Saturday, December 24, 2005
By Nick Wagoner
In a season of lost chances, missed tackles and games lost, it’s hard to put a gauge on when a team that has just five wins has it its lowest point.
After Saturday’s 24-20 loss to the ***** at the Edward Jones Dome, the Rams might have hit their rock bottom for this year.
“I feel like we embarrassed the city of St. Louis,” receiver Isaac Bruce said. “I doesn’t sit well for us, but it happens.”
The loss drops the Rams to 5-10 and is their fourth in a row. It also ensured a losing record at home for a team that had previously been one of the best in the league in the Edward Jones Dome. San Francisco improved to 3-12 and put itself a game back of Houston in the Reggie Bush sweepstakes.
Not that losing is ever an acceptable practice for any team, but to fall to a San Francisco team that entered the game at 2-12 for the second time this year, is especially disheartening.
The Rams hadn’t lost to the ***** twice in one season since 1998, back when it was the Rams that were struggling regularly and San Francisco was consistently going to the playoffs.
After St. Louis finally got over the hump in 1999 against the *****, it essentially took over the rivalry, winning 10 of 13 entering Saturday’s meeting. And, while the ***** have been at the bottom of the barrel in the NFL all year, one of their wins came in the season opener against the Rams.
While that game had a different flow to it than Saturday’s, there were plenty of eerie similarities between the two games. And, of course, the same old problems that have plagued the Rams all season were on full display once again.
“It is the same old storyline,” interim coach Joe Vitt said. “You cannot miss tackles in this league and give up the catastrophic plays that we gave up because of missed tackles. If you can’t tackle in this league, which is the staple of this business on defense then you really can’t play. You cannot have turnovers.”
There were plenty of both and they all contributed evenly to one of the Rams’ ugliest losses of the season. After someone named Maurice Hicks ran 73 yards untouched for a touchdown on the game’s opening play, the Rams seemed to take control of the game.
The defense was getting stops, the offense was moving the ball and suddenly the Rams had 20 unanswered points. Quarterback Jamie Martin, starting for the fourth time on the season, was on fire, taking the appropriate check downs and mixing in the occasional long ball. Torry Holt was the recipient of many of those, including a 40-yard touchdown catch that seemed to swing the momentum fully in favor of the Rams.
Martin finished the day 33-of-41 for 354 yards and a touchdown. Holt led the Rams with 10 grabs for 163 yards.
“We were in total control of the game and I feel like we were in position to if not put it away, pretty much be close to it,” middle linebacker Trev Faulk said. “We just didn’t seal the deal when we had the opportunity.”
San Francisco put together a run of its own, posting 17 unanswered points to finish the game, but the offense’s inability to finish drives, something that was the team’s undoing in the season opener ultimately put the chances for a victory to rest.
Mixed in with those missed chances were some decisions Vitt made that he said hampered the team’s ability to win.
One week after a postgame speech in which he placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of his players, particularly the offensive line, Vitt fell on the sword for this latest loss.
“Looking back on this game, I have to point the finger at myself,” Vitt said. “We probably should have protected the ball at the half and taken some time off the clock. We gave them too much time. We probably shouldn’t have gone for the fourth and 1, but I was definitely trying to make a statement to our offensive line. We tried to pound it up in there, but we didn’t get it. That made it a two-point game at that time. We probably should have run the ball on the bootleg instead of the interception down there. I had a chance to call that play off and I didn’t. I hurt our football team today, I really did.”
The most difficult call came on a fourth-and-1 at the San Francisco 22 with 9:16 to play. Instead of taking a sure thing field goal from Jeff Wilkins, who booted a pair of field goals from 50 yards or more, Vitt opted to go for the first down.
The Rams were clinging to a 20-17 lead at the time and had hopes of a touchdown that could put the game away. Instead, running back Steven Jackson was stuffed for a loss of a yard and the ***** took over. Although the play looked somewhat similar to the one that had the same result last week, it wasn’t the same one.
After Vitt challenged the offensive line last week, he hoped that this would be its opportunity to redeem itself, but the group couldn’t come up with the hole it needed.
“If I am going to challenge people like we did last week, then I am going to put the challenge out there for them to succeed,” Vitt said. “We didn’t succeed on the play. It was a huge play. That’s two times we were down there tight in the second half and we come away with no points.”
Actually, the Rams had three chances deep in San Francisco territory in which they came away with no points. On the drive prior to that one, Martin threw a pass to the corner intended for Bruce, who had stumbled out of his break. San Francisco’s Shawnte Spencer made an acrobatic interception on a play that was challenged and stood after the review.
Even after those two interceptions, the Rams still had a chance to win, but their final drive ended when Martin was picked off on a deflected pass that eventually landed safely in the arms of Ben Emanuel. Fittingly, it was the second time in two games the Rams’ final drive ended on an interception in San Francisco territory.
With all of those chances to score gone by the wayside, it wouldn’t have meant much if certain other areas of constant struggles had been solidified.
“That doesn’t win or lose the game,” Vitt said.
So, if those mistakes don’t lose the game, then what does?
“We can’t play defense the way we are playing it right now and win, we just can’t do it,” Vitt said.
In other words, somebody, anybody has to find a way to tackle and do the fundamentals on a consistent basis.
Somehow, the Rams found a way to make a star out of another unknown back, allowing Hicks to pick up 109 yards on 10 carries with a touchdown.
Rookie Frank Gore added 68 yards on 10 carries with a pair of touchdowns. On most of those runs, especially Gore’s decisive 30-yard run to seal the game, the Rams missed myriad tackles and whiffed on many others.
It’s something that has happened all year. Actually, it’s something that has been happening for the past two years. It’s how people like Aaron Stecker, Najeh Davenport and Rock Cartwright have made names for themselves.
It begs the question, why can’t the Rams do something as simple as tackle?
“I have no idea,” Faulk said. “That is kind of like the million dollar question. We always end up giving up one big play where someone might not have been exactly where they were supposed to be. The defense is supposed to rally around and make a play so there is not a big crisis. We have been allowing too many big plays in critical situations.”
There was nothing new or fancy about the way the Rams dropped Saturday’s game. It was business as usual for a team that just hasn’t been able to find the medicine for what ails it.
“We knew we were going to have a challenge, but I was still thinking we would be able to come out and make enough plays to win this ball game,” Holt said. “We were doing that early, but toward the end we didn’t rally enough as a group to get it done.”