Bernie Bytes: Monday Morning Backup Quarterback

BY BERNIE MIKLASZ
September 27, 2010


Good morning. It's fun to be able to talk about a Rams' victory for a change.

READING TIME 5 MINUTES (at least):

* The Rams defense is putting together an interesting profile. They're giving up a bunch of yards, ranking 24th in the league at 377 yards allowed per game. They have one of the worst rushing defenses in the league, allowing just under 134 yards per game, which ranks 24th. The average yards per carry against them (5.1 yds) is 31st. But the unit continues to make timely plays and stops to limit the damage. That's why, despite getting ripped for so many yards, the Rams have given up only 4 TDs, which ranks tied for 5th. They've given up 16.3 points per game, which ranks 9th.

Again, it's all about good timing. Through three games, this has been one of the more dirsuptive NFL defenses. The Rams have 8 takeaways; only Pittsburgh (10) has more. The Rams have stuffed 11 running plays for losses; the percentage of stuffs per rushing attempt (14.1 pct.) is tied for 2nd. The Rams are 8th in the NFL in third-down defense, with opponents converting only 32.5 percent. And they have been stout in the red zone, giving up 3 TDs in 11 possessions.

All in all, the Rams defense has come up big at key moments. And that was certainy true against the Redskins. Forcing Washington to settle for three field goals in three RZ situations was probably the No. 1 reason why the Rams won Sunday's game. This group competes like mad to make up for shortfalls.

* Big ups to the Rams offensive line. Bradford was sacked only once by the blitz-happy Redskins. He didn't take many hits. Yes, there were a few jailbreaks early, but the line tightened things up. And in the second half the run blocking was muscular. The two young offensive tackles, Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith, were strong in this game. Smith was flagged for two holding penalties, but at least one of the calls was bogus. Saffold is mature beyond his years. And center Jason Brown made the key blocks on both of the Rams' TD runs. I think I speak for all of us when I say that the potential is here for a very good offensive line -- but we all want to see the kind of consistent competitive fire that we witnessed from this group against the Redskins. They got after it.

* I liked seeing John Greco in there at guard; he pumps up the run blocking.

* The blitz tactics devised by head coach Steve Spagnuolo and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole have been outstanding. They've mixed them up to cause confusion and/or timing issues. Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 74.9 against the Rams; only nine NFL defenses have a lower rating.

* That said, Spagnuolo believes a key to Sunday's win over Washington was the ability of the Rams to get a good pass rush with their four defensive linemen. It was a factor, no question.

* Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was more creative with his formations, motion, personnel groupings and play calling. He did a really nice job and clearly won the coaching matchup against Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. The go-ahead 12-yard TD run by Kenneth Darby was an example. Shurmur set up three wideouts to the left to force the Redskins to spread out, then ran the ball up the middle. The Redskins defense wasn't aligned to stop it -- they were clearly surprised -- and Darby made one good cut and scored easily.

This is something the Rams have to do more of: spread the defense and run. The quick screens were effective. I thought I saw a few more "dig" routes than usual. And the Rams did some bunching with their wide receivers, which can create defensive confusion. Shurmur incorporated some effective strategy. He did adjust. The Rams found new ways to move the ball in the second half and outscored the Redskins 16-0 after Washington had taken a two-point lead early in the third quarter. Shurmur kept Haslett off balance with a splendid mix of looks on first down. And Shurmur patiently worked the middle with the receivers, which is how you're supposed to attack a Haslett blitz. Nice job.

* As always, the Rams can't get much of a break. We'll know more about RB Steven Jackson's health later on Monday, but this team can't afford to go without him for long. Darby and Keith Toston were fine in relief Sunday. Again, Darby made a good cut to make a tackler miss on the TD run from a spread formation.

But let's not get carried away, eh? I've already heard someone say this morning that Darby and Toston proved they could do the job if there's no Jackson. Please. They combined for 24 carries after Jackson left the game. Of the 24 carries, 19 produced 3 yards or less. And 14 of the 24 gained 2 yards or less. And some of this running was done against seven-man fronts instead of the usual eight that Jackson encounters.

*The Rams are going to have to find a RB, and they have been thinking about Larry Johnson, but there are so many mixed reports on the guy that I'm not sure what to make of him. He didn't have a good rep after leaving Kansas City, that's for sure. The dude has been released by three teams, the Chiefs, Bengals and Redskins. The one thing the Rams can't do is put a bad attitude in a locker room that has a positive vibe, filled with players who work hard and are willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team.

On my 101 ESPN radio show Monday I spoke to former NFL general manager Michael Lombardi, the analyst for the NFL Network. He said he would not sign Johnson. "He has no burst or athleticism at all," Lombardi said. "The quickness isn't there."

* Frankly, this is what has frustrated me about Rams GM Billy Devaney. He's had 2+ years to find a quality No. 2 back, and do so on the Rams' terms -- picking up a RB that fits your needs and your team personality instead of having to add a less-than desirable RB in an emergency situation.

* The Rams can't afford to be without safety O.J. Atogwe for very long, either. But his quad injury could be one of those nagging things that sticks with him for a while.

* Sam Bradford continues to impress in all things, but especially his poised demeanor and the insistence on reaching the high standard that he sets for himself. In three games, Bradford has made some bad throws and has made the wrong read on occasion. Bradford's INT Sunday was a combination of both things. And in the fourth quarter, Bradford was furious at himself for overthrowing an open Brandon Gibson in the left side of the end zone on a 3rd and 6 from the 18-yard line."Oh, God yeah, that was a touchdown," Bradford said. "If that was going to come back to haunt us, I was going to (smack) myself over that one. When they lined up on that coverage, I knew the corner was going to 'squat' (on the route) and I wish I could have that one back." For those watching the game on TV, did you see the look on Bradford's face on the sideline, after he made that errant throw? He just will not tolerate failure. The kid is an intense competitor, and a perfectionist.

* The young Rams' corner, Bradley Fletcher, is going to be an outstanding player in this league. Big, physical, smart. It's all there.

* On third downs against the Redskins, Bradford completed 8 of 11 passes for 81 yards and got six first downs. Seriously now: can you imagine how great this guy is going to be when he gets a No. 1 receiver that can mess up a defense? Just as an example: I watched the NY Jets @ Miami game late Sunday night, and kept thinking: can you imagine how much better Bradford would be if he had a WR talent like Brandon Marshall on his side?

* Bradford's 3rd down passer rating (76.4) ranks about 15th among full-time starting quarterbacks. But the number is better than the 3rd down QB ratings posted so far by Matt Schaub, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Tony Romo, Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb and Carson Palmer.

* I will say this (again) though: Mark Clayton isn't a No. 1 receiver, but he's been terrific for the Rams and Bradford. And getting Clayton from the Ravens for next to nothing was one helluva trade by Devaney.

* It was good to see Rams owner Stan Kroenke work the room after Sunday's win. Kroenke added a nice personal touch by visiting every Rams player at their locker to offer congratulations. You could tell that the Rams players appreciated having the owner with them. Kroenke's gesture of shaking hands with every individual player went over very well with the guys.

Kroenke told me, "It's just great to win." He added that all wins are special. But you could tell that the first win for Kroenke as the team's new owner was extra special to him. I hope Kroenke realizes how much positive impact he makes on morale just by being around.

That's all for now, thanks for reading ....

-Bernie