RamView, November 10, 2013
From the Couch
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Game 10: Rams 38, Colts 8
Tavon Austin arrives in a big way, turning Indianapolis into his own personal race track with 310 total yards and 3 TDs, leading the Rams to a shockingly convincing win over the division-leading Colts.
* Special teams: Punt returns and kickoff coverage were decisive factors this week. Finally heading upfield on punt returns decisively, this week, Tavon Austin got excellent blocking, and everything came together. Austin set up a near-TD drive and a TD drive with long returns. He brought the first punt he returned back 29 yards, getting a key block from Cody Davis and bouncing off a tackle. Austin nearly got wiped out by Sergio Brown on his next return, but with Stedman Bailey urging him to follow, swept left across the field and got 18 yards behind Bailey and a big block by Daren Bates. That was just the first quarter. In the 2nd, Austin delivered the excitement Rams fans have been waiting for. It looks like Pat McAfee's coffin-corner kick is going to be downed at the 2, but Austin grabs it on a bounce, gets a lead block from Isaiah Pead and a big backside block from Mike McNeill. And away he goes. He tightropes the sideline and jumps away from a diving LB. After he clears Chase Reynolds sealing off the sideline at the 25, it's free sailing past McAfee and behind the lead convoy, a 98-yard TD in a heartbeat. Yet Ram kick coverage was almost as important. The Colts are aggressive about returning from deep in their end zone, and the Rams answered just as aggressively. They gave the Colts poor field position most of the game, stopping four returns inside the 20, two of those inside the 10. Bailey (!) put a massive shot on David Reid to stop him at the 7 after the Rams' first TD. Rodney McLeod blew up another at the 7 where Reid appeared to walk out of the end zone. Davis flipped Reid head over horseshoes at the 12 in the 2nd and stuffed him again at the 13 in the 3rd. The Rams so dominated on kick returns, and Reid was so foolish bringing kicks out, that he drew mock applause from the home crowd the rare times he had the sense to kneel with the ball. The Rams' special teams domination was made complete with the announcement that Adam Vinatieri, bringer of so much misery to Rams Nation, had his 146-game streak of consecutive games with a score snapped. Hard to top the Rams' complete special teams victory this week.
* Receivers: Austin was hardly done after his punt return TD. The next time the Rams got the ball, in fact, he hit Vontae Davis with a dose of his 4.4 speed, and with a trailing Davis running like Fred Sanford, ran under Kellen Clemens' long bomb for a 58-yard TD, the Rams' fourth of the first half. Austin (2-138) opened the 2nd half with another 3rd-down lightning strike. He motioned right, ran a drag route across the formation, lost Davis by 5 yards when he couldn't clear the rub route, and turned a 5-yard pass from Clemens into an 81-yard TD, taking off after the catch and making the Colts look like they were standing still. An incredible day for Austin, who made team and NFL history with the three long plays. It's hard to know how much he opened up the passing game, though; he had over half the total receiving yards. Chris Givens (2-54) looked lost on an end zone fade pass in the 1st but set up a TD in the 2nd by losing Cassius Vaughn with Clemens scrambling for a 32-yard catch-and-run inside the 5. No other receiver did much. Bailey, Brian Quick and Austin Pettis weren't targeted. Quick's main contribution was a massive, illegal but not called pick on Givens' first catch. Jared Cook (1-18) set up the Rams' FG with a diving catch but added a sloppy drop. With a commanding lead almost from the opening coin toss, the Rams did not have to pass much this week. When they do have to, Austin earning his bona fides as a scoring threat from anywhere should help.
* QB: Kellen Clemens may only have completed nine passes (9-16-247, 2 TD, 140.6 PR
), but it sure looks like he’s getting better every week and settling into the starting role. The most important part of the game for Clemens is to avoid game-changing mistakes, which he mostly did. This week’s hidden plays were both times Clemens was sacked by Robert Mathis, because he was hit hard from the blindside both times without committing a momentum-sucking turnover. He did commit one in the 1st, bungling a handoff to Zac Stacy at the 5-yard line, but with a 7-0 lead already, the Rams weathered that. Clemens again made some excellent plays on the move. In the 2nd, he rolled right out of trouble and hit Chris Givens downfield for 32 inside the 5 to set up the Rams’ 2nd TD. Clemens also threw two TD passes. In the 3rd, he made another fine play on the move, stepping up from an imminent sack by Mathis and hitting Austin wide open on a drag route with a 5-yard pass Austin turned into an 81-yard TD. Given his previous troubles with deep accuracy and finding Austin for big plays, Clemens’ first TD pass was heartening, a high, arcing ball (arc he didn’t have on the throw to Austin he missed against the Titans) that the wide-open Austin ran under for a 57-yard TD. With so many other things going right all around him, Kellen Clemens didn’t have to be at his best for the Rams to win this week. If he maintains this level of play, though, they’ll be in better business than it looked like they would be after Sam Bradford got hurt.
* RB: Wrecking ball Zac Stacy got the most swings (26-62) at the Colt defense but Benny Cunningham (7-72) did the most damage. Stacy didn't really have a highlight run, just a lot of smashes into the line where he got as far as the surge of his line would take him. He did bounce off Pat Angerer for 8 yards in the 2nd, showed some ability to dodge traffic and showed some of his already-established ability to move the pile. His key run was a 2-yard TD run in the 1st, with a lead block from Cory Harkey and crashing off two Colts at the goal line. With the Rams protecting a big lead in the 2nd half, Stacy got a lot of carries, which the Colts expected, and he didn't get very far. That honor went to Cunningham, who exploded through a big hole for 55 right at the end of the game. Benny also beat a 3rd-and-15 blitz in the 1st by taking off with a screen pass for 18, and looked like the Rams' most explosive back in the process. Stacy's value is in getting tough yards and punishing defenses. It will be interesting to see how much Cunningham cuts into Daryl Richardson's carries as the change-of-pace back when D-Rich returns.
* Offensive line: The defensive line delivered a big play right off the bat and… oops, they’re offsides here, too. The star of the game on the offensive line was that new guard. Sifford? Scaffold? Where did they find him? Rodger Saffold barely gave an indication he was playing LG for the first time in the pros. He opened the Rams’ 2nd drive with a pancake block that sprang Stacy for 5, got pretty good push at times and did a nice job sealing off interior running lanes. Natural for a converted tackle to make those kind of plays on the move. Saffold struggled a bit more at the “phone booth” type stuff. Stacy’s numbers show the whole line’s inconsistency getting push. Saffold’s best play, though, came after he missed a block in the 2nd. He reacted too slowly to pick up a stunt at the line, but, with a tackle’s quickness, made a diving block on the same man, keeping Clemens’ backside clean to scramble and set up the Rams’ 2nd TD with a 32-yard pass to Givens. Saffold’s performance may not make it so easy to let him leave as a free agent after the season any more. Jake Long, Chris Williams and Scott Wells all again did some strong run-blocking on the left side. Williams had key blocks on Cunningham’s 18-yard screen in the 1st and the 8-yard run right after it. Wells’ pancake block sprang Stacy for 8 right before the TD bomb to Austin in the 2nd. It all came together with the Rams pounding the Colts into glue at the end of the game. Out of a jumbo set, Long and Shelley Smith walled off the left side and Saffold walled off the right with an awesome pull block, launching Cunningham for a 55-yard blast. Joseph Barksdale didn’t show much problem slowing Eric Walden, but pass protection was still a problem overall because Robert Mathis tended to make Long look like a little girl, bull-rushing him but good for Indy’s first sack of Clemens and whipping Cory Harkey right off the snap for a similar sack the very next time the Rams had the ball. Harkey did have a big block on Stacy’s TD run, but whose brilliant idea was it to put him man-up on Mathis? The Rams mainly took Mathis out of the game by taking a big lead and using a Ground Chuck-like 68% run-pass ratio. Not a dominant performance up front but good enough to get the job done.
* Defensive line: The defensive line that dominated Seattle but barely showed up against Tennessee must have left St. Louis a week early. They were back for Indianapolis in a big way. Unlike last week’s CJ2K disaster, they shut down the run right from the start. Kendall Langford, who is on a roll lately, shed Samson Satele with ease and stuffed Trent Richardson for an early 3-yard loss. Later in the 1st, he did it again, crashing through a double-team like the Hulk and smashing Richardson (5 carries, 2 yards) for another big loss. The Colts couldn’t move Langford and quickly had to abandon the run thanks to the Rams jumping out front big, sparked by a defensive TD. Doing his best Robert Mathis impression, Robert Quinn, not slowed by a weak chip from the TE, whipped Anthony Costanzo, who looked like he was frozen, sacked Andrew Luck and also got the strip. And lo and behold, a fumble actually bounced right for the Rams for once, right into Chris Long’s hands, and he sprinted off 45 yards for the game’s opening TD. THAT is how you set a tone for a game, btw. The Rams pressured Luck on almost every play and had him completely out of sorts. After nearly sacking Luck and nearly getting him to throw an INT to Jermelle Cudjo in the 3rd, 2 plays later, Quinn struck again, beating rookie Hugh Thornton on a stunt when Thornton couldn’t shed Michael Brockers. That’s -12- sacks for Quinn already this season. He has already passed his career high and is 2nd in the league (behind Mathis). As if to show they’d earned their right to total domination, the Rams made a goal-line stand in the 4th quarter. With help from perfect pass coverage by Alec Ogletree, Long sacked Luck on 1st-and-goal and flushed him again on 2nd-and-goal. On 4th down, Eugene Sims flushed Luck, who was unable to dive past Quinn and Laurinaitis for the goal line. The only blemish on the Rams’ performance was a RIDICULOUS number of offsides penalties – six in all, five accepted. Two apiece by Langford and Quinn, and at least two of them caused by hard counts from a QB who’s been in the league a year and a half. Hard to argue with the results, though. Now, this defense needs to establish some week-to-week consistency. I, for one, prefer steam rollers to roller coasters.
* LB: Rams linebackers used to be dreadful in pass coverage but are good enough at it lately to be taken for granted. James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree each forced Luck to throw away passes in the first half because they had blanket coverage on TE Coby Fleener. When the Rams made their goal-line stand in the 4th, Ogletree did not bite on play-action and had Fleener draped again in the end zone, forcing Luck to take the sack. The LBs also have been good holding short passes to short gains. Ogletree did take a bad angle on a 26-yard completion to Donald Brown in the 4th, and messed up an assignment early in the game that left T.Y. Hilton wide open for 15, but his positives have well outweighed his negatives and he is turning into an effective cover LB with a lot of potential left to tap. Not to mention his blitz in the 4th, where he leaped and deflected a Matt Hasselbeck pass to William Hayes dropping into coverage at the goal line. Laurinaitis had a gift INT earlier in the half on a bad overthrow by Luck after the Rams locked Fleener down with a double-team. The LBs were nowhere near as flummoxed by the run as they were last week, as Colt RBs netted only 2 yards on 9 carries. Indy tried to get Trent Richardson to the edge a couple of times early, but Laurinaitis cut one off for no gain and Jo-Lonn Dunbar cleaned up on Richardson for a loss after Janoris Jenkins knifed in quickly to blow up another pitch play. Indy gave up on the run early, and the Rams rolled on. When they're on their game, Laurinaitis and Ogletree are a handful for offenses to deal with.
* Secondary: Surprise star of the Ram secondary this week: Trumaine Johnson. He almost opened the 2nd with a pick-six and made several big plays in the end zone in the 2nd half. In the 3rd, he cut off a slant to Darius Heyward-Bey with an acrobatic lunging interception. He got his hands on the ball in the end zone again in the 4th, deflecting a Luck pass to Will Witherspoon for the Rams' 4th INT. Late in the game, TruJo broke up back-to-back end zone passes for Lavon Brazill. The guy was absolute money in the most critical part of the field. Good secondary play overall forced some of Luck's throwaways and bad passes, but Janoris Jenkins managed to give up a brutal big play for the 2nd straight week. This time T.Y. Hilton (7-130) got him to bite like an amateur on a stop-and-go route, and when Jenkins stumbled again trying to catch up – why so many problems with footing on artificial turf? - Hilton was gone for a 65-yard reception. The good news: Rodney McLeod slowed Hilton up enough for the Turf Monster to make a key tackle, then TruJo's pick saved the Rams a TD. Jenkins still needs to get a lot smarter about his gambling and also show up better on slants against physical receivers. The way DHB beat him a couple of times this week, he has no chance in two weeks against Chicago's big WRs. The Rams lost the shutout when Donald Brown juked Cortland Finnegan's pants off and outran Ogletree for a 13-yard score. They did a fine job on Coby Fleener (3-30), though, with Darian Stewart's big hit to break up a 3rd-down pass a turning point of the game. Luck and Hasselbeck combined for over 400 yards passing, but much of it was just empty calories thanks to Johnson's clutch work.
* Strategery: The Rams may not have put on a coaching clinic but deserve credit for making the Colts' staff look as bad as they did. Tim Walton made Colts OC Pep Hamilton look particularly clueless. The Rams have cranked up their blitz the last couple of weeks and had Andrew Luck plainly rattled, making an uncharacteristic number of bad decisions and outright bad throws. Luck won't look as bad many more times in his career. When Hamilton tried to catch the Rams off-guard with a draw play, or with play-action down at the goal line, the Rams didn't get caught. Kind of what the Titans did to the Rams last week. Whenever Hamilton zigged, Walton zagged. Also throw some streamers John Fassel's way. Kick coverage was impeccable and the punt return game obviously got sorted out.
Meanwhile, anyone who can explain why the Colts kept trying not only to cover Tavon Austin man-to-man, but to do it with Vontae Davis, who ran like Dick Cheney right after smoking a pack of cigarettes, feel free. Brian Schottenheimer used crossing patterns effectively (sometimes even legally) to get Austin and Givens open in space, with big payoffs. The best play call was probably the screen to Cunningham over Mathis' head for 18 on 3rd-and-15. The best personnel call was to “go with the best five” on the o-line and use Saffold at RG, where he played quite well. Schottenheimer didn't get cute in the 2nd half and just kept pounding the ball with a big lead, resulting in a 2:1 run-pass ratio, but as Jack Ham's Razor says, that which works simplest works best.
* Upon further review: Terry MacAulay and crew didn’t have a great game, though Colts fans probably went home madder than Rams fans. They did take control of the game early with a taunting call on Isaiah Pead on the opening kickoff. I’m still disappointed Pead was not cut on the spot for that idiocy. In the 2nd, with Darian Stewart hitting Coby Fleener as the ball arrived to break up a 3rd-down pass, when the flag flew, I had a rant about poor officiating done before it hit the ground. But then – here’s a switch – the crew had a conference and picked up the flag. Austin’s punt return TD the next play really put the microscope on that unusual reversal. Zapruder slo-mo or no, though, it looked like Stewart and the ball got there at the same time to me. Quick got away with a pretty flagrant pick on Givens’ first reception. That competes for worst call with this one: the head linesman looking right at Reid inside the 5 in the 4th and giving him a TD reception even though he had stepped out of bounds at the 3 and also lost his helmet, which should have killed the play. The review process corrected that mistake, though, so as a Rams fan, I have a much more generous grade for the officials than I imagine Colts fans do. Grade: C-minus
* Cheers: Fox’s call of the game by Chris Myers and Tim Ryan was an unexpected disappointment. Austin's ripping off one big play after another and Myers sounds about as excited as Al Gore narrating a chess tournament. Ryan and I were not watching the same game, especially regarding the rescinded DPI call on Stewart, a bang-bang call at worst that he harped for three hours was an obvious blown call. He also blamed Austin for not catching a ball Clemens practically one-hopped to him, gave Brockers credit for a play where Luck tripped his own man on a handoff, and at one point called Ogletree Rocky McIntosh. My favorite moment came right after the Austin punt return TD, when they put the camera on referee McAulay, expecting a penalty call any second. Hey, it's the Rams, after all; a big play like that has to be called back, right? Got a chuckle out of that, but little else from this broadcast.
* Who’s next? The Rams host Chicago next, but not for two weeks. We'll see if the bye week gives them the advantage Jeff Fisher insisted Tennessee had coming off theirs last week. The Rams are by my count 9-8-1 after bye weeks in the St. Louis era, only 2-6-1 the last 9 years. Fisher himself is 9-7-1 but has lost only one of his last six. The historical series with the Bears isn't treating the Rams well lately; Chicago has won the last four meetings and the Rams haven't cracked ten points in the last three. When they last hosted the Bears in 2008, the Rams lost starting QB Marc Bulger in the opening series and backup Trent Green tossed four picks in a 27-3 pounding.
This game shouldn't be without drama, especially family drama, since there will be more than a few times where Chris Long will go up against his brother Kyle, Chicago's rookie RG. It's an all-rookie right side with Jordan Mills, who has struggled against speed but looks fine against bull-rush ends. After poor pass protection kept Chicago out of the playoffs in 2012, they re-made the o-line on both sides, anchored by Jermon Bushrod at LT, and the re-model has paid off. The new left side has outstanding run-blockers and the Bears entered this week having allowed the 3rd-fewest sacks in the NFL. This is no Seattle or Arizona line the Rams should expect to run roughshod over. Ironically, after remaking the line to keep Jay Cutler upright, he’s injured again, and the odds seem pretty good the Rams will see Josh McCown at QB. McCown’s a very serviceable backup, but more importantly, he’s surrounded by very good players. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are as imposing a pair of wideouts as there is in the league. They are big, strong, can take a hit, and the Ram secondary’s array of weak shoulder tackles will not be effective. They will have to wrap up, and tackling will be important because the Rams don’t have anyone who can deny a big man the ball. And remember the WR screens Julio Jones killed the Rams with back in week 2? That’s a favorite in the Bears’ playbook, especially effective because big Marshall and Jeffery are great blockers on screens and on Matt Forte runs. Forte and his blockers will put a premium on the Rams to defend running lanes properly and not overpursue. Which, gulp. Rams LBs and safeties have two weeks to have their act together on run defense. Forte will thrive on their mistakes on delays and middle traps otherwise. I expect Tim Walton to keep delayed blitzes and stunts coming. Watching the Bears play the Redskins and Packers, they had persistent trouble with those. One last simple piece of strategy the Rams have had too much trouble with in the past – don’t kick to Devin Hester. Please?
Hit with a blizzard of injuries, the most recent ones costing them Charles Tillman (triceps) and probably Lance Briggs (shoulder) for this game, these are not your father’s Chicago Bears on defense. They have had almost no pass rush, just 14 sacks, only two from Julius Peppers. That has forced them into a lot of blitzing that leaves them vulnerable to draw plays, TE passes and the QB taking off. Even worse, they are so poor against the run I doubt even a certain coach Ditka could save da Bears. I never thought I’d see the day a Chicago run defense gets just pushed around the way the current one has. Shea McClellin’s about where Robert Quinn was his first couple of seasons. You get the dangerous edge speed, but he’s a big liability against the run. He’ll overpursue and leave huge gaps, and he’s a lightweight who gets pushed around and pinned inside. The Bears move their DEs around a lot, but pretty much just look for #99 and run at him. The Bears have a shocking amount of fundamental run defense problems. They can’t shed blocks, they don’t tackle well. They have a lot of trouble with play-action. Injuries have forced rookies like Khaseem Greene or special teams guys like Blake Costanzo onto the field at LB, where they have many of the Rams’ familiar gap integrity issues. The main thing keeping the Bear defense respectable is that they're 2nd in the league in takeaways, but without Tillman, they're down a key playmaker in that department. Pro Bowl CB Tim Jennings is going to need help, and even Craig Dahl can laugh at how the Bears' safeties are playing right now. Chris Conte may be the worst starter in the NFL. You can run or throw at him every play. He’s a bad tackler. He takes bad angles. When he does close down on a runner in the hole, he’s easy to juke. If Clemens reads a blitz and can check to play-action, Conte will –CHOMP- on it every time and leave his receiver wide, wide open. These are far from the Bears of Butkus, Singletary or even Urlacher. The Rams match up almost ideally, as long as Brian Schottenheimer doesn’t get the wild hair he got in Chicago last year and try to go deep-pass-wacky all game. The Bears are completely vulnerable to power running and play-action. They have rarely been a defense you would expect to beat in a fistfight, slobberknocker type of game. They are right now. Release the Zacken, Coach.
The Rams likely won’t be favored over Chicago, but they’re definitely capable of winning. The problem is that Jeff Fisher has faced this situation about six other times this season (ATL, DAL, SF, CAR, SEA, TEN) and won none of them. With an extra week to rest and prepare, it’s fair to ask Fisher to set up the home stretch of the season by getting his team over this particular hump. Save the mountain climbing for the offseason.