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Hurricane Vick, Falcons Defense, Blow Away Rams - by Barry Waller
Hurricane Vick, Falcons Defense, Blow Away Rams
September 19th, 2004
By Barry Waller
It remains to be seen whether the Rams first loss to the Atlanta Falcons since
1998, arguably the worst performance by a Rams team since 1999 is just a puzzling anomaly, or a portent for a disappointing 2004 campaign. While NFL analysts will spend most of next week talking about Michael Vick simply being too good for the visiting Rams, there were far more troubling aspects about the 34-17 loss than just looking bad trying to stop the elusive quarterback who showed why he is the most irreplaceable player to his team in the league.
Frankly, my dears, at times the Rams didn’t seem to give a damn. When a second dose of lethargy infected them, after clawing their way back to a 17-17 tie late in the third quarter, the visitors, like much of the northern gulf coast, were gone with the wind. After tying the game, and appearing to have momentum going their way, Vick threw a desperate pass off balance down the sideline that could have been picked off by Rams cornerback Jerametrius Butler, who would have had a clear lane for a go ahead score.
Instead, Butler whiffed on the ball, which was caught by Falcons Pro-Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler, who took it 33 yards into Rams territory, and as the Falcons showed over and over against a Rams defense still looking for their first turnover of the regular season, Vick is deadly in the red zone.
The Rams had been solving the Falcons defense, and gotten things going offensively in the third quarter, but after starting off at their ten because of a taunting penalty on Steven Jackson on a touchback, Bulger was sacked at the goal line for a near safety when their tight end, Brandon Manumaleuna, who is quickly playing his way to NFL Europe, whiffed on Patrick Kerney. Then on the next play, Brady Smith, the other Atlanta defensive end, got past Orlando Pace, knocked to ball up in the air out of Marc Bulger’s hand, and caught it on the fly for a deathblow touchdown.
There has to be major concern at Rams Park that a defense which led the NFL in turnovers in 2003, a big part of their 12-4 season, has not taken the ball away even once in two games against quarterbacks known to turn the ball over. Even in pre-season, Larry Marmie’s unit had only one takeaway. Six games with one turnover, and zero interceptions is a prescription for disaster in the NFL. Marmie appears to be utilizing defensive strategies that do not appear to be a fit for the Rams personnel, built for speed and aggressive play.
Mora brought 11 blitzes Sunday, and most were successful, while Marmie’s troops appeared to have their feet stuck in Georgia clay, reading and reacting instead of flying around like they have done under former coordinator Lovie Smith. Much of the time, while they were running in place waiting for plays to develop, Rams defenders were getting “earholed” by blockers. The Rams blitzes have simply been non-existent and predictable thus far, and Marmie refused to employ them in the red zone to contain Vick.
Lovie Smith made two primary demands on his defense; tackle well and take the ball away. This 2004 edition, which is looking all too familiar to the pre-Smith unit of 2000, has done neither proficiently. That was made clear early on, when Adam Archuleta had a clean shot at running back Justin Griffith on a short swing pass, and couldn’t even force Griffith out of bounds. Griffith sped 62 yards to set up the first Atlanta score, on a play all too familiar to Rams fans when the Rams play the Niners and other “West Coast” offenses.
The Rams missed tackle after tackle on Warrick Dunn, who seemed to be as difficult to bring down as Jim Brown on Sunday, and allowed a reverse to Peerless Price that looked to lose 20 yards gain 9 when Price reversed his field. When the Falcons got to the red zone, there never appeared to be any doubt that it would result in seven points for the Falcons against a plodding, vanilla Rams defense.
Just as distressing is the complete ineptitude of the Rams special teams, who seem to hit new lows every week. The Rams “return game” committed two penalties, the one against Jackson, and another on a Rams punt that cost the Rams 25 yards in field position after the re-kick. For the game, Jackson averaged less than 20 yards on his three kickoff returns, and punt returner Shaun McDonald had one chance for minus two yards. Meanwhile, Falcons punt returner Allen Rossum averaged 11.7 yards on his three returns, and also returned the opening kickoff to his 35.
The Rams were also fooled completely on an onside kick after the Falcon’s first score, the ball easily recovered by the kicker. For some reason, Mike Martz decided to give his critics fuel by appealing that obvious play, and then later was trying to appeal the defensive TD, which was clearly caught in the air.
The Rams offense sputtered all day, unable to run the ball at all, something they had done pretty well in their opener. The blitzing Falcons often ran right into Rams running plays, when they weren’t pressuring Bulger when the play was a pass. The Rams tried to dump the ball to Marshall Faulk to take advantage of the aggressive Falcons, but even those plays failed to gain any more than short yardage, with little blocking from the fullback and tight ends.
For the second straight week, and really longer than that, the Rams tight ends were not a factor at all, at least on the positive side. The Rams tight ends still have not caught even one pass this season. Crumpler caught 3 for 49 for Atlanta Sunday, and also did a good job blocking when the Falcons used screens and draws to eat up yardage.
Also crippling the offense was the seven penalties on that unit. On top of the 55 yards walked off on those flags, the Rams also lost 32 yards gained on those snaps. That and the minus three in turnovers, four if you count the onside kick, doomed the Rams, even though both Torry Holt (9-121-TD) and Ike Bruce (8-102) had big days.
The 2003 Rams were not a very good team on the road, but often were spared losses by the defense’ ability to take the ball away late in games. This 2004 team doesn’t seem to have that ability, and if Marmie can’t somehow solve the problem very quickly, the Rams could be buried before the season is half over. Other opponents may not have Michael Vick, but they have far better backs than Atlanta, far better receiving corps, and offensive lines that are light years better than the Falcons unit.
Opponents also will see that the Rams offense can be blitzed to death, and that their tight ends can be left covered by the worst linebacker a defense has, or even a lineman.
It is early, and other highly regarded teams have stunk it up the first two weeks, but if the Rams continue to fail in turning quick passes on blitzes into long gainers, they are going to see a steady diet of “red dogs”, and it will only be a matter of time before the pressure injures Bulger’s body as well as his psyche. As bad as this loss was to watch, don’t expect Martz to do his best Jim Mora Sr. imitation quite yet, but something has to change very soon or he may be using the words, “We sucked” very soon.
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