Bernie Bytes: Monday Morning Backup QB

BY BERNIE MIKLASZ
Monday, January 10, 2011 1:20 pm


I hope everybody had a pleasant weekend.

It was a terrific weekend for the NFL playoffs, with three of the four games going down to the wire and delivering plenty of drama.

Let's begin by making a local connection with this:

Five Things the Rams Could Have Learned From Watching the Playoffs:

1. Do not hold back, do not go into a big game with a tentative mindset. To cite the famous quote from Herm Edwards: "You play to win the game." And if you saw the Seattle Seahawks hang 41 points in the upset of the New Orleans Saints, if you watched the Seahawks come out on Jan. 2 and stun-gun the Rams on the opening drive, then no elaboration is required.

2. The Rams defense is close to being playoff-caliber, if it isn't already there. I'm not suggesting that the Rams are as good defensively as some of the teams we watched this past weekend, including Baltimore, the NY Jets or Green Bay. I won't bore you with a long statistical breakdown, but take a look at the bottom line: the Rams ranked 12th in the NFL in allowing the fewest points, 20.5 per game. Of the 12 teams that qualified for the postseason, nine rank ahead of the Rams in points allowed and the Rams were better in this area than three playoff teams (Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Seattle.) Given the dramatic improvement of their defense under HC Steve Spagnuolo and DC Ken Flajole from 2009 to 2010. The Rams are close, really close. For example: Chicago gave up 18 points per game this season, two fewer than the Rams, and the Bears were No. 4 in the league in scoring defense. Moreover, the Rams were No. 2 in the NFL this season in preventing third-down conversions. The Rams didn't face many top offenses or QBs, so this needs to be flitered a bit. But defensively, I think the Rams have made good progress in building a playoff defense.

3. Be innovative to perk up that sluggish running game. If you've been reading me you'll know that I'm disappointed in the dull nature of the Rams' rushing attack in 2010. There is no excuse to get an average of only 3.8 yards per carry out of Steven Jackson. Not with the elite draft picks and free-agent purchases playing up front. There's no excuse for the Rams to shy away from running as soon as a team hits them with an eight-man front. Because of injuries to RB Ryan Grant and others, the Green Bay Packers labored to run the ball effectively this season. The Pack averaged only 3.8 yards per carry as a team. But Green Bay went into Philadelphia and won with the help of a 123-yard rushing performance from rookie James Starks. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry. As a team, GB finished with 138 yards rushing. And I don't think many expected that to happen. But did you see what the Packers came up with? They implemented an interesting backfield formation, with two 250-pound fullbacks (John Kuhn, Quinn Johnson) lined up in front of Starks. The formation put some muscle in a weak running game. When in doubt, there is always a way out, a way to come up with a new idea. There's no reason to back off and give up on the run.

4. It is possible to get more production out of a limited group of receivers. It's difficult to pull that off over 16 games. Seattle couldn't do it. But for one game? For select games? Absolutely, it's possible as long as you think outside the box and try something new. And the Seahawks showed that in Saturday's ambush of New Orleans. I covered some of this in my Monday print-edition column, so I apologize for the repeat. But I'll add some details here.

There is nothing special about Seattle's group of wideouts. Mike Williams was a draft bust, out of work after being released by multiple teams, Ben Obumanu had 16 career NFL catches before this season. Ruvell Martin played for the 2009 Rams, a team that needed receivers -- and the Rams didn't keep him around. And Martin was cut by Seattle in November; only to be brought back a couple of weeks later. Brandon Stokely, 34, has battled injuries during his career and caught only 19 passes for Denver last season. Golden Tate is a rookie, a second-round pick. He may become a good player but isn't there yet. But Seattle got more than 200 receiving yards from their wideouts Saturday. Why? Because offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates came up with some stuff to give New Orleans a hard time. He double-stacked the wideouts, two on each side of the field, and created confusion. When you stack the receivers, it gives them a chance to come off the ball and "rub" the defensive backs -- a polite way of saying that the receivers are setting legal picks. The New Orleans safeties, especially Roman Harper, got lost in the traffic. Seattle's wideouts got free. Bates also knew that New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- not fearing the deep ball from Seattle -- would squeeze down on the short and intermediate routes. So what did Seattle do? Lots of pump fakes by Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck. Lots of looking left and throwing right (or vice versa). Lots of hitch-and-go routes to draw the Saints defenders up, only to throw the ball over the top.

Again, you can't hide the weaknesses of your receivers over 16 games. It won't happen. But you can go into a game with some fresh ideas and surprises andd roll the dice to catch the defense off guard. The Seahawks did just that.

5. Continue to cultivate Big Mike Hoomanawanui as a receiving target. The Rams coaches had nice plans for Hoomanawananui until ankle injuries disrupted his rookie season. Let's hope that the Rams give Illinois Mike an expanded role in their offense in 2011. Having a tight end that can break a defense down with his receiving skills can be such a huge plus for an offense. Baltimore tight end Todd Heap was the best offensive player on the field in the 30-7 win at Kansas City, catching 10 passes for 108 yards. The Seahawks got two TD catches from their tight end, John Carlson. They put in a special play for Carlson, having him go to the ground in an apparent attempt to cut block a Saint -- only to bounce right up and run open, completely uncovered, to make a TD reception. Green Bay tight end Tom Crabtree caught a TD pass in the win at Philaelphia.

MOVING ON ...

* A note from my friend Mike Sando the NFC West blogger from ESPN.com: NFC West teams have the highest postseason winning percentage (.643) since the 2005 season. The 9-5 record includes a 4-0 mark in the wild-card round. So there, all of you NFC West bashers... (kidding.) And if Green Bay wins at Atlanta and Seattle wins at Chicago, the NFC Championship Game would be played at Qwest Field in Seattle. And if it reaches that point, many heads would implode.

* It's impossible to have better matchups then what we'll see in the AFC this weekend. Baltimore at Pittsburgh and the New York Jets at New England. Hostile rivalries, division rivals, bad blood, big names, big talk, a history of fiercely played contests. The Jets and the Patriots split their two reg-season games; same with the Ravens and Steelers. The natural instinct is to go with the home teams, Pittsburgh and New England. (And New England crushed the Jets in Foxboro this season.) But Baltimore is 4-2 on the road in the postseason under coach John Harbaugh. The Jets are 3-1 on the road in the postseason under Buddy Ryan. Their teams won't scare.

* Whatever happened to Kansas City WR Dwayne Bowe? How did a force who caught 72 catches for 1,162 receiving yards and 15 TDs disappear in the loss to Baltimore? Where did he go? No wonder the Chiefs haven't won a postseason game since 1993, when Joe Montana was still the QB. Kansas City's streak of seven consecutive playoff losses is an NFL record.

* And since we're on the subject, has anyone seen Indianapolis wideout Reggie Wayne? I know that Wayne was being covered by the Jets' D. Revis, but you have to at least try to throw it to him, no?

* Green Bay at Atlanta, the rematch, should be a terrific game. The Packers lost a thriller (20-17) at Atlanta on Nov. 28 and rushed for only 77 yards, most of which came on scrambles by QB Aaron Rodgers. Lot of pressure on Atlanta to win this game. The Falcons are the No. 1 seed, they're at home, and Green Bay should be loose. There was pressure on Rodgers to win a playoff game, which he did at Philly, and with that part of the challenge over, Rodgers and The Pack have nothing to worry about. Just go play. But they'll have to run the ball better this time around.

* The Chicago Bears are good, but they're also lucky ... at least we think so. We won't be saying that if Seattle beats the Bears at Soldier Field this week. But the Bears got help (and a first-round bye) when Minnesota upset Philadelphia in Week 16. Now the Bears get to draw Seattle as an opening opponent. Yes, I know Seattle went into Chicago and won 23-20 early in the season. But the Bears have changed since then; OC Mike Martz is running the ball more, and putting in better protection packages for QB Jay Cutler. Not that we should make the mistake of automatically dismissing Seattle (again), but let's be real here: would you rather play Seattle in your yard or someone else? I think you'd want to play Seattle.

* Philadelphia might want to think about giving a large, long-term contract to QB Michael Vick. He tapered off near the end of the season, playing OK (at best) in losses to Minnesota, then in the playoffs to Green Bay. But other than an unmerciful shredding of a Larry Marmie-coached Rams defense in the 2004 playoffs, what makes us believe that Vick can get it done in a big way in the postseason? He's now 2-4 as a postseason starter with a 56 percent completion rate, 5 TDs, 4 INTs and a passer rating of 77.6. Vick made substantial progress as a pocket passer this season, but reverted back to his helter-skelter ways late in the year and during the loss to Green Bay.

Thanks for reading ...

-Bernie