0-2 feels different this year

Sports Columnist Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
09/23/2009

Just because you meet two men on the same floor in a narrow stairwell, there's no guarantee that they're headed in the same direction. Steve Spagnuolo keeps trying to emphasize this every time the clatter from some disgruntled Rams fans and impatient media wags gets a bit too close to the impressionable ears of his green-but-growing football team.

Every time someone ventures to compare his winless two-game start of the season to Scott Linehan's atrocious 0-2 nightmare from last season, almost by reflex, Spagnuolo quickly puts up the blinders. You can see him figuratively clap his hands over his team's collective ears as he essentially tries to shout above the din (with apologies to a certain Mr. M. McGwire): "I'm not here to talk about the past."

There is some definite merit to Spagnuolo's strategy, because even though the '08 Rams and these '09 Rams are standing on the same 0-2 platform, there has to be a very real sense among most practical-thinking folks that it's just not the same. Linehan's Rams were a pratfall waiting to happen, lurching down the stairs toward 2-14 oblivion. On the other hand, Spagnuolo's Rams are earnestly clutching the handrail, trying hard to climb one step at a time upward toward respectability.

On Monday afternoon as he addressed his team and praised them for their obvious improvement from Week 1's 28-0 disaster to Week 2's frustrating, but decidedly better effort in a 9-7 loss to Washington, "Dean" Spagnuolo delivered this rather instructive message to a young team still learning how to become winners:

"We should be upset that we lost — disappointed, but not discouraged," Spagnuolo said. "These are all the things I said to them. Be careful not to think just because it was 28-0 a week ago, (and) this week (it) was a two-point deficit that it's automatic that we're going to (win this week). It doesn't happen that way. Every week is a new week and we've got a new challenge this week with Green Bay. We get it corrected, we detail it, we come back on Wednesday, and all we do is put the blinders on to face Green Bay."

Three weeks ago when you looked at the early part of the Rams schedule, the toughest and seemingly most unwinnable game appeared to be Sunday's home opener against the Packers. The Pack were being touted as one of the rising teams in the NFC. Now they are a struggling 1-1 team that suddenly looks vulnerable, even to a team like the Rams, who are on a 12-game losing streak.

Green Bay's offense is beat up, mistake-prone and suddenly incapable of protecting star QB Aaron Rodgers, who was sacked six times and knocked down four other times by the 17 blitzes in a 31-24 loss to Cincinnati. But as bad as the offense was, the Packers defense was the big surprise. When you give up 31 points to a Bengals team that scored one TD the week before, that ought to raise a few eyebrows in the Rams' offensive team rooms this week.

What was surprising about this game was not simply that the Packers lost a home game or even that they gave up 31 points to the Bengals. The real shocker was how effectively the Bengals were able to run inside the tackles against a Dom Capers-coordinated defense that prides itself on stringing the running game to the outside. Yet on Sunday, Cincy tailback Cedric Benson ran for 141 yards, much of it off the hips of his tackles.

I mention this as a public service to all of us who were under the impression that this was going to be a Steven Jackson-happy offense. While Jackson was finally emphasized in the Rams game plan last week with a season-high 104 yards, it was on only 17 carries, and he got only four receptions for 15 yards.

So now here comes Green Bay, which struggled to contain Cedric Benson, who is not in Jackson's class as an NFL running back.

But look what Benson did against the Packers. His first three carries were for 12 yards. His first four carries gained 40 yards, and his first 11 attempts were good for 76 yards. And he did it all on four basic plays — off tackle left, off tackle right, a sweep right and a sweep left. What the Bengals did early was establish the running game by employing obvious running formations. On the first drive, Cincy used three tackles on some plays. The Bengals also used one overload formation (two tackles on the same side) and sent their fullback in motion to attack the Packers' outside linebackers, which allowed Benson to go both inside the tackles and get to the edge quite effectively.

If this Rams team is going to continue to climb up that stairwell to respectability, the smartest way to do that is to rely heavily on the one dynamic offensive weapon they have, Jackson. Spagnuolo talked about emphasizing the positives from last week's game, and one of those positives were the three offensive drives that had at least 10 plays. The obvious magic of those drives was the effective use of Jackson, who gets stronger and better the more you use him. So far after two games though, he's only carried the ball 16 and 17 times. That's not enough, not nearly enough.

"I don't know that we have a targeted number," Spagnuolo said Monday. "(But) we would certainly like to feed him the football in different ways. That is true, but no targeted number."

If this team is going to get better there may not be any need for a targeted number of touches for Jackson, but there must be an unrelenting reliance on him. He needs the ball early and often.

Spagnuolo shouldn't be happy — and the Rams probably won't win — unless at the end of the game Jackson is the weariest man in the building.