RamView, November 25, 2012
From the Couch
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Game #11: Rams 31, Big Dead 17
The Rams make a long-awaited rebound, ending their winless streak, their turnover drought and their road rut while sweeping the stumbling Cardinals for the first time since 2003. Dare we accuse this young team of finally having “learned how to win?”
Position by position:
* RB: Putting the ball in Steven Jackson's hands works. The Rams knew all week they had to do it to beat Arizona, and Jackson did not disappoint, with a season-high 139 yards on 24 carries. After banging out 41 yards on 10 carries in the first half, Jackson turned the tide of the game in the 3rd, rallying the Rams from a 17-14 deficit with a big 46-yard run from the shadow of their own goal post. The play was set up to go left, but Jackson's field vision found him a backside block by Barry Richardson to cut back behind, with about an acre of grass wide open to run through after that. Knocked back hard on their heels, the Big Dead gave up a quick TD and never led again. Up 28-17 in the 4th, the Rams needed a knockout blow, and turned to their sledgehammer. He bashed off the left edge for 8. He crashed the right side behind Harvey Dahl for 6. Then, a little trickery, as Jackson became the league's highest-paid fullback for a play and hammered the right side again for 15. After that loosened Arizona up for a big completion to Chris Givens, Jackson pounded out 9 yards to get the Rams down to the 2. A fine play by Kerry Rhodes made the Rams settle for a clinching FG instead of a clinching TD, but couldn't bring back the seven minutes Jackson and the Rams ground off the clock getting there. Daryl Richardson (7-32) spiced up the classic recipe by zipping and slipping through the Arizona D, but it was the heavy helping of Jackson that made a satisfying post-Thanksgiving meal for Rams fans. The Rams knew Jackson had to get the ball and got it to him. The Cardinals knew Jackson was going to get the ball, and couldn't stop him. Pure power football.
* QB: Knowingly or not, Sam Bradford (8-17-205, 106.2 PR
) passed a major test this week. After a terrible end zone interception late in the 2nd quarter, you had to wonder about the Rams' franchise QB. He was being outplayed by Ryan Lindley, not just a rookie but a rookie in his first career start, and looked no better than the fifth-best QB in the NFC West, behind Lindley, Russell Wilson and both 49er QBs. Thankfully, after that INT, the tide turned in both directions and washed away the prospects of a Matt Barkley watch in St. Louis this spring. Not that a second straight single-digit-completions performance for Bradford against the Big Dead is a ton to get excited about. (He's 15-for-38, 39.5%, against Arizona this year.) The Rams' opening drive ended when Bradford couldn't make an accurate sideline throw to an open Brandon Gibson, a throw Colin Kaepernick nailed over and over against the Bears Monday night. Bradford missed Gibson again, though on a much-tougher throw, to end the next drive. Down 14-7, the offense finally appeared to get driving in the 2nd after Bradford hit Danny Amendola for a pretty 38-yard diving catch. But that only led to the needless INT, thrown late and into double-coverage on 1st-and-goal. The Bradford Era in St. Louis appeared to hit bottom just before halftime when Quentin Groves slammed Bradford painfully, and painfully late, on the point of his throwing shoulder, knocking Sam out of the game. The hit, though, seemed to knock Sam back on his game. He returned a play later, and on 3rd-and-10, threw his best pass in two weeks, an 18-yard sideline zinger to Chris Givens, then connected with Lance Kendricks for an easy 37-yard catch-and-run TD to tie the game. Bradford kept the heat on the first time he got the ball after halftime, connecting with Givens on a pretty diving TD bomb, again for 37 yards. Riding Steven Jackson the second half and watching Lindley implode was enough to get the Rams a win this week. If not for the big plays, you could argue the Rams won despite Bradford more than because of him. But because of the big plays, it looks like Sam Bradford is getting back on track.
* Receivers: Did I miss St. Louis getting an NBA team? I ask because Chris Givens (5-115) ran a pretty good fast break this week, and Danny Amendola (1-38) did a pretty good Willis Reed impression. Like Monty Python’s Black Knight, it’s going to take an amputation to keep Amendola out of battle, if that. His Captain Ahab-like limp didn’t prevent him from beating William Gay on a wheel route for a deep diving catch in the 2nd, and his determination had to have been a spark for the team, even with just one catch. Lance Kendricks also made the most out of only one catch, a 37-yard TD that tied the game at 14. Lance was left wide open after Darryl Washington bit hard on play-action and scored after juking Kerry Rhodes’ disinterested tackle attempt inside the 5. Kendricks was very solid again run-blocking and saved Bradford from getting buried by Nick Eason steaming up the middle in the 1st, despite giving up 65 pounds. Givens, though, was the proverbial straw that stirred the drink, vexing the Big Dead defense with his speed. He used a killer stutter-step to burn them for 25 off a 1-yard smoke pass in the 1st. His clutch 3rd-and-10 catch before halftime set up Kendricks’ tying TD. Givens then put the Rams ahead in the 3rd to stay with a diving 37-yard TD catch down the far sideline. And finally, getting wide open on a deep out for 22 put the Rams in position for the final FG. Oddly, Givens was the only Ram with more than one catch, and only four had a catch at all, including Matthew Mulligan (1-14). Givens picked the right week to have a career day, beating the Big Dead all over the field. This looks like the start of something really good.
* Offensive line: The Rams had all five projected starters on the offensive line for the first time this season, and fared pretty well. Run-blocking was strong for the most part. Scott Wells proved an upgrade at center on the first play of the game, intelligently reaching up to touch an Arizona lineman jumping into the neutral zone to force a 5-yard penalty. Barry Richardson got a great backside block on Darnell Dockett to spring Jackson’s 46-yard cutback run. Robert Turner was pretty consistent inside. He and Wells made some nice combination blocks. Turner pancaked David Carter on a 9-yard D-Rich run in the 3rd, and his ability to get outside and pick off Sam Acho helped Givens turn a smoke pass into a big gain in the 2nd. Rodger Saffold’s block at jumbo RT sprung Jackson for 15 on 3rd-and-1 in the 4th, and he and Lance Kendricks did good work several times to seal the left edge to spring good gains. I feel like we’re still waiting for Saffold to get all the way back, though. He committed a hold that probably denied the Rams a TD in the 3rd, and his failure to make a backside block on Darryl Washington on 3rd-and-2 forced the Rams into a 3-and-out in the 4th. Wells also got called for a hold, and let Washington fly by him untouched for a sack in the 2nd. B-Rich got whipped clean by Quentin Groves for a sack/fumble in the 2nd. Turner had a false start and was beaten badly on a near-sack in the 3rd. There’s some tightening needed in pass protection, but the Rams won by dictating the game to the Big Dead on the ground, and the o-line had a starring role there.
* Defensive line: A lot different than the first meeting. The Ram defense wasn't quite bend-but-don't break; more like bent-and-broke but put back together with duct tape. I’m not sure the Rams pressured Ryan Lindley nine times, let alone sack him nine times like they did Kevin Kolb. Robert Quinn did little besides jump offsides and overpursue or get manhandled against the run. Quinn got a little pressure on Craig Dahl’s INT in the 3rd, but he looks to be in a real pass-rushing rut lately. If his speed rush doesn’t work, he’s done; he’s using no other moves. Chris Long didn’t make a difference until the end of the game. In the 1st, Arizona rolled, slowly, for nine minutes, the Rams pressuring Lindley lightly at most while letting him play pitch-and-catch with wide-open receivers. Beanie Wells (17-48) had a little early success before the Rams locked down tight against the run. Jo-Lonn Dunbar stuffed William Powell to help get a 3-and-out in the 2nd, but Wells beat them later with a 12-yard TD run. They caught the Rams in nickel, Wells lost Dunbar with a cutback, Long got pinned inside, and Cortland Finnegan, also faked out, made not even half-hearted pursuit. They allowed Arizona to walk another 60 yards in less than 1:30 for a FG before halftime. Things were not looking good. The Cardinals even waltzed back out to midfield after halftime, before the Rams finally hit the blitz button. And though the blitzes didn't get all that close to Lindley, they still spooked him into bad throws. Quintin Mikell had a shot at a couple right after halftime. James Laurinaitis and Rocky McIntosh stuffed a run later in the 3rd to force Lindley to throw on 2nd-and-10, which he did, to Dahl. McIntosh followed Laurinaitis through the hole the next drive to score the Rams' first sack, with Kendall Langford finishing the 3-and-out by tipping a pass. The offense took the lead 21-17, and the defense immediately built on it, with a blitz coaxing another poor throw from Lindley for Janoris Jenkins' SECOND pick-six of the game. The Rams scored another 3-and-out before going into prevent mode, and what do you know, it prevented scoring this time. Long, who pressured the pocket well in the 2nd half, tipped a smoke pass for Larry Fitzgerald, and it bounced to Laurinaitis for the Rams' fourth INT. William Hayes added a sack before Dunbar stopped the Cardinals one last time inside the 10. Because the coaches played the first half so conservatively, I'd like to think the "real" Ram defense was the one we saw in the 2nd half. They didn't do much with their straight-up pass rush, but by stuffing the run, they set Lindley up for major failure with the blitz.
* Secondary: The Ram secondary was very touch-and-go. They turned the game around with big plays, but not before playing disgusting, baby-soft defense for the better part of the first half. Arizona took the early lead with a NINE-minute TD drive, helped no small amount by the Rams repeatedly leaving receivers wide open in the middle of the field. They converted two first downs in front of Cortland Finnegan, who, like all the Ram DBs, was consistently seven yards off the LOS at the snap. WHY? The drive still dies at midfield if not for an IDIOTIC late hit by Quintin Mikell. Thanks for handing it away on 3rd-and-EIGHTEEN, bozo. Then Trumaine Johnson gets lost again trying to cover a trips formation and gives up a big gain to set up a Wells TD plunge. It got even worse in the 2nd. The immortal Jeff King wide open over the middle for 9. The immortal Rob Housler gashes the Rams for 28 after Janoris Jenkins slips. Then, in nickel, the Rams get beaten by Wells for a 12-yard TD, with Finnegan running three steps toward him and quitting on the play. Ooh, you got me off-balance! I must be out of the play! Disgusting. Jenkins made the only play of the first half, and it was a doozy, as he jumped a poor sideline pass for LaRod Stephens-Howling and returned it for a 36-yard TD that kept the Rams in the game. After making Ryan Lindley look like Joe Montana in the 1st half, the Rams pressured him in the 2nd half into looking like the overwhelmed and clueless rookie QB he actually is. Craig Dahl(!) got the Rams’ 2nd pick in the 3rd; Lindley threw it right to him, thinking Larry Fitzgerald was supposed to break off his route. With Mikell adding a blown sack and two blown picks to his stupid penalty, Dahl was the Rams’ 2nd-best safety this week (after Jeff Fisher). And even after returning the pick to the Arizona 12, leave it to the Rams to find a way to NOT score from there. Jenkins solved that problem immediately, making team history with his second pick-six, a perfect play where he had good coverage on Fitzgerald and excellent awareness to react to Lindley’s underthrown pass. The game’s a win for the secondary, but not a convincing one. They got beaten deep a half-dozen times or more, relying too much on Lindley not knowing what to do or making poor throws. That won’t work many other times.
* Special teams: Not an inspiring game. Greg Zuerlein went from Legatron to Gag-atron after snap-hooking a 35-yard attempt into the saguaros in the 3rd. To kick that poorly, in Arizona’s climate control, with a good snap and hold, sure has me looking forward to watching him kick in Buffalo in two weeks. The punting game also lacked consistency. Johnny Hekker pinned Patrick Peterson near the sideline with several nice punts, but his first punt was too returnable and Peterson brought it back for 26, with Craig Dahl barely hanging on to prevent a 95-yard TD. Hekker, who appeared to be having cramping problems, also flubbed a 30-yard dying quail in the 4th that Peterson returned 18 yards from midfield. Austin Pettis was surprisingly decent returning punts for Amendola, and Quinton Pointer (!) made a couple of nice tackles on coverage units. Let’s hope the kickers haven’t hit the “rookie wall”; walls typically aren’t easy to kick down.
* Strategery: Brian Schottenheimer didn't call a perfect game, but he sure called a nice one, with several really sweet plays, and it's nice for once to see a Rams team say they know they need to run more and then actually do it. Feeding Jackson was part of the formula, but especially that he had variety in his diet, and that Schotty attacked the edges, which you have to do against a middle-pressure-based attack like Arizona's. Glad to see Schotty call plays like he had a clue this week. More than a clue, actually. He did a great job getting Givens open in space. He helped the offensive pace out by mixing in no-huddle. The Kendricks TD was a terrific call. Bradford's draw play-action to Jackson completely suckered Darryl Washington and left Kendricks all alone for the TD. A couple of sweet calls extended the Rams' 7-minute FG drive in the 4th. On 3rd-and-1, Schotty goes to a jumbo I-formation package, with Saffold and B-Rich on the right side, D-Rich lined up deep, and Jackson gaining 15 behind Saffold on a fullback dive. Yes, Steven Jackson at fullback. A few plays later, Schotty beats a blitz with a trips package that gets Givens wide open for 22. I'd have been happy running even more. They didn't need to throw 1st-and-goal from the 6 when Bradford got picked off; they'd just gained 13 yards on 2 carries. Up 21-17 in the 3rd, D-Rich gains 14 on two carries and Schotty goes batty, apparently calling three straight bootleg passes where no one ever got open. That briefly had you wondering if the players or the coaching staff were the ones who hadn't learned how to win, but those were ultimately mere hiccups in a well-reasoned, well-executed offensive game plan.
Meanwhile, the Rams' joint chiefs of defense spent a clueless first half playing prevent against a rookie QB, doing little but sending limp four-man rushes and laying the DBs 7-8 yards off the line. Little wonder Lindley could move the Big Dead up and down the field; the Rams invited it. Why are you paying Cortland Finnegan so much, why did you draft CBs in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, if you're going to lay them a mile off Andre Roberts and Rob Housler on 3rd-and-short? Thankfully, the defensive attack got more aggressive after halftime, and coverage somewhat tighter. The Rams didn't get to Lindley with many blitzes, but they got in his head, panicking him into throwing the second Jenkins pick-six and a couple of other near-picks, and also fooling him into settling for dumpoffs with fake blitzes. One sack was a sweet call out of the Arizona playbook, bringing Laurinaitis up the middle and then dogging Dunbar, who got the sack, behind him. Not sure why it took a half, but once they unloaded on Lindley, it worked.
Jeff Fisher's game management was even sane this week. Taking the FG 4th-and-inches at the Cardinal 2 to go up by 14 seemed a sensible call. I'm guessing the mystery timeout after Amendola's long catch was to stop the play clock from running low. They played with fire with Peterson a little too much for my taste again, and this team still commits too many stupid penalties, but Fisher didn't let a very winnable game get away this week. For becoming the first Rams head coach to sweep the Big Dead since his old friend Mike Martz, Fisher’s earned a parade from this corner of cyberspace.
* Upon further review: Tony Corrente and crew would have gotten a better grade had Corrente not stood there and watched Quentin Groves slam Bradford to the ground well after releasing a pass in the 2nd and kept his flag buried deep in his pocket. That was an even more blatant late hit than the one Bradford took from Dont'e Hightower in Wembley. Astounding that there wasn't a call there. Corrente was sure Old Eagle Eyes finding fouls on the Rams, though. Wells and Saffold got called for the barest of holds. Dunbar got a flag and probably a fine for a helmet-to-helmet hit on LaRon Byrd that would have been legal a nanosecond later if Byrd had caught the ball. And though these were proper calls, they sure feel like the same kind of call the Rams never get when it happens to them in front of other crews. Somehow Corrente can pick off those several difficult calls, and intelligently set the tone early by flagging both sides for chippy play, but seemingly not see Groves deliver a massive, injurious, brutally late bodyslam to one of the players he's supposed to be doing the most to protect. I can’t comprehend that. D-plus
* Cheers: Inoffensive broadcast by Fox, but nowhere near the caliber of Chris Myers and Tim Ryan's work a couple of weeks ago. Dick Stockton may be a Hall-of-Fame broadcaster, but should probably be greeting folks at Wal-Mart these days. He never gets a spot right, missed one by seven yards in the 4th and contentedly described five-yard runs as having gained “a couple”. John Lynch seemed tuned into Rams Nation's thoughts after Bradford’s INT with his comment that Bradford “is not playing like a #1 pick,” but gave credit once it was due. Nice pickup by Stockton to see Lindley threw the second pick-six off his back foot. An affable booth, but not one that gives you detailed play breakdowns or solid insights into strategy.
* Who’s next?: The Rams have a rare opportunity to win a season series from the *****, who will be in St. Louis for a noon game Sunday. In case you spent the beginning of this month at a wilderness retreat, the Rams fought the ***** tooth-and-nail two weeks ago to a dissatisfying 24-24 tie. Jackson had a then- season-best 101 yards, Amendola had 11 catches and Bradford had one of his best games, but were offset by a lack of clutch defense, questionable coaching decisions and stupid penalties at the worst possible times.
Talk about their quarterback intrigue all you want, but the key player in a 49er uniform Sunday will be second-year OLB Aldon Smith, who came into this weekend leading the NFL in sacks (15), on pace to break Michael Strahan's single-season record. Aldon is no fluke; he had 14 sacks last season in a part-time role. The 49er defense's bread and butter is the tackle-end stunt, where Aldon loops inside and Justin Smith holds the guard. And I do mean HOLDS. The ***** worked this twice against the Rams for sacks a couple of weeks ago, and they'll need to be ready for it again Sunday. Robert Turner's quicker feet, and experience, at left guard should be a boost there over Shelley Smith in the first meeting, and hopefully Jeff Fisher can help them out by lobbying for some holding calls on Justin. Brian Schottenheimer will have to be a lot smarter than Bears OC Mike Tice was this past Monday night (which should not be difficult).You can't block Aldon with one man; Tice brilliantly tried it all night, surrendering 5.5 sacks just to Aldon in a 32-7 loss. Aldon's not just a one-note speed rusher, either; he can bull-rush a tackle right over the QB. Teams that don't chip Aldon consistently, that don't devote three blockers to that “Smith brothers” left-side attack, live to regret it. I’d have Kendricks just shadow Aldon all day. If Schotty’s really on his game, he’ll come up with opportunities to force Aldon to cover Kendricks downfield. With Amendola gimpy, Bradford will need another big game out of Givens, who was benched for the first 49er game for missing curfew. Schotty’s patience with the running game served him well in San Francisco, but it’s hard to see that working twice in four weeks against one of the NFL’s best defenses. The Rams weren’t afraid to go after the 49er corners in the first game; an attacking passing game and a balanced attack will be needed to win Sunday.
***** HC Jim Harbaugh will no doubt be cagey about his starting QB this week. Alex Smith should be ready to return from the concussion he suffered in the first meeting, but Colin Kaepernick’s excellent effort in two-plus games of relief has given Harbaugh a challenging decision. After running all over the Rams, Kaepernick quickly proved himself as a pocket passer against the Bears. He reads the field like a veteran, throws accurately with nice touch, and has the patience to wait to tuck and run until he has to. Shape-shifting Frank Gore and the potent 49er running game set defenses up for a ton of play-action, making Kaepernick that much more dangerous. The Ram defense will have its hands full. They’ve got to keep the QB in the pocket, and not get killed by that play-action. It’s also about time to have an answer for fakeass diva Michael Crabtree, who has 6 of his 17 career TDs in six games against the Rams. (He has none against Seattle, also in six games.) They still have to have a plan for Vernon Davis, who’ll demand double-teaming, but leaving Crabtree against the likes of Craig Dahl like they did to give up a couple of big plays in Candlestick isn't a smart option, either. Let Finnegan blanket Crabtree, and blitz Dahl. And please have a plan for that shallow drag route. The Rams’ best chance to apply pressure appears to be up the middle, where center Jonathan Goodwin is distinctly the 49er o-line’s weak link. That fits well with the Rams' need to keep the QB in the pocket, and is where this game is very likely to be won or lost.
The win over Arizona has clinched the Rams their first winning season in the NFC West in many years, which they'll get to celebrate by battling with the current kings of the division. Do Jeff Fisher's Rams have enough left in the tank for another physical battle with the *****? Does Fisher have any tricks left up his sleeve to keep Harbaugh and company guessing? Can the Rams keep their act together and prove the tie in San Francisco wasn't a fluke? Should be exciting finding out.
Game stats from espn.com