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    Bernie Bytes: Monday Morning Backup QB

    Bernie Bytes: Monday Morning Backup QB

    BY BERNIE MIKLASZ
    Monday, December 13, 2010

    Good day to you.

    Let's get started, and before we take a look back at the Rams' predictable loss at New Orleans, I'm going to look ahead to the upcoming schedule and the most important home games played in The Lou in several years.

    * It really is the most wonderful time of the year. For Rams fans, too. The next two weeks will likely determine the Rams' 2010 season. I can't wait for Sunday's game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Rams at The Edward Jones Dome. The atmosphere should be lively, fueled by playoff hopes, Christmas Week spirit, the KC-STL rivalry, and perhaps by the consumption of cold adult beverages in the urban tailgate settings around The Ed. And then the San Francisco ***** come to town on Christmas weekend, with the ***** and Rams clashing on Dec. 26.

    * We have to return all the way to the final weeks of the Rams' 2004 season to identify games as important as the upcoming Chiefs-Rams and *****-Rams. In 2004 the Rams, 6-8, had to beat Philadelphia and the NY Jets at The Edward Jones Dome to have a shot of qualifying for the postseason. In the 15th game the Rams caught a break because the Eagles already had clinched the homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs. With Philadelphia resting many key players, the Rams prevailed over an uninspired opponent 20-7. On the day of the final regular-season game, the Rams needed Washington to beat Minnesota. And they'd also have to defeat the Jets. Done. Jeff Wilkins won it for the Rams 32-29 with a 31-yard field goal in overtime. The Rams went to Seattle and won an NFC wild-card playoff game 27-20, with Marc Bulger hitting tight end Cam Cleeland for the winning TD pass. The following week, the Rams were demolished 47-17 by Michael Vick and Atlanta. And that was the last time the Rams appeared in a postseason game. It's been a long time coming.

    * But now the 2010 Rams have a chance to get it done. This early in the week, it's difficult to know if QB Matt Cassel will be able to play for the Chiefs on Sunday. And obviously that's a crucial factor in this game. The Chiefs didn't have Cassel for the game at San Diego on Sunday; he was still recovering from an emergency appendectomy. And the Chiefs were rocked 31-0 by the Chargers. Cassel's absence changed everything. He's really had a fantastic year, with 23 TD passes and only 4 INTs.

    Cassel's value became obvious Sunday during Kansas City's futile offensive effort at San Diego. With backup Brodie Coyle starting and completing 7 of 17 passes for 40 yards, the Chargers didn't have to worry about getting burned by the pass. They they concentrated on stopping the KC running game, which was No. 1 in the NFL coming into the game. But the Chiefs managed only 48 yards rushing on 17 carries. And the Chiefs, unbelievably, mustered only 67 total yards in the game. The Chargers outgained KC 426-67 and the time of possession was 40 minutes to 20 minutes in favor of San Diego. Without Cassel the Chiefs failed to convert any of their 11 third-down plays.

    * So it's hard to get a read on what to expect from the Chiefs until we know about Cassel. But the Chiefs were having an outstanding season until the Cassel crisis hit them. Even after the loss, the Chiefs are 8-5 and lead the Chargers (7-6) in the AFC West. But Kansas City is in some trouble. According to the Kansas City Star, San Diego controls the tie-breaker with the Chiefs. So if San Diego wins its final three games - home vs. San Francisco, then on the road at Cincinnati and Denver - and the Chiefs lose one of their final three games, then Chargers will win the AFC West for a fifth consecutive season. So this will be a huge game for the Chiefs. With or without Cassel, they'll be fired up and highly motivated to take on the Rams. They have no choice. And even if Cassel plays, the Chiefs will want to do everything they can to protect him. And that plan undoubtedly includes cranking up Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones and getting that rushing attack going again.

    * The Rams, 2-22 at home from 2007-2009, are 4-2 at The Ed this season. Will the homefield advantage help push them into the postseason. Is it strong enough? Hard to say. There will be thousands of Chiefs fans in attendance Sunday. It could be a little embarrassing.

    * Those San Francisco ***** (5-8) suddenly lurk only a game behind co-leaders St. Louis (6-7) and Seattle (6-7) in the NFC West. Rams fans may want to watch the NFL Network on Thursday night when the ***** play at San Diego. This one will be interesting, a game of added significance. You'd think the Chargers would handle the ***** given San Francisco's 1-5 road record. But the talented Chargers are one of the most baffling teams in the NFL. As recently as two weeks ago, the Bolts were blasted at home by an inferior Oakland, losing by 15 points. The ***** received a lift Sunday from the return of QB Alex Smith (more on him in a minute.) If the ***** upset the Chargers, they'll put a lot of pressure on the Rams and Seahawks. Put it this way: if the 'Niners beat the Chargers, and the Rams lose to the Chiefs, then San Francisco would have the chance to move ahead of the Rams in the NFC West standings with a win in STL on Dec. 26.

    * The ***** were 1-6 with Alex Smith as the starter earlier in the season before going out with a shoulder injury. The ***** turned to Troy Smith, who energized the offense for a while; the ***** won his first two starts. But over his last three starts T. Smith completed only 47 percent of his passes and the 'Niners went 1-2. Alex Smith was given the start Sunday and played magnificently in the 40-21 home win over Seattle. He passed for 255 yards and three TDs and had a rating of 130.9. Can Alex Smith maintain this? We'll find out during the *****' next two games, both on the road, at SD and STL. Alex Smith is 0-4 with 65.3 passer rating on the road this season. For his career, A. Smith is 6-19 as a starter on the road, with 19 TDs and 27 interceptions for a 64.7 passer rating. But the ***** were revved up by the way Smith played against Seattle, and that gives them a little rush of optimism as they head to San Diego.

    * Meanwhile, the Seahawks continue to cling to a share of the lead of the NFC West. But how long can they hold on? When the Seahawks are bad, they're really, really bad. Their seven losses have occurred by an average margin of 21.4 points. QB Matt Hasselbeck, 35, threw four INTs and lost a fumble for five turnovers in the 19-point loss at San Francisco Sunday. One of the INTs was a pick six for a touchdown. And Hasselbeck has four TDs and eight INTs over the last three games. The Seahawks were so beaten up at the WR position that they had to start former Ram Ruvell Martin, and Deon Butler at wideout Sunday. And Butler broke his leg during the game. But Seattle will likely have two injured wideouts (Mike Williams, Ben Obumanu) back for Sunday's home game against Atlanta.

    * After playing Atlanta (11-2) at home, the Seahawks will go to Tampa Bay, then host the Rams on Jan. 2 in Seattle. Atlanta is 5-2 on the road, having won its last three away games. The last Atlanta road loss came on Oct. 17 at Philadelphia. The Falcons should have plenty of motivation to win at Seattle considering that New Orleans (10-3) is stalking them in the NFC South. The Falcons don't want to be caught by the Saints so they should take the Seattle game seriously. That said, this will be the third road game in a stretch of three consecutive road games for Atlanta. Could fatigue be a factor? The Rams could use some help from the Falcons. If the Seahawks can pull an upset, it would be a considerable and unexpected boost to their playoff chances.

    * Obviously the Rams' weaknesses, and the talent gap, were exposed in their last two games against elite teams. The Rams lost by 14 points to Atlanta, then by 18 to New Orleans. The Rams' defense, which has done such a fine job against so-so teams, got shredded on third downs by the Falcons and Saints, who converted a combined 20 of 33, or 60.6 percent. And the Rams offense converted only 2 of 21 third-down plays against Atlanta and New Orleans. Saints coaches said they spent a lot of time watching the video of the Falcons-Rams game and saw how well the Falcons protected Matt Ryan. Presumably the Saints put some of those ideas into action. The Rams did sack Drew Brees once (after the game got away), but rarely put real pressure on him. In the games against the Falcons and Saints the Rams' pass rush was reduced to a non-factor; they had one sack in eight quarters.

    * It's a day later, and the Rams' decision to drop back and give Brees all the time he needed to pick them apart still doesn't register as a good plan. Yes, Brees can make a team pay for blitzing. He's sharp. He's quick. He's very good. But given the injuries to their secondary, and given the inability of their outside linebackers to stay with tight ends and backs, the Rams weren't going to be able to cover the Saints targets. And the Saints have lots of targets. So the Rams should have cranked up the blitz to see if they could at least take Brees out of his comfort zone.

    * Saints head coach Sean Payton said the difference in pressure on each QB was one of the big differences in the game. And he's right. One of the worst aspects of the Rams' loss was the beating absorbed by QB Sam Bradford. The Rams struggled in their blitz pickups. And as Bradford said after the game, he was at times too slow to fire the football. On the other side, the Rams hardly put a paw - let alone a hit - on Brees. It was a substantial factor in the outcome.

    "When you watch Bradford play, he doesn't look like a first-year player," Payton said. "He throws on rhythm. We thought the pass for us was going to be significant in regards to a battle for both teams. This is a (Rams) team that's No. 4 or 5 in the league in sacks. We felt that was something we needed to emphasize. In other words, us being able to pressure and get hits on their quarterback, and us being able to protect Brees. I thought we did a pretty good job with that. I thought that had a lot to do with the third-down conversions."

    * Payton on Bradford: "He is having a very good season and as a young player he shows you all the things you would want and hope for as an organization with your first-round pick."

    * Bradford's third-down passing numbers are sliding. In his last four games Bradford has completed only 18 of 41 passes (43.9 percent) on third down, with 1 TD and 3 INT and a passer rating of 37.8. In his first nine games, Bradford completed 60 percent on third down with 6 TDs and no INTs and a passer rating of 99.1.

    * You had to love Bradford's hustle in covering so much ground in running down the New Orleans DB on the return of an apparent fumble. (Which was later overturned.) The strong safety, Roman Harper, is going to be hearing about that one for a while.

    * I wish I understood why the Rams didn't utilize wideout Danario Alexander more at New Orleans. I wish I had something to tell you. I'm thinking he would have tracked down that long pass down the left sideline that should have gone for a touchdown. Instead, WR Laurent Robinson turned the wrong way and looked over the wrong shoulder and couldn't recover in time to make the catch. It was a wasted opportunity. And the Rams continue to waste Alexander's big-play capability.

    * The Rams started David Vobora at strongside linebacker and Chris Chamberlain at weakside linebacker. But after a while, a set of other outside linebackers were shuttled in, Larry Grant and Bryan Kehl. The Saints wisely attacked the Rams' perimeter; the Rams don't have outside linebackers who play well in space. Any personnel wish list for the 2011 season includes help at outside linebacker. And that's high on the list. The Rams must make this an offseason priority. It's obvious.

    * Since the start of the 2005 season, Steven Jackson has six consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. But over that time Jackson is second in the NFL in average yards rushing per game (85.7), and is second in the NFL in average yards from scrimmage per game (114.5). He's third in overall yards rushing and second in total yards from scrimmage since the start of '05. Some would take a swipe at Jackson by pointing out that the 1,000-yard rushing season has lost value because of the 16-game schedule, up from the 14-game schedule the NFL used to play. But that really doesn't apply to Jackson. Why? Because his average yards rushing per game since 2005 (85.7) translates into about 1,200 yards rushing in a season over a 14-game schedule.

    Thanks for reading.

    -Bernie


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    Re: Bernie Bytes: Monday Morning Backup QB

    OLB has been killing us for a while now

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