RamView, October 11, 2009
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Game #5: Vikings 38, Rams 10

The baseball Cardinals bowed out of postseason after an abysmal lack of production in scoring opportunities, and today, the Rams topped that. Three turnovers inside the 10 were their undoing in a loss to the Vikings that should have been a lot closer. St. Louis has a bad sports hangover right now, and more hair of the dog isn't helping any.

* QB: If Kyle Boller (20-31-209) could wave a magic wand and change a handful of plays, he would have won the starting job for the rest of the season today. One play he'd like to forget was his pratfall that turned the Rams' opening possession into a Vikings TD. He motioned to dump a screen pass over a madly-charging Kevin Williams' head and lost the ball on the way up in classic Football Follies fashion. And, of course, with the Rams' luck this year, the ball went to Jared Allen on a clean bounce, and he scooped and ran for a 52-yard TD. Boller perservered, though. He led the Rams on a 93-yard, 7½-minute drive that started late in the 1st quarter. A 62-yard drive got the Rams inside the 10 late in the half. Boller led a 15-play, 72-yard, 6-minute drive late in the 3rd. From all that, you'd think the Rams would have come away with a lot of points. Plus, Boller had the screen pass working, was finding his tight ends, and was even getting the ball downfield successfully and stretching the defense. He did miss one big chance to make a play. 3rd-and-2 at the Viking 16 during the first drive, he rolls right and tucks and scrambles for a yard, missing Avery breaking open in the corner of the end zone on that side. Much of the time, though, the Rams looked opportunity right in the eye, and opportunity poked them the eye Three Stooges-style. The 1st-quarter drive ended when Boller and Steven Jackson blew a handoff at the one-yard line and Allen (again) recovered the fumble. Boller hit Daniel Fells at the 3 just before halftime only to see the young TE lose the ball. After nearly getting his head ripped off by Kevin Williams during the 3rd-quarter drive, Boller toughly hung in to finish it out. But Bennie Sapp made two plays to deny the Rams TDs. He broke up what would have been a 44-yard TD bomb to Keenan Burton down the sideline, and a few plays later, broke up what would have been a 9-yard TD pass to Donnie Avery. Boller's throws were perfect; sometimes, the defense just makes a play. But after that, Tyrell Johnson picked Boller off in a crowd in the end zone. Likely still feeling the effects of Williams' personal foul, Boller was done for the day. That brought Marc Bulger back to the field, and he put up impressive numbers in the 4th - 7-for-7 for 88 yards and a TD – though against a Minnesota D playing much softer than they were in Boller's three quarters, as their multi-touchdown lead dictated. Avery came back for an intentionally-underthrown 27-yard pass down the sideline for the Rams' only TD of the day despite their many sorties near the goal line. It looks like Bulger will return as the starter after today. Hopefully he can get as much of the passing game working as Boller did, without the costly turnovers.

* RB: The Vikings undermined Steven Jackson more than a few times with run blitzes, but he still put up fairly effective stats: 109 total yards, 21-84 rushing. He used the whole field, bouncing a run outside for 9 and later tearing up the middle for 13 to set the Rams up at the Viking 1 early in the 2nd quarter. Too bad he was taken down with an ankle tackle on that play, because on the next, he never put away the handoff, the ball went flying out of his hands, and Jared Allen recovered to cost the Rams a TD. Jackson helped get the Rams back in scoring position late in the quarter, sneaking out of the backfield to rip off for 25 with a 3rd-and-9 screen pass, and bolting left around Randy McMichael’s block for 10 more. Samkon Gado (3-16) then popped around Richie Incognito’s pull block for 11 more, down to the 12, but the Rams fumbled away prosperity again. Jackson’s third quarter was very slow again this week, 3 rushes for 2 yards before he followed Mike Karney into a big hole up the middle of Viking territory for a 15-yard gain. But just as Jackson set the pins up for the Rams again, the offense threw another gutter ball. And so Steven Jackson is five weeks into the season without scoring a touchdown. He has shown every indication of being a patient player on the field and in the locker room. I just hope he can hold out. This has to be getting frustrating.

* WR: It was the best day so far this year to be a Rams receiver. Randy McMichael (3-45) opened the festivities with a 35-yard gain off a Boller rollout, punctuated by a hurdle. Donnie Avery had by far his best game of the year, 5-87 with a TD. He converted a 3rd-and-8 with a nifty run-after-the-catch with a smoke pass, and in the 4th, he took an underthrown sideline pass for Bulger in for a 27-yard TD. I'd still like to see the Rams get the ball to Keenan Burton (5-42) more. He's got good hands and consistently gains after the catch. After he converted a couple of first downs early, they kind of quit going to him. Daniel Fells (5-45) converted a couple of first downs himself before committing a critical error in the 2nd. Handcuffed a little by Boller's throw to him at the Viking 6, Fells secured the ball but decided to try backpedaling into the end zone from there, making himself a ripe target for Chad Greenway's jarring hit, hard enough to hammer even a well-protected ball loose. Danny Amendola caught 5 for 43 in the possession receiver role, but his incorrect route early in the 4th drew a crowd to Boller's rushed throw for Burton in the end zone. Unfortunately, there were a lot of Vikings in that crowd, and Tyrrell Johnson came away with the INT. The best day for the Ram receivers this season still wouldn’t turn out to be enough.

* Offensive line: Boller was only sacked once, but when Minnesota got to the Rams QB, the result was very painful, and there was an offensive line breakdown associated with it. Kevin Williams was credited with a sack on the Boller fumble Allen returned for Minnesota’s second TD. The play was supposed to be a screen left to Jackson, but Richie Incognito didn’t remotely slow Williams down en route to Boller, whose life was additionally complicated by Allen blocking-sledding Alex Barron and getting into the QB’s face. That’s far from the first time Incognito has executed poorly on a screen pass, too. When Williams nearly decapitated Boller in the 3rd, he beat Jason Brown, but that was only because Jacob Bell’s man beat him so badly, he got driven behind Brown and tripped him up. Boller was intercepted in the end zone later that drive, rushed to throw after Ray Edwards WHIPPED Adam Goldberg with a spin move. That’s not reassuring to see with Dwight Freeney coming in two weeks. Minnesota run-blitzed safeties in and tripped up Jackson a lot. Seems like the the fullback and tight ends should be responsible for a lot of that. Billy Bajema was beaten that way on back-to-back run stuffs in the 2nd. But that group was also quite effective. Randy McMichael may have had his best blocking game as a Ram. Jackson bounced an early run left for 10 after Daniel Fells sealed the edge. When Jackson ran down to the 1 early in the 2nd, Mike Karney put an impressive lick on the safety, while Brown and Incognito opened him a good hole up the middle. Jackson followed Karney several times for successful gains, especially on a 15-yard run up the middle in the 3rd. McMichael made great blocks on Jackson’s 25-yard screen in the 3rd and the 10-yard run the next play. Incognito and Keenan Burton then got Gado room for 11 more. But there were critical breakdowns, too. Incognito killed the Rams’ second drive with a tripping penalty. On the failed QB draw in the 2nd, the middle never opened up because Kevin Williams whipped Goldberg and Brown couldn’t budge Pat Williams. The Rams 3-and-outed twice right after halftime. Jackson got stuffed once by the safety after Karney nearly got knocked off his feet. An 3rd-and-2 handoff to Karney the next possession failed when Bell failed to get any piece of E.J. Henderson, who submarined the fullback. Though Jackson’s mistake on a key play is highlighted much more than Incognito’s on another play, though the halftime package shows Boller struggling without being able to emphasize breakdowns by Bell or Goldberg or Barron, it’s a team game. Offensive linemen have to make the clutch play, too; the Rams’ just aren’t making enough of them.

* Defensive line / LB: Against a much better offensive line than San Francisco’s, the defense’s performance wasn’t all that encouraging this week. They put little pressure on Brett Favre. The only sacks came from safety blitzes by O.J. Atogwe and Craig Dahl. Yes, Adrian Peterson had just 69 yards, but that was on a surprisingly-low 15 carries, and he still made his share of plays. He opened the scoring with a 5-yard TD sweep that I say is on Larry Grant, who crashed inside and came up nowhere near the play, leaving a lot of space on his side of the field for Atogwe and James Laurinaitis to try to cover. Peterson opened the next drive with 15 off right tackle, inside Leonard Little, with Will Witherspoon getting picked off in the hole, not for the last time. But Laurinaitis picked off Favre to end the drive. Favre’s stupid, way-off-balance pass was forced by good pressure from Little and by James Hall breaking down the pocket as the nose tackle on the play. Just a three-man rush there, but that was one of the few highlights today on the line. Cliff Ryan batted a pass back to Favre to help force a FG. Gary Gibson looked disruptive for a while before breaking a bone in his leg in the 3rd, ending his game and season. Laurinaitis made a terrific play to blow up a dangerous-looking screen to Peterson late in the first half. But he blew coverage on Shiancoe on the TD that made it 24-3, and Steve Hutchinson picked him off as Peterson walked in from 7 to put Minnesota up 31-3. I’ll still take his performance today because he also made quite a few good plays. The big problem today was pass rush, that is, lack of it. Little might have gotten close just the one time. If any DT got close to Favre, it was because they were letting him in to set up a screen. After getting called out for having no tackles last week, Chris Long got on the box score this week with two, but was much less effective than he was in San Francisco. He couldn’t get a thing done against Bryant McKinnie and was a complete non-factor. No realistic fan expected Steve Spagnuolo to have the reincarnation of his Super Bowl Giants D out there in blue and gold. At the same time, developing a consistent, improved pass rush and getting the most out of Chris Long weren’t unreasonable goals for the new HC, and to the entire team’s detriment, those are goals he and the defensive players aren’t making progress toward.

* Secondary: The Vikings receivers are hardly a group of world-beaters, but most of the Ram secondary struggled today all the same. After forcing Minnesota into an early 3rd-and-8, everyone laid 5 to 7 yards off all the receivers and Percy Harvin still got behind David Roach for a 22-yard catch. Harvin beat Justin King for 25 more to set up the first Viking TD. At some point the coaches are going to have to determine that they can’t let Bradley Fletcher get beat for a long bomb every game. This week it was Sidney Rice beating him for 47 in the 3rd on a ball Fletcher never knew was coming. We’ve seen that before. We’ll see it again. In the 4th, Rice beat Ron Bartell deep and drew a 34-yard DPI. Again, the CB never knew the ball was coming. FAKHIR BROWN LIVES! All of those long plays, naturally, led to Viking TDs. The DPI led to an easy TD for – guess what position – tight end Visanthe Shiancoe after Laurinaitis bit on the underneath slant and neither safety in the end zone closed on the TE in time. Um, it’s Brett Favre? Near the end zone? Think he might ever in his career have looked for the TE down there? Sigh. A terrific game by Craig Dahl wasn’t enough to compensate. He flashed into the backfield several times to stuff runs. He got a sack on a dog blitz late in the first half. Dahl’s most impressive play came early in the second; he closed from at least ten yards away to shut down a dangerous-looking smoke pass to Harvin. On one hand, the front seven’s got to stop giving QBs so much time to beat the defense deep downfield. On the other hand, the secondary’s got to play like they know the ball’s coming. Maybe the two units could meet somewhere in the middle?

* Special teams: Special teams trends are on the upswing, but there's still work to do. The Rams neutralized Harvin on kickoff returns with booming touchbacks by Josh Brown. Brown even actually made a FG today, from 29. The Rams neutralized the Viking punt return game by turning the ball over all the time. Donnie Jones' punts look a lot better on paper – 49.3 average – than they looked in person. His hang time was not up to his usual standard and he needed a couple of rolls to get good yardage. Danny Amendola got a couple of kickoffs across the 30. He seems to have a good eye for finding his blocks and could be getting close to breaking another one. He also nearly fumbled a punt away, though. And Quincy Butler and Fells each put the Rams in deep holes with blocks in the back on kick returns. That in particular is getting really old, especially when it seems like a problem that should be fairly easy to eliminate. Butler additionally put Minnesota in great position for a FG drive when he horse-collared Harvin in the 2nd. Special teams coach Tom McMahon needs to get the penalties fixed, pronto.

* Coaching: Among the offense’s many problems, one is emerging that is really intolerable: coming out flat after halftime. Both this week and last, they’ve opened the third quarter with at least two three-and-outs. The second one this week was another one of those possessions filled with weird play choices. An intended pass for Karney in the flat. A pass to Fells. Then on third-and-2, an inside handoff to Karney again. STEVEN WHO? Pat Shurmur’s very comfortable with the mobile Boller at QB, but he’s letting him run too much. Boller tucked and ran near the goal line in the 1st and missed Avery wide open in the end zone. Then there was the stupid QB draw called at the Viking 10 in the 2nd. That’s a fine play call, if your QB is Michael Vick. KYLE BOLLER IS NOT MICHAEL VICK. It also took too long to get the running game running left, where they had significant success, over running right, where Minnesota stuffed everything early on. Shurmur’s making progress. They showed some creativity by mixing in some no-huddle. They got some screens working against Minnesota’s run-blitzing, though they probably needed to do more. That also kept Jared Allen off-balance. The Rams actually threw downfield, and stretched the field, for the first time all season. But this team needs to stop coming out of halftime in a rut, especially with its play-calling.

Like the Vikings, the Rams were successful run-blitzing, and Ken Flajole’s scouting was good: the safety blitzes that got Favre sacked are blitzes he’s been susceptible to this year. But the Ram defense still felt too passive to me today. I wanted to blitz more and lay off the receivers less. I still don’t know why Fletcher’s getting so much of Jonathan Wade’s playing time. And I still don’t get the attraction with zone-blitzing and dropping defensive tackles off the line on short-yardage downs. It’s not like Favre needed more time to throw.

The penalty situation (7 for 82) for Steve Spagnuolo’s team isn’t getting better. Special teams penalties especially need to get cleaned up. The Rams continue to rank among the lead leaders in flags; that just can’t go on. The Rams’ preseason sure was no predictor of their turnover plus-minus for the regular season. They look like they’re really pressing once they get inside the red zone. Spagnuolo showed confidence in them by going for it a couple of times on 4th down, but with Minnesota up only 14-3 the last 2:00 of the first half, I’d have liked to see him call defensive timeouts (he had all three) to get the ball back. There’s no easy formula for him, but Spagnuolo needs to get his players’ confidence back, or this season’s going to disintegrate even faster than it is already.

* Upon further review: Lucky Don Carey – he's already gotten to do a Rams regular season game and a preseason game this year. Unlucky for just about any defensive lineman hoping to draw a holding call today, though. O-linemen were just tackling defenders at times, even right in front of Carey, but he showed little interest in making the call. He did throw a flag on Kevin Williams for defensive holding in the 1st; a good call, actually. And Williams' penalty for roughing Boller, and the late hit to Avery out of bounds late in the game, were both proper calls. Is officiating better this year, or am I just getting soft? I'll give Carey and crew a B.

* Cheers: Today's “sellout”, if you want to call it that, was made mainly possible by a surprisingly large number of fans in purple and gold. Vikings fans represented about as well as Packers fans did at the home opener. Rams fans did not come close to duplicating their effort from that game, though. After the defense let Minnesota convert 3rd-and-8 the opening possession, our attitude was pretty much, “oh, so that's how it's going to be?” and the Dome was pretty damn quiet the rest of the day. Most fans didn't even stay for the 4th quarter, with Boller's last INT providing a catalyst to head home early and nurse the wounds from a pretty bad sports weekend. Rams fans didn't even get that fired up about the old Super Bowl highlights running on the video board in conjunction with throwback uniform day. The SIU-C marching band provided a Michael Jackson tribute at halftime. Disappointingly, when they got to “Thriller”, the dance team did not perform the zombie dance. Which reminds me, Rams cheerleaders. The next home game is the Sunday before Halloween, and if you ladies shirk your professional duty again this year and do not wear Halloween costumes, I swear I will dump you for the San Diego cheerleaders. You've been warned.

* Who’s next?: If the Rams’ bus driver gets lost on the way to the stadium in Jacksonville next week, it’ll be understandable – the Rams have never played there. In 15 seasons, the Rams have played the Jagwires just twice, both wins at home, the last time a win for a coach who'd only been in charge a few weeks. Sounds like a temptingly familiar scenario. The coach back then? Joe Vitt. Just four years ago, but it seems like forty.

Just as I was about to praise the Jagwire defense for going out and just beating up the Titans a couple of weeks ago, this comes across the wire: Seattle 41, Jacksonville 0. Matt Hasselbeck's 4 TDs show the vulnerability of Jacksonville's secondary, the same group Kurt Warner flambed for a 92% completion percentage in week 2. The same group that's last in the league in pass defense. Jacksonville's hoping that, as in the Tennessee game, they can sell out against the run in a 3-4 look with John Henderson at nose and underachieving 2008 top draft pick Derrick Harvey dropping back into an OLB role. But this is the Rams' chance to get the passing game going against a very young defense that's only gotten to the QB three times all season. If the Rams can get that going, they can unleash Jackson on the Jagwires and maybe, just maybe, put themselves in position for their first win this season. If they're going to continue to shoot themselves in the foot, though, Jacksonville will beat them as surely as they smoked the mistake-prone Titans in week 4, and as surely as anybody else that has beaten the Rams this season has done it.

Thanks to his high draft position in most fantasy football leagues, Maurice Jones-Drew is the star of the Jagwires, the man you'd typically expect would carry their offense. He's fast, hard to find at 5'7”, and is an accomplished receiver and surprisingly physical, punishing runner. The Jagwires didn’t start winning, though, until their passing game started to click. David Garrard can throw it all over the yard, even though he's working with a mostly-anonymous corps of young receivers. Mike Sims-Walker? Mike Thomas? What does this crew have that, say, the Rams' receivers don't? Just future Hall-of-Famer Torry Holt, now in teal and black (yecch), who's helped bring the young fellas along while still catching a ball or two a game himself. Holt wouldn't normally need to be double-teamed at this stage of his career, but who knows how fired up he'll be to show his old team a thing or two. Sims-Walker is the type of big receiver who always gives the Rams fits. Thomas will be a handful, too; at about Jones-Drew's size, he's got elite speed and is gaining Garrard's confidence. Thomas will also be a load for the Rams on special teams. It'll be imperative for the Rams to win this one up front, like Seattle did today with a dominating 5-sack performance. Injuries are making it difficult for the Jagwire offensive line to gel, and even if they get their intended starting five on the field, it'll include rookies, Eben Britton and Eugene Monroe, at either tackle, or with 11-year veteran Tra, no, William, no, Tra again, Thomas a possible starter at LT. Whatever line the Jagwires roll out won't have worked together much, and the Rams ought to be able to blitz them into oblivion and help the secondary out by getting in Garrard's face all day. The Rams need an “on” week from their on-again, off-again pass rush.

Though they don't meet often, the NFL histories of these two teams will always be intertwined. The Jagwires exist because the NFL shunned St. Louis in the 1995 expansion derby. St. Louis will always have the better end of the deal, though, thanks to the Rams' Super Bowl championship here in 2000. These days, it's the Rams who look a lot like an expansion team, while the Jagwires will try to be one of several teams this season to beat the Rams with one of St. Louis' own Super Bowl heroes. And, both teams are among the candidates to one day replace the franchise Los Angeles lost in the whole mess 14 years ago. Who'll make history next week? Jacksonville's coming off an even more dreadful week than the Rams are, so hey, next Sunday could be the Rams' time.

--Mike
Game stats from nfl.com