Bernie Bytes: Rams must use DX Missile

BY BERNIE MIKLASZ
Tuesday, December 28, 2010 2:05 pm

Sorry for my late start today ...

Let's get going:

READING TIME 5 MINUTES:

* The Rams have to play wide receiver Danario Alexander at Seattle on Sunday night. They not only have to play him; they have to utilize him. Before I get into the statistics, let me declare up front that these are based on a small sample size. Which means that we shouldn't draw any firm conclusions. And that these numbers don't carry the same weight as an entire body of work over a full season. So there. You've been warned.

That said, it's pretty obvious that the exciting rookie WR has delivered substantial impact when given the opportunity. And that he makes a difference in the Rams offense. And that he gives it a dimension that the other receivers can't provide.

Alexander has appeared in seven games this season, four wins and three losses.

-- In the Rams' four wins, QB Sam Bradford has targeted the DX Missile 25 times. Alexander has caught 16 passes for 286 yards, an average of 17.9 yards per reception. The haul includes a touchdown, 11 first downs, and three catches of 25+ yards.

-- In the Rams' three losses with Alexander, he's been targeted only 7 times, with one catch for six yards. Granted, the three losses have been against winning teams, Tampa Bay and New Orleans and Kansas City. But still...

Notice a trend there? When the Rams roll out the DX Missile and actually make him part of the game plan, big things happen. When they don't use Alexander, the passing game lacks sizzle. It's plain to see.

There's more to it than that. Let's talk about the dimension that DX brings to the field. This season he's averaged 11 yards at the point of the catch. (In other words: how many yards downfield is he at the point of reception? This doesn't take into account the number of yards produced after making the catch.)

That 11-yard average is the best on the team. Before getting injured, Mark Clayton averaged 9 yards at the point of the catch. The little-used Mardy Gilyard averages 8.2 yards at the spot of the catch. Other averages for the wideouts: Laurent Robinson 7.5 yards, Brandon Gibson 7.4 yards, Danny Amendola 3.7 yards.

How about a dash of historical perspective? In the peak years of the Greatest Show on Turf (1999-2001), Torry Holt averaged 12.7 yards at the point of the catch. Isaac Bruce averaged 12.3 yards. Ricky Proehl averaged 9.3 yards at the spot of the catch.

Which means that Alexander -- small sample size and all -- is capable of stretching the field in a way that we haven't seen from a Rams wideout since the glory days.

In that context, it makes absolutely no sense to keep Alexander in the shed. It makes no sense to reduce him to a non-factor. All that does is help the defense. Because without the DX Missile in there, defensive coordinators don't have to worry about a Rams' WR burning them deep. If nothing else, if you play Alexander it forces the defense to account for him, and to make sure that he's checked. And that only serves to help Bradford and the other receivers. You don't think that the Seattle defensive coaches are looking at the video this week and thinking about how they'll approach DX if he plays? The Rams have to make DX a factor.

Moving on ...

* I wanted to clarify something: my issue with the Rams' play calls in Sunday's win over the ***** had nothing to do with personnel groupings or the number of wideouts used in formations. As I've written and said already, I applaud offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and head coach Steve Spagnuolo for coming out with four wideouts and running the no-huddle, and for using plenty of three/four wideout sets. The aggressiveness was welcome. And it was effective.

My issue was this: after Bradford was sacked and lost a fumble in the red zone, the Rams clearly went into a shell for a while. They backed off. Of the next six plays, four were runs -- including a run on 3rd and 6. And the two passes were safe passes, thrown short of the first-down marker. And late in the game, with a chance to kill San Francisco off with a TD, Spags ordered up three consecutive running plays in an obvious strategy of settling for a field goal that restored the Rams' lead to 8 points.

After Spags explained his reasons for that, I understood his thinking. I prefer to see teams go for the kill when they have a chance; it would be good to see a young Rams team develop that attitude. But Spags played it safe late in the win at Denver, and the Rams held on to win. It was too close for comfort. But they did win. And as for Sunday's victory over the 'Niners ... as I wrote in Monday's column, Spags won the game, and therefore he gets the credit. His way worked.

But I'd also hate to see the Rams lose a game because they declined to get after it and put the other team away for good. That's all I'm saying. Clearly, Spags' strategy was the winning strategy in the important victory over San Francisco. We'll see how Spagnuolo and the Rams play it Sunday in Seattle.

* The Seattle QB situation will offer plenty of intrigue all week. The Seahawks are framing it as though Charlie Whitehurst will start in place of the injured Matt Hasselbeck. But Hasselbeck, bothered by a strained lower-back muscle, isn't ready to capitulate, as you'll read here. (And I know that many of you are aware of all of this by now -- but hey, I'm just trying to help in case you missed it.) Do we really expect Whitehurst to play? Or will we see Hasselbeck pull off a Willis Reed and take his spot in the starting lineup come Sunday night? It's hard to say.

* We do know this: Hasselbeck is an intense and dedicated competitor. If there's a way to go, he'll go. And NFL teams like to keep the other side guessing, so Seattle has a chance to engage in a little gamesmanship with the Rams. But I don't believe the coaches are sitting around in their upstairs offices at Rams Park, brooding and fretting over the Seahawks' QB pick. The Rams are familiar with Hasselbeck. They have ample video on Whitehurst. Seattle doesn't appear to change its offensive approach in a significant way based on the QB. Frankly, I'm surprised the Seahawks don't commit to the running game more than they do, and we'll discuss that later on.

* If Hasselbeck starts, how long will he last? And how effective could he be, especially after not practicing all week? Hasselbeck is 35 and has been beaten down by taking so many hard hits, and by playing he game at such a feverish pace. And he's really struggled this year. In his last 4+ games, he's thrown 10 interceptions (wth 4 TDs) and fumbled four times and has tried to force throws and plays that aren't there. You can see the frustration eating away at Hasselbeck, who desperately wants to win. But the more he tries, the more he presses, the more he rages against age and losing -- the worse it gets for him. That's been the trend, anyway. As much as I respect the man, his career slope is indisputable: Hasselbeck is on the downside, and this is nothing new.

* Since the start of the 2008 season, Hasselbeck has played in 35 games. He's thrown 34 TD passes with 44 INTs. His passer rating of 71.2 over the last three seasons ranks 38th among qualifying NFL quarterbacks. That 71.2 is the same passer rating posted by Marc Bulger in St. Louis over his final two seasons. That low passer rating puts Hasselbeck down near the bottom with the likes of Brady Quinn, Derek Anderson, Bulger, JaMarcus Russell, etc. And Matt hasn't fared much better at Qwest Field; Hasselbeck's passer rating at home since the start of the 2008 season is 72.7, with more INTs (24) than TDs (22). So if Hasselbeck gets well and gets the starting call, he'd have to reach back several years to find the kind of take-over-the-game performance that Seattle needs.

* Seattle's struggles on the ground: I've watched every Seahawks game this season and I continue to be surprised by these two things (1) the team's seeming unwillingness to stick with the rushing attack; (2) the lethargic performance of said rushing attack. Of course, the two points are related. The Seahawks haven't been an effective running team, and when they come out early and get stuffed on the ground, it apparently makes offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates lose patience.

And Seattle doesn't hesitate to start dialing up the passes. Only two NFL teams have attempted fewer runs than Seattle. Part of this is due to the Seahawks having to throw it in an effort to erase big deficits. But it isn't that simple. Seattle prefers to pass the ball early in games, when the score is often close. The Seahawks have tried to pass on 58 percent of their first-quarter plays. They've tried to pass on 63 percent of their first-half plays. Only six teams have attempted more first-quarter passes than Seattle; only eight have tried to pass more often in the 1st half.

* Looking it from a Seattle perspective, it seems obvious that the Seahawks would benefit greatly by being able to grind it out against the Rams on Sunday night. If a team is getting shaky, error-filled play from the QB position, a strong running game can calm everything down. And set up a close-game scenario in which the crowd stays loud and involved, with a young STL team making mistakes that give Seattle a chance to win it late. But at least to this point, Seattle has been unwilling or incapable of staying with a patient approach to running the football. I wonder if Sunday will be different.

* Of course, RB Marshawn Lynch was supposed to fix all of that. Seattle gave a 4th-round draft pick (2011) to Buffalo to acquire Lynch on Oct. 5. He was supposed to be a game-changing, division-changing player. Well, it hasn't happened. Lynch has had his share of breakout runs -- he went 39 yards on a carry at Tampa Bay Sunday -- but his overall impact has been minimal. In 11 games with SEA, Lynch has 145 rushes for 498 yards for an average of 3.4 yards per carry. He does have six TDs. Since joining the Seahawks, Lynch has been stuffed (no gain, or a loss) on 14.5 percent of his runs. That may not look like a lot to you on the surface, but it's a big number. Only two NFL backs have been stuffed on runs more frequently than Lynch since he went to Seattle. But Seattle hasn't worked him as much as anticipated. Lynch has exceeded 20 carries in a game only twice. No Seattle back has delivered a 100-yard game this season.

Thanks for reading...

Bernie