RamView, October 4, 2012
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Game #5: Rams 17, Big Dead 3
The Rams continue to find new ways to win, and exorcise an ugly demon, burying Bidwill's Birds with a barrage of NINE sacks for their first home win over St. Louis' old team in eight years. With their second division win in five days, these Rams have declared they are no longer the whipping boys of the NFC West.
Position by position:
* Defensive line/LB: They took about nine minutes to get going, but in the end, the Rams won this game with one of their most dominating defensive performances in memory. It looked like it would be a long night when Arizona held the ball 9:30 the first time they got it. They drove very efficiently, converting three 3rd-and-shorts, before James Laurinaitis broke up a deep pass, and Jo-Lonn Dunbar made a pretty breakup of a pass for Larry Fitzgerald, to force a FG. Little could Big Dead QB Kevin Kolb have suspected that was the last time his team would score, or of the Marc Bulger-class beating he was about to take. Next possession, Dunbar blew a sack after a delay blitz, but Bradley Fletcher got credit for stopping Kolb on the run. That's one. On 3rd down, Chris Long whipped Bobby Massie around end, and if Kolb could have dodged that, Laurinaitis would have had him on another middle blitz anyway. That's two. Rarely in recent years have the Rams so outplayed a team physically. Collapsing pockets forced repeated hurried throws from Kolb, leading him to miss a lot of open receivers. Teams are gaining more and more respect – or is it fear? - of the Rams' hitting ability. Witness William Powell's Myrna Loy-like effort on a 2nd-quarter incompletion with Laurinaitis lurking nearby. Kolb later blew an open bomb to Andre Roberts because Quintin Mikell was breathing down his neck. The Rams slowed down another 2nd-quarter drive when all four linemen beat their man, with Robert Quinn winning the race to Kolb. That's three. Dunbar came in untouched just before halftime and finished off a blitz properly this time. That's four. The Rams shut down the run, holding Arizona's admittedly-meager attack to 45 yards. Quinn started a 3-and-out after halftime by stuffing Ryan Williams for a big loss. Craig Dahl repeated that to start another 3-and-out. Long later stuffed a run by throwing guard Adam Snyder into the hole. Pass the red meat, please. Jermelle Cudjo got in on the fun by burying Kolb but getting a ticky-tack roughing call for it. That's still five. Quinn answered by spiking a screen pass, then whipping D'Anthony Batiste to drop Kolb again. That's six. After Quinn stuffed another run, that drive ended with coverage downfield forcing Kolb to eat the ball again. Laurinaitis got him on the blitz, but a key moment was Michael Brockers filling Kolb's throwing lane just when he thought he had a downfield target. Instead, that's seven. After the Rams took a 17-3 lead, and Darian Stewart opened the 4th by destroying Ryan Williams with an Oh-my-God hit, the D relaxed a little before shutting Arizona down near the goal line. That was just the pause before the final storm. With Arizona in close again, Dunbar lit up Fitzgerald to force an incomplete, and Cortland Finnegan blitzed in untouched on 4th-and-1 for sack number EIGHT. Much to Kolb's chagrin, Arizona got the ball back one last time, just long enough for Quinn to smoke Batiste for the millionth time and chop the ball away from the battered QB for a fumble, recovered by William Hayes. That's NINE! Nine sacks, as the Ram defense dominated Arizona for the last three quarters. Long and Quinn were in Kolb's face all night. Laurinaitis and especially Dunbar were all over the place. One small flaw was the number of times the DTs let Kolb step up and out of trouble. The Rams made up for that with relentless pressure from the edges and blitzes up the middle. Those poor suckers from out of town never knew what hit them.
* QB: One of the surprises of the night was that the Rams could win it with Sam Bradford having such an awful game. 7-for-21? SEVEN completions? Ten straight passes hitting the ground at one point? And the Rams won? Good thing Bradford (7-21-141, 69.7 PR
) was sharp on the opening drive, about the only time he was all night. And his feet were probably better than his arm. Brandon Gibson made a tough leaping catch for 14 to start the drive. Danny Amendola hauled in an underthrown 42-yard bomb Bradford threw just as he was about to get clobbered. Sam scrambled out of trouble the next play down to the 5, and followed that with more nifty footwork, sprinting out of trouble to his left and making a difficult toss to Lance Kendricks to give the Rams a 7-0 lead that would turn out to be insurmountable. The Amendola connection wasn't quite there this week. Bradford tried to force one to Danny later in the 1st that was broken up to end the drive. In the 2nd, after getting one pass knocked down at the line, the two were not on the same page on a bad-looking incompletion. On a later FG drive, Bradford threw one into the ground for no visible reason, then overthrew Amendola (in triple-coverage) near the goal line. Danny failed to come up with a spectacular catch there, and again on a go route against a blitz the next drive. He tried for the diving catch but only came up with a separated clavicle, which should put him out for at least 6 weeks. If you thought the passing game was bad with Amendola, well, wow. 10 straight incompletions before Bradford finally connects with... Patrick Peterson, acrobatically snaring a pass I now think Sam was just trying to throw out of the end zone. Obviously, that cost the Rams 3 points. Gibson's grab on the final play of the 3rd was Bradford's FIRST completion of that quarter. But sometimes, that little momentum's all you need. Several plays later, Bradford got plenty of time and hit Chris Givens with a perfect 52-yard TD bomb that iced the game. Bradford had bouts of inaccuracy and miscommunication; there's no ball from this game going to the Hall of Fame. Looking for the silver lining, though, he still made several big plays and showed some good and nearly long-lost running skills. The Rams were very safety-first this week facing the Arizona blitz, and one thing you won't see in the box score is how many solid pre-snap reads and adjustments Bradford made to get that blitz picked up. Between that and his modest mobility, Bradford limited the Big Dead to one sack. Not the biggest key to winning this game, but it was a key one.
* RB: We learned before the game that the Rams are willing to let Steven Jackson (18-76) see other people after this season, a heck of a way to treat a guy who's given you almost 10,000 yards, and whose main reward has been about ten times as many bruises. And when he's got one backup who can't find the field with a compass, and the other has all of 36 career carries. But, despite all the preseason proclamations from “experts” claiming to know “Jeff Fisher's philosophy,” Jackson is not the showpiece here, just a very capable starter. Though he opened the 2nd quarter with a 12-yard run, he was mainly in the game for blitz pickup. He wasn't perfect at it, but was good, which makes a big difference against Arizona, compared to the poor job the Eagles did a couple of weeks ago. Jackson was a big part of chewing up time and getting the defense some rest in the 2nd half. Breaks a tackle for 8. Jumps over another tackle for 3. Rumbles for 12 off left tackle. More classic Jackson in the 4th, trucking Big Dead “tacklers” for 7. “Truck”. That's the problem, though. Trucks get caught in the backfield on run blitzes. Trucks, especially trucks with a lot of miles on them, don't accelerate that quickly to the open road. Which is why the Rams have a sports car in the garage, Daryl Richardson (9-35), who's gained over a yard per carry more than Jackson so far this season. D-Rich gets outside better, hits the hole fast, and runs with better power inside than he gets credit for “around the league”. He looks like a threat to go all the way every time he touches the ball. His 16-yard run in the 3rd sparked the Rams' last TD drive, followed a couple of plays later by more classic Jackson, gaining 12 on a run where the only block was his own, stiffarming Paris Lenon to the turf like nothing. The Rams need D-Rich's speed and explosiveness. They also need Jackson's power and blitz pickup, where the rookie has been poor. But by the end of the season, there may be enough spark to pass the torch.
* Receivers: The bad news, of course, is that the Rams have lost Amendola (1-44) for at least 6 weeks, though not before he could beat Patrick Peterson with a falling, one-handed catch of a Bradford bomb to set up the Rams' first TD. With Amendola out, who's going to step up? Lance Kendricks? He made the first TD catch (1-7) and was a run-blocking force, but his only other target was another of his frustrating drops. Brandon Gibson? Love his effort, his physicality, his ability to make difficult catches (3-33), but he doesn't get open a lot. Chris Givens? Maybe. He (1-51) burned Greg Toler with a double move for the Rams' 2nd TD. (I've heard of breaking a DB's ankles, but never hamstringing one, till that play.) Givens looks pretty raw to take the Amendola role, though, and needs to become more reliable with his hands. Austin Pettis had a golden chance but was mostly invisible (1-6). Maybe Steve Smith (inactive) will get his big break next week. Somebody better step up. COUGHBrian QuickCOUGH? I'm not sure he (0-0) knew where the ball was that Peterson intercepted in the 3rd. The Rams don't have a receiver ready yet to step in for Amendola. It's too soon. Unfortunately, they don't have a choice now for the next few games. Somebody step up.
* Offensive line: Blocking was a little shaky early but was helped by Bradford's maneuverability and recognition pre-snap. Wayne Hunter and Barry Richardson both got beaten badly on the opening drive, but not badly enough that Bradford couldn't make big plays. They were more comfortable run-blocking this week. Hunter got Jackson a great block for 12 yards to start the Rams' FG drive, with Harvey Dahl getting to the second level quickly and Lance Kendricks putting DT Dan Williams on his butt. However, Bradford would only get sacked once, late in the 1st half by Darryl Washington on a blitz it looked like B-Rich was supposed to pick up. He followed that with a poor series after halftime, committing a false start and a hold. Though the RBs had to do a lot of work themselves, the line got just solid enough after that to maintain the Rams' edge. Dahl kept getting to the second level. Hunter and Kendricks made a lane to get Jackson another 12 in the 3rd. D-Rich cruised for 16 off a fine block by Robert Turner. Early in the 4th, it all came together with the line walling off a 4-man rush, B-Rich's perfect protection giving Bradford more than enough time to launch the TD bomb to Givens. They don't make it look pretty, but the Rams rushed for over 100 this game, and in five days, they've held two feared pass rush attacks to 3 sacks combined. This line was never supposed to be able to do that, was it?
* Secondary: Pass rush made up for some mistakes in coverage, as did Janoris Jenkins' remarkable recovery ability. The rookie got beaten deep by TE Rob Housler in the 2nd, but he dived in at the last split second for a highlight-reel breakup. Andre Roberts burned Jenkins deep later in the drive, but the line made Kolb rush a poor throw. Jenkins had two shots at INTs before halftime, losing one because Larry Fitzgerald grabbed his facemask. Fitzgerald (8-92) lined up just about everywhere, mostly drawing coverage from Jenkins and Bradley Fletcher, who was again quietly effective. Fitzgerald's biggest catch was a 30-yarder that came on a broken play where Trumaine Johnson jumped a short route instead of holding his deep ground. The Rams lost Quintin Mikell in the 2nd with a scary blow to the head, but Darian Stewart had his back in the 4th, laying out Ryan Williams with a cruel blow. Arizona later approached the goal line, but Stewart read Kolb perfectly on 3rd down to break up a pass (should have been a pick-six, though), and Jenkins defended a curious quick slant to Fitzgerald 5 yards from the goal line on 4th down to stop the threat. Finnegan's blitz sack at the end of the game was just the icing on the cake. The secondary had the line's back last week. This week, Jenkins got away with some big rookie mistakes because the line had the secondary's back. Look out on the day the Ram defense is clicking from front to back.
* Special teams: When I was growing up (no, not and painting RamView on my cave wall, wise guy), punting out of bounds was routine. Some teams did it all the time. There was even something called the “coffin corner” that the best punters were good at kicking into. But today, punting out of bounds is apparently harder than solving Rubik's Cube. Blindfolded. With your feet. Johnny Hekker did have three brilliant punts – 57, 58 and 68 yards – that went out of bounds or pinned lethal returner Peterson to the sideline well enough to prevent a good return. Maybe, in the 21st century, that now passes for Hall of Fame punting and special teams strategy. Because otherwise, it is well beyond me why a coaching staff that has been so smart all season would be STUPID enough to give Peterson FOUR other chances to score a TD, averaging nearly 20 yards a pop on those tries, nearly breaking each one of them all the way. Didn't help that the Rams' gunners had bad games, – were they even on the TV screen on most punts? - but this is inexcusably poor strategy. A 40-yard punt Peterson can't get his hands on is a win. Do it. But apparently today, special teams coaches and punters are helpless because it's harder to punt out of bounds than it is to read Sanskrit. In Braille. With your butt. Greg Zuerlein won his showdown with the usually-reliable Jay Feely. Feely knocked a pretty simple 40-yarder wide left, while Legatron split the uprights from 53. That's a chip shot around here these days.
* Strategery: First, on defense: I love beating the other team with the thing they're supposed to be best at. Arizona's staff had to be watching Rams tape all season and thinking, hey, they don't like to blitz that much, but this week, the Rams were the more dangerous blitzing team. They brought more heat up the middle than I've seen a Rams D do in years. Another “new” look was the blitz alignments that put 2 or three blitzers right over one of the tackles. With Long and Quinn already dominating the edges, the effective blitzing scheme was just turning the dial up to 11. You want to be aggressive, Arizona? Here's aggressive for ya. Love it. Didn't love the special teams “strategy” that EVER allowed Peterson to be kicked to, or the idea that a NFL punter cannot be trained to kick a ball out of bounds. But enough about that.
On offense, we've all been lied to. The Rams, advertised as a run-first team from Jeff Fisher's hiring in January to the end of training camp, are not. They've been pass-first with the exception of the Detroit game. The opening TD drive was all passing. Jackson got the ball on one of the Rams' first 12 plays. Passing set up the run later, and, protecting their lead, the Rams ended up with about a 50/50 run-pass ratio. But this has been a pass-first team. I'm not complaining, but I'm surprised all the same. It seems to be working because Brian Schottenheimer has been smart most weeks about getting the ball out quickly. The way Bradford launched some of his long balls, I'm pretty convinced that was his #1, #2 and #3 messages from Schottenheimer this week in practice. Brave strategy deciding the best way to beat the Big Dead blitz was to throw over the top of it. We'll have to wait and see how much things change without Amendola around. And Jackson fan though I am, I like the way they worked Richardson in this week. I like moving the pieces around at RB more than just leaving one in for all of one drive. To me, that's true change-of-pace.
* Upon further review: Turns out John Parry was more right Thursday night than he was popular. The live crowd absolutely hated the two calls for roughing Kolb. On the first, it looked to us like he took his helmet off to draw the call and should have been fined by David Stern. The second time looked like nothing more than Jermelle Cudjo making a play. Seeing it on TV, though, and I don't know how a defensive player is supposed to avoid it either time, you can see contact to the head. Parry's rule enforcement wasn't wrong, it's just too rigid a rule. They also made a great call on Peterson's end zone interception. Took me five minutes just to figure out whose feet were whose. On the other hand, they let a brutal block in the back, right in the middle of the field, go on one punt and let Fitzgerald face mask Jenkins to the ground to save an interception. Not great, but not as bad as we thought in the stadium, either. Grade: B-minus
* Cheers: Not a sellout, but still the biggest crowd of the year; I'd put it in the mid-fifties. Just as loud as it has been all season, though the only jumping we could induce was the Rams jumping offside. Still, our efforts were recognized several times by the NFL Network crew. Kudos to Marshall Faulk for being the only one to pick the Rams to win on the pregame show; what the hell, Kurt Warner? Other than Kurt's Arizona pick and Mike Mayock's obvious man-crush on Larry Fitzgerald, a fine broadcast.
* Who’s next?: Nine months ago, “St. Louis vs. Miami” meant something a lot different to Jeff Fisher than it does now. Back then, those were the options for his next big career move; nowadays, it’s the next game up on the schedule, a matchup of franchises trying to restore past glory. The Dolphins would no doubt like to show Fisher he made the wrong choice and win their third straight in this series. The last time the Rams took their talents to South Beach, in 2004, it was an embarrassing trip for Mike Martz, whose charges made Jay Fiedler look like Dan Marino in a 31-14 loss to the then 0-and-6 Dolphins.
Ryan Tannehill will be the third mobile rookie QB to face the Rams this season. Miami started the season tethering him to the pocket, where he struggled with passes getting tipped at the line, despite his 6’4” height. Like me, the Dolphins must have forgotten that Ryan was formerly a wide receiver at Texas A&M. They’re moving the pocket more for him now; he’s good on the move and throws a strong, accurate ball. (When he stays in the pocket, though, get a hand up; tipped passes are still a problem.) Another trait of Tannehill’s the Rams might try to exploit is that he will really gamble with throws at the last millisecond to try to avoid sacks. That has turnover written all over it. Can also warn you right now that Tannehill really likes back-shoulder throws. Tannehill’s favorite receiver is pretty obviously Brian Hartline. RamView didn’t scout Hartline’s ridiculous 250-yard game against Arizona, but his 111-yard game against Oakland was crazy enough. To my knowledge, all he does is split right all game and run square outs and buttonhooks. Oakland’s DBs made him lethal by laying off him all game. The Rams need to play tight coverage, keep a DB in Hartline’s face, and make Tannehill look somewhere else 50% of the time. Of course, he does have an excellent go-to ground option with Reggie Bush, whose career is back on the upswing since the Saints traded him last year. He’ll kill you if you let him get to the corner, and is a dangerous open-field receiver, but he’s also underrated as a between-the-tackles runner. He hits the hole quickly and will break tackles. If Bush is not quite over his recent knee injury, Miami can go to rookie Lamar Miller, who’s similar in style and also averages 5.5 yards a carry. James Laurinaitis’ hands will be full. There will be a premium on tackling well and staying assignment-sound. The Rams’ pass-rushers will have a speed advantage on the Dolphin tackles, but Miami try to counter that with a lot of runs at Robert Quinn, behind Jake Long and Richie Incognito. Incognito has been a beast for Miami, and I don’t just mean after the whistle. It will be very interesting to see how well Michael Brockers holds up in that matchup, and if Richie’s old team, who he’ll no doubt be motivated to take on, can coax any stupid penalties out of him.
Miami’s defense is effective but probably not as dominating as its statistics say. They’re the #1 defense against the run at the quarter-pole, allowing only 56 ypg. They shut down Darren McFadden, but two other opponents, Arizona and the Jets, don’t run that well in the first place. They get very good run support from their secondary on blitzes and are strong up the middle with space-eating DT Paul Soliai and MLB Karlos Dansby. Soliai’s not a household name but can dominate the LOS; Dansby has been all over the field and has been especially good in pass coverage. The Dolphins have 12 sacks after 4 games, 4.5 by team leader Cameron Wake, but almost all of that came in an 8-sack flurry against the Cardinals. Wake’s still adjusting to moving to 4-3 DE and didn’t get going against Oakland until their starting RT got injured. They like to blitz, and will get a lot of pass pressure doing it, but they don’t really finish them off with many sacks. And Sam Bradford can get the ball out faster than Carson Palmer. Miami’s 30th in the NFL in pass defense, another reason their run defense looks so good. They traded their best CB (Vontae Davis) before the season; their #2, Richard Marshall, is battling back problems and isn’t all that good when healthy anyway. The Rams don’t often see matchups this good in the passing game and need to make the most of this one.
Fortune hasn’t been with the Rams on the road so far this year, but a trip to south Florida here gives them a chance. A couple of extra days of rest should limit the Miami heat (you still suck, Lebron) as a conditioning factor. Dolphins Stadium hasn’t struck a lot of fear in the hearts of visiting teams in recent years; Miami’s had one winning season at home since 2005. Jeff Fisher's next task: turn his home warriors into road warriors.
Game stats from nfl.com