RamView, 10/6/2013: Rams 34, Jagwires 20 (Long)
RamView, October 6, 2013
From Row HH
(Report and opinions on and from the game.)
Game #5: Rams 34, Jagwires 20
The Rams don't function like a well-oiled machine, but have more than enough power to accelerate past a poorly-driven Jagwire team hitting on no cylinders.
Position by position:
* QB: Sam Bradford's 19-34-222 game may not have lapped the field, but he came up strong in the red zone, threw for 3 TDs and for the first time in a couple of weeks, made some plays good enough to encourage "Nice throw, Sam!" calls from the stands or the couch. First, though, he had to withstand getting booed off the field a couple of times while falling a TD behind one of the worst teams in NFL history. Sam had it coming. Second possession, with Zac Stacy open underneath and Chris Givens breaking wide open downfield, Bradford takes a useless 1-yard flare to Lance Kendricks. Next trip, Bradford's sacked near his goal line and gets his 3rd-down pass tipped at the line. Oh Lord, been here, done this, are we really going to lose this game, too? Not once Bradford stepped up, figuratively and literally. A tight 3rd-down pass to Jared Cook kept a FG drive alive, with Bradford also hitting Brian Quick for 28. After a fumble recovery, it's a 1-play Rams scoring drive, with Bradford breaking the pocket and hitting Kendricks in stride for a 16-yard TD and the lead. Strong play by Sam at the end of the half put the Rams ahead 24-10. 13 to Chris Givens on a quick slant, then a very tough play, hitting Kendricks on a rollout for 16 more with a man in his face. (Nice throw, Sam!) He'd find Tavon Austin sitting down in the zone for 25 before hitting Austin Pettis with a well-timed, well-placed 5-yard TD pass. Bradford missed a couple of golden TD opportunities in the 3rd. Givens beat Will Blackmon by 5 yards on a deep route but Bradford underthrew by so much that Blackmon caught up for the pass breakup. A few plays later, Sam fires a quick screen instantly to Austin, completely missing out on Cook running a corner route to the end zone with no one covering him. No matter; the Rams got a FG out of that drive, and Bradford put the Jags away in the 4th by dropping a 31-yard pass in the bucket to Pettis for the clinching TD. If the last two weeks eroded Bradford's confidence, he got some of it back against Jacksonville. He was stronger in the pocket, stepped into his throws, played well on the move, took more opportunities downfield and fired fastballs for strikes when he had to. The last TD throw to Pettis was the same throw Bradford couldn't make to Quick against the *****. If Sam keeps hitting throws he's been missing, the Ram offense will be able to put the road to nowhere it's been on in the rearview mirror.
* RB: Not sure what took so long to dig him up off the bench, but the Rams may have found a starting-quality RB in rookie Zac Stacy (14-78). This week's starter, Stacy got blocking (and weak opposition) the other Ram RBs hadn't been blessed with, but unlike them, got the most out of his opportunities. He impressed with several 8- to 12-yard inside runs and his ability to get yards after contact. Some of Stacy's shorter runs were more impressive than his well-blocked longer runs because he showed an ability to break tackles the Rams have badly missed. In the 2nd, he was hit in the backfield but kept his balance by getting his hand on the ground and scuttled ahead for 3. In the 4th, he twisted through a tackle near the line to gain 6. Stacy also made very nice pickups in pass protection and has earned the expanded role. Daryl Richardson (13-48) kicked off a TD drive before halftime with a 13-yard sweep but was not in Stacy's league as a middle runner. He rushes things too much. He wants to hit the hole and go but doesn't read the play and just runs up people's backs. Benny Cunningham (4-13) closed it out with some impressively physical running after Stacy left due to injured ribs. For the first time this season, the Rams matched their goal of a physical running game with a back physical enough run it. Let's hope Zac Stacy develops into a lasting match.
* Receivers: Did the Rams try to give Austin Pettis' starting job to Brian Quick this week? Early on, I saw a whole lot of Quick and not much Pettis at all. Safe to say Pettis (4-49) erased any potential doubts, though, with a 2-TD performance. He was drafted to be a red zone presence, and his 4 TDs already this season say he's delivering. His first TD came on a little 5-yard square out the Jags didn't bother to cover, and his 2nd was an excellent over-the-shoulder catch on a 31-yard sideline route where he was blanketed, and likely interfered with, by Will Blackmon. Quick (2-45) plays with the eagerness of a kid whose dad just gave him the keys to the car, but was out of control this week to the point of clumsiness. His first catch should have been a TD after his defender fell down, but Quick then stumbled himself and lurched out of bounds with the sideline wide open in front of him. He did a good job coming back to a scrambling Bradford for a 17-yard sideline catch in the 3rd, but clumsy footwork cost him at least another 10 yards. All the passing offense this week seemed to come from the possession receivers instead of the speed guys. Lance Kendricks (4-47) put the Rams on top to stay in the 2nd with a 16-yard TD, outrunning the coverage on a shallow drag right and diving from the 5 to graze the pylon. I'd joke that he's taking Jared Cook's (3-26) starting job, but Cook did have a couple of clutch 3rd-down catches in traffic and drew a long interference penalty. Tavon Austin (3-32) needs to start catching the damn ball, dropping a couple more quick screens, but did have a 25-yard catch to help set up Pettis' first TD. Once again, the opponent has to be taken into account, but the receivers all got open better and stretched the field much better than the Rams had done in previous weeks. Cook and Chris Givens (2-16) just missed out on big TD plays. Maybe this week can be the start of something big?
* Offensive line: The Rams re-committed to the run this week, and since run-blocking is what offensive linemen like the most, line play got somewhat back on track. Scott Wells and Harvey Dahl both looked far better than they had in recent games. Wells cleared out the middle several times for long Stacy runs, and could even be seen getting out to the second level and trucking Paul Posluszny (who didn't get blocked often) on a 12-yard run by Stacy in the 4th. Dahl and Joseph Barksdale controlled the right side well in the running game and collapsed the Jags down well. Left guard returned to a Chris Williams/Shelley Smith timeshare, which Smith won this week with some mauling run blocks. He blew holes open on Stacy's 12-yard run and while pull-blocking on an 8-yard gain for Richardson in the 2nd. Kendricks and Harkey did some good work in the fullback role. I can only rank pass pro average at best. Bradford had to step up often and got sacked a couple of times. Kendricks looked bad on the backside while Senderrick Marks bulled past Barksdale for a sack late in the 1st, and Dahl and Jake Long both got trucked back and into Bradford for another drive-killer in the 3rd. There's work to be done here, but if the Rams weren't going to control the line of scrimmage this week, they were never going to again in their lives. The o-line needed its confidence rebuilt as much as any other part of the team, so getting to push the Jags around was a forward step.
* Defensive line: With Jacksonville trading Eugene Monroe during the week and losing Luke Joeckel in the 1st due to a broken ankle, the Ram front four probably should have been more dominant, but still showed well. Robert Quinn didn't get a sack but had a solid all-around game and was a key factor on one of the game's biggest plays. His backside attempt to hack the ball out of Blaine Gabbert's hand messed with the QB's grip on a pass he air-mailed to Matt Giordano for a pick-six that jolted the Rams out of an early rut. Quinn gave up a 20-yard run to Maurice Jones-Drew late in the 1st after losing the edge to a TE, but stopped a Gabbert scramble and stuffed a draw play to limit that drive to a FG. Even with that long run, this was Quinn's strongest game against the run this season. Chris Long sacked Gabbert and forced a fumble to kill a drive before halftime. Long excelled this week in backside pursuit, chasing MJD down for losses a couple of times and closing like lightning to stop a Chad Henne scramble and force a FG in the 3rd. That's one of the game's key hidden plays – Henne had acres of open field in front of him. Instead, Long helped the Rams maintain a two-score lead. The middle of the line had its strongest game of the season. Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford set the early tone by stuffing MJD. Jermelle Cudjo added a couple more. Brockers was also a thorn in Gabbert's side, flushing him into a poor incompletion to get a 3-and-out after the Jags had gone up 7-0, and sacking him late in the 1st. And for a change, the group did a good job tying up opposing blockers and allowing the Ram LBs to fire in. Given the opponent and their personnel situation at tackle, you would have hoped for 5 or 6 sacks instead of just 2. And the Jags ran well in the 2nd half. Quinn and Long wanted to pin their ears back and just go after Henne, but J'ville kept calling sweeps instead to keep them honest and keep themselves in the game. Quinn and Long adjusted, though, and after a couple of humiliating outings, this week, the Ram front four won in the trenches and played a key role in a win.
* LB: James Laurinaitis led the team with 8 tackles and had probably his strongest game of the season. He had solid run stuffs early up the middle and out on the edge. James may also have been the Rams' best cover man this week. Doesn't speak well for the secondary, but it's great for an MLB. Right after a blocked punt in the 3rd, Laurinaitis saved a TD by catching Clay Harbor and shoving him out of bounds inside the 5, and then kept the Jags off the board completely by picking Gabbert off in the end zone on 4th-and-goal. Back in the first half, James' tight coverage on Justin Blackmon forced a bad throw from Gabbert. Gabbert hit Harbor on the next play, but Alec Ogletree not only held Harbor to little gain, he held Harbor up long enough for Darian Stewart to steal the ball and set up a Rams TD. Quiet day otherwise for the Ram OLBs. Ogletree had a couple of whiffs trying to arm-tackle MJD; let me know when that ever works. Jo-Lonn Dunbar didn't really stand out in his first game back from league exile, though he had one of several nice blocks on Matt Giordano's pick-six. The idea of Dunbar sparking the defense with his return is kind of shot down by the amount of nickel the Rams play, which leaves Dunbar off the field the majority of the time. The big key for the LBs this week was that the guys up front got their jobs done.
* Secondary: The bad's pretty bad, so let's start with the good. The injury-riddled Ram secondary struck in the 1st when Matt Giordano fair-caught an woefully-overthrown Gabbert pass and returned it 82 yards for the first Ram TD. For once, the Rams D didn't fail to cash in a golden chance at a defensive score, as Giordano got good blocks from Dunbar, Darian Stewart, Rodney McLeod and Janoris Jenkins to get the score. Stewart set up the TD that put the Rams ahead 24-10 by stripping Clay Harbor of the ball and recovering it inside the 20. The Ram D has been missing that kind of opportunistic play this season. Beyond that, eeesh. With the Jags going no-huddle in the 1st, Stewart was late to line up on Justin Blackmon (5-136) in the slot, then made a move to cut off the already-covered outside receiver, leaving Blackmon free and clear for a 67-yard TD after eluding Giordano, who you can turn inside out pretty much just by winking at him. Janoris Jenkins should probably send Gabbert a Christmas card for throwing too poorly to take advantage of his game-long poor coverage. Cecil Shorts (5-74) burned Jenkins deep down the sideline twice, but Gabbert overthrew him badly once and hit Jenkins in the helmet another time. Chad Henne's first pass entering the game? Went right at Jenkins, who Blackmon turned inside out for a big gain. Trumaine Johnson also appears to have been mentored by Cortland Finnegan (out injured); Shorts beat him like a rented mule all day. 21 yards in the 1st with TruJo laying 10 yards off him on 3rd-and-5 to keep the first TD drive going. Open by 5 yards coming back to a scrambling Gabbert later in the 1st but the throw was awful. The Rams pinned the Jags at their 1 with a punt in the 2nd, but then Shorts immediately burns TruJo down the sideline for 28. Cecil finally beat him for a short(s) TD in the 4th. The Rams are definitely short in the secondary right now, with one admittedly woeful corner out, and Jeff Fisher trusting rookie Brandon McGee so little that he called a timeout in the 4th to get McLeod back in at nickel right after having to leave the field. (Not sure what that was. McLeod looked like he'd suddenly gotten sick or something.) They'd better scramble for some answers before this pass defense goes from just scary to truly appalling.
* Special teams: Despite strong performances so far by the kickers, Rams special teams are an unsightly mess. Fundamentals have completely broken down. Jacksonville had a punt return TD taken off the board on a play that Stedman Bailey overran by a country mile and Daren Bates and veteran Eugene Sims looked out of their lanes. The Rams committed SIX penalties on special teams alone. Remember Gene Gene the Dancing Machine from The Gong Show? Well, the Rams have Ray Ray the Penalty Machine, committing a costly penalty every week. Brandon McGee numb-headedly ran over Ace Sanders attempting to make a fair catch and appeared to quit on Sanders' called-back TD return. Tavon Austin actually started running north-south instead of east-west on punt returns, only to have several nice efforts, including a 49-yarder (holding, Bates), erased by penalties. Janoris Jenkins LINED UP OFFSIDE on a FG attempt AND an extra point. The capper came with the Rams punting early in the 3rd. They've got Austin on the field and lined up in the slot for God knows what reason, then do that STUPID thing they've been doing and putting Bailey the gunner into motion. The Jags are going to be confused out of their minds, right? No, but the Rams were, letting a guy run untouched right up the middle to block Johnny Hekker's punt. Where in coordinator John Fassel's mind is all this ridiculous motion a good idea? How about learning to walk before you run? Hell, how about learning how to walk and chew gum at the same time?
* Strategery: Credit to Jeff Fisher and even some to Brian Schottenheimer for getting a little spark into this team after a couple of flat outings. Fisher received healthy skepticism for his post-49er game declaration that the Rams needed to run more. Run-pass balance this week did turn out to be 50/50, but I think it was more important that Fisher set a physical tone for a team that was getting pushed around too much. Physical play got the team as far as it got last year and Fisher recognized the need to crank up that dial. Fisher made sure to set a more physical tone with the lineup by starting Stacy and getting many more snaps for Shelley Smith. Schottenheimer balanced the passing game much more like last season. Bradford wasn't left naked in the backfield a lot, and they took shots downfield without running so many plays where Bradford's left without a checkdown. I feel like Bradford was probably encouraged to throw deep more, and also to let his big receivers make plays. Cook was well-covered on a couple of his catches but won the battle. That's a throw Bradford hasn't been making. This game was also a (rare) triumph for (patting self on back) RamView scouting reports! The Rams attacked the Jagwire DBs physically, went to the TEs over the middle and killed them with play-action on Kendricks' TD and on a 3rd-and-1 flare route to Harkey that gained 17 and set up the Rams' last TD. Football 101, set up play-action by establishing the run.
Can we clean up the ridiculous and frustrating stuff now, though? SIX special teams penalties? Are you serious? And how many times are the Rams going to let plays run with the wrong defensive personnel on the field instead of calling timeout? TWO TDs could have been prevented this year with simple timeouts. It's puzzling enough that Laurinaitis doesn't see these problems developing as the signal-caller, but why the hell can't the Rams sideline get timeout called in these situations? Do they know they're allowed to? I'd certainly take a lost timeout over giving up a certain TD, how about everybody else?
* Upon further review: Pretty clean game for Tony Corrente and crew. The block in the back call that cost the Jags a punt return TD was huge, and mostly correct. It was actually for a peelback block. On Blackmon's TD, with the Rams still running people onto the field, I wonder if the play could have been held up since the defense is supposed to get a chance to line up. Corrente may have ruled that they did. The late hit call on Jason Babin was well-made; the whole stadium thought it was going on Jake Long for retaliation. For once, the referees got the first guy! On the Jags' first 4th-and-goal attempt after taking the FG off the board, offsetting PI's was an interesting, but just, call. At least unlike Dez Bryant a couple of weeks ago, they didn't let an opposing WR throw a Ram DB to the ground. Grade: B
* Cheers: A crowd in the mid 40's willing to risk missing the start of the Cardinals game was also willing to let both teams have it with both barrels. Though nothing like last Thursday night, crowd noise when the Jags had the ball was strong. All three Rams units found themselves getting booed off the field at various points of the first half. Boo also to the league, not for promoting breast cancer awareness, but for doing so with pink officials' flags indistinguishable from the players' pink towels, which also end up on the turf frequently at Rams games. Put a pink ribbon on the officials' hats and only ever use yellow flags for penalties.
* Who’s next?: If the Rams haven't exactly gotten off to a start befitting a playoff contender, next Sunday's opponent, the Houston Texans, are in a similar boat. A popular preseason Super Bowl pick, the Texans have also started 2-3 and could easily be 0-5. In the Rams' only visit to Reliant Stadium back in 2005, then-rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick led the Rams to an epic 33-27 overtime comeback.
Injuries, penalties and incredibly untimely turnovers have slowed the Texans so far this season, but this shapes up as an uphill battle all the way because so many of their strengths play directly against the Rams' weaknesses. Arian Foster started off slow thanks to a back injury that kept him down all offseason, but he cracked 100 yards against the Seahawks, runs well at home and may be rounding back into the form that made him the best all-around RB in the league. Houston loves to get him outside, where the Ram run defense has struggled all year, and even worse, their tight ends are a strong blocking group, which Rams DEs have been completely unable to answer. Led by two-time Pro Bowl center Chris Myers, they're also strong up the middle, which is where you'll find change-of-pace RB Ben Tate banging out almost 7 yards a carry, 4.5 ypc after contact. (The Rams currently average 3.0 ypc.) The Rams will struggle to contain this rushing attack, and then there's WR Andre Johnson, who burned the Rams for 196 four years ago and is no doubt eager to renew acquaintances with Cortland Finnegan. Finnegan's injury may spare Rams fans that matchup, but any Ram DB is going to have to be a lot sharper than he was this week to prevent Matt Schaub from feasting on crossing routes to Johnson underneath the zone. Johnson's on a 120-catch pace, but as fantasy football players know, doesn't get into the end zone much. Schaub loves to go to his TEs up the seam in scoring range; between that and all the underneath stuff Schaub's going to take, Laurinaitis is going to have to keep his head on a swivel. As the smell of burning jerseys in Houston attests, though, Schaub may actually be this offense's weak link. Any pressure on him at all is rewarded richly. He makes throws much too dumb for a nine-year veteran and has thrown a pick-six in FOUR consecutive games now. The Texans may be the only team that executes worse on rollout passes than the Rams. Schaub is not comfortable under pressure or on the move. Whether the Rams can create enough pressure will be the issue. Schaub's got Pro Bowl tackle Duane Brown back from a toe injury on his blind side, and they controlled the line of scrimmage pretty well against Seattle. Just slowing these guys down will be an accomplishment.
The matchup's even worse when the Rams have the ball, because it may feature the worst mismatch in the NFL in many years: Bradford and his frustrating tendency to get passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage vs. J.J. Watt, aka “J.J. Swat”, the best lineman in the league at knocking passes down. Bradford might as well not even try to throw Watt's direction or he'll get a half-dozen balls batted back at him. Watt's on a 14-sack pace this season despite the constant double-teaming he's earned after leading the NFL with 20.5 sacks last season. The Rams can't leave Barksdale across from Watt without help. Watt's the whole package as a pass rusher; he'll whip you with speed, or, he's an especially strong bull-rusher who'll just drive a lineman right over the QB. There's no shame in having to double-team Watt; Seattle had to. But it'll leave Whitney Mercilus much freer to rush Bradford than he was against Russell Wilson. Mercilus is such an athletic freak, the Texans actually used him to spy Wilson in their 23-20 OT loss. It will be critical for Jake Long to handle his lethal edge speed. Want some more good news? Houston's the #1 defense overall and against the pass after four weeks. Want some more? They favor a lot of man coverage and the Rams receivers are hardly known for their ability to win one-on-one battles. How about some more? Houston blitzes more than any team in the league. Good luck, Brian Schottenheimer. Bradford's best bet might be to go after safety Ed Reed; despite his status as a future Hall-of-Famer and a pick-six waiting to happen, he's also 35, banged-up and has lost a step. Houston's average-at-best against the run. Watt's great against the run, of course, but you can catch past Ram-killer Antonio Smith out of position with draws and traps. He's much more interested in rushing the passer. The paramount thing to do if you're going to try to run on Houston is get Brian Cushing blocked. Cushing is all over the place and is a big reason the Texans' defense is so good. Even with Schaub's numbskullery, the turning point of the Seattle game was when Cushing had to leave due to a concussion. Suddenly, magically, the Seahawks could run when they really hadn't all day. The Rams won't have a running game if they don't account for Cushing and they're going to have trouble moving the ball through the air. Other than that, piece of cake!
The momentum theory in sports is in for a good test next week. The Rams will be coming off a win, the Texans off three straight losses, including brutal beatings in Baltimore and San Francisco. Houston has unquestionably underachieved so far in 2013 even with all their talent. They haven't shown the killer instinct or closing kick a top contender should have. The Texans shouldn't be unfamiliar at all to the Ram coaching staff; Jeff Fisher's 8-4 lifetime against Gary Kubiak. We'll have to see if that's enough of an edge to pull off a pretty big road upset.