If there was any promise of drama in Sunday’s game between the Rams and Atlanta Falcons at Anaheim Stadium, it vanished when the two leading men left the stage midway through the second act.
Falcon quarterback Steve Bartkowski, who already had been sacked three times, departed with a bruised left thigh after playing only three series.
A few minutes later, Ram Coach John Robinson gave Eric Dickerson the hook, citing a tight hamstring muscle.
In the end, neither move seemed to matter. The Rams won, 17-6, to remain unbeaten at 4-0 and keep the Falcons winless at 0-4.
Dieter Brock, a star by default, completed 16 of 20 passes for 215 yards and 2 touchdowns, with no interceptions, and the Ram defense allowed the Falcons no closer to the goal than the 25-yard line.
“We obviously didn’t have great brilliance but we were extremely efficient,” Robinson said.
Bartkowski was sacked three times and his replacement, David Archer, was intercepted by Gary Green at the finish for the only turnover of the game.
Aside from Brock’s scoring passes to Henry Ellard for 64 yards and Bobby Duckworth for 13, it may have bored the 49,870 spectators, but the Ram coaches loved it because the game plan went just about the way they drew it up.
And it will look even better this morning when they look at the standings in the NFC West, where the Rams hold a two-game lead over the defending Super Bowl champions from San Francisco, who lost to the New Orleans Saints, 20-17.
“I don’t think too much of it right now,” offensive tackle Bill Bain said. “Minnesota could come in here and kick our butts next week.
“But it’s super that we’re two (games) up on the 49ers. Maybe they’re thinking what we were thinking last year: ‘Gee, those guys are hot. How we gonna catch up?’ We aren’t gonna cool off.”
Each team has three more games to play before they meet at Anaheim on Oct. 27. The Rams play Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Kansas City, while the 49ers face Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit.
“Nobody is thinking Super Bowl yet,” Bain said.
The Rams may be thinking about building an insurmountable lead before their wheels fall off. Dickerson’s problem seemed minor, but the number of casualties along the Ram sideline grew when guard Russ Bolinger broke his left forearm on the Rams’ opening series.
It should make a pretty picture next Sunday. There’s Mike Guman on crutches, George Andrews with a cast on his right knee and now Bolinger with a plaster arm.
Dickerson said he knew the Rams wouldn’t miss him any more than they did the first two games when he was still a holdout.
“When you play football you have to depend on 11 people, not one,” he said. “People think I’m the terminator and came here from another planet. If I don’t get a hundred yards they think something is wrong.”
Dickerson carried the ball only 7 times for 26 yards Sunday, the second lowest rushing day of his three-year career next to a 10-for-16 effort in the 1983 playoff game at Washington.
Dickerson’s last play was a five-yard burst off right tackle for a first down at Atlanta’s 49-yard line. Barry Redden replaced him and Brock, working on a string of seven consecutive completions, moved the Rams into position for Mike Lansford’s 52-yard field goal, the longest of his National Football League career.
The Falcons were able to answer only with field goals of 44 and 47 yards by Mick Luckhurst, who is 7 for 7 this season.
Robinson said Dickerson “wanted to play the second half,” but with a 10-3 lead looking somehow comfortable there wasn’t any point in risking a serious injury.
“John felt that the game was under control,” Dickerson said, "(and) I didn’t want to risk it. I know what a pulled hamstring is like. It would take several weeks to get well.”
Dickerson responded to the obvious question: did the muscle tighten because he wasn’t in top shape after his holdout?
“I’ve had ‘em before,” he said. “I’ve always had a hamstring problem. It had nothing to do with missing training camp.”
The Falcon defense was geared to stop Dickerson, as well as his successor, Redden, who was the game’s leading rusher with 74 yards, 13 more than Atlanta’s Gerald Riggs. Each carried 18 times.
The Falcons usually used four down linemen and four linebackers, with only three defensive backs. That worked out better for them, anyway, considering they lost three starting defensive backs in one game two weeks earlier.
The alignment invited Brock to pass, and that he did, enjoying his best game since the Rams signed the 11-year veteran of the Canadian Football League last spring.
“They run it (the alignment) a lot,” Brock said. “It’s what we were expecting.”
It placed Brock’s deep receivers in single coverage frequently, and that’s where Brock went. Ellard caught 5 for 123 yards, Duckworth 4 for 34.
But the Rams weren’t even trying to be greedy on the touchdown to Ellard early in the second quarter. Sitting third and 12, all they wanted was a first down. Brock threw into the left flat, where Ellard cut inside as four pursuing defenders slid past him. He just outran everybody else.
“I made one cut and saw everybody sliding by,” he said. “It felt more like a punt return.”
Late in the third quarter, the Rams spent 8 minutes 54 seconds grinding out 79 yards in 13 plays, the last play Brock’s toss over cornerback Bobby Butler to Duckworth in the right rear corner of the end zone.
Archer, a second-year free agent from Iowa State, completed 11 of 21 for 114 yards but bothered the Rams more with his running (5 for 29).
Bartkowski, no threat to run, was 7 for 13 before leaving.
Ram defensive end Doug Reed, who sacked Bartkowski, along with Mike Wilcher and Mel Owens, said he was sorry to see the 32-year-old veteran depart.
“Yes, I was,” Reed said. “I thought maybe he’d start moving outside where I could get him again. I thought, ‘Dang it.’ I haven’t had too much luck on the runners.”
“We had prepared for Bartkowski,” the cornerback said. “We’d never seen the other guy--what’s his name? We just knew he ran the ball.”
In addition to Bartkowski, the Falcons lost wide receiver Charlie Brown and rookie defensive end Mike Gann with injuries. When Bolinger went out, the Rams had to get by using an offensive tackle, Irv Pankey, at guard.
Pankey said he had played “tight end and a little bit of guard my sophomore year in college,” but none since. Bolinger already was filling in for Dennis Harrah, who has missed two games with a torn thigh muscle but expects to return next week.
Harrah was in uniform Sunday, just in case “the last guy went down and there was nobody else to stand there,” he said.
Instead, Harrah spent the rest of the game coaching Pankey on guard techniques.
“Hey, coaches don’t get paid enough,” Harrah said. “I don’t want any part of that. Every time something came up in the game I thought it was my obligation to say something.”
Brock was sacked four times, but that’s going to happen because he isn’t very mobile and holds the ball so long waiting for receivers to get free.
Atlanta Coach Dan Henning said he tried to inject some mobility into his offense by replacing Bartkowski with Archer. Until then Bartkowski seemed to be working on LeRoy Irvin, the Rams’ right cornerback.
“Apparently, they thought I was the weaker side,” Irvin said, smiling.
Irvin said he gave up “just a couple of hitches and an out, (but) I was glad as hell Bartkowski didn’t come back. I’d rather play that other guy any day.”
Robinson, in a message to Brock’s doubters, said: “Dieter Brock is unbeaten in the NFL, and no other quarterback can say that.”