RamView, 1/1/2012: ***** 34, Rams 27 (Long)
RamView, January 1, 2012
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Game #16: ***** 34, Rams 27
For their finale as Steve Spagnuolo's team, at least the Rams were in a game for a change. A loss is a loss, but if a few more of the Rams' losses in 2011 had gone like this, we wouldn't be talking about replacing the entire front office the day after the season. Instead, happy Black Monday, Rams Nation.
Position by position:
* QB: What is it about Kellen Clemens? He has yet to put up game statistics that look good on paper (14-31-226, 67.4 PR), but still gives the Ram offense a spark. The Rams even discovered their long-missing downfield passing game this week. Clemens hit Brandon Lloyd for 24 off double play-action on the opening drive, which Clemens finished off himself with an 18-yard TD run, slipping some bad 49er tackling, running through Donte Whitner at the 5 and diving in for the score. The Rams' lead didn't last long, though, as the offense bogged down in a mudpit of sacks, dropped passes, fumbling and the Worst Trick Play Ever. Clemens did not come out of halftime sharp, missing a wide-open Lloyd on a slant after clanging a pass off a 49er lineman's head. Down 20-7 in the 3rd, Clemens drove the Rams to a FG on the strength of a couple of plays that hadn't worked here all year. He hit Lance Kendricks in the seam for 22 – remember when that play was going to be the bread and butter of this year's offense? - and then rolled out and hit Lloyd on the sideline for 23, becoming the first Ram QB this season to hit the deep option instead of taking the well-covered near-option for no gain. Clemens committed a critical mistake in the 4th, a poor throw from his end zone intended for Lloyd that Tarell Brown jumped and picked off easily to set up a 49er TD and a 3-TD lead. Clemens kept firing, though, and nearly rallied the Rams back. He beat a 3rd-and-11 blitz with a perfectly-placed pass to Lloyd over Whitner for a 36-yard TD. That combination worked again for a DPI penalty that set up a Cadillac Williams TD plunge. Down 34-27, the Rams got the ball back, and, after hitting Brandon Gibson over the middle for 21, Clemens had them within 33 yards of the tying score. That, though, became the moment his fearlessness in the pocket – he threw plenty of passes with defenders in his face – came back to bite him. NaVorro Bowman blitzed in for a sack that also put Clemens out of the rest of the game due to an ankle injury. That brought Tom Brandstater in for his first two professional passes, a one-hopper to Danario Alexander and a 4th-down rope to Alexander in double-coverage that the Ram WR really should have caught. Clemens' arrival on the scene and his quick absorption of the system made him one of the more intriguing Rams this season; intrigue lost, though, now that the Rams are scrapping everything and starting over.
* RB: Steven Jackson (16-76) ended what had to be a frustrating season on the sidelines after what looked like a painful injury reported as being to his bicep. It hasn't been mentioned as anything serious since the game, so the guess is a contusion. I'm surprised Jackson's back hasn't given out, since he's had to carry the Ram offense on it all season. He had back-to-back rushes totaling 17 yards in the opening TD drive, bouncing outside and running through Carlos Rogers on the first. Jackson opened the 2nd half with a 26-yard cutback run to get the Rams out of a hole but was out of the game shortly after. Cadillac Williams (7-17) forced his way across from the 1 for the Rams' last TD. I guess he's been all right this season in the role of relief runner for Jackson. He can cut through traffic nicely at times, but he's obviously not as strong as Jackson, and I'd prefer a lot more speed in that role in the future. Many thought that would be Jerious Norwood's role in 2011, but instead this week, he was involved in The Worst Trick Play Ever. I'm not sure why Josh McDaniels thought this play would fool the ***** when the Rams pretty much ran it two weeks ago, but they direct snapped to Norwood, who drifted right, and with Justin Smith bearing down on him untouched, should have known enough to run or eat the ball in that situation, but he blindly chucked the throwback pass for Clemens down the left sideline instead. The forced throw, which had more hang time than some of Donnie Jones' punts, floated into Tarell Brown's hands instead for the first of his two INTs, each of which led to 49er touchdowns. When the day comes that Jackson isn't the Rams' rushing king any more, I hope the Rams' succession plan is better than today's 2.7 yards per carry and one ridiculous interception on a gadget play.
* Receivers: Lance Kendricks (3-54) had his whole season in one game this week, meaning he made some impact plays and dropped some passes. He started both FG drives in the 4th with catches, including a 22-yarder in the seam. In the 3rd, though, he helped kill a drive with another groan-inducing drop. I started with Kendricks this week because he could be the only receiver who'll be back next season. Brandon Lloyd (6-100) had a fine game, but has already said he plans as a free agent to follow McDaniels if he isn't retained. The Rams scored on every drive where Lloyd made a play over 20 yards, including a 36-yard TD in the 4th. He seems to hit the ground more often than a drunk on ice, but Lloyd's been a very solid player and locker room citizen here, and he'd leave the receiving corps once again without a legitimate field-stretching threat. Danario Alexander has gotten plenty of work down the stretch (3-36) but not a whole lot to show for it. He seems to have trouble getting open and winning contested balls, and fittingly, what happened on the final pass of the Rams' 2011 season? The receiver, Alexander, dropped it. The Rams need Danny Amendola and Greg Salas healthy again, need to add a top receiving talent via the draft, and if Lloyd leaves, need to make some hay at the position in free agency as well, so they can get rid of the tall, slow, can't-get-open, can't-catch suspects currently clogging up their roster.
* Offensive line: Among (former, I hope) Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' odd decisions this week was a running game heavily dependent on the blocking of one Stephen Spach. As a wham blocker, Spach tends to be Andrew Ridgeley; just about any time Jackson got stuffed this week, Spach was in the vicinity getting buried by the away team. Spach had his moments, though. He whammed a hole open to get Jackson 10 during the opening TD drive, with Brian Mattison getting a good downfield block. Jackson's 26-yard cutback run was a result of the upset of the century – Spach burying Patrick Willis – and a solid drive block from Tony Wragge. Cadillac's TD in the 4th came behind Spach, Harvey Dahl and Thomas Welch. So Spach's probably pretty happy with his game overall. If he felt emotions, that is. Mark LeVoir played a key role on Clemens' TD run, getting whipped so badly by Aldon Smith that Clemens had to run for his life, all the way to the end zone in this case. LeVoir was equally badly whipped by Justin Smith on The Worst Trick Play Ever in the 2nd, really helping blow that play up. I know Adam Goldberg's pretty bad, but I see even less reason LeVoir ever started at LT. There's little evidence I've seen he even belongs in the NFL. Same for Jason Brown, who got knocked on his ass by Justin Smith for the first 49er sack, though about three Niners buried Clemens on that play. Tony Wragge continued not to distinguish himself at center. He let Ahmad Brooks fly by on a blitz stunt for the *****' 2nd sack (though NaVorro Bowman also completely humiliated Mattison with a spin move and would have gotten Clemens if Brooks hadn't), and killed a drive with a bad shotgun snap that Clemens fumbled. Bowman made his mark on the game with possibly its biggest play, beating Jerious Norwood on a blitz, sacking Clemens and knocking him out of the game with an injured ankle late in the 4th. Lord knows this offensive line was never going to keep a QB intact for very long this season. There's little reason for much of this year's failed o-line to be back next season.
* Defensive line/LB: The Rams blitzed Alex Smith a ton this week, which is fine when it gets there, but it didn't get there often enough. Chris Long and Robert Quinn flushed Smith on 3rd down for an incomplete pass that forced the ***** to settle for a FG attempt that missed. Long continued his strong start after the Rams' first TD by stuffing Frank Gore along with James Laurinaitis as part of a 3-and-out. Smith eventually caught on and started beating the Rams' blitzes with screen passes and passes to TE Vernon Davis. In a season where Long has made such a mark as a sack artist, Smith's tying TD run in the 1st was painful. Long completely blew a sack on 3rd-and-goal, sending Smith scrambling outside for the score behind crushing blocks by Justin Peelle on Laurinaitis and Gore on Chris Chamberlain. Smith got all day to throw his 44-yard bomb to Davis in the 2nd, but Chamberlain held that drive to a FG with a terrific play, blitzing and getting to Smith on a sack despite being lifted off his feet by Kendall Hunter's blitz pickup. The defense really came to life to get the offense a chance to tie the game late. Darian Stewart blew up a screen, then James Hall claimed the Rams' third sack, on a stunt up the middle with Long flushing the Niner QB to him. But it looked like that surge was where the defense used up its last reserve. With the Rams needing a 3-and-out to prevent San Francisco from running out the clock, Anthony Dixon pounded through to the second level on three straight runs instead, for a game-clinching 12 yards and a first down. Run defense wasn't bad this week; they gave up about 100 yards and nothing big, though the ***** used Gore sparingly. But unlike a lot of weeks, the defense can't point fingers at the offense for all the blame this week. If Long makes that sack, if somebody stops Dixon once at the end, there's a chance for a much different game.
* Secondary: RamView's sung Rod Hood and Josh Gordy's praises the last few weeks, but can't be as musical this week. Hood appeared to have a good game. He had a sweet pass breakup that 3-and-outed the ***** after the Rams' opening TD and he stopped a Kendall Hunter cutback run cold in the 3rd. Gordy, not so much. One play after the ***** had run a screen left to Michael Crabtree, they ran a screen right, and Gordy whiffed terribly, letting Crabtree loose to be whiffed at by Quintin Mikell and cruise in for a 28-yard TD. Having almost no wide receivers didn't slow the ***** much. Vernon Davis burned Gordy for a 44-yard catch to set up a FG in the 2nd. He burned Chamberlain (and a blitz) for 35 to set up a fake FG TD in the 3rd. Darian Stewart had his usual highs and lows. He blitzed for one of the Rams' three sacks of Alex Smith and killed a drive in the 3rd. Late in the game, he blew up a fullback screen to help get the Rams the ball back with a chance to tie the game. He didn't have any memorable misses in the running game this week but did blow an open-field tackle on Crabtree right before Smith's TD run. The secondary may be one part of the franchise that doesn't need a major cleanout for 2012. There's decent depth and developing young players here now to build with.
* Special teams: Great rebound by Josh Brown from last week's 0-for-2 fiasco. Not only did he hit 48- and 49-yard FG bombs, with the Rams down 34-20 in the 4th, he hit a perfect-as-you-please onside kick that Bryan Kehl secured to give the Rams new life in the game. Maybe the Rams' previous onside kick attempts this season should have been straightforward like this one was instead of trying goofy fakes and pooch kicks? Donnie Jones' average was over 50 yards, but he lost an exchange with ***** punter Andy Lee in the 1st that sucked away the Rams' early momentum. Lee pinned the Rams deep with a 66-yard blast, and after they couldn't get a first down, the Rams needed a positive answer from Jones. Instead they got a 38-yard dog that set the *****' first TD drive up beautifully, as it created a 28-yard swing in field position for them. Donnie has to do better than that in key moments. Jerious Norwood finished a season that was a waste of time for everyone involved by repeatedly returning kicks from the end zone without reaching the 20. David Nixon was a complete disaster on punt and kick units, committing penalties, missing blocks, blowing tackles. The weekly teams breakdown came this week on a fake FG. Read on.
* Strategery: From the stands, I remembered that the cheap-trash fake FG play that gave the ***** a 27-10 lead was legal as long as Crabtree hadn't left the field. And it IS a cheap-trash play. The NFL has so many rules about legal participation and remaining in bounds that it's just strange it allows plays which success depends upon players hiding near the sideline and pretending they went off the field. It isn't a clever play like a halfback-option or a tackle-eligible; it's cheap theatrics taking cheap advantage of a loophole that should be closed. Anyway, I remembered the play was legal because I remembered Adam Vinatieri throwing a TD on the very same play, into the very same corner of the very same end zone, the last time New England was here, seven years ago. After I got home, I was stunned like I'd been tasered to find out that BOTH plays were called by the SAME coach, Brad Seely, the Patriots' teams coach back in 2004. Hey, Seely, how about taking your cheap-trash fake play and running it against somebody else?
But the depressing reality is how little things have changed since the Mike Martz era bottomed out. Historically-bad run defense. An outplayed, outmanned offensive line. Quarterbacks getting battered. Assistant coaches whose job credentials are not remotely demonstrated by the on-field product. Bad special teams getting caught with their pants down by Larry freaking Seely's cheap-trash fake FG play.
The fake FG's the nail in the Steve Spagnuolo era's coffin for me. Seven years, four majority owners, three head coaches, two interim head coaches, countless assistants hired on the strength of their network over the strength of their job skills, head-scratching game decisions and play calls, mangled draft picks, bad free agency decisions – Nothing. Has. Changed!
Time to start over. Again.
* Upon further review: Looking for signs that 2012 could be the end of the world? How about a well-officiated game from Jeff Triplette? Besides a bizarre moment when he intoned that one of the stadium clocks “was not of this game” - hey, it was malfunctioning, not extraterrestrial – he and the crew seemed solid otherwise. He was quick, decisive and correct on several non-grounding calls. They got Madieu Williams' obvious block in the back on Dominque Curry on a 2nd-quarter punt. They got the end zone PI by Tarell Brown vs. Lloyd. They got a 3rd-down spot badly wrong in the 3rd that the crowd all but begged Spagnuolo to challenge; he didn't, but it ended up being moot. I also thought they missed an obvious 49er false start in the 2nd and could have called holding more tightly; Robert Quinn got all-but tackled a couple of times. But, low though the bar may be, this game didn't seem to be called any worse than normal. B
* Cheers: It didn't always seem that way – the Dome was maybe half-full, too many good seats were taken by 49er fans, and there were some stretches where the Rams were on defense and maybe three people in the place were making noise for them – but in the end, this game was all about what it meant to be a fan. There was the woman from Washington state, a lifelong Rams fan, who was moved to tears when she found out she'd won season tickets for 2012. For a 2-14 team 3,000 miles away! There were the kids wearing their favorite players' replica jerseys. And the familiar faces of season ticket holders you were sure would skip this stupid game to celebrate the New Year properly, but still came. When the team showed its will to win in the 4th quarter, first pick overall be damned, what did we all do? Cheer our heads off. Root for our team to win. Because we're fans. It's what we do. The players may change, the coaches may change, the uniforms may change, the owner may change, but we're still going to be right here, whether the current owner has the decency to come to the game and suffer with us or not.
With the playoffs here now, it's time for my annual postseason jinx, er, picks. But funny thing this year. The teams I picked for the Super Bowl before the season are not only still alive (!), they're in pretty good shape for a postseason run. So I'm sticking with what I thought in July. Saints over Ravens.
* What’s next?: Rams Park is due for a makeover in 2012 so extreme even Ty Pennington won't touch it. Billy Devaney made some good moves and good draft picks - Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Darian Stewart, Danny Amendola, Bradley Fletcher, Harvey Dahl among others - but ultimately paid for the ones that didn't work out. There's Jason Smith, Jason Brown and Jacob Bell. There's the abject failure to acquire playmakers to help Sam Bradford. Devaney made an abrupt change in team-building philosophy during the summer and signed a bunch of older free agents. That gained the Rams Dahl and some average guys like Cadillac Williams and Justin Bannan, but old and average doesn't help a team for the long haul, and didn't help in 2011. The Rams paid for ignoring skill positions in previous drafts. Even adding Brandon Lloyd this year wasn't enough to boost their tar pit of a receiving corps toward a competent passing game. This year's draft is just short of a disaster - half of it is gone already! - and high-profile busts of the past like Smith and Donnie Avery have set the franchise back hard, along with its inability to acquire and develop talent from the later rounds of the draft. The draft is still the key to building a successful franchise, and especially given the raft of high picks he had, Devaney didn't accomplish enough.
For all his likeability and work ethic, Steve Spagnuolo failed here as head coach. His term here goes down as one of the worst in NFL history. He's a competent defensive coordinator who was miscast as the lead here. And even given his defensive pedigree, the Rams consistently had one of the worst run defenses in the league, and in team history, under his watch. Spagnuolo's game management was questionable at best and too conservative. I'd contend he ignored the offense even worse than Mike Martz ignored defense and special teams back in his day, and the Rams fittingly had two of the worst offensive seasons in team history under Spagnuolo's watch as well. Spagnuolo also assembled a terrible staff. The Rams' offensive line, tight ends and linebackers were the worst-coached units in the league, units led by coaches whom Spagnuolo shouldn't have retained or by buddies lacking credentials to do it. Josh McDaniels was the biggest bust of the season and the worst offensive coordinator in team history, combining wretched play-calling with miserable failure to adjust his system to the abilities of his players. It was idiotic to leave Bradford without a dedicated position coach for his second season as a pro. Coaching returns in the secondary and receiving corps were mixed at best. Just swapping out the coaching staff for competent people can improve the Rams in 2012. The talent this staff had was maximized far too rarely.
Not that the talent base is a lot to write home about. You've got a QB who's supposed to be your franchise player who's going to need his confidence built back up, and better depth behind him. You've got an outstanding team leader and power runner at RB who'll be entering the downside of his career, and no one's being developed behind him to take over, and as has been true the whole Devaney era, no credible change-of-pace back behind him to open up the offense. Even if Brandon Lloyd returns, the Ram passing game badly lacks speed, reliability and game-breaking ability. The return of Amendola should help, and I'm not giving up on Lance Kendricks. But the Rams need a ton of play-making ability on offense, and I sure wouldn't come back if I was Lloyd. The running game will continue to fail at key moments and in the red zone until the Rams have tight ends who can block and fullbacks who know what they're doing. Currently they don't. Major help is needed there, and certainly on the offensive line, which lacks talent and nastiness and needs at least three new starters. The Rams are in better shape on defense, but badly need to add youth and talent at DT, at least one speedy playmaker at OLB, and better depth at safety. They also very well may need a boost at corner, depending on how injuries come along for Bartell and Fletcher. And the kicking game was so disappointing in 2011 that they'd be best served to start over from scratch with inexpensive free agents.
Oh, and there's also a stadium issue to straighten out, and the question of how much longer the team will even stay in St. Louis, to be answered by an owner who couldn't even be bothered to show up for Sunday's game, or, rumor has it, to fire the coaching staff on Monday. (Kevin Demoff reportedly did it.) The Rams lacked a lot in 2011. In 2012, they won't lack drama.
Game stats from nfl.com
Re: RamView, 1/1/2012: ***** 34, Rams 27 (Long)
How about the Rams stop the play? It might be cheap, but it's ridiculous that no one on the Rams picked it up
Strategery: From the stands, I remembered that the cheap-trash fake FG play that gave the ***** a 27-10 lead was legal as long as Crabtree hadn't left the field. And it IS a cheap-trash play. The NFL has so many rules about legal participation and remaining in bounds that it's just strange it allows plays which success depends upon players hiding near the sideline and pretending they went off the field. It isn't a clever play like a halfback-option or a tackle-eligible; it's cheap theatrics taking cheap advantage of a loophole that should be closed. Anyway, I remembered the play was legal because I remembered Adam Vinatieri throwing a TD on the very same play, into the very same corner of the very same end zone, the last time New England was here, seven years ago. After I got home, I was stunned like I'd been tasered to find out that BOTH plays were called by the SAME coach, Brad Seely, the Patriots' teams coach back in 2004. Hey, Seely, how about taking your cheap-trash fake play and running it against somebody else?
Re: RamView, 1/1/2012: ***** 34, Rams 27 (Long)
Totally agree. It seems like a product of special teams players not being coached well enough. I understand the outside rusher on that side has to stay alert to that. It's frustrating because it doesn't seem like many FGs even get blocked by the outside rusher any more. Get the rest of the job right.
Look at how well the Steelers picked up the Rams' fake punt the week before. Not that it was a bad call by the Rams, but the Steelers have always had great special teams, and the players knew what to do.
Re: RamView, 1/1/2012: ***** 34, Rams 27 (Long)
Good grief. It's overwhelming. I'm gonna buy an old sailboat, fix it up and sail it around the world.
When I get back this all better be straightened out.