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Rams largely unimpressive despite win ..
BY JIM THOMAS
Sunday, August 21, 2011 1:00 am
Jeff Fisher may be gone after his 16-year run as Tennessee's head coach, but the Titans still are playing Jeff Fisher-style football. They have a physical, pass-rushing, run-stuffing defense. And a strong running game on offense.
After an impressive opening night a week ago against Indianapolis, the Rams were, uh, not so good in preseason game No. 2 on Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome. True, third-string quarterback Thaddeus Lewis was sharp on a last-ditch drive that carried the Rams into range for Josh Brown's 42-yard game-winning field goal as time expired in a 17-16 triumph.
But what happened in the first half, when the starters played, gives the Rams plenty to think about and plenty to work on with the regular season opener against Philadelphia just three weeks away.
"We're always trying to excel and play top-notch football," said the Rams' Steve Spagnuolo, who sounded more like a coach whose team had lost a football game in his postgame remarks. "And if I know this football team like I think I do, I think they feel like I do about the performance in the first half. Because I don't think anybody is going to be blinded by the fact that we won the football game, and feel real good about it."
Running the football and stopping the run are very important to Spagnuolo, who has an old-school mindset when it comes to those facets of the game. So you know he was none too pleased that the Rams managed only 44 yards on 21 carries, or 2.1 yards per rushing attempt. And given his defensive background, Tennessee's 198 yards rushing on 35 carries - a 5.7-yard average - was particularly galling, especially considering the Titans' elite runner, Chris Johnson, did not play. He is in the midst of a holdout.
When asked what he saw out of the Rams' run defense Saturday, Spagnuolo said with rare sarcasm, "I didn't see very much. I didn't think the tackling was very good, either. It's concerning. But we're not going to get alarmed here and panic."
The Rams didn't complete a pass longer than 18 yards last week against Indianapolis, but that changed on the opening play Saturday. Quarterback Sam Bradford got the Titans to bite on play-action, finding Brandon Gibson wide open over the middle on a deep post route.
Gibson seemed surprised to be so open, stumbling at the Tennessee 20 before racing to the end zone for an 83-yard touchdown play. The Rams' longest regular-season pass play last year, Bradford's rookie season, went for 49 yards.
"That's what this offense brings to the table, a lot of explosive plays, and hopefully we can continue to build on that," Gibson said. "In order to keep the defense honest, you've got to take shots. That's a well-known fact."
It was scintillating play, but that was it for Rams highlights for the rest of the first half.
The Titans controlled the line of scrimmage and the scoreboard, leading 16-7 at the intermission.
The Rams' next offensive series lasted only three plays, with cornerback Alterraun Verner intercepting a Bradford pass over the middle intended for Mike Sims-Walker. It looked as if Bradford led Sims-Walker a little too much over the middle. Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan tipped the ball, which then bounced off Sims-Walker's helmet and into the hands of Verner.
Verner's 15-yard return, coupled with a 15-yard penalty against Rams center Jason Brown for an illegal block, gave Tennessee a first down on the Rams' 19. Four plays later, Jamie Harper was in the end zone for a touchdown and a 10-7 Tennessee lead.
Matt Hasselbeck, a longtime Rams nemesis from his days with the Seattle Seahawks, kept St. Louis off-balance with rollouts, screens, and adept play-action fakes. Harper, a rookie from Clemson, was starting only because of Johnson's holdout and a hip injury to second-stringer Javon Ringer.
Who knows how many yards Johnson would have had against a Rams defense that got caught rushing upfield on some runs, and was hurt by cutbacks on several others.
Harper, who paid a pre-draft visit to Rams Park in April, rushed for 83 yards on 11 carries - all in the first half.
"We gave up some big runs that we've got to clean up," Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "I was happy with how we ended up stopping them on a few drives when they were in the red zone and holding them to three points instead of seven. But we expect to get more out of our defense."
Meanwhile, the Rams managed only 31 rushing yards on 11 first-half carries by Steven Jackson and Cadillac Williams. After that 83-yard lightning bolt to start the game, the Rams managed only 70 yards on 27 plays over the rest of the half. Bradford was under considerable pressure, getting sacked twice and hit several other times. Occasionally, the pressure came because blockers simply got beat.
More often than not, the Titans came in clean on well-disguised blitzes. Former Ram Will Witherspoon got Bradford once on a sack from his linebacker spot, coming in unblocked. And Titans cornerback Finnegan did the same from the edge, again getting to Bradford untouched for a sack.
The Titans kept Bradford and the Rams' offense off-balance with late movement just before the snap, once causing Bradford to take a delay of game penalty.
Two forgotten figures from the 2010 Rams, safety James Butler and wide receiver Donnie Avery, got St. Louis off to a quick start in the second half. Butler, who suffered through an injury-mired '10 season in which he lost his starting job, intercepted Jake Locker on the first series of the second half and returned the ball 33 yards, to the Tennessee 21. Two plays later, with A.J. Feeley in at quarterback for the Rams, Feeley saw Avery with one-on-one coverage on the right and threw a 19-yard fade for a TD with 11:58 to play in the third, narrowing Tennessee's lead to 16-14.