RamView, 9/16/2012: Rams 31, Redskins 28 (Long)
RamView, September 16, 2012
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Game #2: Rams 31, Redskins 28
The very definition of resilience, the Rams gain the first win of the Jeff Fisher era by overcoming forces of nature (RG3), their own mistakes (any one of which would have crushed last year's team), injuries, a 21-6 deficit, and the worst officiating crew in the history of the NFL. Rams football is fun to watch again.
Position by position:
* QB: All you people out there pining for RG3 after one week as a professional better get used to SB1 instead. Cool and confident, Sam Bradford (26-35-310, 3 TD, passer rating 117.6) hasnít just regained his rookie year form; heís surpassing it. The Rams came out firing, with Bradford, who Iím not challenging to a game of darts anytime soon, firing lots of short-range lasers to Danny Amendola. The Rams moved the ball well almost the whole game, but were undone early by an Amendola turnover and terrible refereeing that cost them at least 8 points, including a perfect 15-yard end zone pass to Brandon Gibson that was ruled incomplete. Down 14-3 after one, Bradford helped rally the Rams back with a 19-yard pass on 3rd-and-11, standing tall with the pocket closing in to find Brandon Gibson. So many times last year, Bradford would have looked for the dumpoff there. He did rely heavily on Amendola in the first half, finding him 12 times, but when the defense keeps giving you your favorite option, youíll be quick to take it. And Bradford-to-Amendola wasnít always short-range; they connected for 56 yards in the 2nd, which set up a 1-yard TD between the two, Sam firing to Danny right in front of London Fletcher. Bradford unflinchingly fired a lot of complete passes out of collapsing pockets. He also kept many plays alive with his feet. His scramble late in the first half set up a FG in a game the Rams would win by 3. Perfect example of the improvement of the Ram passing game came in the 3rd. From the Washington 34, Bradfordís line gets him plenty of time, he bypasses the short options and goes up top to Gibson down the sideline with a perfect TD pass. The Rams got a test late in the 3rd that recent Rams teams almost certainly would have failed. They got inside the 5, from where Bradford saw Steve Smith in the end zone, but not Fletcher, who picked off the pass to preserve a 28-23 Redskin lead. Last yearís Rams would have crumbled and gone on to lose 42-23. This yearís? Block a punt and get right back inside the 5, where Bradford this time hits Matthew Mulligan on the classic goal line play-action TE pass to give the Rams the deciding score. Bradford won the duel with RG3 this week, head-to-head and team-vs.-team. The Rams have an exciting future ahead at QB too, you know.
* RB: Nature tells us that thunder comes after lightning, but, after what is now clearly an injury to Steven Jackson, NOT A BENCHING, the Rams got it working the other way around this week. Jacksonís (9-58) 14-yard bounce around right end set up the Ramsí first FG. He went into hammer mode late in the 2nd. A tough inside run behind Harvey Dahl for 12. A rightside cutback run for 10. A 20-yard run through a hole so big, our grandmothers admittedly would have gained 5. Jackson apparently tweaked his groin on that play, but really got tweaked by the NFLís rent-a-refs once the Rams got to the goal line. They tried to charge him with a fumble at the 1, but fixed that mistake after replay. Jackson broke the plane with the ball on 3rd-and-goal, and spiked the ball, but got a 15-yard penalty because the referees apparently decided he hadnít scored. Jacksonís injury promoted 7th-round pick Daryl Richardson (15-83) to RB1 (2nd-round pick Isaiah Pead can barely even get on the field as a kick returner now). D-Rich looks slight, but he will bang. He has Bugatti Veyron acceleration, hits holes hard and puts his shoulder into defenders and drives them backwards. For about two quarters, D-Rich gave the Rams about everything SJ39 could. Late in the 3rd, though, he gave them something Jackson canít, popping off a big Brit Miller block around right end, turning the corner so fast that two Redskin DBs could grab nothing but air and streaking down the sideline for 52. After the teams traded turnovers, D-Rich took a swing pass 18 yards down to the 1 to set up a TD, and powered in himself with the 2-point conversion. The Rams nearly paid dearly for D-Richís rookie inexperience with 2:50 left, as he didnít protect the ball well enough for the time of the game where the defense is going to scratch and claw at it every play, and, there he is again, London Fletcher ripped it loose to give the visitors one last chance. The Rams will go with Jackson in this situation when he's back to full health, but Daryl Richardson has become an invaluable part of the Ramsí attack.
* Receivers: The game couldnít have gotten off to a worse start for Danny Amendola, who coughed up the ball on the first play of the game and saw Josh Wilson return it 30 yards for a TD. Amendola, though, just kept getting open. He had six catches just on the Ramsí first FG drive. He had the big play of the first TD drive, popping wide open in Washingtonís coverage for a 56-yard catch-and-run after the Redskins got lost trying to defend crossing routes. Dannyís 1-yard TD catch at the end of that drive ended an insane first half: 12 receptions for 133 yards. He ended 15-160, numbers which leave him high up in the franchise record books. By the time the Redskins started to figure out Amendola, the Rams hit Ďem with Steve Smith (3-39) and Brandon Gibson (2-53). Smith made an impressive 25-yard catch-and-run in the 3rd, making a great effort to keep his balance with a hand on the ground and create a big play. Gibson got behind the corner and the safety for a pretty 34-yard TD catch of a perfect throw by Bradford up the sideline. Matthew Mulligan (2-14) cashed in on his own punt block with a 1-yard TD catch all alone in the end zone, putting the Rams ahead to stay. If the rookies are on schedule, itís not a very demanding one. Bradford tried to force a slant pass to Brian Quick (0-0); nothing doing, only time he was targeted. Chris Givens (0-0) got a little more action with deeper routes. Bradford and Amendola arenít complaining for now, but the passing game is going to have to evolve from a million passes to Danny every week at some point.
* Offensive line: Offensive line-wise, it looks like 2006 all over again. The lineís turning into a MASH unit, but Paul Boudreau is keeping it together. Bradford got very good protection throughout the game. Two good reasons were that he almost always got the ball out quickly, and the Redskins lost Brian Orakpo for the season very early in the game. Probably the first time Bradford took a deep drop, Orakpo smoked Rodger Saffold for a sack/fumble, and tore a pectoral. Saffold, who was stretchered out last week with a neck injury, grabbed the loose ball and bulled headfirst with it downfield. And got his MCL sprained on the gang tackle. So youíve now got Wayne Hunter, Barry Richardson, the backup center and a guard the Rams cut two weeks ago front. And Bradford was only sacked twice. The other came in the 3rd after Ryan Kerrigan whipped Mulligan and Hunter couldnít even hold Orakpoís backup, Rob Jackson, well enough to stop him from nailing the QB. But those were the lowlights. Mulliganís all over this weekís report for an excellent all-around game. He saved Bradford, and the first FG drive, by getting a piece of London Fletcher on a blitz over center, and had the key block on the edge on Jacksonís 14-yard run. Mauling run-blocking led the Rams to their 2nd FG. Harvey Dahl fired out to clear a path for a 12-yard Jackson run. Dahl and B-Rich opened up a cutback lane for a 10-yard run. B-Rich then caved in his side of the line to give Jackson a huge hole for 20. Two plays later, Hunter does the same for D-Rich, who gains 8. Red meat football here. Hunterís protection was awesome on the 56-yard pass to Amendola; Rob Jackson got nowhere on him. Center Robert Turner helped preserve a FG drive before halftime, clearing out the middle of the pocket late to get Bradford a lane he gladly scrambled through. Dahl and B-Rich gave Bradford excellent protection on the Gibson TD pass. Even after they made mistakes, they recovered well. After the second sack, on 3rd-and-long, Turnerís call to slide protection left gave Bradford extra time to hit Amendola for a first down. The next play was D-Richís long run, off a super flying block by Brit Miller. Thereís a third good reason this makeshift line is holding up pretty well, and itís Boudreau, imo. Weíve gotten a lot of lip service for 3-4 years about how tough the Rams o-line would be, what good blockers they were supposed to be. Under coach Boudreau, theyíre actually playing like it. The fullbacks and TEs are actually useful run blockers. A bunch of castoffs are keeping Bradfordís jersey pretty clean, and have shown ability to take over a game with ground and pound, despite injuries that have already caused more shuffling than there is at the World Series of Poker. Keep dealing Boudreau in; heís already winning pots with 7-2 offsuit.
* Defensive line/LB: The Rams mixed up their fronts a lot for Robert Griffin III, picked their spots blitzing and often dialed down the heat pass-rushing in order to keep him pocket bound. Though Griffin ran for 82 yards and 2 TDs, he threw for just over 200. Jo-Lonn Dunbar slowed the Redskin attack early by shutting Griffin down on a designed run. Robert Quinn followed with the Ramsí only sack, blazing by Trent Williams to welcome RG3 to the NFL. When Chris Long started the next drive by blowing up a screen pass, it looked like the Rams were taking away everything the Skins wanted to do to get Griffin comfortable. Then Eugene Sims got a penalty for hitting Griffin in bounds. Search me. Then rookie thumper Alfred Morris exploded past Long through the wide-9 gap for 30, with James Laurinaitis erased by the pulling guard. Griffin finished the drive by running through Janoris Jenkinsí embarrassing tackle effort for his first TD. The last 2:00 of the first half were as critical as the last 2:00 of the game. Dunbar, who was everywhere, blew up a screen to force a 3rd-and-long that Cortland Finnegan cashed in for an INT, leading to a Rams FG. That allowed them to take their first lead after halftime, which the defense didnít defend very staunchly. Someone named Aldrick Robinson went through Jenkins on a 28-yard catch-and-run. Morris blew up for another 29 around left end. The ends went hard upfield after Griffin, and Kellen Heard couldnít get off his block. Griffin then scored on a 7-yard draw where the Rams had no one lined up over center. No more freebies in the 4th quarter, though. The Rams opened with a 3-and-out. Rocky McIntosh stuffed Morris and Dunbar helped stop Josh Morgan short on 3rd-and-9. Griffin beat Laurinaitis and Sims for 6 and 14 yards the next drive, but McIntosh made another huge stuff of Morris, William Hayes blew up Evan Royster on a screen, and the long-lost Turf Monster made a key play to trip Griffin on 3rd-and-12. Long, meanwhile, kept getting better and better jumps on Griffin, which really paid off in the final minutes, as his pressure pretty much rushed all of RG3ís throws. Quinn drew a hold, then Long pressures forced a near-INT for McIntosh and a 3rd-and-20 dumpoff. That set the offense up to finish off the game, but after they fumbled the ball back, the defense didnít flinch. Long continued to unrelentingly pressure Griffin into taking checkdowns like the 2-yarder to Santana Moss Dunbar immediately shut down. Same thing on 3rd-and-8, where Griffin settled for a 7-yarder to Morgan, and things unraveled infamously for the Redskins from there. Longís credited with no sacks, and only three tackles, but he was vital to the Ramsí success. Youíre not going to stop a player as explosive as Robert Griffin, but the Rams forced him into passing situations and made them difficult for him. And won a game they would have lost last year in the process.
* Secondary: While youíre deciding between Bradford and Amendola for player of the game honors, donít forget Cortland Finnegan. His interception right before halftime set the Rams up for a FG, and in a game riddled with chippy play, Finnegan, who has a masterís degree in the subject, got in the last and best chip, pestering Josh Morgan into the most stupid personal foul imaginable at the worst time imaginable (for the Redskins), turning what would have been a 4th-and-1 47-yard tying FG attempt with just over a minute left in the game into a 62-yarder. The secondary was usually all over RG3ís quick hitters. Janoris Jenkins and Jo-Lonn Dunbar each stuffed short passes in the plays before Finneganís INT. First series out of halftime, Finnegan played perfect zone defense to shut down a short pass to Niles Paul on 3rd-and-11, and later stopped a next drive by holding RG3 to 5 on a scramble. Just inside of 5:00, Jenkins delivered the (probably illegal) hit of the game, decleating Fred Davis on 1st down. The hit sent Washington a message; no Redskin receiver looked really interested in going after balls over the middle the rest of that series. The Rams benefited from the absence of Pierre Garcon (foot), though not so much that Jenkins couldnít prevent getting burned by Leonard Hankerson for a 68-yard TD. He appeared to bite on a play-action end-around there. Jenkins has a bit to clean up in his game; he was also a pretty leaky tackler at times, including a poor whiff on Griffin's first TD run. But for the whole secondary for the whole game, a winning effort.
* Special teams: Remember when the Rams used to lose games all the time because of poor special teams? That unit looks very much like a winner these days. Greg Zuerlein drilled three more FGs (30, 33, 42), the last of which he had to kick twice thanks to cheesy tactics by Mike Shanahan. One of Zuerleinís kickoffs traveled 85 yards on the fly. The coverage team just ran into the corner of the end zone and started pumping up the crowd. After Bradfordís end zone INT, Matthew Mulligan bailed him out by blocking a punt, leading to the TD that would put the Rams up for good. Then, punting from his goal line with 5:00 to play, Johnny Hekker provided the Rams with an outstanding clutch kick, a 66-yard blast that Mario Haggan turned into a 69-yard net even after TWO blatant blocks in the back by the Redskins. Unbothered by poor refereeing and unaffected by its youth, this is turning into a strong special teams unit.
* Strategery: Snicker if you want, but I'm becoming a fan of what Brian Schottenheimerís doing. He just gets people in the right position to make plays. These Rams donít get into a shell of throwing nothing but 3-yard passes, and most importantly, theyíre getting the job done in the red zone. The Rams scored from the one twice by passing, but they didnít ignore the run down there, either. The play-action TD to Mulligan is the prettiest play in the playbook. The crossing-route play that got Amendola wide open for 56 was also splendid. I donít think it was wise to run twice behind Ty Nsekhe immediately after Hunter briefly left the game with an ankle injury, but after two weeks, I have to say Schottenheimer has been masterful with the Ram offense. May it last.
So far the Rams have been far from the blitz-happy defense expected when Gregg Williams was originally hired in the spring. Blitzing has seemed pretty conservative so far. The Rams did a fine job of restricting Griffinís running lanes at times. There were plenty of times where the ends were clearly playing to contain. They actually played to try to take away the short stuff intended to get Griffin comfortable early, then make him throw that same stuff late. Mission accomplished. The alignment that Griffin basically walked through for his second TD was puzzling Ė no one over the center near the goal line? Ė but it looked like a solid game plan over all. Is this really a Rams coaching staff?
The Jeff Fisher administration sure seems to be paying dividends so far. Bradford looks fixed. The game plans make sense. The offensive line is performing despite injuries and talent deemed questionable. The Rams are scoring what, 27 points a game? Who on this offense is a talent upgrade from the Spagnuolo era? Special teams have been near flawless, too. I know there arenít enough flags in the universe to have properly challenged all the bad calls this week, but I will challenge Fisher to use his challenges better than he did here, especially the plays where Gibson and Jackson appeared to have scored TDs. Smart challenges should be another area where Fisher has a big advantage on past clueless Rams coaches. But Fisher definitely has this bandwagon rolling in the right direction. Iíll repeat: Rams football is fun to watch again!
* Upon further review: The officiating crew, led incompetently by one Wayne Elliott, was an insult to the game of football and football fans everywhere. They rarely had control of the game, with skirmishes breaking out after practically every play. They handed the Redskins their first TD, flagging Eugene Sims 15 yards for hitting RG3 in bounds and flagging Robert Quinn later for no visible reason. That drive started with an obvious grounding penalty that Elliott was the 50,001st person in the stadium to figure out. They tried to give the Redskins a goal-line fumble in the 2nd when Jackson was clearly down. Next play, he clearly puts the ball across the goal line, but doesn't get the TD, but does get 15 yards for spiking the ball. They missed two brutal blocks in the back during the return of Hekker's long punt in the 4th. Jenkins' massive hit on Fred Davis in the 4th looked like it should have drawn a penalty. The one personal foul they got right? Josh Morgan's idiotic unsportsmanlike conduct that ruined the Redskins' tying FG chances at the end of the game. But this crew was clearly in deep over its head. They couldn't control the players, didn't appear to know the rules, couldn't make obvious calls right in front of their faces, added risk to the players' safety, and very nearly changed the ultimate result of the game, costing the Rams (at least) 11 points in a game they barely won by 3. The least-competently-officiated sports event since the 1972 Munich Olympics men's basketball final. It's too bad Roger Goodell can't be fired for this replacement referee fiasco.
* Cheers: Iíll estimate the crowd in the low 50s, but it sounded like it was in the low 80s. That was the most intense crowd in the Dome since the Greatest Show on Earth days. The bad officiating just fueled the fire. Washington ended up with 3 false starts, and peer pressure from 50,000 folks helped get the grounding penalty in the first half and the horse collar penalty in the 2nd. The Rams players had to have felt they had 50,000 teammates this game. The crowd was on its feet, responded whenever any player requested noise, and didnít die during timeouts or after bad defensive plays. After the game, the team re-bonded with its fans, with several players doing Rambeau Leaps into the stands, and many others doing victory laps and high-fiving everyone they could. Yes, it was a regular season game, not the Super Bowl, but at the same time, this franchise had just purged a lot of the negative energy around it for a decade. Fox's and Tony Softli's reporting on the Jackson situation was terrible, suggesting Fisher had benched him for the spiking penalty. Fox had a shot of Jackson behind a modesty sheet getting his injury checked out. We can guess wrong on our own in the stands; you people do your jobs and get the actual facts, huh?
* Whoís next?: The Rams will try to keep their streak going next in Soldier Field. Theyíll have to face a Bears team that the schedule-maker gave a couple of extra days to rest, but more important than that will be, which Bears team shows up? The one that rolled the Colts opening week or the one that looked all but dysfunctional Thursday night in Green Bay? Itíll be up to the Rams to keep that dysfunction, um, functioning. History, as usual, is not on their side; they haven't beaten the Bears since 2003. The teams last met in 2009, a 17-9 Bears win where Steven Jackson ran for 112 and Kyle Boller threw for... 113.
For a city where a lot of protection moneyís been collected over the years, the Bears sure havenít been very effective at protecting lately. In three years there, Jay Cutlerís taken a beating worthy of a dockworker crossing a union picket line. The Bears made a big trade for Brandon Marshall with the idea that he would add a downfield presence and allow them to max-protect Cutler. That idea succeeded against the Colts Ė Marshall was 7-119 with a TD in a 41-21 win. Against the Packers, not so much. Their pass rush prevented Cutler from even targeting Marshall in the first half; he had only 2 catches and 24 yards in a 23-10 loss. The Rams can do a lot of what the Packers did. Roll a safety Marshallís way and take away the deep ball. Bears OC Mike Tice could respond by throwing Marshall a lot of slants, but his ability to make adjustments wasnít evident in Green Bay. And completing any pass is hard when thereís a defender in your face, especially for Cutler, who is terrible under pressure. It doesnít take a lot to get the pass rush in his head, get him bailing out on everything, back-footing every throw and making bad decisions. The Rams have terrific matchups against the Bearsí line. Gabe Carimiís basically a rookie tackle going up against Chris Long. Kendall Langford goes against RG Lance Louis, who gave up 10 sacks last year, which wasnít even worst on the team. That would be LT JíMarcus Webb, who got beat for 14 sacks in 2011 and has inherited Alex Barronís mantle as the NFLís most penalized offensive lineman. Webb canít handle speed rushers; Clay Matthews whipped him all night Thursday. You know who else is a good speed rusher? Robert Quinn. The Rams can get in Cutlerís face all day and turn the Bear offense into a sputtering mess. Matt Forte could give Chicago a dangerous dimension out of the backfield, heís predictably already hit the trainersí room with an ankle injury. If the Rams generate a serious pass rush, they can dictate the pace of this game.
Unfortunately, that goes both ways. Pro Bowler Julius Peppers (11 sacks last year) will line up all over the place, and with Barry Richardson, Wayne Hunter, Quinn Ojinnaka, or Ty Nsekhe as possible matchups to pick from, heíll be like a kid in a candy score. When Peppers lines up inside and the Bears stick speedy rookie Shea McClellin out on the edge, Brian Schottenheimer better have an answer for what is going to be some quick pressure on Sam Bradford. The interior will already have its hands full with Henry Melton. Not a household name, but he was 3rd in the NFL last year for sacks by a DT, and he already has 3 this season. Funny thing, though, Green Bay is a team that almost hates to run, yet they made the Bears look like a D that can be run on. They were consistently more physical than the Bears at the line and took advantage of Chicagoís pass-rush-first mentality. And the Bearsí tendency to overplay on pass rush will leave screens and dumpoffs to RBs open for the Rams all day. They may need that, because the Bears have a fine, underrated pair of corners in Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, physical press corners with excellent ball skills. The Rams will need a more diversified air attack against this group than all Amendola, all the time.
Then again, this year's Rams aren't letting a whole lot stop them, are they? And, just two weeks into the season, instead of automatically writing off a road game in Chicago, which we probably would have done as recently as a month ago, Rams fans can look ahead to the Bears game with true optimism. These Rams clearly aren't the dismal underdog Rams of the past five years. These Rams will give everybody a fight.
Game stats from nfl.com