The Rams’ defense entered Saturday’s NFC divisional-round playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys with one challenging goal — stop Ezekiel Elliott.
The NFL’s rushing leader had run for more than 100 yards seven times during the regular season. In last week’s wild-card victory over the Seattle Seahawks he did it again.
“He was obviously dominant, and probably one of the reasons they won that game,” Rams defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh said. “So our focus was to shut him down.”
The Rams did that in a 30-22 victory at the Coliseum that put them in the NFC championship game.
Elliott scored a touchdown but rushed for only 47 yards, averaging 2.4 yards per carry. The Cowboys converted only one of 10 third-down opportunities.
It was a clutch effort by a Rams defense that during the season ranked 23rd in rushing defense, giving up 122.3 yards per game.
“We just did our job, we didn’t think about anything else,” tackle Aaron Donald said. “We just played our football. It was win, or go home.”
The Rams stopped Elliott on a key fourth-down play in the fourth quarter. They had three tackles for a loss, Suh pressured Dak Prescott with a pair of quarterback hurries and Dante Fowler added a hurry and recorded an eight-yard sack.
Safety Lamarcus Joyner returned to the lineup after sitting out the final game of the regular season because of an ankle injury he suffered against the Arizona Cardinals. He combined with safety John Johnson to stop Elliott on fourth down.
Joyner is playing under the franchise tag this season for about $11.3 million. It is unlikely that the Rams would place the franchise tag on him again, so Joyner will become a free agent unless he agrees to terms on a contract extension.
Finally a winner
Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth finally won a playoff game, ending his losing streak at seven.
“It’s great but I feel like this team has potential for more than that,” he said.
Whitworth lost in the wild-card round six times when he played for the Cincinnati Bengals, and in 2017 with the Rams.
Whitworth aided a robust Rams run game, where Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson combined for 238 rushing yards.
Zuerlein kicks in
Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein made three field goals in his first playoff game. Zuerlein kicked a team-record seven field goals against the Cowboys last season in a 35-30 victory at Dallas. He did not play in the wild-card game against the Falcons because he was sidelined while recovering from back surgery.
The game marked the return to the Coliseum of Tavon Austin, the eighth pick in the 2013 draft with the Rams who signed a four-year, $42-million extension with the team before the 2016 season. But in 2017 he caught only 13 passes and lost his punt-return job.
In April, the Rams traded Austin to the Cowboys for a sixth-round draft pick.
Austin was injured during much of this season, catching eight passes for 140 yards. Saturday night, he had one catch for minus-two yards.