As openers go, things couldn't have gone much better for quarterback Shaun Hill in his Rams debut Friday at the Edward Jones Dome.
A perfect passer rating in the NFL is 158.3, and the 34-year-old from Parsons, Kan., was close to perfect. With Sam Bradford sitting this one out, Hill stepped into the starting spot and completed five of seven passes for 84 yards playing most of the first half.
Throw in a pair of touchdown passes, one to Cory Harkey and another to Stedman Bailey, and Hill ended his night with a 151.2 passer rating.
Fourth-string quarterback Austin Davis almost rallied the Rams back from a nine-point deficit, but the Saints pulled out a 26-24 victory when Greg Zuerlein's 59-yard field goal sailed wide left as time expired.
Hill is replacing Kellen Clemens as the Rams' No. 2 quarterback this year, and Friday's outing had to be a confidence builder.
Defensive end Chris Long gave the Rams the ball for their first possession when he intercepted a bubble screen intended for Saints rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks near midfield.
After a short return by Long, the Rams took over on the Saints' 47 with 11 minutes 46 seconds to go in the first quarter. The Rams escaped a second-and-17 dilemma when Hill found tight end Jared Cook open over the middle for a 24-yard gain.
"It was a good drive starter," Cook said. "And Cory finished it off with a nice touchdown."
That he did. Two plays later, Hill threw to a wide-open Harkey in the left flat. Harkey, who has caught only 13 regular-season passes in two NFL campaigns, rumbled 16 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 Rams lead.
Midway through the second quarter, Hill engineered a five-play, 71-yard TD drive with some help from tight end Lance Kendricks, running back Benny Cunningham, and then Bailey.
Kendricks got the drive jump-started with a 14-yard reception to the St. Louis 48. Cunningham responded in a third-and-1 situation from the Saints 43, breaking a tackle near the line of scrimmage then breaking outside for a 19-yard gain.
On the next play, Bailey ran a streak pattern, then beat defender Stanley Jean-Baptiste with a back-shoulder catch for a 24-yard TD and a 14-9 Rams lead.
"I feel pretty good overall," Cook said. "We had a few 3-and-outs; I feel like we could've capitalized better. It's the first day on the job. We've got three more preseason games I'm looking forward to."
All told, only five of the Rams' normal defensive starters opened the game: Long, linebackers Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Alec Ogletree, and safeties T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod.
It was more of the same on offense: fullback Harkey; running back Zac Stacy, left guard Greg Robinson and right tackle Joe Barksdale were among the normal starters to open the game. Kendricks was at tight end for the first instead of Cook, but sometimes the tight end and wide receivers that start the game are decided according to play-call and formation.
At wide receiver, the Rams opened with their "bigs" — 6-3 Kenny Britt and 6-3 Brian Quick.
Bradford was in sweats during pregame warmups as coach Jeff Fisher chose to sit him. Others not playing included left tackle Jake Long, center Scott Wells, guard tackle Rodger Saffold and running back Isaiah Pead on offense.
Among those sitting on defense were cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford, and linebacker James Laurinaitis.
Defensive end Michael Sam played, and a couple of quarterback hurries and a nice tackle at the line of scrimmage drew cheers from a half-filled Edward Jones Dome.
There were some bumps defensively, even in the first half when the Rams were mostly using players who will be on the 53-man roster in September. There were too many missed tackles, including one by linebacker Ray Ray Armstrong that led to a 46-yard gain by tight end Josh Hill, setting up the Saints' first TD.
On the final Saints possession of the first half, safety Cody Davis missed a tackle on a cutback run by Mark Ingram that resulted in a 22-yard TD.
In the first half alone, the Saints gained 99 yards on the ground, at 7.1 yards a crack.
"We have a lot to work on — we knew that coming into the game," Chris Long said. "The game just reaffirmed it. I'm sure there were some encouraging things, but definitely for our first game we should ratchet down the run game a little better.
"They hit the perimeter a little bit too much, but that's what these preseason games are for."
In a see-saw game, the Rams trailed by as much as nine points— 26-17 — after three quarters, after the Saints tacked on a field goal and touchdown following intermission. But Davis, following Hill and Garrett Gilbert into the game at quarterback got the Rams back into it when he fired a strike to rookie free agent Austin Franklin for a 15-yard TD with 11:07 to play.
Zuerlein's extra point narrowed the Saints' lead to 26-24, but the Rams missed a chance to take the lead on their next possession when Zuerlein uncharacteristically hooked a 46-yard field goal attempt way wide left with 5:02 to play.
After a defensive stop, the Rams had another chance for the win. But Zuerlein's 59-yard attempt sailed wide left as time expired.