hard, left everything on the field. Unfortunately, weren’t able to come out on top.”
Running back Steven Jackson rushed for 81 yards on 22 carries and also caught four passes for six yards. Danny Amendola caught six passes for 67 yards.
The St. Louis defense forced four turnovers and held the Cardinals (1-0) to five of 13 on third down conversion attempts.
Linebacker Larry Grant forced two fumbles. Defensive tackle Fred Robbins and defensive end C.J. Ah You both recorded sacks. Ah You, safety Oshiomogho Atogwe and linebacker Josh Hull all forced fumbles. Grant, cornerback Bradley Fletcher, safety Craig Dahl, defensive tackle Clifton Ryan and Bradford all recovered fumbles.
“We did some good things,” Ryan said. “We caused, I think, four turnovers. But we’re young, we’ve got to get back in tomorrow, look at the film and see what we can improve on. The turnovers, that’s a huge plus. To go out there, first game of the season and cause four turnovers, that’s great. We gave ourselves a chance to win the game, it just so happened we weren’t able to. But we’re going to keep fighting. That’s what I’ve been doing since I’ve been here and I’m going to keep doing it.”
After a scoreless first quarter, which included the Rams having a 34-yard field goal attempt by Josh Brown blocked, the Cardinals took a 3-0 lead on a 22-yard field goal from Jay Feely with 13:54 left in the second quarter.
The Rams answered a few minutes later and tied the score with a 46-yard field goal from Brown, who made all nine of his attempts in the preseason.
The Cardinals then put together an impressive five-play drive that covered 76 yards with four big runs on four consecutive plays — LaRod Stephens-Howling ran right for 21 yards, then left for 15 and right for 19 before Tim Hightower busted a 20-yard run — and capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run from Hightower.
The Rams answered with an impressive eight-play, 63-yard drive in the final 1:20 of the half with Bradford rolling out to his right and connecting with Laurent Robinson for a 1-yard touchdown pass on fourth and one as time expired. Bradford’s first career touchdown pass tied the score, 10-10, going into halftime.
“I thought we had some momentum as an offense right there,” Bradford said. “I felt like, if we could get in the end zone and score a touchdown that would be huge and I think it was.”
The Rams scored on their second series of the second half and took a 13-10 lead on Brown’s 25-yard field goal with 8:28 left in the third quarter.
But St. Louis missed out on a key opportunity on the ensuing Arizona series. Ah You sacked Cardinals quarterback Derek Anderson and forced a fumble.
Ryan, the 324-pound defensive tackle, recovered the fumble and started rumbling toward the end zone, but just before he could get to the end zone Arizona wide receiver Steve Breaston chased him down and knocked the ball away, which was recovered by the Cardinals in the end zone for a touchback.
“First off, C.J. Ah You made a great play with the sack, caused fumble,” Ryan said. “I made a great play with the recovery. (Breaston) made a greater play to save the game and give them a chance to win, which they did.”
Breaston finished the game with seven catches for 132 yards and one potentially game-saving forced fumble.
Had Ryan finished the play and scored a touchdown, the Rams could have extended their lead to 20-10 midway through the third quarter. Instead, St. Louis would not score again.
The Cardinals took a 17-13 with 6:13 remaining in the fourth quarter when Anderson, who completed 22 of 41 passes for 297 yards in his first start for Arizona, found Fitzgerald for a 21-yard touchdown pass.
The Rams had two more possessions to try to come back, but both drives ended with Bradford throwing interceptions while trying to make plays down the field.