RamView, December 8, 2013
From the Couch
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Game 13: Cardinals 30, Rams 10
The Rams clinch their tenth consecutive non-winning season in resounding fashion with a dismal 30-10 “effort” in Arizona. Now that 2013 is toast, how much of this franchise is worth bringing back for 2014?
* QB: Not to downplay the beating he took, but Kellen Clemens (16-27-181, 2 INT, 48.5 PR
) had a poor game, even worse than last week, and his season is rapidly heading the wrong direction. He hurt the Rams early on with bad accuracy and finished them off with poor judgment. Down only 7-3 to start the 2nd, Clemens missed a golden opportunity for a long TD by underthrowing Jared Cook, who had a step on a LB down the seam. Lead him with that throw and he’s still running. Clemens opened the 2nd half in much more damaging fashion. Under pressure, he made the rookie mistake of trying to force a pass into the flat. Cook wasn’t even looking for it, but Karlos Dansby was, jumping it for a pick-six and an insurmountable 21-3 Arizona lead. Clemens spent most of the 2nd half just getting battered. A sack/fumble killed a drive, then a safety. 23-10 in the 4th after a rare Rams TD, but Clemens gets all but killed by Dansby on a blitz. There’s a good chance he thought he was Roger Clemens on the sideline, and he didn’t look like he should go back into the game. Austin Davis even loosened up. Kellen went back in, though, and his very next throw was another interception, as he failed to see Rashard Johnson jumping Chris Givens’ sloppy route for a pick to set up another Arizona TD. I don’t know what Clemens was even doing on the field the last 2:00, but Jeff Fisher made sure to leave him out there to get run over one last time by Dansby, blitzing in unblocked again. Clemens made some nice throws to lead the Rams to an early FG, but bad blocking, no running game, not many open receivers and his own well-documented negatives added up to a pretty meager result for him this week. No offense to Kellen, but with little left for the Rams to play for in 2013, it may be time to give Davis one last look.
* RB: No push up front and a rash of missed assignments by the offensive line made it a very long day for Zac Stacy (14-25). There was little room to run in the middle, but the Rams tried to run there all game. Stacy was usually met by a Cardinal before he even had time to figure out what was going on. John Abraham right on top of him for a SEVEN yard loss. Dansby (AGAIN) all over him for a 4-yard loss. He did have a 9-yard run in the 2nd and a couple of classic pile-moving runs. He spun away from Alameda Ta'amu to spare the Rams another loss right before the Dansby stop. On his 2nd try from the 2, Stacy scored the Rams’ ONLY TD behind excellent down blocking by Lance Kendricks and Harvey Dahl. But between the lack of blocking or creativity in the running game, Stacy spent the game looking like a Roomba trying to knock down the Great Wall of China. The Rams also appear determined to make sure the quicker Benny Cunningham (2-9) never gets the ball. The Rams' rushing highlight, and most of their rushing yards this week, is in the receivers section. That's the kind of game it was for the RBs.
* Receivers: Tavon Austin provided the only bright spot of the game, an electrifying 56-yard run in the 3rd to set up a TD. Austin took an end-around left, cut back inside Cory Harkey's lead block and was gone. He faked Yeremiah Bell out of his jock at the Arizona 45, and then, impossibly, got even faster. The Cardinal defense looked like a carnival ride with guys diving around, twisting and spinning in full circles trying to catch, or even find, Austin. After he put another fake on Jerraud Powers at the 15, though, fate caught up with Austin in the form of Freaking Dansby, who not only denied him the TD inside the 5, Tavon turned an ankle on the way down for what looks like a season-ending high-ankle sprain. (That is my hopefully-bad guess, not any kind of official report.) That's been the Rams' luck in 2013. Judging from the number of times Clemens had time to throw but couldn't find a target, receivers struggled to get open much of the game. That includes Austin (1-9), who was covered by Tyrann "Honey Badger" Matthieu most of the time but could only be targeted twice. Until Honey Badger had the awful luck to tear an ACL on a free kick return, their 3rd-round pick trumped our 1st-round pick. Stedman Bailey (3-46) was on fire early. What's eye-opening about him is that he looks clearly like the best route-runner on the team. He got open in the first half for 17 and 18 on crisp comeback routes. Compare those to Chris Givens' (1-21) rounded-off slop on Clemens' 2nd INT, at least half of which was the receiver's fault. Maybe instead of Bailey losing snaps to the likes of Brian Quick (0-0, big surprise) or Austin Pettis (a late 19-yard catch and a DPI), he or they could get some of Givens'? Jared Cook (3-49) looked like the Rams' best chance as a deep threat. He got behind the whole defense but Clemens just missed him for a long TD opportunity to start the 2nd, and he ended it with a 31-yard deep corner route, but Cook still didn't have anything like his first game against the Cardinals. For him, and the whole team, that game must seem a lot longer ago than it really was.
* Offensive line: Another difficult week for the constantly-shifting offensive line. They never really got any push going in the running game at all. Tim Barnes usually got driven backward at center, a bad way to start any run play. They made things worse by missing a lot of assignments. Stacy got buried for a 7-yard loss in the 1st after either Jake Long blocked the wrong man, or Austin Pettis was actually supposed to block John Abraham. A lose/lose proposition there. To start the 2nd, Ta'amu flattened Harvey Dahl to nearly stuff Stacy, then Freaking Dansby did the next play for a 4-yard loss, thanks to Joseph Barksdale's terrible blocking. At this point you're just asking for somebody to be a man down there. Rodger Saffold did man up to lead-maul a 9-yard Stacy run, followed by Dahl pulling and clearing a nice opening for Cunningham for 6. Saffold, btw, played some RT and some RG, as the Rams used a 3-man rotation on the right side all day, which seemed too cute by half. Passing-wise, they did keep most of the heat off Clemens in the first half, but Arizona DC Todd Bowles' halftime adjustment was to turn the blitzing dial to 11, and the Rams could not cope with that at all, especially money-stealing Long at LT. First Rams drive after halftime, everyone picks up a blitz but Long can't handle 35-year-old Abraham, who beats him for a sack and fumble recovered by Stacy. Next drive, Rams backed up at the goal line, Calais Campbell wipes Long out while Abraham stunts and runs behind Chris Williams, turned out to double-team. Sack #2 and a safety for Abraham. With a shot at cutting into a 23-10 lead in the 4th, the Rams didn't block anybody. Abraham blew up an intended rollout TE pass, then on 3rd down, nobody blocked yep, Freaking Dansby at all, letting him drill Clemens into next week. Stacy was not on that side of the formation for blitz pickup, so either Clemens neglected to move him over, or my guess, Long and Williams didn't make the blitz adjustment. Abraham, who got credit for a third sack, and Dansby both poured in past Barksdale on a rush in the final 2:00 to top off probably the worst game of the year by the Rams' o-line and the first half of Arizona's decisive win in the trenches.
* Defensive line: And here, of course, is the other half. The Ram front held up well enough against the run but put no rush whatsoever on Carson Palmer. Palmer, who will be stressed more on his next vacation than he ever was this week, threw ONE incomplete pass in the first half and was a ridiculous 27-for-32, 84%, for the game, for 269 yards in his second game of pitch-and-catch this season against a passive Ram defense. Drawing frequent double-teams, Robert Quinn went sackless for the second straight week and got no help at all from his linemates, or from blitzes, almost all of which Arizona picked up with little problem. Chris Long once again had no answer for Eric Winston. He was barely even a factor until getting a couple of late and fairly meaningless run stops. Quinn made a fine play to split a double-team and stuff Andre Ellington in the 2nd but kept the TD drive alive later with a personal foul. He stuffed Rashard Mendenhall near the goal line at the end of the game, but the RB just walked into the end zone the next play. That was Mendenhall’s second easy TD run; he also scored from the 3 in the 1st thanks in part to Quinn getting blocked by Michael Floyd. Yes, Rams DEs cannot get off blocks by WIDE RECEIVERS now. William Hayes made a couple of good plays, blowing up a sweep and knocking down a screen pass. Kendall Langford blew up a screen and had a couple of run stops. But the Rams didn’t win at the line of scrimmage. Their tackles tended to be 2 or 3 yards downfield; the Cardinal D’s tended to be at or well behind the line. And the Rams were atrocious on third down, failing (by my count) to make stops 9 times out of 15, 6 of the first 8 to let Arizona run up a lead. The Cardinals don’t exactly have an award-winning offensive line, but Quinn is somehow the only Ram who can put a dent in it. Once Arizona figured out how to stop Quinn, the rest of the AWOL Ram line posed too little threat.
* LB: Inconsistent game behind the line. Alec Ogletree was up and down and James Laurinaitis didn’t play like his usual self. Ogletree got blocked as Mendenhall gained 9 on a run on Arizona’s opening drive, but blitzed and stuffed Mendenhall the next play. But then at the end of the drive, he and Laurinaitis get caught up in traffic and are too late and too blocked to prevent an easy short TD. Later in the 1st, Andre Ellington juked Ogletree in the hole so badly on a 21-yard draw Alec looked like he’d just stepped on a banana peel. Next play, though, Ogletree blows up the backfield to set up a tackle for Langford. Alec landed the Rams’ ONLY sack in the 3rd. Jo-Lonn Dunbar led the way in and tied up two blockers, leaving Ogletree free to get Palmer. Alec could be good and bad on the same play. Arizona near another TD late, he tries to line up wrong and Dunbar sends him back to the correct side. Alec comes in unblocked off that edge to tackle Mendenhall for a loss. Teamwork! Laurinaitis, though, didn’t appear to tackle or cover as well as usual. He was run over a couple of times and struggled with the Cardinal TEs but got away with it. Rob Housler had him beaten deep in the 2nd but Palmer missed the throw. He bit too hard on play-action and would have been beaten by Jim Dray for a TD had Rodney McLeod not forced a timely turnover. The most dispiriting play came at the end of the game, as Mendenhall ran through apathetic tackling by Laurinaitis, McLeod and Darian Stewart for Arizona’s final TD. Ogletree’s getting better and better, but Laurinaitis has played better.
* Secondary: The Rams need to re-think everything they (don’t) do in pass coverage, maybe even including who they consider their #1 corner. If you’d pick one Cardinal receiver to just leave open all day, you probably wouldn’t pick Larry Fitzgerald (12-96), but the Rams did, granting the future Hall-of-Famer a ridiculous 8 catches and a TD. By halftime. The Cardinals had a tougher time scoring in scrimmages in August than the Rams gave them on their opening possession. First play of the game, Janoris Jenkins, laying 10 yards off Fitzgerald, gives up a quick 19. They’re quickly into the red zone after a 9-yard catch by Jim Dray the Rams vigorously argued even though he obviously caught it. That’s about how well some of their heads were in the game this week. 3rd-5 at the 18, with McLeod possibly blowing an assignment and Jenkins for some reason guarding the goal line, Fitzgerald’s wide open down to the 3, setting up an easy TD for Mendenhall. Fitzgerald blocked Rodney McLeod into Ogletree and wiped them both out on that run, and Darian Stewart’s arm tackle naturally didn’t accomplish anything. And your tone for the week is set. Rob Housler kicked off the 2nd by beating T.J. McDonald for 31, then on 3rd-and-3, let’s cover Fitzgerald with Quinton Pointer. That’ll be a great move. 15 yards. McLeod saved the Rams a TD by putting his helmet on the ball and forcing a fumble by Dray at the goal line. That only slowed Arizona’s walk in the park. Before halftime, no one covers Michael Floyd on 3rd-and-3, – brilliant – then he draws a cheap DPI on Jenkins for another 15. Fitzgerald then beat McLeod on another 3rd-and-3 – Rodney was 5 yards off him – made an impressive catch to beat him for 12 more, then ran through Trumaine Johnson on a quick slant for a 7-yard TD. The Rams attacked a little better in the 2nd half. McDonald blew up a Mendenhall carry in the 3rd so well, seeing the 5 on the right side of his jersey, I mistook him for Laurinaitis. McLeod did some timely hitting, including clocking Floyd on a slant inside the 5 in the 4th. TruJo actually had a good game and maybe should have been assigned to Fitzgerald. He buried him on a quick screen for a loss in the 2nd, closed terrifically to shut down a slant to Larry for 1 yard at the 2:00 warning and broke up a pass for Floyd at the goal line in the 3rd to save the Rams points. He also supported the run well. In fact, TruJo is probably the Rams’ best corner. He sure seemed to anticipate Fitzgerald’s moves better than Jenkins did. Jenkins jumped into RamView’s doghouse with both feet with an idiot play late in the game. On 3rd-and-7, he mistimed his leap on a long lob pass to Jarron Brown and got beaten for a tough 32-yard catch, but celebrated right after the play like a goof because he thought he had broken up the play. Jenkins thinks he’s a lot of things he isn’t. More and more I suspect one of those is thinking he’s a #1 corner on this or any other team.
* Special teams: What a great week you’ve had when punt coverage is your best and most exciting unit. Johnny Hekker continues to punt with the best of them this season, averaging and netting over 51 yards a kick this week. He faced a bunch of kicks from or near his own end zone to Patrick Peterson, but excellent placement and hang time kept Peterson in check. And on one punt in the 4th that didn’t, Chase Reynolds tripped up Peterson trying to sweep right after the catch, and Cody Davis finished him off for a loss. Hekker put a couple into the end zone, which was frustrating given the number of times Arizona pinned the Rams inside the 5. Greg Zuerlein had no problem with a 44-yard FG and excelled on kickoffs except for a stupid call to kick a bouncer that of course turned into Arizona’s best return of the day. Thanks for thinking too much, John Fassel. Maybe think more about getting your kick returner some doggone blocks; Austin got maybe one this week and struggled to get anything out to even the 20.
* Strategery: Great, the Rams coaching staff doesn't look like they know what they're doing on either side of the ball now. Where to even start? Was Brian Schottenheimer even aware the Cardinals had the #2 run defense in the league coming in? Was it really a great idea for ALL of the Rams' runs to be slams right up the middle? No attempt to stretch the running game sideline to sideline, no attempt to stretch the field in the passing game, no wonder the Cardinals controlled the middle of the field the way they did. Schotty was smart enough to target tight ends a lot, but whose brilliant idea is the intentional game of o-line musical chairs? How do you develop cohesiveness rotating two positions all game and your linemen have to remind themselves who they’re lining up next to every series? Any surprise the Cardinals could sneak blitzers through unblocked? There shouldn’t have been.
I've tried and tried to get what Tim Walton's trying to do, but all I understand is that it's a miserable failure and I've had enough of it. Had Walton even heard of Larry Fitzgerald before this week? He understood #11 was Arizona's #1 receiver, right? Yet, 1st quarter, 3rd-5 at the Ram 18, while Fitzgerald is wide open all the way down to the 3, McLeod is madly pursuing TE Housler on a 2-yard route, and Jenkins is apparently protecting the goal line, EIGHTEEN YARDS off the play. Were the Rams playing to prevent a TD instead of a 1st down? You know you force a FG if you stop them there, right? No, let's protect the goal line and leave their best receiver wide open! 3rd-3 in the 2nd, the Cardinals empty the backfield. The Rams get blitzed every time they do that, but reverse the tables, we’ll just rush 4 with our soft pass rush. And who does Fitzgerald beat for 15? Quinton Pointer. Absolutely, let's put our 6th best DB on their best receiver! That is some brilliant defensive scheming right there. Just before halftime, Fitzgerald scored on his EIGHTH reception. Palmer had all of one pass hit the ground in the half. Walton had exactly one blitz get to Palmer and never figured out a way to cover Fitzgerald. Maybe next time when Fitzgerald isn’t such a secret weapon around the league, Walton will come up with a strategy to cover him, though I wonder why Walton should be around long enough for another try the way these last two weeks have gone.
So, almost 30 games into the Jeff Fisher era, the offense can’t move the ball and the defense can’t stop anyone. All this team is good at is kicking and committing penalties. They’re fundamentally and strategically bad. This week the whole team came out flat and was uncompetitive from the coin toss. The announcers were right to say the Rams didn’t look interested in tackling Mendenhall on his TD run. This kind of thing was supposed to be the last thing that would happen with a Fisher team. How are the Rams going to play now that they know they’re out of the running? If this team really is on the right path, Sam Bradford sure is going to have to fix a lot next season.
* Upon further review: Another road game, another game the Rams have to play 11-on-18, this week against the Cardinals and the Walt Coleman crew. My favorite call had to be the DPI flag on Jenkins that flew six seconds after the pass hit the ground in the 2nd. Next was the blown call on Jim Dray's fumble at the 1 earlier in the 2nd, stupidly called a TD even though the fumble wasn't that hard to see on the live play, but somehow the official right on the goal line misses it by an entire yard. Review fixed it, but at the cost of 30 yards' field position for the Rams, since Jenkins' return didn't count at all. Tougher at home to see that the Arizona gunner had touched a punt down in the 4th while in contact with the goal line, but again, an official is right there to blow the call until further review. While the Rams got called for barely grabbing arms on hardly catchable balls or barely brushing facemasks, Quinn was held twice on one play without a call. On an early end-around to Peterson, McLeod was blocked in the back – no call – Fitzgerald held Jenkins – no call – but let McDonald take Peterson down gently a little late out of bounds – FLAG! I can’t say what caused the Rams’ “five men in the backfield” illegal formation in the 2nd. I thought Barksdale was too far off the line, but they let him line up two yards off the ball all game. Grade: D
* Cheers: A bland broadcast by Dick Stockton and Ronde Barber befit the Rams' bland performance. Barber's pre-game bullet points (Arizona: protect Palmer; Rams: establish run) were spot on, and he did say the Rams needed to try to run outside, but we could have used more in-depth analysis. No one noted the Rams' o-line changes, and there was not even an attempt to explain the weird illegal formation penalty. Stockton got many more spots right than usual but blew the Dray fumble as badly as the referees. Fox didn't exactly break the budget covering this game, not even caring enough to have a camera on the sideline reporter. You get what you pay for, I guess.
* Who’s next? An old NFC West rivalry renews next week when the Rams host the 10-3 Saints. It's been a rivalry where anything can happen. The Rams were 0-8 in 2007 when they won in New Orleans for one of their three wins that season. The last time they played in 2011, the Rams were 0-6 and got one of their two wins that year over a Saint team that finished 13-3. Can the Rams get the playoff-bound Saints to stub their toes again?
No, more than likely they'll continue to get no pass rush and let Drew Brees complete about 100 passes to receivers they can't or won't cover. Brees has had Sean Payton's fast-break offense running like a machine since 2006. He gives you little chance to sack him because he knows the offense so well, gets the ball out so quickly and throws so accurately. And he moves well enough to escape the little bit of trouble he does get into. Hard to believe the Rams will pressure him anyway. Blitzing Brees is suicidal, especially as ineffectively as the Rams do it. Tackles Charles Brown and Zach Strief don't impress as the nimblest guys out there, but that's where the fast break gets you. They won't have to block the Ram DEs for long. Taking the line out of the picture should just expose the Rams' poor coverage and poor defensive scheme for another four quarters of hurt. The Saints do not really test you with a ton of speed on offense. That's OK, we'll just lay ten yards off them all day anyway. It'll be death by a million screens and underneath routes. Marques Colston, like big WRs Fitzgerald and Boldin before him, should have a field day. And the Rams coaching staff likely won't have the sense to double-team the Saints' best weapon, TE Jimmy Graham. That was the only way Dallas and even Seattle could even control the guy. When I watch Graham, I see a guy who doesn't relish contact. You have to hit him and double-team him to get him off his game. But more than likely, the Rams will stupidly follow Atlanta's path of manning him with a safety all game. He had 100 yards against them, 101 combined against Seattle and Dallas. It'll be on film if anybody at Rams Park wants to pay attention. What can foil any plan for defending the Saints is that they've looked like a very good running team lately. They could be a power-running offense if they wanted to. Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs are probably the best pair of guards in the league. Pierre Thomas is deceptively hard to tackle, and Mark Ingram, trying to prove he isn't really a draft bust, has made an exaggerated point of trying to run through defenses recently, with success. The Saints love to downblock right and run left, which makes Robert Quinn's run defense more important than his pass rush. And Darren Sproles has a whopping 55 receptions out of their backfield already this season. And he's not even the backfield's leader. That would be Thomas, with 60. The Saints do gain about 80 fewer yards a game on the road. Losses at the Seahawks and Jets proved that noise can have a major effect on them with all the personnel changes they make. I hope the other 40,000 or so Rams fans who show up next week are much more enthusiastic than I am right now. I don't see crowd noise or much of anything the Rams do as a factor that will slow Brees and company down.
The best way to control the Saint offense, at least for the Rams, will be to hold the ball as long as they can on offense. That nearly worked for the Falcons a couple of weeks ago. They're a relentless front but they can be power-run on. Rob Ryan, though, has changed the Saint defense's fortunes dramatically from Steve Spagnuolo's worst defense in league history last year. They're now #6 in the league, so, yeah, the guy I wanted nowhere near the Ram defense back in January is probably the assistant coach of the year. Cameron Jordan has 9.5 sacks and has become a pass-rushing stud from either side, and Junior Galette brings a lot of speed off the edge, but Jordan can also disappear as much as Chris Long can, and Galette's tendency to overpursue should definitely be exploited. Big DT Akiem Hicks can also blow you up, both with speed or with bull rush, and Dahl and Barnes probably have to double-team him all game. A sensible game plan can move the ball on these guys, though. You hear the name Ryan and think Rob will be blitzing off the bus, but he hasn't really blitzed that much at all with the Saints. Seattle exposed them as brutally susceptible to misdirection. Their LBs cannot cover at all, and their secondary isn’t deep and looks kind of big and slow, though Keenan Lewis has gotten some good reviews for shutdown work. The mobile QBs Ryan has faced lately really had him playing conservatively, so I would like to see the Rams use a moving pocket a lot. Clemens (or Austin Davis) can handle that and it will make the Saint D more passive. Then you can kill their overpursuit with misdirection and edge tosses. Of course, that plan sounded a whole lot better when the Rams still had Tavon Austin. And as the Rams figure to struggle against the big interior wall of Hicks and Brodrick Bunkley, and Brian Schottenheimer isn't proving smart enough to, oh, I don't know, RUN AROUND IT, their ability to control the pace of the game on offense is going to be about what it was in Arizona.
As the countdown to the offseason accelerates, the Rams will decide if they’re going to go out with a bang or out with a whimper. It’s been a discouraging two weeks, and two of their last three games are against the top two seeds in the NFC. But as a wise man once said, nothing is over until we decide it is. A competitive finish can set the tone for next season. Time for a rally.