Once first, now last
BY BILL COATS
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
09/25/2009

In the span of a decade, the Rams' offense has morphed from the "Greatest Show on Turf" into what a Washington Post columnist declared after Sunday's 9-7 loss to the Redskins is the "Most Miserable Mass on Grass."

That might seem harsh. Still, a team averaging 3.5 points per game really has no grounds for complaint. As coach Steve Spagnuolo acknowledged, "On offense, you're judged on how many points you score."

In a way, the deck is stacked against the regrouping Rams. They're trying to scratch out a productive attack under a first-time head coach whose background is entirely in defense, a first-time coordinator who brought in a new offense, and with an overhauled roster that is young and inexperienced in some key areas.

Heading into Sunday's home-opener against Green Bay, the Rams rank last in the 32-team NFL in scoring and 31st in total offense.

"There's numerous reasons why you don't score," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said.

Here are the major reasons why the Rams aren't putting points on the board:

RHYTHM AND TIMING

Just as the team was adapting to the modified West Coast offense that Shurmur imported from Philadelphia, quarterback Marc Bulger missed 3 weeks of the preseason with a broken pinky on his throwing hand.

Shurmur's scheme demands precision and timing from the quarterback, and Bulger still is smoothing out the rough edges.

In the same vein, the offensive line with new starters at three of the five positions was hit with early injuries and was intact for only about a week before the season-opener at Seattle. "It's very important that linemen work together" to develop familiarity and achieve synchronization," Shurmur explained.

Now, that unit will be without right tackle Jason Smith (knee) on Sunday, and perhaps next week's game at San Francisco.

MARCHING BACKWARD

The offense has committed 13 of the Rams' 16 penalties, setting the team back 100 yards the length of a football field. "It's tough enough to win in this league without going backward," Spagnuolo grumbled.

Several calls came at highly inopportune moments, including guard Richie Incognito's two personal fouls vs. the Seahawks. "It seems like when we do get a big play, maybe the next play we'll get a penalty that sets us back and stops our drive momentum," tight end Randy McMichael said.

GOOFS AND GAFFES

Penalties are mistakes; so are inaccurate throws, dropped passes, fumbles, erratic blocking and poor reads by ballcarriers. The Rams have been blameworthy in each area.

Bulger has hit on 50 percent of his passes, far below his career average of 62.6 percent. That's due partly to the pressure he's faced as well as receivers struggling to get open, forcing him to throw the ball away. Plus, some on-the-money passes have been flat-out dropped; other incompletions came on balls that were slightly off-target yet still catchable.

McMichael has committed three drops. That's especially disturbing, because Shurmur's offense requires production from the tight end.

The Rams have lost one fumble on offense, and it was a doozy: Avery coughed it up inside the Redskins 10-yard line with the Rams driving for the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.

GIMME THE BALL

The Rams have run 107 plays, compared with 140 for their opponents, a hefty disparity. The time-of-possession deficit also is gaping: a total of 14 minutes, 40 seconds.

For various reasons, the Rams also have failed to achieve their desired balance: Shurmur has called 68 pass plays vs. 39 runs. The result is that running back Steven Jackson isn't getting the ball enough.

"He needs to be the focus of this team and this offense," Shurmur said. "We're constantly going to make an effort to give him the football."

In the first two contests, Jackson had 37 touches 33 carries and four receptions. Those numbers would be higher if the Rams were more successful stretching the field.

They went downfield a few times vs. the Seahawks, and wideout Laurent Robinson hauled in a 45-yard catch. But they've come up with only one other pass play of at least 25 yards.

Without that deep threat, defenses are able to stack the area between the tackles and press the receivers at the line of scrimmage, limiting the Rams' options.

That's been particularly true on second and third downs. The Rams' average down and distances are second-and-8.9 yards and third-and-8.4. Such long-yardage situations are hardly conducive to sustained movement on offense.



CLOSE THE DEAL

The Rams put together three drives of 10 or more plays vs. Washington. That marked considerable improvement from their 28-0 spanking at Seattle, where they had 10 possessions that lasted six plays or fewer, and just one of more than 10.

Still, they got into the end zone just once, on Bulger's 2-yard fade pass to Robinson. That's all the Rams have mustered in four red-zone trips.

"We made strides last week, but we didn't finish" drives, Bulger said. "We just have to be more consistent and keep going at it to finish."

Jackson and Bulger both suggested that the Rams' tense up as they near the goal line.

"You have a lot of guys out there trying to make a play, a lot of guys that have good intentions," Jackson said. "But for whatever reason, we're a little antsy, especially when we get in the red zone."

Added Bulger: "We're trying anything we can to get a win right now, and we're pressing. We can't play tight; we've got to play loose.

"But that's easier said than done when you're 0-2."