October 11, 2011

1981: LeRoy Irvin’s Punt Returns Help Rams to Win Over Falcons

The Week 6 matchup at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on October 11, 1981 featured two NFC West rivals, the host Falcons and the visiting Los Angeles Rams. The Rams, under Head Coach Ray Malavasi, had won their previous three games after losing the first two. Coming off an 11-5 season in ’80, they lost starting QB Vince Ferragamo to Montreal of the CFL and LB Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds was released following a contract dispute and went to San Francisco. Still, they had veteran QB Pat Haden, who had plenty of experience and savvy, even if not as powerful an arm as the departed Ferragamo, and there was still plenty of experience remaining in the defense.

The Falcons, coached by Leeman Bennett, were coming off a 12-4 division-winning year and had won their first three games in ’81. However, they lost their last two, including a hard-fought 16-13 Monday night decision to the Eagles the previous week. With QB Steve Bartkowski throwing to WR Alfred Jenkins and TE Junior Miller, the passing game was still healthy, and running backs William Andrews and Lynn Cain were talented both at running the ball and catching it out of the backfield. However, the defense was proving to be vulnerable, in particular the inexperienced secondary.

The Rams got on the board first, and in exciting fashion, as second-year CB LeRoy Irvin returned a punt for a 75-yard touchdown at 3:32 into the first quarter. Turnovers by the Falcons allowed LA to extend the lead. First, CB Rod Perry intercepted a Bartkowski pass and the Rams capitalized when Haden threw to WR Preston Dennard for a 29-yard gain and Frank Corral kicked a 25-yard field goal. Shortly thereafter, DT Mike Fanning recovered a fumble that resulted in a 37-yard Corral field goal four plays later. The Rams led by 13-0 after one quarter.

However, following the poor beginning, the Falcons came back with three touchdowns in an eight-minute segment of the second quarter. The first was dramatic as William Andrews took the handoff on a sweep around end on a fourth-and-one play and ran 25 yards for a touchdown to finish off an 80-yard drive.

The second score came following a fumbled snap on a Rams punt that led to an incomplete pass, giving the Falcons good field position at the LA 21. It took just four plays for Atlanta to score again as Bartkowski passed to Miller from 11 yards out. Mick Luckhurst’s extra point put the Falcons in front at 14-13. Atlanta then went 46 yards in seven plays while Bartkowski completed passes covering 16 yards to Andrews, 12 to WR Alfred Jackson, and 23 to Jenkins for a TD.

With the score now at 21-13 in favor of Atlanta, the next possession for LA started off with a 50-yard kickoff return by WR Drew Hill. Haden suffered a leg injury when hit by DE Wilson Faumuina after scrambling and completing a pass to Dennard for a 35-yard gain to the Atlanta 15, and backup QB Jeff Rutledge came into the game and completed the drive with a one-yard scoring pass to TE Henry Childs. Atlanta’s lead was narrowed to 21-20 at halftime.

In the third quarter, Rutledge connected with Hill for a 36-yard TD that put the Rams back in front at 27-21. The 63-yard drive was kept alive when RB Cullen Bryant ran for three yards in a fourth-and-one situation.

Atlanta came back on a possession that started with a 38-yard punt return by DB Scott Woerner. Andrews ran for a 26-yard gain and Bartkowski threw to Jackson for an eight-yard touchdown with 5:37 remaining in the third quarter. With the successful PAT, it was again a one-point game.

The Falcons extended their lead as they drove 65 yards, highlighted by a 19-yard Andrews run to set up his two-yard scoring carry early in the fourth quarter, making the tally 35-27. Irvin struck again with 8:23 to play by taking a punt and racing 84 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown that pulled the Rams to a point behind Atlanta at 35-34.

Getting the ball back, the Rams started their climactic drive at their 20 with 4:35 on the clock. Rutledge completed five passes, including 12 and 6 yards to Childs and 20 and 9 yards to Dennard to move the team down the field. After Bryant ran to the Falcons’ eight yard line and positioned the ball directly in front of the goal post, Corral’s 25-yard field goal with 24 seconds left put the Rams over the top. There was still time for the Falcons to come back, but FS Nolan Cromwell intercepted a Bartkowski pass to nail down the 37-35 win for the Rams.

Atlanta outgained the Rams (349 yards to 252), with 152 of those yards coming on the ground, and also had the edge in first downs (19 to 14). However, the Falcons turned the ball over three times, twice leading to LA field goals in the first quarter and once at the end of the game to finish off their hopes, while the Rams suffered two turnovers.

In relief of Pat Haden, Jeff Rutledge completed 11 of 20 passes for 130 yards with two touchdowns and one intercepted. Preston Dennard caught 4 passes for 84 yards and Henry Childs added 4 receptions for 26 yards and a TD. RB Wendell Tyler led the ground game with 48 yards on 14 carries and Cullen Bryant contributed 31 yards on his 10 attempts.

The return game was significant for the Rams, and while Drew Hill averaged 30 yards per return on his five kickoffs, it was LeRoy Irvin who starred, scoring two touchdowns while also setting a league record with 207 yards on his six punt returns.

For the Falcons, Steve Bartkowski was successful on 17 of his 38 throws for 214 yards that included three touchdowns as well as two interceptions. William Andrews (pictured below) rushed for 119 yards on 21 carries and scored twice and also caught 4 passes for another 35 yards. Alfred Jackson had 4 receptions as well, for 47 yards, while Wallace Francis gained 59 yards on his three catches.

Initially, Pat Haden’s leg was thought to be broken, but it proved to be strained ankle ligaments. Still, many on the LA side were angry about the play that knocked Haden out of the game.

“That play incited our team. It looked like the hit was late and low,” GM Don Klosterman said.

“It was a late hit. The whistle was late all day,” Coach Ray Malavasi added. “It is the officials’ responsibility to keep the game under control and they did a poor job of it.”

Haden suffered from injury problems the rest of the year (his last), as did many of the Rams, and the team’s performance suffered accordingly. While the win moved LA ahead of the Falcons in the NFC West, the Rams lost their next two games and won just twice more to finish a disappointing 6-10 and third in the division – their first losing record since 1972, which was also the last time they missed the playoffs. Just ahead of them was Atlanta at 7-9; the Falcons were in contention with three games left in the season, but lost them all, including one at Los Angeles.

The two touchdown returns against the Falcons gave LeRoy Irvin three on the season. He ended up running back 46 punts for a NFL-leading 615 yards and 13.4 average and was a consensus first-team All-Pro selection. Irvin developed into a star cornerback during his 11-year career, intercepting a total of 35 passes and gaining consensus first-team All-Pro consideration once more at that position as well as earning two Pro Bowl selections.