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Cardinals Do Bending, Breaking Left to Rams

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sun was in his eyes on the east side of Anaheim Stadium, so he had to pull his hat down a little to cut the glare. And his pants were a deep burgundy color instead of blue.

Other than that, Sunday’s Phoenix Cardinal-Ram game featured the same ol’ Fritz Shurmur and the same ol’ soft-zone defense Ram fans had come to know and not love.

After nine seasons with the Rams, Shurmur and his bend-but-don’t-break defensive philosophies were run out of town on the heels of last season’s 5-11 disaster.

He wound up in Phoenix and implemented the same defense, which played text-book Shurmur ball in the Cardinals’ 24-14 victory Sunday.

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The numbers did add up--for the Rams. They rolled up 375 total yards, 290 through the air. But in classic Shurmur fashion, the Cardinals didn’t give up the big scoring play and didn’t allow many big plays.

The Cardinal defense also helped bring about four of five Ram offensive turnovers and turned one into a touchdown. Eric Hill’s 85-yard return after a fumble recovery in the first quarter gave Phoenix a 7-0 lead.

“They were moving the ball on us, but guys have done that all season long,” Shurmur said. “The way we play, yardage doesn’t bother us. I never made a nickel on statistics. I’ve never evaluated a defense that way.”

Ram tailback Robert Delpino burned the Cardinals for 113 yards on 10 receptions, and Henry Ellard caught seven passes for 116 yards, but the Rams’ primary deep threat, Flipper Anderson, caught only one pass for 18 yards.

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Delpino’s longest reception was a 41-yarder on the first play of the game, but only three of his other catches were for more than 10 yards. Ellard’s longest was 24 yards, and he also had a 21-yard catch, but wasn’t able to reach the end zone. The Rams’ longest running play was 14 yards.

“For years, I’ve seen the Rams put up big numbers, but I felt if we didn’t give up the big play downfield to Ellard and Flipper, we’d do well,” Shurmur said. “The game plan was to not give them the vertical big play. We did a good job making some big hits.”

Shurmur seems to be a big hit in Phoenix. What was considered stale and outdated in Anaheim is innovative and fresh in Phoenix.

“This defense is great for us,” said Cardinal safety Tim McDonald, who had seven solo tackles, two assists and an interception. “When we fail, it’s because we’re out of position, but when we play the way we’re supposed to, we succeed. Fritz makes everyone play at a different level with his enthusiasm and love for the game.”

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McDonald said the Cardinals had a little extra motivation to play well against the team that fired their defensive coordinator, but Shurmur said he didn’t seek revenge going into the game or feel any sense of redemption afterward.

“It’s only special in that we won our first game on the road against a good team,” Shurmur said. “There’s a lot of good people (with the Rams). There was no revenge factor.”

Shurmur also didn’t believe the Cardinals had an advantage because he had practiced against the Ram offense for so many years.

“It was an exact trade-off,” Shurmur said. “They’ve gone against our zone for many years, and I’ve gone against their offense.”

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The Rams’ tendency to self-destruct certainly had something to do with the Cardinals’ success on defense, but it’s not as if limiting the Rams to two touchdowns was a fluke. Phoenix allowed only three touchdowns in exhibition victories over the Seahawks, Bears, Patriots and Broncos.

The Cardinals have a solid set of inside linebackers in Hill and Ken Harvey, who might be one of the best and most unheralded players in the NFL. In addition to his touchdown, Harvey had two sacks for minus 14 yards. Hill had three tackles, three assists and a fumble recovery.

Phoenix cornerback Aeneas Williams had a good game, with three tackles, an interception and three passes defensed, and free safety Michael Zordich had five tackles, two assists and a pass defensed.

“We realized we can do something great with non-marquee guys,” Phoenix Coach Joe Bugel said. “Sometimes the best teams have a lot of guys you’ve never heard of . . . but it helps to have some great guys, too.”

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