The Cardinals' offensive improvement over the past month can be attributed largely to personnel changes on the line. The best five players are now in the lineup, and they have shown steady progress in the short time they've worked together.
But the fact that their solid play came so late in the year is an indictment of coach Dennis Green's evaluation skills. This is an offensive line that could have been together at training camp.
Oliver Ross struggled as the starting right tackle last year, so the club should have been looking for a replacement. Instead, it tried a number of people there only after Ross went down with a knee injury in training camp.
Ultimately, Ross returned, played poorly again, and the club moved left guard Reggie Wells to tackle. It's a move that should have been made far sooner.
Rookie Taitusi Lutui entered the starting lineup a month ago. Coaches said he wasn't ready to start early in the year, but it seemed silly to keep a second-round pick on the bench for so long with an offensive line that struggled.
Nick Leckey replaced Alex Stepanovich at center a month ago, even though Stepanovich hadn't secured the position his first two years in the league. Leckey has been an upgrade.
Milford Brown, now at left guard, is a solid run blocker, and left tackle Leonard Davis has improved through the season and has been steady over the past month.
All of the current starters were healthy and available to play at their current positions way back in training camp. It shouldn't have taken so long to put them in the right jobs.
--RB Marcel Shipp scored three touchdowns Sunday. It was the first time he had scored since Dec. 15 of 2002, when he also had three touchdowns against the Rams. In between those games, he touched the ball from scrimmage 505 times without scoring.
"Four years, man," Shipp said. "I'm just happy and thankful that the Lord blessed me today (Sunday)."
--RB Edgerrin James gained 115 yards against the Rams, the first time he's gained more than 100 yards for the Cardinals. It's the first time a Cardinal running back has gained 100 yards since Emmitt Smith did it in October of 2004.
"Hey, a hundred yards around here is like 500," James said.
James received a lot of media attention after the game. He seemed bemused about the attention, especially since he had gained at least 100 yards in 49 previous games. James left the game in goal line and short yardage situations, leaving the scoring to Marcel Shipp.
"I told Shipp, 'you can go get all the touchdowns; I want to get some yards,'" James said. "If anybody knows me, they know I'm not trippin' on the touchdowns because I know they are going to come."
--QB Matt Leinart has been sacked only twice in the previous three games.
"We're hitting our stride a little bit," Leinart said of the offense. "When we can run the ball effectively like we did, it's scary. The offensive line is doing a great job."
--DE Chike Okeafor stayed on the left side against the Rams, rather than moving to the right as he did against Minnesota in the previous week. The matchup against Rams OT Alex Barron paid off, as Okeafor finished with 2.5 sacks.
--TE Fred Wakefield caught his first NFL pass, a 5-yard reception in the first quarter. A converted offensive tackle, Wakefield lost the ball at the end of the play, but officials ruled he was down.
--SS Adrian Wilson is making a strong push for the Pro Bowl. He had his fourth interception of the season Sunday. That ties a career high. He's returned an interception and a fumble for touchdowns this season.
--NT Chris Cooper is holding up well in the absence of starter Kendrick Clancy, who is out with an ankle injury. Cooper is better suited to playing defensive end.
--NT Kendrick Clancy is expected to miss this week's game against Seattle because of an ankle injury. Clancy, who missed three games at midseason because of the injury, also sat out last week.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
REPORT CARD VS. RAMS
PASSING OFFENSE: B -- QB Matt Leinart was very efficient, partly because he had more time than usual to throw. The receivers didn't post big numbers, and Anquan Boldin dropped two passes.
RUSHING OFFENSE: A -- The Cardinals had their best day of the year, gaining 137 yards. They were able to control the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter, with Edgerrin James rushing 11 times for 49 yards.
PASS DEFENSE: B -- The Cardinals had three interceptions, but they also had a hard time controlling Torry Holt, who had 115 yards.
RUSH DEFENSE: B -- The Rams were productive with Steven Jackson, but they fell behind and couldn't stay with the run.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- J.J. Arrington has had nice returns in two consecutive games, and P Scott Player had his best game of the year. The kickoff coverage team was average.
COACHING: A -- It was the best offensive game plan coordinator Mike Kruczek has come up with. He gave the Rams a variety of looks and took advantage of the mismatches up front.
It is one of the great mysteries of each week. Like Survivor, who will be on the offensive line…