RamView, November 3, 2013
From Row HH
(Report and opinions on and from the game.)
Game 9: Titans 28, Rams 21
The St. Louis Rams – the Sisyphus of the NFL, if Sisyphus eternally rolled a boulder over his own foot. With multiple opportunities to put the clash with the Titans away, the Ram run defense regressed badly and the offense could summon no killer instinct, again leaving Rams fans to go home feeling like Prometheus.
* QB: Kellen Clemens (20-35-210, 84.2 PR
) gave the Rams what you hope to get from a backup QB. He managed the offense, put some drives together, and kept the Rams in the game. He kept the opening drive alive with his feet. He scrambled for 16 on one 3rd down and climbed the pocket to hit Brian Quick for 9 on another. Later seeing Jared Cook lined up on DT Jurrell Casey, Clemens exploited the mismatch for 18 before the drive was killed by a non-QB unforced error. He kept the offense in gear by completing his first 7 passes. He threw well off play-action all game and set up the Rams’ first TD getting the ball out quick to Lance Kendricks at the 20 and throwing a jump pass to Stedman Bailey (!) at the 5. The offense hit a major lull near halftime. Clemens threw 6 incompletes in a row. Gifted an interception in scoring range by Cortland Finnegan, various problems led to 4 straight misses – 3 by Clemens, one by Greg Zuerlein. No points and plenty of frustration at the Rams’ lack of killer instinct. Kellen got the offense back on track after halftime, with a 20-yard slant to Quick and a tough, against-the-grain square out to Chris Givens for 15, setting up a TD to put the Rams up 14-7. After a too-easy Titan rally, Clemens engineered a 4th-quarter scoring drive to re-tie the game at 21, capped by a 10-yard fastball to Jared Cook in a crowd at the goal line. Gifted the ball back with 4:44 to play, Clemens had his chance to put Tennessee away, but protection breakdowns and bad ball security led to a critical sack/fumble instead. Tennessee took a lead Clemens couldn’t make up despite a decent rally in the last 2:00. Similar story as last week for the Rams. Clemens didn’t set the world on fire but did enough to win the game had there not been line problems in the clutch and some receiver miscues. And it’s again a game where Clemens was not good enough to make the big play to overcome those issues, where Sam Bradford probably is. Clemens rushed to throw to his first read a lot with other options open, missing a lot of opportunities. His deep throwing accuracy is also a significant issue. He overthrew a fly route to Tavon Austin, who burned Jason McCourty out of the slot for what should have been a TD. Needing a TD from the 26 to tie, neither of Clemens’ throws was great. Pettis looked open for a back-shoulder throw on 4th-and-goal, but Clemens threw too far out of bounds. Kellen Clemens meets expectations for the Rams, but they’re the lowered expectations of a limited veteran backup. He’s a gamer who’s just good enough to make you feel bad you lost. Even with his positive attributes, going into 2014, the Rams probably need to risk a lower floor at backup QB, because Clemens’ ceiling isn’t high enough.
* RB: The Rams’ best option against the wrath of the Titans was to release the Zacken. Zac Stacy pounded out 127 yards on a very physical 27 carries. Even when he gained just 2 or 3, which was a lot of times this week, he made defenders pay. There is much more to Stacy’s game than 3-yard car wrecks, though. He was also the Rams’ leading receiver (6-51), starting his own TD drive in the 1st with a 12-yard catch out of the flat, and finished it by crashing off MLB Colin McCarthy for a 5-yard TD, the Rams’ FIRST rushing TD of the season. In the 3rd, he kept a drive alive by catching a slant for 12 on 3rd-and-5, and finished it off with the Rams’ 2nd rushing TD, banging out two 9-yard power runs behind strong blocking from Lance Kendricks and many others. Stacy had one of the runs of the year in the 4th to set up a tying TD. He hit the hole hard off Jake Long’s block, spun off one defender, got sweet blocks from Tavon Austin and Chris Williams, cut right, bounced hard off another defender, regained his momentum, ran through a McCourty ankle tackle and hit the right sideline with an escort from a hustling Jared Cook for the last 5 yards of a 32-yard gain, enhanced another 15 yards by a penalty. From some of the other names involved in that play, you can see how Stacy’s work ethic fires up the whole offense. He’s smart, too. He adjusted to make a play on a tipped pass in the 4th, and with the Rams driving to try to re-tie the game in the final 2:00, got out of bounds on both his receptions. The main problem is that Stacy can’t be on the field every play. Spelling him in the 1st, Benny Cunningham committed one of the game’s crucial errors. He burst through a big hole on a red-zone carry and looked certain to get inside the 10, but let the ball fly out of his hand, without being touched by anyone, for a soul-crushing turnover. That was Cunningham’s carry because Daryl Richardson was out with a foot injury and Isaiah Pead (0-0) was only active enough to tie up a roster spot. For Stacy, this week was another Herculean effort gone to waste, and in a cold tub somewhere, Steven Jackson is nodding and saying, “Get used to it, kid.”
* Receivers: Several of the Ram receivers “had moments” this week, and actually appeared to know what they were doing, but there’s still no consistent threat to put the fear of Zeus in a defense. Jared Cook (3-36) showed some toughness blocking and receiving, and some red zone ability with an 18-yard catch early and a tough TD catch to beat two Titan LBs late in the game. But right before halftime, when the Rams had a chance to take a lead, he dropped a pass to kill a drive and ran a lazy comeback route that was broken up easily right before Zuerlein’s FG miss. He also doesn’t move well to help Clemens under pressure, or is at least really slow to react, which is bad when Clemens needs him as a reliable release valve. Brian Quick (2-30) converted an early 3rd down with a tough catch over the middle and made a nice overhead grab for 20 to help set up the Rams’ 2nd TD. Chris Givens (4-55) had a couple of catches to extend that drive and a late 25-yarder sitting down in soft zone. For the 2nd straight week, the Rams went in the clutch to a receiver they barely went to all game, this time Austin Pettis (1-13), who I do think could have made a play on a better throw on 4th down or had he not been interfered with on 3rd down. The Rams got only 1 catch for 12 yards out of West Virginia rookie.. Stedman Bailey, who helped set up the first TD with a nice second effort. First round pick Tavon Austin (0-0) had little offensive impact; did all the draft enthusiasts mistake speed for quickness? It does not help when referees allow DBs to grab him downfield; he had at least one deep route thwarted that way and Clemens had to look elsewhere. But Austin’s rookie struggles may be the biggest disappointment of the Rams’ season, at least on offense. The receivers improved over last week without him, but it’s an improvement only from dreadful to pedestrian. It doesn’t take an oracle to see much more is needed here.
* Offensive line: The offensive line run-blocked nearly as well as last week, but when the Rams had chances to gain a decisive edge they too often got a breakdown up front instead. Run blocking went a lot better than pass protection. Clemens was sacked only twice, both times by Jurrell Casey, but was under major heat most dropbacks even though the Titans did not blitz often. Casey got an early sack on a blown rollout play; he didn’t bite on play-action and got to Clemens before Scott Wells could catch him. Casey’s a promising young player, but the Rams couldn’t handle ham-and-eggers like Sammie Lee Hill or Kamerion Wimbley well, either. After the Finnegan INT gave the Rams a golden opportunity to score before halftime, Clemens has to throw a pass away because Long can’t handle Wimbley. The Rams did their best work on the ground. Long, Chris Williams and Kendricks formed a shield wall to get an early 10 for Stacy. Shelley Smith made an Olympic-sized hole for Cunningham’s fumble run. They wiped out the Titan d-line on Stacy’s first TD run like Ajax mowing down Trojan soldiers. In the 3rd, Williams and Cunningham got Clemens time to hit Quick deep and the line again mowed a path for Stacy. On the 2nd TD run, Smith and Corey Harkey pulled left, Long down-blocked like a Minotaur, all a sight to behold as Stacy scored easily. But as good as the guys were at times, they made too many mistakes with the game on the line. After Tennessee tied the game at 14, the Rams feebly 3-and-outed. Williams false-started, Smith got beat to force a throwaway, Long got beat to force another. Still tied with 4:44 to play, and a good drive will win the game, but Williams commits a tripping penalty to put the Rams in a hole. With a dreaded empty backfield on 3rd down, Smith misses his block on Casey, Clemens can’t escape or hold on to the ball, and Derrick Morgan recovers to all-but hand the Titans the win. Run-blocking has been excellent, but the Ram line absolutely has to clean up its mistakes and pass protection, and know that they have to step up in the clutch, too, for the Rams to re-enter the win column any time soon.
* Defensive line: After having the Midas touch against Seattle, the Ram defense played more like the floor of the Augean Stables a mere 6 days later. The Rams deferred after winning the coin toss, intending to set the tone on defense. Their start was brutally tone-deaf. Chris Johnson cruised outside for 23 on the game’s very first play as Chris Long got pinned inside by the TE. Across midfield instantly, and aided on that side by three defensive penalties, Tennessee took barely 3:00 to take the lead. The front four woke up a little after that. Long and Robert Quinn collapsed the pocket on Jake Locker to get James Laurinaitis a sack to end the next drive. William Hayes helped shut down a promising Titan drive in the 2nd with a one-handed takedown of Locker for the Rams’ 2nd sack. Kendall Langford came up big before halftime. He finished a drive by taking Johnson down from behind on an attempted sweep on 2nd down and finishing off Locker for the Rams’ third sack after Quinn whipped Brian Schwenke on a rush from LDT. That wasn’t even Langford’s only sack of the half; Long flushed Locker into him for another on the very last play. Four sacks by halftime and only 7 points allowed, what am I complaining about? The Rams even took a 14-7 lead right after halftime. So, step right on their throats, right? No, let them coast easily to another quick TD. Quinn got buried on a Johnson run at him for 9. They get beat by a fullback screen for 23 on 3rd-and-1. Johnson then scores another much-too-easy 14-yard TD as the Ram line gets collapsed, LBs run into one another and he runs through Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson at the goal line. Clutch work, guys. The CJ2K reunion tour continued in the 4th with a 24-yard run around Long, who appeared very much to get held, setting up an easy QB draw TD for Locker against an unbelievably dumb formation. With the Rams needing a big play after Clemens’ fumble late in the game, the D instead gave them nothing, letting Johnson score another easy TD in just one play. Long got pathetically manhandled by a TE again and got no LB help. Johnson, who ran for 150, or 40 more yards than his last three games combined, even added an 18-yard run for good measure to milk a minute off the clock, Quinn getting buried again this time. How do you give up 196 rushing yards less than a week after you allowed only 30 to a much better rushing offense? Getting pinned inside much too often by non-linemen, Quinn (3) and Long (1) combined for fewer tackles Sunday than they had sacks (6) on Monday. Langford ends up on the ground too often, but at least he showed up. I’m not even sure what Michael Brockers did. A week after living up to their preseason hype for the first time, the Rams rocketed right back out of hype-rspace and crashed back to earth.
* LB: And now a tour of the Rams’ bad defensive play again from a little farther back. Alec Ogletree got mauled by fullback Colin Mooney and James Laurinaitis was also blocked well out of the first play of the game. Not much later, Darian Stewart, apparently surprised at the idea that Johnson might be fast, took him down with a horse-collar tackle after letting him speed around him despite good position on the edge. Laurinaitis did collapse the center on a blitz and sacked Locker with a takedown he might have learned from his father in the 2nd. “Safety” Stewart continued an afternoon of blowing assignments later, mistakenly following a fullback in motion, confusing Ogletree and allowing Greene to go by both of them for 28 on a screen pass on 3rd-and-1. Stewart also ran like Atlas with the world on his back while failing to catch Greene on the play. LBs figured too conspicuously in the Rams’ failure to hold a 14-7 lead in the 3rd. Laurinaitis gave up 9 by taking on a blocker instead of filling a gap. Jo-Lonn Dunbar, at least a step slow all day, got cleared out to free Mooney for another big 3rd-down screen. Johnson’s first TD came with Stewart and Laurinaitis running into one another and neither one of them getting out to cut Johnson off. It’s week 9. Shouldn’t Darian Stewart know where the heck to be on defense by now? Johnson got in two more big runs with Ogletree getting wiped out by Mooney or a TE and Dunbar looking stuck in mud. Laurinaitis did have 9 tackles. Ogletree looked great in pass coverage. Not too many humans, let alone LBs, are fast enough to track down Kendall Wright to prevent a 1st down or stop Chris Johnson out on the edge on a screen, but Ogletree did both those things. He was too helpless, though, on power runs. Screwups on the edge or filling gaps, along with the DEs getting washed inside, left way too many gaping running lanes. Again. It’s LBs, it’s safeties, it’s veterans, it’s rookies, they’re getting beaten physically, they’re getting beaten mentally, it’s a Pandora's box.
* Secondary: Tennessee’s passing game does not stretch the field much, and Jake Locker was pretty bad, 13-22-185 with two bad INTs. Cortland Finnegan baited him for one right before halftime, faking a blitz and dropping back right to where he knew Locker would throw. The secondary played as bad as Locker’s numbers other times, getting beaten by far from the Titans’ best options. Justin Hunter, with all of four catches all season, had two key catches on scoring drives. He beat Trumaine Johnson on a simple slant on 3rd-and-5 to keep the 1st TD drive going, and converted on 3rd-and-1 on their TD drive in the 4th with no one really covering him. Finnegan was five yards off. That’s OK, press coverage didn’t work that drive, either. Tight on Damian Williams on 3rd-and-5, Janoris Jenkins got burned for 20, getting so turned around by Tennessee’s fifth-best WR that he was actually back-to-back with the former Trojan on his break. Finnegan played with the cunning of Hermes but most certainly not the speed, which he needed to keep up with Kendall Wright. Wright smoked him for 18 on the Titans’ 2nd TD drive; Finnegan couldn’t cut him off even with a 10-yard cushion. Finnegan bit like Cerberus on play-action in the 4th and Wright burned him for 45 on another slant, but the Rams were spared by Rodney McLeod’s INT a couple of plays later, as Locker’s intended receiver broke one way and he threw the other. The secondary didn’t play at a high level. They can get away with that against Tennessee. I’m not as sure about the rest of the schedule.
* Special teams: Wonderful, a new streak for Greg Zuerlein – two straight games with missed FGs. With a chance to give the Rams a speck of momentum heading into halftime, his 44-yard attempt was to the right from the get-go instead. Zuerlein appears to kick a pretty straight ball; what happened to kicking at the middle of the uprights? His last two misses both look like they’re going where he’s aiming them. Kick coverage wasn’t too sparkling, either; they let an up-man return one line drive across the 30 and let Damian Williams out across the 30 another time despite a perfect deep directional kick, with Cody Davis making a spectacular whiff. The good news is that after eight weeks, Tavon Austin has finally started running forward with punt returns, to everyone’s benefit. He didn’t do it his first try, running backwards and losing 5, but he ran forward for a nice 15 in the 2nd, and with the Titans foolishly punting to him with about 1:00 left, ran forward, hit a seam and got up the sideline for 24, barely stepping out of bounds. Let’s hope this is the week that sparks Austin to the kind of return success we’ve all waited for.
* Strategery: The Ram coaching staff was outmaneuvered by the Titans at key moments on both sides of the ball and was as guilty of failing in the clutch as any player. Tim Walton (and Finnegan) got the Rams a turnover before halftime with a sweet fake blitz. The 2nd Titan TD, though, was set up by a screen to fullback Mooney to beat a 2nd-and-9 blitz for 23 yards. On the other side of the ball, Brian Schottenheimer was able to create big mismatches for his TEs with Tennessee blitzing, and had successful plays with empty backfields. He picked a bad time for one late in the game, though. 3rd-and-7 from his own 24 with about 3:00 left, he empties the backfield, and the Titans, who surprisingly didn’t really blitz much, pull the trigger and get to Clemens for the game-winning sack/fumble. Walton wins the award for worst call of the day, also picking a bad time to do it. 3rd-and-goal from the 5 in the 4th, the Rams completely sell out against the pass. They put 2 linemen wide-9 over each tackle, and when Laurinaitis follows the TE in motion, the middle of the field is completely empty, so of course that’s where Locker runs for an easy TD you or I could have scored. That is an inexplicable formation down at the goal line.
You want to know what really annoys me? After losing Super Bowl XXXIV to the Rams, EVERY time Jeff Fisher went up against them he treated the game like the Lombardi Trophy was still on the line. He blitzed every play of a preseason game before it was common. He pulled out a couple of fake punts here in the Dome. Four years ago he’s frantically throwing deep passes, leaving Chris Johnson in late in the game, and going for it on 4th-and-goal while up 33-7 against a Rams team with more injured QBs than wins. Did the Rams, or especially Fisher, ever look like they wanted it that bad this week? Not that they slacked off, and I don’t doubt Tennessee’s extra week of rest was a factor. Fisher was quick to blame that in his postgame interview, and the way the NFL scheduled this game was B.S. But part of the reason the Rams are supposed to be better is their veteran coaching staff and their ability to outscheme and outmotivate. Losing may be blinding me, and Fisher and company surely did pick the team up off the ground last year, but right now, I’m just not seeing it. A talented defense has regressed badly and the offensive attack is almost as creative as the one the Space Invaders aliens use. This Rams team is starting to remind me a lot of the 1998 version, and will probably finish about as poorly. I know the next season back then was 1999, but the 2013 team seems much likelier to stay the course vs. making some of the big offseason moves the ’98-99 team did. Fisher is capable of making that work, but this loss didn’t help his confidence rating any.
* Upon further review: I usually like referee Peter Morelli. Not this week. First series, Clemens scrambles, slides, gets hit late, elbowed in the head, by Bernard Pollard, who’s just a little notorious for that kind of thing… no call. The Titans got away with holding all day on offense and defense. Quinn gets grabbed and flung to the ground, no call. On the Johnson run that set up Locker’s TD, Chris Long gets held out on the edge in plain view, no call. Austin gets grabbed downfield by McCourty so he can’t get away on a deep route, no call. 3rd-and-goal, end of the game, Pettis gets wiped out trying to get to a ball at the goal line, and the call is that contact was incidental, a 50-50 call at the very best. Yet, once again, home cooking from referees never seems to apply when the Rams are the home team. I won’t fail them only because they got a couple of horse-collar calls right and (eventually) got the call when Brandon McGee was blocked in the back toward the punt returner, who he creamed, in the 4th. Grade: D
* Cheers: Even without a stupid World Series game at the same time down the street, the Rams still only drew about a 2/3-full Dome, and with a lot of fans making the odyssey from down south. I must have been passed by 100 cars with Tennessee plates on the way home. I think they all had tickets at the 50 behind the visitors’ bench, too. Way to support your team, PSL holders! Question for everyone: Rams vs. Titans, Fisher’s team down by 7, with the ball for one final play – sound familiar? Was anyone else looking for a slant pass to the slot receiver?
* Who’s next? The infrequent series between franchises that were once traded for one another will renew in Indianapolis Sunday when the Rams visit the AFC South-leading Colts. The Rams haven't won in Indy since moving to St. Louis, but they've only gotten two tries, giving up huge games to RBs both times. Edgerrin James had 143 yards and 3 TDs in a 45-28 Colts win in 2005. That was an improvement, though, over 1995, when they got electrified for 177 yards and 3 TDs by... Marshall Faulk.
Nobody's probably happier to see the Rams "run defense" roll into town than Trent Richardson, who has yet to rush for more than 60 yards in a game all year, for the Colts or the Browns, who may have actually known what they were doing when they surprised the NFL and traded him in September. (Watch him gain 60 on just the Colts' first possession Sunday.) Richardson runs these days like he's thinking too much. Up until the Rams hit Lucas Oil Stadium, his line hasn't gotten him a lot of good running lanes and he hasn't read the field well when opportunities are there. The Colts' best runner has actually been Donald Brown, who pulls down over 6 yards a carry as the change-of-pace back. In Richardson's defense, the line that sank the Colts in the playoffs last year doesn't look a whole lot better. LT Anthony Costanzo struggles mightily with speed and is going to need constant help against Robert Quinn. Mike McGlynn and Illini rookie Hugh Thornton are pretty big dropoffs at guard from what the Rams faced against Tennessee. It's not the kind of offensive line that's going to take over a game, but it doesn't have to be, with Andrew Luck at QB. The first pick of the 2012 draft is already one of the NFL's smartest players; you just don't see the screw-ups young QBs typically make with him. Luck is just as gifted physically, with an impressive arm, good touch, and with his mobility, he keeps plays alive as well as anybody in the NFL. He often has to because someone up front got beat, but the Rams are going to have to consider defending Luck like they would Russell Wilson. The line has to keep him in the pocket and the secondary has to make sure to cover all the way to the whistle. It's still TBD how much Luck is going to miss future Hall-of-Fame WR Reggie Wayne, who went down with a torn ACL the same day as Sam Bradford. The Ram secondary definitely has to respect the deep speed of T.Y. Hilton and Darius Heyward-Bey, though suggestions that DHB become Luck's go-to guy sound laughable at best. The safeties had better figure out deep assignments and the secondary would do best to key on Hilton. Indy uses more no-huddle offense than most Ram opponents, and the Rams did not look good against that in Denver back in preseason. The Colts also have a lot of speed at the returner positions, and bring everything out. Fair warning.
With Kellen Clemens' proclivity for committing turnovers, the last thing you want to hear is that the Rams are going up against the reigning NFL king of the sack/fumble, but with around 40 of those for his career, and 11.5 sacks already this season, Robert Mathis continues to be the man to watch on the Colt defense. His matchup against Jake Long should be main event quality and is likely to determine the outcome of the game. The good news is that Mathis is over half of Indy's sack production. If they have to, the Rams can afford to double-team him and take their chances with Erik Walden on the other side. Walden's inconsistency got him run out of Green Bay, but he can make the Rams' right tackles pay if they can't get their hands on him. The Rams face another of the league's underrated defensive players this week in ILB Jerrell Freeman. Indy's leading tackler, he has great quickness and timing and – get this – fills gaps well. The Ram offense and defense should probably both get a good look at Freeman's tape. Indy has one of the league's best 3rd-down defenses, and corner Vontae Davis looks at the top of his game right now. The good news for Chris Givens, though, is that he should get some cracks at Greg Toler, who he tormented last year when the Rams played Arizona. Clemens can potentially also pick on safety Antoine Bethea but will have to get time in the pocket and downfield receiving threats that haven't materialized for him yet as a starter.
The Colts certainly have mastered the art of the turnaround. They went from 3-13 Peyton Manning's rookie year to a consistent Super Bowl contender for more than a decade. When Manning's neck injury dropped them down to 2-14 two years ago, they lucked into Andrew and have almost instantly rejoined the short list of regular NFL playoff contenders. The Rams, meanwhile, have been attempting to turn themselves around since about 2002. The Colts may be lucky, Lucky, or both. If they can't beat them next Sunday, it would behoove the Rams to at least figure out what the guys a few hours up I-70 are doing right.