RamView, December 2, 2012
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Game #12: Rams 16, ***** 13 (OT)
It took two-and-a-half games to decide the 2012 chapter of the once-again epic rivalry between the Rams and the *****, and this season, the Rams are the team on top, after winning in another crazy overtime thriller. And it was worth every second of the wait.
Position by position:
* QB: Sometimes, you gotta be able to make chicken salad out of, um, substandard ingredients, which Sam Bradford did to help get the Rams a big win. Tasked to beat one of the NFL’s best defenses with no running game and only one receiver very capable of getting open, Bradford (26-39-221, 81.2 PR
) still got the job done, even while needing 28 minutes to lead the offense across midfield for the first time. That was thanks to the play-action pass to Lance Kendricks that worked perfectly for a TD last week and got 20 yards this week. Some familiar problems crept up into Bradford’s game. His few deep passes weren’t great, and a 3rd-quarter drive died on 4th-and-1 near the 49er goal line after he again couldn’t connect on an end zone fade route. (And with Brandon Gibson open underneath at the goal line.) Bradford took a lot of checkdowns and settled a couple of times with a receiver breaking open late downfield. He also continues to fail to take advantage of pre-snap mismatches of TEs or RBs out wide on LBs. (And the one time he did, he overthrew Isaiah Pead open deep.) But Bradford got the Rams close with effective short passing and by developing quick chemistry with rookie receiver Chris Givens almost as good as he has with (out injured) Danny Amendola. His best passes of the day were a sideline route to Givens in OT for 15 and a screen to Givens in the 4th that Sam tossed sidearmed through a sea of bodies. When the Rams really needed a play, Bradford was there. Needing a 2-point conversion from the 7 in the 4th, Sam calmly rolled away from trouble and hit Lance Kendricks for the game-tying score. With 1:34 left in regulation and the Rams needing a tying FG, he was there for them again, this time as a runner. With 49er coverage leaving huge gaps in the middle of the field, Sam sprinted out of trouble twice, picking up 26 yards and a roughing penalty, putting the Rams in FG position almost all by himself. The ***** took away the deep passing and running game that worked so well for the Rams in San Francisco, but Bradford found a way to beat them anyway. There’s been talk after the game that the Rams have the *****’ number now. Well, Sam Bradford surely does.
* RB: Tough day for the Rams RBs, who managed barely 2 yards a carry. Too many of Steven Jackson’s (21-48) trips covered less than those six feet and ended in car wrecks, thanks a lot to his line’s apparent refusal to block defensive force Justin Smith. Daryl Richardson (3-6) didn’t add much, also finding too much traffic to travel through. Jackson did loosen up the defense in the 2nd half, as a receiver (5-69). The highlight was a well-setup screen pass he took for 22 on 3rd-and-10 to keep a long drive alive in the 3rd. Jackson saved his most important play for the end of this 75-minute slugfest, a 9-yard cutback behind Robert Turner’s pull block that put the Rams in long FG position. He lost 3 the next play, and you could feel momentum trying to slip away, but Jackson gained it back with a thumping 3rd-down run, which may also have been a big play. Greg Zuerlein didn’t need the help – his game-winning 54-yard kick would have been good from 64 – but I believe that last gain helped convince Jeff Fisher to go ahead and try the FG. It’s been rare here lately, but this week, the Rams paid off on Steven Jackson’s dirty work.
* Receivers: With Danny Amendola hobbled by a foot injury last week and unable to go this week, Chris Givens (11-92) sure has burst onto the scene at the right time. He’s the only Rams receiver able to get open with any consistency and is evolving rapidly from a one-note deep flyer to an all-around receiver, doing all his damage underneath this week while the opponent has to respect his deep speed. He caught a quick comeback to set up Zuerlein’s game-tying FG, and his 8-yard slant on 3rd-and-3 in OT kept the game-winning FG drive alive. About the only other field-stretcher the Rams had was Lance Kendricks (3-32), with a 20-yard seam route off play-action before halftime. I’d call Kendricks a clutch receiver for tying the game in the 4th with a 2-point conversion, this time running a shallow drag route and bowling over NaVarro Bowman at the goal line, except he also had a couple more of the unbelievable drops that have plagued his career. Austin Pettis (2-12), Steve Smith (1-6), Brian Quick (1-3) and Brandon Gibson (0-0) were rarely open. The Rams had to settle for a 57-yard FG miss right before halftime thanks to Smith’s brutal drop. Quick continues to make ignorant rookie mistakes. On his weekly catch this week in OT, he ran a 3-yard route on 3rd-and-4. Anybody else’s Christmas list have “3 or 4 wide receivers for next year” on the top?
* Offensive line: After rolling the ***** for 150+ rushing yards three weeks ago, the Rams disappointingly couldn’t make much happen on the ground this week, due in part to their inability to block Justin Smith. Rodger Saffold couldn’t lay a hand on him, getting Jackson stuffed in the 1st. Scott Wells whiffed on him to get Jackson stuffed again in the 1st, then Justin threw Wells to the ground to stuff Jackson in the 2nd. It was Robert Turner’s turn to whiff on Justin to get Jackson stuffed in the 3rd, then it was Bradford’s turn to feel the fury in the 4th. Saffold whiffed on Justin again, leaving him to Steven Jackson to pick up, a rare mismatch for Steven, as Justin rolled on for the sack. That was one of only two sacks the Rams gave up, though. The other came on a 3-man rush in the 2nd as Aldon Smith stunned Barry Richardson with a two-handed shot and then bull-rushed him back into Bradford. The Rams seemed to handle the “Smith brothers stunt” well. Jackson stopped Aldon in his tracks on one early in the game. The Niners moved Aldon around a lot and didn’t seem to rely on that stunt as much this week. That likely freed Justin up from some of the double-teaming the Rams did on him in the first game. But the league’s sack leader didn’t run wild, either, so that’s a win. Wells threw a key block on Jackson's 22-yard screen but also killed a drive with a hold. Saffold, who's starting to pile up the idiotic false starts, hurt the Rams with one on their only red zone trip in the 3rd. Turner had a key block on Jackson's 9-yard run to set up the winning FG. Even with the run-blocking problems, the Rams still held their own in the trenches much better than they have against San Francisco the past few years, reflected in this year's much better results.
* Defensive line: When the ***** drove a pretty easy 60 yards to take a 7-0 lead in the 1st, it sure didn't look like the Rams were on their way to one of their best defensive games of the year. Frank Gore had the big play of the drive, a 22-yard carry between Michael Brockers and Eugene Sims, who got pushed around by fullback Bruce Miller. Linebackers didn't attack the right gaps and Jo-Lonn Dunbar struggled to get in the right position or cover the feared Miller out of the backfield. Gore scored a 1-yard TD past Kendall Langford, and with several other Rams going down like bowling pins, it looked like a long day was ahead. But, with Brockers, William Hayes and James Laurinaitis repeatedly stepping up, Gore gained only 36 yards on his other 22 carries. With Robert Quinn playing sparingly due to a concussion in last week's game, Sims and Hayes were unsung heroes of the game. It was common to see one or both of them finishing off a blitz pressure by chasing Colin Kaepernick out of the pocket and out of bounds, or by forcing a throwaway. Hayes beat Anthony Davis to sack Kaepernick in the 1st, and tackled Gore for a loss in the 2nd to shut down a drive. Sims and Hayes scored clutch back-to-back sacks to force the ***** out of FG position before halftime. Hayes took advantage of Chris Long splitting a double-team, which looked a little like the Hulk ripping through a wall. Too often this season the Rams haven't sustained defensive momentum; this week was different. Laurinaitis and Brockers stuffed runs with the ***** backed up on their goal line in the 3rd. With Kaepernick forced to throw, Laurinaitis and Janoris Jenkins blitzed and chased him into his own end zone, drawing a safety on an intentional grounding penalty. Poor refereeing was mainly responsible for letting the ***** take a 10-2 lead before the defense pounced again, with Jenkins scoring a TD off Kaepernick's wild pitch toss. That tied the game, but Kaepernick quickly struck back in the 4th with a 50-yard sprint around right end. The Rams got caught in another blitz, Long got pinned inside, Gore decleated Rocky McIntosh with a splendid downfield block, and the Rams had no one on that side of the field. With Brockers stopping Gore for a loss on 2nd down, though, the ***** had to settle for a FG, which the Rams matched. Long drew a hold and Dunbar stuffed Gore to shut down the *****' first drive in OT. David Akers got a chance to win the game with a FG, but it was a long one because Brockers got in Kaepernick's face on 3rd down to force an incompletion. After Akers' miss, Steven Jackson and Greg Zuerlein took care of the rest. The Ram defense stood toe-to-toe with the 49er D this week. Long was every bit as relentless as Justin Smith. Sims and Hayes stood out in Quinn's place and produced more at RDE than Aldon Smith did. Dunbar and Laurinaitis made more plays than Patrick Willis and NaVarro Bowman. Brockers and Langford clogged the middle well and Brockers had his best game as a pro. They held 49er RBs to 2.3 a carry and never let Kaepernick get comfortable in the pocket. This week they more than lived up to their potential.
* Secondary: They say defensive backs have to have short memories, and no game is a better indicator of Janoris Jenkins’ mental toughness than this one. Jenkins had a terrible game and a terrific game all in the same day. Typically lined up in the 636 area code, Jenkins was beaten repeatedly by simple slant passes as if the ***** just invented the route during warm-ups. 3rd-and-4 at the Ram 8, he’s seven yards off Mario Manningham, who makes an easy 1st down catch to set up a TD. 3rd-and-3 in the 2nd, he’s off Delanie Walker, not exactly a burner, by 10 yards. Easy first down. 3rd-and-3 in OT after a shanked punt, the Rams can’t afford to give up anything, but Jenkins is off Randy Moss again by 10 yards. Easy. First. Down! This maddeningly went on all game. I doubt it’s Jenkins’ choice to play a mile off receivers, and really don’t understand the coaching staff’s insistence on it when they have one of the most talented secondaries the Rams have had in years. Jenkins more than made up for it, though, with big plays deserving of the game ball. In the 2nd, his lightning speed blitzing off the edge helped scare Kaepernick into the end zone and led to the Rams’ first score. Jenkins also scored the Rams’ only TD, his third in two weeks. The ***** ridiculously tried a risky pitch play near their own goal line. Quintin Mikell nearly intercepted the flip from Kaepernick and may have affected the toss, which flew over Ted Ginn’s head. Jenkins beat Ginn to the loose ball and popped up across the goal line for a lightning bolt tying score. Jenkins also made the tackle on Kaepernick’s 50-yard scramble at the end of regulation, which may have saved a TD. While Michael Crabtree, rarely if ever jammed at the line, pranced through the Ram defense for 7 catches and 101 yards, the Rams at least did have an answer for Vernon Davis, who had just 2 for 15. Mikell covered him perfectly on an attempted throwback TE screen in the 4th. Mikell made another red zone stop a couple of plays later, helping Cortland Finnegan shut Crabtree down on a dreaded slant to force the ***** to settle for a FG. So the Rams indeed know how to defend slant passes. Maybe Jenkins wasn’t getting the help he was supposed to. In any event, the difficulties with the slant didn’t stop Jenkins from being a big reason the Rams won the game. Interesting how the rookies suspended for the game in San Francisco came up so big this time.
* Special teams: As he was back in the Seattle game, Greg Zuerlein’s the star of this game as much as anybody. After missing a 57-yard attempt just right before halftime, he’d fallen into a rut where he’d missed 4 of his last 5 attempts. I think it’s safe to say his confidence was not shaken. He stepped up with two seconds left in regulation and stroked a 53-yarder dead between the pipes to send the game into OT, and with 30 seconds left in extra time, crushed a 54-yarder for the win, and that ball was still above the uprights when it crossed the crossbar. Amazingly clutch performance. He also eliminated Ted Ginn as a kickoff return factor by crushing deep kicks. While Zuerlein may be restoring his legend, Johnny Hekker’s become about as reliable as Apple Maps. He crushed a 63-yarder in the 2nd, and in the 4th, nailed one of the most perfect punts ever, a 55-yard blast that angled out of bounds inside the 1, a feat you couldn’t pull off with a remote-control football. But Hekker also flubbed a bunch of poor punts with little hang time, and in OT, did his damnedest to lose the game with a 14-yard shank, his second brutal shank against the ***** this year. What gives? Shanking punts is a known problem with Hekker going back to Oregon State, and he simply is not worth the risk if he can’t eliminate the problem. I’m sorry, but directional punting is not rocket science, brain surgery or translating Shakespeare into Klingon. Man up and get back to doing your job right.
* Strategery: A big key to the win was the Rams' willingness to blitz, which they did than any game this season, giving Kaepernick a bewildering variety of looks. Fun sequence after halftime: on 1st down, they rushed only the DEs, dropping both DTs into coverage. Next play, here come two LBs on the blitz. Gregg Williams was busy with Bountygate this week, but I wonder if he didn't have time to sneak a gameplan under the door at Rams Park. As I'm writing this, I'm also wondering if it wasn't the planned heavy blitzing that led the Rams to call so much soft pass coverage, though they weren't blitzing on all of those plays, and it doesn't make the mega-cushion coverage schemes of at least the past couple of weeks any less maddening.
Can't say I got all of Brian Schottenheimer's play calls, either. Bombs away on 3rd-and-1 right after the 49er TD? Did he think it was 2nd-and-1? The offense was so dysfunctional in the 1st half they couldn't even get a we-give-up draw play to work on 3rd-and-18. The Rams were 0-6 on 3rd down conversions until the screen to Jackson in the 3rd. The failed 4th-and-1 play in the 3rd looked busted. If Bradford's pass to the corner was his #1 option, I think it was a bad call. Then again, a lot of ***** followed Pettis back that way, leaving Gibson open at the goal line. Could easily have been a bad read by Bradford, too. In good news, the play-action seam pass to Kendricks worked like a charm again, and possibly for the first time EVER, the bootleg pass to the TE coming off the end of the line also worked, for 9 to Kendricks in the 2nd. Also liked the call on the 2-pointer, so maybe Schotty's really figured out how to use Kendricks best. The running game struggled; I think they needed to get a lead blocker out front of Jackson more often. They also appeared to have no plan for stopping Justin Smith, but if they were focusing on Aldon Smith instead, it worked, and they won, so I should probably shut up now.
Jeff Fisher wins the game management battle this week, especially because Jim Harbaugh made so many mistakes. The ***** mismanaged the clock at the end of regulation, calling clock-stopping plays that saved the Rams time and timeouts. Harbaugh deserved to have that pitchback play blow up in his face; too cute by half for that part of the field. Couple of interesting decisions. I would never have gone for it on 4th-and-1 in the 3rd. The Rams needed any kind of points too badly. If you're going to go for it there to show confidence in your offense, wouldn't you do it with a run? Similar conundrum at the end of OT. It's smart to let the clock run so the ***** don't have much time left to work with, but that's not necessarily showing confidence in Zuerlein, since the game ends anyway as long as he makes the FG. I say it was still the right move, but as a coach, I’d lose a team pretty quickly by not showing a lot of confidence in my players. Good for Jeff Fisher that he does.
* Upon further review: A day of controversial calls for Carl Cheffers and crew left nobody really happy with the officiating. I say the grounding call on Kaepernick for the safety in the 3rd was right; I didn’t think he left the tackle box. But Mike Pereira jumps onto the Fox broadcast and says the ball landed out of bounds beyond the LOS and that it wasn’t grounding. I say the late hit call on Bradford’s scramble on the 4th was right, because it was, well, a late hit. Cheffers called it for a helmet-to-helmet hit, which wasn’t even close. Then Fox jumps in and says it wasn’t even a late hit. The hell? And it’s not like the Rams were getting “home cooking”. Catches Quick and Pettis clearly made were taken away, they called Quinn offsides once when he didn’t even move, and just before that, a candidate for worst call of the season, flagging Quinn for roughing Kaepernick, when Kaepernick was bumped barely even slightly, and BY HIS OWN TEAMMATE. Quinn wasn’t within arm’s length of him! And with that call changing the game by handing the ***** a FG, Cheffers didn’t come within arm’s length of calling a good game. D
* Cheers: If there’s a better way to celebrate the Rams’ 75th anniversary than by beating the *****, I can’t think of one. The Rams marked the occasion at halftime by introducing former greats and alumni, including Rosey Grier, Jack Youngblood, Isaac Bruce, Eric Dickerson, Aeneas Williams, Jackie Slater, Tom Mack, Dennis Harrah, the Donut Brothers, Vince Ferragamo, Lawrence McCutcheon, Todd Lyght, Jeff Wilkins and many more. If you can’t get fired up with those guys around, you shouldn’t be playing football, or probably watching it, either. After Bruce, Youngblood probably got the loudest ovation. Bring back the throwbacks, too. The Rams are 2-0 in them this year. They’re also 1-0 when the video operator plays the clip of Bluto rallying the Deltas, and I think that was right before the ***** blew the pitch play in the 4th. Actually, somebody send the video operator a game ball. Hilariously, the big screen must have replayed the awful roughing call on Quinn twenty times, keeping the crowd riled up a long time. The V.O. must have been as P.O’ed at that call as everyone else. And after all those replays, they got a sideline shot of Fisher, and he started whipping up the crowd over the big screen. Now THAT is home field advantage.
* Who’s next?: Two proud franchises that have been out of the postseason far too long square off next week when the Rams, who haven't been to the playoffs since 2004, face the Buffalo Bills, whose dry spell dates all the way back to 1999. The last playoff game the Bills played in? The Music City Miracle. The Bills, who mercifully ended the Scott Linehan Era with a 31-14 win here in 2008, would rather see any other coach on the opposing sideline than Jeff Fisher, who's 7-1 lifetime against them. The Rams themselves haven't played in Buffalo since 1998. Greg Hill ran for 158 yards (and broke his leg), and Tony Banks rallied the Rams from behind for a wild 34-33 victory, one of their four wins that season.
Buffalo spent a lot of money this offseason on defense, and have the talent to give the Rams fits, especially seeing they use some of the amoeba defense Brian Schottenheimer couldn’t decode against the Jets even though he’d seen it every day for three years. They go hard after the QB, led by elite pass-rusher / mega-dollar free agent Mario Williams, who had 9 sacks after 11 games. All are quick off the ball, including tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Kyle is like a relentless Tasmanian devil; the Rams guards can’t relax on him. Buffalo’s not shy about moving Mario around or blitzing their corners. Safety Jairus Byrd is one of the league’s best ball-hawks. Rookie Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin give them a ton of speed at corner. The pieces should be there for a quality defense. Instead, the Bills D has been a major disappointment. They’re the worst red zone defense in the league. Opponents score 95% of the time, 75% of the time a TD. Buffalo’s one of the worst defenses at preventing points off turnovers. And through 11 games, they had only EIGHT three-and-outs. Mario Williams has been a disappointment while fighting through a wrist injury. 3.5 of his sacks came against the Colts’ shaky tackles. Dareus has only a sack and a handful of tackles this deep into the season. Nick Barnett has been far from the solution at LB Buffalo had hoped for. And an overpursuing d-line backed by a secondary that doesn’t appear to tackle very well? Not a good combination. The characteristics of the Bills defense tell me it’s not a very well-coached unit. This is a defense the Rams should move the ball on, especially if Danny Amendola is healthy to stress that secondary. Then again, I said many of these things right before the Jets game.
I don’t know who besides Steven Jackson would remember him, but this will be the first time for the Rams to face their former QB, Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Bills are a take-what-they-give-you passing attack. They’ve been working the TEs deep over the middle, but for the Rams, expect more of a screen-pass and quick-hitter attack, which promises to work like a charm if the Rams line up their DBs on the other side of Niagara Falls like they have been. And the Bills don’t really have any burners at WR. Stevie Johnson and Donald Jones are big and hard to take down, but neither shows special speed before or after the catch. They had trouble getting open against the Colts, though the young Rams DBs better watch out for double moves, which the Bills used on Indy’s young DBs. But Jones’ fake when he’s not breaking off a route is ridiculously exaggerated, an easy tell. And no matter if they’re getting the ball between the 20s, watch out for the TEs at the goal line, especially big Scott Chandler, but they all get in on the act. Fitz has never been the most accurate thrower, and his o-line doesn’t protect well. Their tackles have little answer for edge speed and their middle can be pushed around. It’s a good run-blocking line, though, with great weapons to block for. C.J. Spiller is the fastest RB the Rams face this year, a great cutback runner, deadly to lines that overpursue. And Spiller, who averages 6.5 yards a carry, isn’t just a track star (though he sucks at blitz pickup). He’s a patient runner, one of the league’s best after contact, which he has in common with backfield mate Fred Jackson. The Bills throw to Jackson more, but look for them to move both RBs all around, and spread out the field for the kind of screens and draw plays that have been killing the Rams lately. The Rams need a much better game out of Hekker, too. Kicking in Buffalo can be challenging just by itself, and he also has to keep the ball away from McKelvin, one of the league’s most dangerous returners.
After a monthlong slump, Jeff Fisher has righted the Rams’ ship, and he gets a shot now at showing his old Buffalo whipping boys what he failed to show the Jets a couple of weeks ago. The Rams are developing young talent and are a franchise moving in the right direction. To show they’re moving in that direction fast enough, they’ll need to go to Buffalo and play and coach a clean game.
Game stats from espn.com