Rams running back has nowhere to run
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Even on a day when Marc Bulger had only 17 handoffs, Seattle's strategy in dealing with Steven Jackson and the Rams' running game was painfully obvious.
Time after time, in those critical final seconds before the ball was snapped, the Seahawks would creep a safety toward the line of scrimmage, an eighth defender to help keep Jackson bottled up.
"There were eight down there quite a bit," Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "With a running back like we have, I think that's something we're going to see. And I would anticipate that Washington will do the same."
It's simple gridiron math. By sending a safety into the box — the area roughly from offensive tackle to offensive tackle along the line of scrimmage — the defense is committing eight players to stop the run. In base formations, most offenses have only seven blockers in that same area: five offensive linemen, the tight end and the fullback.
So in what's commonly described as a game of inches, having an extra body to tackle the running back can make a huge difference.
Jackson expected a lot of "eight in the box" against Seattle. Ditto for Washington on Sunday at FedEx Field, and really for every Sunday.
"That's just going to be my mindset for all 16 games that we have," Jackson said. "I anticipate for the rest of the year that defenses are going to put eight men in the box because we're just so young at the wide receiver position."
It makes all the sense in the world for defenses to gang up on Jackson.
"I mean, right now he's our best football player on offense," tight end Randy McMichael said. "A lot of teams know that, and they want to take him away. We've got to find a way as receivers and tight ends to make plays.
"And even if they do have eight-man fronts, we need to get seven guys (blocked), and let Steven make the one guy miss. It's all about just staying on your man a little bit longer and helping 'Jack' find somewhere to run."
Easier said than done, particularly in more obvious running situations. Against Seattle, Jackson gained only 19 yards on eight carries on first down, a traditional running down. That's only 2.4 yards per carry. But on second and third downs, when defenses have to be more concerned with the pass, Jackson averaged six yards per carry (eight carries for 48 yards).
Jackson should see plenty of Washington middle linebacker London Fletcher, the former Ram, on Sunday. "He's a tackling machine," Jackson said. "From what I see on game film, he kind of mirrors the running backs. So it should be a good matchup with myself and him."
Fletcher had 18 tackles last week in the Redskins' season-opening loss to the New York Giants. Fletcher will have company, too. One of the Redskins' starting safeties — LaRon Landry or Chris Horton — figures to spend a lot of time in the box to stuff the run.
There are a couple of ways to combat that. For one, Shurmur can call more running plays out of three- and four-wide receiver sets. It's harder to jam the box with extra defenders when you've got extra wideouts to worry about on the perimeter. But the Rams haven't shown much inclination to use four-wide receiver sets, much less run out of them.
A more obvious way to loosen up a run defense is success in the passing game. The more the Redskins or anybody else has to worry about McMichael, Donnie Avery or Laurent Robinson, the less attention they can give to Jackson.
"We're no different than fans or anyone else," quarterback Marc Bulger said. "We realize we've got to get the ball down the field, to get pressure off of Steven. So that's on myself, and the receivers, to make it happen."
In their offseason acquisitions and final roster decisions, the Rams took a risk by going with a young and inexperienced wide receiver corps. And there were growing pains against the Seahawks. Whether they're classified as drops or not, Rams receivers got their hands on about a half-dozen passes that ended up on the ground, incomplete. On at least three occasions, Bulger had to throw the ball away because no one was open.
"We left a couple plays on the field last week," Avery said. "We've got to make 'em up this week."
Avery, who had zero touches in exhibition play because of a foot injury, looked rusty at Qwest Field. Slot receiver Keenan Burton had trouble getting separation. Robinson had some good moments but left about 100 yards and one touchdown on the field with near misses.
Robinson caught one pass for 45 yards in the fourth quarter. But he got his hands on one ball that would've gone for about 50 yards in the third quarter, and another that would've gone for 40 at the end of the game — with both passes falling incomplete.
"They were close situations," Robinson said. "And one of them, I should have gone up and used my hands a little bit (better). I let the DB knock the ball out. But that's something I've been working on in practice, going up with two hands and just catching it at the highest point."
Robinson caught a shorter pass for what would've been a TD in the fourth quarter but didn't come down with both feet in-bounds, so the play was ruled incomplete.
"(The defender) kind of pushed me out," Robinson said. "I tried to get the other foot down, but I just wasn't able to. ... That's something I've got to do better on, getting my feet down in the end zone and making a play on the ball."
It all added up to a miserable day offensively. The Rams were shut out for only the fourth time since the move to St. Louis in 1995. And they became the first team since Atlanta in 2000 to finish plus-2 or better in takeaway-giveaway margin yet lose by 28 points or more.
"Nobody's going to sit here and tell you that we did a good job out there," McMichael said. "A lot of our yards came in the fourth quarter (after Seattle loosened up its pass defense). So we've just got to get in a better rhythm. We can't kill ourselves like we did a lot of times when we had opportunities to make plays."
Re: Rams running back has nowhere to run
All the more reason Bulger must play well for us to be successful. It is said that a strong running game opens up the passing game, but the opposite is also true: In order to effectively run the football, teams must respect the pass. if your QB is ineffective and the defense creeps its safety up to put another defender in the box, your running back is going nowhere.