RamView, December 22, 2013
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from and on the game.)
Game 15: Rams 23, Bucs 13
The mighty Robert Quinn carries the Rams to victory with three more sacks, sending fans home happy for Christmas with a winning record in the Dome for 2013. Top that, Santa! (only one sack)
* Defensive line: Another game of the ages in Robert Quinn's season for the ages. The Rams won this week because of the dominance of their defensive line, achieved through Robert's Quinn-tessential, dominant play. His ability to draw constant double-teams freed up the Ram blitz, and when Tampa was forced to counter that, Quinn pretty much went bananas on them. Just on the first series, Quinn chased down Bobby Rainey for no gain and a 3rd-down blitz got four Rams on top of Mike Glennon to force a throwaway. Quinn had a couple pressures the next drive, but not enough to stall Tampa's lone TD. Rainey swung that in from the 1 thanks to Chris Long completely failing and getting knocked down attempting to set the edge. No matter, though, as the Rams dominated the line of scrimmage the rest of the way. Rainey barely ever crossed it, averaging under 2 yards a carry. He spent much of his day running smack into Kendall Langford, who quietly has really stepped his play up from the beginning of the season. It was Michael Brockers, though, who held Rainey up while Ogletree stripped him for a turnover in the 2nd, setting up a TD. Blitzing was deadly effective and forced Glennon into firing many blanks. But as the Rams built a lead, Glennon had to start hanging in there longer, and here comes the sack parade. With Tampa backed up on their goal line in the 2nd, the Rams shifted Quinn inside but blitzed Alec Ogletree and T.J. McDonald out of his position, and McDonald nearly scored them a safety. Tampa was close to a tying score before halftime, but Jo-Lonn Dunbar and James Laurinaitis blitzed off Quinn's edge and neither one was blocked, getting James the Rams' 2nd sack, and next play, Quinn does it himself, exploding off the line and getting by Donald Penn before he could ask, Is there a draft in here? What is that breeze? That success might have gotten Quinn a little overaggressive after halftime. The Bucs took advantage of him on the ground a little bit. A 4th-down QB sneak ran right over Langford. Quinn, though, flushed Glennon on a red zone 3rd down and forced a FG. Langford took over the next drive and forced a 3-and-out. On 1st down, he crashed the line and stuffed Rainey, and on 2nd down, closed Rainey's running lane by throwing his blocker into it, a real red-meat play. Tampa tried some trickery in the 4th and beat the Rams with an end-around on which Long woefully got pancaked ass over head, sent flying like a grenade had just gone off nearby. Fortunately, the Ram blitz would not be denied, as Ogletree got to Glennon and forced another fumble, and this week's on-the-spot award goes to William Hayes, who recovered both fumbles Ogletree forced. It sure took Long long enough to get there considering all the attention Quinn commanded, but at the 2:00 warning, he smoked Demar Dotson from a wide alignment for the Rams' fifth sack, at which point it was time for Quinn to play a record-setting encore for the home crowd. His second sack, and 17th this season, belongs on every NFL 2013 highlight reel, a lightning-quick spin move to beat a double-team and surge straight to Glennon. The Bucs had the misfortune to get the ball back before the end of the game, and with the (nod to Deacon Jones) St. Louis sack record in sight, he had thousands watching his every move. On 1st down, he brushed off two hits by a double-team and hit Glennon a nanosecond late of a sack. On 2nd down, he flies clean up the middle off a stunt but Glennon manages to flee and hit a sideline pass on the run. Should have let the clock run. Third down, same thing as the last play. Quinn stunts, no one can catch him, and probably winded at this point, Glennon just tries to tuck it and hoof for the sideline, but Quinn dives and clips his feet for his 18th sack of the season. The Rams had seven sacks and barely allowed 200 yards of combined offense, a dominant game for which they can thank Quinn, their most dominant player.
* QB: Unless he does one for kids in the offseason, you're never going to hear anyone say Kellen Clemens put on a quarterbacking clinic, but this week (16-20-158, 99.6 PR
) he was close to the epitome of how you want a QB to manage a game. Clemens started off well, hitting his first six passes, and made an unexpected number of clutch plays. Down 7-0, on 3rd-and-8, he drew Tampa off with a hard count, then threw in a tight spot to Brian Quick on a crossing route for 7 and the 1st down. Clemens threw another tight pass to set up the Rams' first TD, hitting Jared Cook for 9 on an out route inside the 5 while bailing out from a pass rush in his face. Not an easy throw. Up 14-7, Clemens cost the Rams momentum by bungling the ball away at the goal line on a bungled draw play call. He'd bounce back after halftime, though, steering the Rams to three FGs. He set up the first with another tight pass to a crossing receiver, Cook this time for an 18-yard catch-and-run. 3rd-and-2 late in the 3rd, a tough pass to Cory Harkey over the middle gains ten, then on 4th-and-1 at the Tampa 29, Clemens drove for 5 on a keeper. On the next play, the dreaded TE rollout, Clemens showed nice field vision and hit Stedman Bailey inside the 10 to set up a short FG. Next time out, he put the Rams in position for one more three-ball, making a tough sideline pass to Chris Givens for 21 and hitting Austin Pettis on a quick hitch for 9. No one's ever going to say Kellen Clemens carried the Rams, but did I just see a QB complete 80% of his passes against a very tough secondary? And the Rams needed every one of those clutch completions Clemens threw. I don't think you could ask for more out of a veteran backup QB.
* RB: Defenses that have to prepare for Zac Stacy (33-104) next year would be advised to go to the nearest woods, chop down the tallest tree, and then practice trying to tackle the stump. He got some solid middle blocking, moved a lot of piles and may yet bulldoze his way to a 1,000-yard season. He weaved and banged his way behind Tim Barnes and Cory Harkey for three nice gains to set up the Rams' first TD, which he scored on a classic goal line leap from the 1. The Rams scored on two straight drives and would have made it a third had Stacy had his way. Up 14-7, he opened a drive by chugging for 19 off another Barnes block, and took a classic 90-flip for 15 more inside the 5 a few plays later. When he couldn't punch it in on two tries, though, the Rams went on a fumbling streak, first Clemens, then Stacy himself at midfield the next time out, getting stripped from behind by Dekoda Watson. Stacy got some redemption for that in the 2nd half, grinding down the clock, keeping his feet moving, running through linemen, keeping the Ram offense moving in baby steps. Really tough baby steps. As if to show his readiness to inherit Steven Jackson's mantle, after a crap draw play call ran Stacy into a blitz for a big loss late in the game, he appeared to turn and yell at the Rams sideline. Stacy finished with another weaving power run through the Tampa defense for 13, putting him over 100 yards and putting the visitors away. The only time Stacy came off the field was several trips to fix a nagging problem with his shoe. Man, I know the Rams are a young team, but they all know how to put their shoes on, right? Even so, defenses dealing with Zac Stacy in the future better lace their own shoes up tight.
* Receivers: If you told me at the beginning of this season that Tavon Austin (out, ankle) would end it as the Rams' best big-play WR, I would have said you didn't make a very bold prediction. Now, if you'd said Stedman Bailey (3-44) would end the season as the Rams' best receiver overall... The flashes Bailey has shown make me wish we'd seen a lot more of him earlier this season. He put the Rams ahead 14-7 with his first career TD on a perfectly-executed reverse, showing good speed and a very good nose for the end zone. Later in the 2nd, he set the Rams up for what should have been another score with a Torry Holt-worthy snag of a pass well outside his frame, running for a clutch 28-yard gain on 3rd-and-10. He added another red zone catch in traffic in the 4th to set up a FG. More Stedman Bailey, please. Also, knocking on wood a million times, have the Rams' drop problems gone away? Jared Cook (2-27) made a tough catch on an out route near the goal line to set up the first TD. Cory Harkey (3-22) made a couple of tough catches in traffic for first downs. Chris Givens (2-24) made a great leaping sideline catch in the 3rd, dragging his body in bounds to get the Rams 20 and set up a FG. Brian Quick (2-16) made a couple of tough catches over the middle. Austin Pettis (2-16) was reliable on a couple of quick hitches. Feel free to chuckle at my overoptimism; only Bailey had a game you'd even consider a good quarter for Calvin Johnson, and this was never going to be a unit that could run the offense the Rams expected to coming into the season. By the midpoint of the season it was clear they had nowhere to go but up. But there has been some improvement.
* Offensive line: The future of the Ram offensive line took a dramatic and unwelcome turn right away when Jake Long had an ACL blow on him during the opening series. Cue the musical chairs yet again, Rodger Saffold moving over to Jake's LT role and Shelley Smith coming in at RG. The one player in the same position he started the season, Chris Williams, picked a good week for his best game of the season, as the interior line had a good week run-blocking. He and Tim Barnes blew a lane open for Stacy's 19-yard run in the 2nd. Williams' and Saffold's surge was key to Clemens' easy 4th-down conversion on a keeper in the 4th, and the same two got blocks for the run that put Stacy over 100. Saffold continued his stretch of strong run-blocking games, getting Stacy the edge for a 13-yard 90-flip in the 2nd, with downfield help from Givens. Though his misstep got Stacy stuffed for -5 on a draw in the 1st, Harkey knocked open holes for Stacy all day. Execution on Bailey's reverse TD was a thing of beauty. The play was so well-blocked you knew it would be a TD the instant Givens made the second exchange. The Bucs were walled off for yards downfield while Joseph Barksdale and Harkey led the charge to the goal line. The Rams matched a good game run-blocking with a good game pass-protecting. Clemens wasn't hit a lot, and was sacked just once and not till the 4th, when Barnes appeared to misstep and let Gerald McCoy get by him. Barnes' audition to be starting center next year hasn't gone poorly, but his athletic limitations seem to suit him better to a depth role. On 2nd-goal right before Clemens' fumble in the 2nd, he was late pulling and Lavonte David stuffed a Stacy run. Benny Cunningham got buried on a sweep in the 3rd. Barnes was supposed to pull there, too, but got blown up after the snap instead and never got there. There's more clarity in the Rams' future at center, though, than there is right now at left tackle, where Long could easily fail to start the season on time, and Saffold, one game away from becoming a free agent, could be starting in another uniform. Football sure likes to throw tough questions at teams without allowing a lot of time to come up with the best answer.
* LB: Excellent week in the middle. All three backers stuffed runs and were in on sacks as blitzers. Jo-Lonn Dunbar tripped Bobby Rainey (20-37) for no gain on the opening play, but his helmet-to-helmet hit on Timothy Wright gave Tampa's next drive a push, ending in a short Rainey TD run around end with Alec Ogletree unable to get off the fullback's block. That was about all the damage the Tampa run game would do, thanks in part to Dunbar's strong 1st half, with a couple more big stops. Ogletree changed the momentum of the game next time out by stripping the ball away from Rainey to set up a TD. It may have been the best game of the year for the blitz, getting to Glennon early and often. 1st-and-goal at the Ram 9 before halftime, Dunbar and James Laurinaitis flew in untouched off the edge and James got the Rams' 2nd sack, a huge play toward making Tampa settle for a FG. Laurinaitis finished a 3-and-out to protect a 17-13 lead after halftime with a solid open-field tackle of Wright from behind on 3rd-and-8. In the 4th, the blitz struck again, collapsing the pocket on Glennon for a sack split by Laurinaitis and Ogletree, but that wasn't enough for Alec, who pulled off ANOTHER rip-n-strip, his SIXTH forced fumble this season, to set up the Rams' clinching FG. What a rookie season Ogletree is having. What a game this whole unit had. They rarely let Rainey through the line, consistently tracked him down when he tried to get out on the edge, destroyed the pocket as pass rushers and forced turnovers. One of this unit's best performances in a long time.
* Secondary: The Ram secondary has completely bounced back from some deathly-frustrating recent performances, has tightened up its coverage and played like a lock-down secondary this week. Vincent Jackson (5-98) got WAY too much operating space in the zone for a couple of big catches on Tampa's TD drive, including a 30-yard catch where Rodney McLeod bit on a double move. He also drew a couple of penalties from Janoris Jenkins, but the Rams still had a better handle on him than they did on other big WRs this season. Trumaine Johnson blanketed Jackson a couple of times, including a perfect breakup of a sideline bomb in the 1st. Jenkins made the niftiest play of the day, perfectly timing his jump on a pass to the corner of the end zone to bat a pass safely away from Jackson and force a Buc FG. We are so used to Ram DBs getting eaten alive on that play, but Jenkins put an emphatic end to that. And the DPI calls on him were for really subtle infractions that I doubt get called most of the time. T.J. McDonald has become a reason to really like the Ram secondary's prospects for next season. Already their hard-hitting enforcer back there, McDonald was a blitzing menace this week, helping force a throwaway to kill Tampa's first drive and coming in clean and sacking Glennon maybe an inch from a safety in the 2nd. Jackson may have gotten loose early, but the Rams tightened the screws after that Buc TD drive, holding him to 3 catches for 48, and his fellow WRs to only 3 catches for 20, after that. Imagine what this backfield could look like with McDonald in it a full season.
* Special teams: Just in case we forgot his ability, Greg Zuerlein put on a show on special teams. Not one of his kickoffs was returnable, and in the 2nd half, he nailed FGs from 54, 25 and 48, never a doubt on any of them. It's the kind of effortless domination he showed the first half of his rookie year. Great to see it. Another standout was Justin Veltung, who averaged over 11 yards on three punt returns. Catches cleanly and heads upfield immediately. Exactly what I want out of a punt returner, anyway. The other key play was by Harkey, knocking a surprise onside kick in the 3rd out of bounds after it got by several teammates. Big momentum swing there, as it set up one of the Rams' FGs. Harkey has become one of those indispensable “glue guys” on this roster. I'd take a team full of Harkeys.
* Strategery: Whoever's responsible, Jeff Fisher, Tim Walton, Dave McGinniss, Mike Waufle, hell, I don't care if it was the Christmas ghost of Larry Marmie, but congratulations, that was the best-coached game on defense this season. When Tampa established they were going to double-team Quinn, the Rams said, let's make him harder to find, moving him around in the 1st half and rolling out some exotic formations. The Rams' first sack came with Long basically lined up at LB and dropping back into coverage, Brockers at LDE, Quinn inside of him. While the Bucs tried to figure that out, Ogletree and McDonald blitzed in from Quinn's usual RDE spot for the sack. Long would later score a sack from that very-wide-9 alignment. Blitzing was the most effective it's been all year, accounting for at least three sacks. All of that took the original heat off of Quinn, who feasted in the 2nd half from RDE with the Bucs having to worry about stopping so many other things. And the Rams appear to have solved the worst of their coverage issues these past two weeks. There's more press coverage and the backs seem to be playing much more tight zone now, 3 or 4 yards off, instead of soft zone 9 or 10 yards off. For 2013, better late than never, I guess, and for 2014, hope that the Rams will come out of the gates aggressive on D from front to back.
Two calls by Brian Schottenheimer were impossible to ignore; since it's Christmas, we'll start with the reverse to Bailey for the Rams' 2nd TD. First of all, what a great time to call it, right after a turnover, and it's a great call any time to keep a line with Tampa's pass-rush-first mentality in check. And it was executed to perfection; heck, I think Clemens had a 20-yard free run as one of Bailey's lead blockers. Great calls like that or the 90-flip to Stacy later in the 2nd made the goal line draw play that Clemens fumbled a pretty baffling call. They had Banks, meaning, not Revis, iso'ed up top, and Schotty has shown many creative route combos he could have used with the three receivers wide right. If Tampa's stopping the middle run, I didn't see a slower-developing run up the middle with no lead-blocking as the answer there. He was all right over the rest of the field, but down at the goal line, it seems like Schottenheimer's been a better, more creative play-caller than he was this week.
* Upon further review: If referee John Parry were a policeman, he'd ticket you for driving 36 in a 35 mph zone, and the crew made several calls that did not sit well with the home crowd, but upon further review, looked correct enough. Dunbar did hit the TE helmet-to-helmet to earn 15 in the 1st, and Adrian Clayborn hit Clemens helmet-to-helmet to earn 15 a few plays later. Not penalties a couple of years ago, but they are now. Jenkins earned both his DPI calls against Jackson. The TD pass attempt late in the 2nd looked uncatchable because of how much Jenkins held Jackson, and he grabbed Jackson's jersey on the deep sideline throw in the 3rd. My guess is that usually doesn't get called, but Parry and crew had well established by then that they would call everything tight. I thought there were a couple of very poor spots. Tampa could go for it on 4th-and-an-inch right after halftime because they gave Glennon at least a yard too much on his 3rd-down scramble. We got no coherent reason Fisher wasn't granted a challenge on the spot, either. Givens was marked too short on his quick screen in the 4th, though the Rams converted on 4th down. On one of those spots, the head linesman, who's supposed to go straight from the sideline to the spot, weaves around instead like a Lohan on New Year's Eve, which did not inspire confidence in his accuracy. The crew grades all right, but I'm not sure I'd want the Super Bowl called as tightly, if you know what I mean, Rog. Grade: B
* Cheers: The Dome only looked half full again this week, I'll say 35,000 people actually in seats, but it must have been an early arriving crowd. I thought I could sidle up about 11:30 and still get a Chris Long collectible figure, but no soup for me. Lesson: if you want to get to a Rams game early, do not take the Rams “Express” bus, which gave us about a half-hour tour of downtown while 15,000 Chris Longs flew off the Dome shelves. Dome field advantage came through for the Rams in the 4th. 20-13, Tampa driving with 3rd-and-3 near midfield, the video operator takes advantage of an injury timeout to play the infamous “unleash the fury” movie montage. Perfect timing, it stoked a pretty-loud crowd to mayhem level for the first time all day and the D fed off it for a sack/fumble. After that, I think all of us were just watching to see if Quinn could rack up more sacks and break the (nod to Deacon Jones) St. Louis Rams' sack record. Yes and yes. Looking forward to enjoying more games like this one next year.
* Who’s next? Of all 32 teams, the Rams sure drew the shortest draw for their season finale. For the third time in four years, they’ll finish up in Seattle, where they haven't won since 2004 and usually haven't even been close. Last year was an exception, a hard-fought 20-13 loss. Next week, though, factor in that the 12-3 Seahawks could still need to win to clinch the NFC West, and they'll be mad after losing to Arizona, their first home loss in two years.
A heavily-motivated team without many weaknesses isn't my ideal pick to close out a season. Russell Wilson has been not just good his first two seasons, he’s been historically good. Only Dan Marino (68)and Peyton Manning (52) threw more TD passes their first two seasons than Wilson (51 so far) has in his. The Ram front four has done as good a job as anyone of pressuring Wilson and keeping him in the pocket, but Wilson’s Roger Staubach-like ability to make big plays out of nothing really pressures the Rams to cover every option to the whistle. Since the secondary seems to have found its footing lately, there's reason to hope we won't be treated to Golden Tate clowning them again or Doug Baldwin, Wilson's favorite target lately, continuing to hold his mysterious spell over the Rams. Arizona made it very hard for Wilson to find open receivers, and kept him in the pocket well, keys to their win. Wilson has targeted Marshawn Lynch out of the backfield more lately. Just what the NFL’s DBs need: the Beast coming at them in the open field. The Rams held the fearsome Lynch to 23 yards in St. Louis, though; come close to that again and they'll have a better chance of forcing bad throws out of Wilson. What makes that harder is that Seattle’s offensive line is much healthier than it was in the 14-9 Monday night loss in St. Louis, setting up this week’s main event: Robert Quinn vs. Russell Okung. Okung looked strong against bull-rushes against the *****, but Aldon Smith did, and Quinn certainly can, defeat him with their ability to convert speed to power. That should be a great battle and can go a long way toward deciding the game. If there’s a weak point on the Seattle o- line, it’s probably Paul McQuistan at RG. I really question how well they’re able to pick up stunts, especially Quinn’s. It’s no given for the Seahawks to win the game in the trenches. Kendall Langford has been very good against the run lately; he and Michael Brockers are capable of stacking up the backfield here and getting Seattle out of their game.
Seattle may have no holes on defense at all. Red Bryant has been a monster against the run. Ram-killer Brandon Mebane can be just unblockable at times and is a big mismatch for Tim Barnes. Joseph Barksdale will have to hold his own against relentless outside speed from Chris Clemons or Cliff Avril or Michael Bennett. They're not shy about blitzing and they're deadly with it. They didn’t let the Giants cross midfield last week until the game was almost over. They swarm to the ball better than anyone. Kam Chancellor must be the best safety in the league against the run. But to have any success against Seattle you still have to be willing to slug it out with them on the ground, like the Rams were in St. Louis when Stacy banged out 134. And you have to get a hat on Bobby Wagner, who may be the best of the long roll call of outstanding young LBs the Rams have run into this season. The guards better find Wagner and beat him to the spot when they pull or he'll spend the day in the Rams' backfield. The Rams will be in trouble if they're forced to pass. You can count on Richard Sherman to lock down one WR. With Brandon Browner (indefinitely) and Walter Thurmond (four weeks, one left) suspended, it’s easy to say to pick on Seattle’s other corners. Easy but wrong. Byron Maxwell has made teams pay for trying with three INTs since Thurmond's ban, and Jeremy Lane has been sticking to people like glue. If they slip up, like they once said about Phillies outfielder Garry Maddox, 2/3 of the earth is covered by water, the other 1/3 by Earl Thomas, the best safety in the league. Like I said, it’s not a defense with any holes. You have to punch your own and hope the damage spreads.
Motivation will be easy for Seattle, but shouldn't prove elusive for the Rams, either. Key players have significant personal incentives to play for. Robert Quinn can reach 20 sacks, Zac Stacy, 1,000 yards. Rodger Saffold's finishing an audition for a big contract. Most importantly, though, the team's got a shot at 8-8 that I for one never saw coming after their blowout loss in Arizona. The Rams have been through a lot this season and deserve credit just for getting this close to .500. They may still get there. Crazier things have happened.