RamView, 10/16/2011: Packers 24, Rams 3 (Long)
RamView, October 16, 2011
From The Couch
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Game #5: Packers 24, Rams 3
The best team in the NFL outclasses the worst team... what else is new? More importantly, what time is the baseball game?
Position by position:
* QB: Since he didn't get his clock cleaned every other play this week, Sam Bradford looked a lot more comfortable in the Rams' throttled-down offense, and put up decent numbers: 28-44, 321 yards. If you were picking Bradford for your neighborhood baseball team, though, you'd definitely make him a starting pitcher; he certainly was not a closer today. A bad 2nd-and-long pass for Brandon Gibson from the Packers 28 helped doom the opening drive to a missed FG. He got fooled by a fake blitz on 3rd-and-9 late in the 1st and settled for a too-short pass, then well overthrew Danario Alexander on a long route on 4th down. Bradford ate a huge sack in the 2nd with Steven Jackson W I D E open in the middle of the field. Why doesn't Bradford see that better? Isn't it right in front of him? Maybe his throwing lane isn't clear enough? He did have two or three more balls batted down at the line again this week. Across midfield in the 3rd, Bradford stared down Jackson in the flat the whole way on 3rd-and-6 and threw him a 1-yard pass, though. In the red zone in the 4th, he picks a well-covered Cadillac Williams to stare down for a well-incomplete lob pass while Greg Salas was open from the snap and lonelier in the end zone than Hank Williams, Jr. at an Obama rally. That was not a case of reading the field well, but Bradford's most frustrating play of the day came from the Packers 10 in the 3rd. He's got Alexander iso'ed wide left on 6-inches-shorter Sam Shields, then proceeds to throw a line drive into the end zone that's four feet off the ground. So much for the height advantage! Interception, Green Bay. Either Bradford thought DX was supposed to run a slant, or he just can't throw the damn end zone fade pass. That ball should have been three feet higher. Let your 6'5” wideout go up and get it! I hate to harp on Bradford's bad plays, because he made a bunch of good ones. He threw well on the move, usually got the ball out quickly and generally hung well in the pocket. He completed a couple of passes in the 1st-half 2:00 offense right before getting drilled, leading the Rams to their only score. He hit DX with a seeing-eye 21-yard pass in the 4th and connected with him again on their classic back-shoulder bomb for 35. If Alexander holds on to a deep pass over the middle early in the game, like he should have, the Rams would have had a 40-plus-yard play and might have put the Packers on their heels. The Rams dropped some passes this week and had some pass protection breakdowns, but this was their best week this season in both those areas. The Rams had over 400 yards of offense, over 300 through the air, and scored three points to show for it. The biggest limiting factor this week, unfortunately, appears to have been the face of the franchise.
* RB: Steven Jackson (18-96, 125 total yards) played like he knew he'd have to carry the offense, and there weren't many times today he didn't grind out at least a couple of extra yards after contact. You could tell Jackson was back to 100% health because he made a lot of successful cutbacks and bounces outside that he can't when he's dinged up. He cut up inside left end for 13 on the Rams' opening possession. The Rams continue to be a very left-handed team on the ground but got much better mileage in that direction this week. Jackson took a well-blocked pitch left for 9 in the 2nd. Seconds before halftime, he sneaked out of the backfield, made a pretty one-handed grab of a swing pass and got out of bounds to stop the clock and set up the Rams' ONLY score. An 8-yard run up the middle late in the 3rd got the Rams to the 10-yard-line before Bradford's INT. 11 more right up the gut got the Rams in the red zone again late in the game. Nothing doing from there again, though. Jackson was split out wide quite a few times in the closing minutes and contributed a 13-yard play from out there. About the only time Jackson wasn't a positive factor was when Cadillac Williams (4-24) came in to give him a breather. He cruised for 13 off left tackle in the first but kind of ruined his day when the Rams blew the lateral play AGAIN that cost them a TD in New York. At least Williams remembered to track down the live ball this time, but the play cost the Rams 16 yards and drove them out of FG range. The Rams still have the running game to get them places, if they'd only do something once they get where they're going.
* Receivers: Probably the best move the Rams made this week was to start Danario Alexander and leave Mike Sims-Walker completely off the active roster. It looked like Alexander (6-91) was headed for a goat day when he dropped a deep pass down the middle in the 1st that would have gained 40 yards minimum, but he rallied after that. In the 2nd half, he made a nice back-shoulder catch for 21 with Desmond Bishop draped all over him and beat the Packers deep on his favorite back-shoulder deep corner route for 35 in the 4th. DX was also effective on slants in the short area of the field, and looked close to a #1 receiver after all was said and done. If he'd only caught that first deep ball. Brandon Gibson (4-43) took a while to get going but did have 2 catches for 34 on the Rams' FG drive. I especially liked his big end zone hit on Sam Shields after Shields picked off Bradford in the 3rd. The slot role, surprisingly, went back to Greg Salas this week; I'm not sure Austin Pettis even got many snaps. Salas pretty well thrived, though, with 8 catches for 77. He did have a drop, but also caught one pass while falling down in the 1st and made a tough downfield catch for 19 in the 3rd while getting solidly thumped. Salas turned several short passes into gains over 10 yards and played today the way the Rams had to be hoping he would when they drafted him. Lance Kendricks (4-71) opened the game for the Rams in style, taking a rollout pass from Bradford, stiffarming a DB into the ground and storming up the seam for 45. He sabotaged the drive a few plays later with a false start, though, and ended the game dropping a 4th-and-7 pass right at the first-down marker. Even with the hiccups, this was still the Rams receivers' best game of the season, and hopefully will be a confidence-builder.
* Offensive line: The geared-down offense helped the offensive line to their best game of the season. Run blocking was effective, particularly Rodger Saffold and Jacob Bell on the left side. The Rams got better blocking from TE than they've been getting lately, though Billy Bajema and Michael Hoomanawanui hurt Jackson runs a couple of times by missing blocks. Still, there were times the Rams just turned the Packers into a big pile in the middle of the field. Pass protection was even effective. Bradford had a ton of time on a lot of plays. Of the three sacks he took, one was a Charles Woodson blitz and one was a delayed blitz by an unblocked A.J. Hawk where Bradford must have thought he could hold the ball for five minutes. The only sack I'd put on the line came when Clay Matthews burned Bell with an inside move to drop Bradford late in the game. Thought they did a pretty nice job on Matthews overall. Where the line continues to drive everyone crazy, though, is with penalties. Saffold held on the opening drive, Hoomanawanui on the next. You knew Jason Smith wasn't going to make it out of a game with out a false start, and Saffold and Bell both false-started – Saffold for the second time – at the end of the Rams' final drive. The good news: the Rams found an offensive tempo at which their o-line finally looks competent. The bad news: still too many stupid mistakes. Get those cleaned up, and this line's season may still be salvageable.
* Defensive line/LB: Green Bay isn't known as a running team but I still find it no coincidence the Rams had their best game of the season against the run with Ben Leber as a game-day inactive. Chris Chamberlain had six tackles in his place, and lo and behold, the Rams didn't get scorched by any cutback runs this week. The Rams actually 3-and-outed the Packers in the first behind run stuffs by James Laurinaitis and Darian Stewart. Stewart stuffed fullback John Kuhn on that play, and to open the 2nd, Justin Bannan and Fred Robbins stacked him up on 3rd-and-2, forcing the Packers to gamble on 4th down. And that play may have decided the game. James Starks blew off left tackle for 15 as Brady Poppinga got washed out, and if Laurinaitis attacked the gap he was supposed to, it still wasn't the gap Starks went through. The Packers scored the next play, and the momentum of the game would not switch back. Robbins, Gibson and Chris Long all had good games against the run. The Rams strung out outside runs well. Maybe this part of the D is finally starting to gel. Can't say as much for the pass rush, though. It's crucial for the Rams to get a decent 4-man rush with the secondary they have, but they've gotten almost none all season and got almost none today. The pass rushing star, oddly enough, was Gibson, who overpowered the RG to sack Aaron Rodgers and hold the first Packer drive to a FG. He pressured Rodgers a couple of other times, though that included a play on Green Bay's last TD drive where he managed to blow a sack two different times. But at least Gibson was getting there; nobody else was. The Rams especially need to get a LOT more from the ends than they are. I doubt Long ever got within arm's length of Rodgers. James Hall's struggled all year. Robert Quinn pressured Rodgers into running once for sure, but that was the only play I saw where he really "flashed". Green Bay's o-line won the pass-protection matchup decisively, and that's where this game was won. Or in the Rams' case, lost. The Ram rush has shown nowhere near the ability to pressure or the depth it seemed ready to show off coming into this season.
* Secondary: The tattered Ram secondary held up for a quarter, with the D holding the Packers to a lone FG, but when the dam broke in the 2nd, it really broke. With Aaron Rodgers getting forever to throw off a rollout, James Jones caught a 35-yard TD on a cross-field pattern with Justin King in his usual “trail technique,” never within two steps of the receiver. And the next possession, hoo boy. Instead of keeping the Packers hemmed in at their 7, the secondary implodes. With Quintin Mikell blitzing, 14-year veteran Al Harris falls for the oldest trick in the book, a pump-fake from Rodgers, letting Jordy Nelson run right by him. Darian Stewart tries to help but overruns Nelson and takes Harris completely out of the play instead. 93 yards later, Nelson's got the game-breaking TD. (Also lost my fantasy league for me; thanks a TON, Al Harris.) Next time down, Rodgers' scrambling ability got the better of the Rams. 2nd-goal from the 7, two Rams try to chase Rodgers down when he takes off, but leave Donald Driver alone in the end zone in the process. Guess what Rodgers did. 24-0. Stewart showed well in run defense, and they held Jermichael Finley to one catch, but the Ram secondary was as outclassed by the Packers as expected. The Packers helped them out with a bunch of drops, including a Greg Jennings muff to Craig Dahl for a late INT. And for every time King looked like he could actually cover Jennings, he'd pop up wide open in the zone or abuse King on slant routes two or three times. Limit-damage mode is the best this unit is going to be capable of, so what they really need to do the rest of the way is eliminate the big plays.
* Special teams: The Rams lost out on a chance to start the game with a lead when Josh Brown couldn't put a 45-yard FG through in the face of a stiff wind. I give Brown a lot of grief even though he doesn't actually miss a lot of FGs. But man, you are getting paid a lot to be coming up short from 45. It should take a tornado to make you miss from there. And add Donnie Jones to the list of Rams having disappointing seasons. He barely averaged 30 yards a kick. True, he pinned the Packers inside the 15 three times. He also clanged a 31-yarder in the 2nd, with Hurricane Curly at his back. Austin Pettis, though, has gone from crash-test dummy to legitimate return threat on punts in the space of two weeks. He fair-caught cleanly. He baited the Packers away from one punt that bounced into the end zone. He snagged a deep, bouncing punt inside the 5 in the 4th and got back out to the 20 with it, and on his final return, hit the seam for 37 thanks to good seal blocks by Craig Dahl and Britt Miller and a downfield pancake by Quinn Porter. Looks like Pettis got coached up well during the bye week.
* Coaching: The Ram coaching staff was at least smart enough to realize what its overall approach needed to be for this game. On offense, quick drops for Bradford, get the ball out quick, throw a lot of short and underneath stuff, work in a lot of no-huddle, pound the ball with Jackson. On defense, personnel demanded rushing just the front four and keeping everyone else in soft zone coverage. Smart, realistic game-planning. The Rams were never going to be able to trade punches with the Packers; they had to make the most out of what they could get. Unfortunately, they didn't.
Some problems occurred when the Rams wandered off from the safety of the game plan. Spagnuolo admitted at halftime he shouldn't have been blitzing on the 93-yard Nelson TD. That was a case of stupidly going away from what had been working; i.e., the Rams' soft coverage holding Green Bay to 3 points in the 1st quarter. With Shurmurball at least moving the ball, I didn't understand the low-percentage bomb on 4th-and-3 at the end of the 1st. Might as well have punted if you were going to make that strange a call; you could have backed the Packers inside the 10, and in a couple of plays they'd have the wind in their face. Then, on 4th-and-5 in similar field position in the 3rd, they do go ahead and punt.
Execution was a bigger problem. The coaching staff got the run defense and punt returns cleaned up but still has a long way to go. Stupid offensive line penalties continue as though 2011 is a season-long tribute to Alex Barron. Alexander drops a pass in the 1st that should have gained at least 40. A veteran CB like Harris shouldn't have bitten so hard on the play-fake on the Nelson TD. Rams have a TD set up at the end of the 3rd, then Bradford underthrows the pass by three feet. Bradford misses Jackson screamingly open in the 2nd and Salas in the end zone in the 4th. AND CAN WE PLEASE TAKE THE LATERAL PASS PLAY TO CADILLAC OUT AND FREAKING SHOOT IT? THANKS. Some of the execution problems were on the part of the coaching staff, too, if that makes any sense. 3rd-and-11 from the Packer 28 the first possession, the sideline calls a timeout and scuttles a play that got started and looked very much like it was going to be an inside handoff to Jackson. After the timeout, the Rams didn't even appear to change the call. Not much element of surprise there. I doubt they ever could have done enough to beat the Pack in Lambeau, but if the coaching staff had stayed 100% committed to their gameplan, and if they would ever get their players to execute at the necessary level, they very well could have put a scare in the Super Bowl champs that would have been the talk of the league. Instead, the Rams remain the joke of the league.
* Upon further review: Pretty good officiating by Ed Hochuli and crew. Hall appeared pretty clearly held on Rodgers' TD pass to Donald Driver. And was King's illegal contact really more than five yards downfield a couple of plays prior? Didn't look like it. Jermichael Finley probably got away with OPI on an INT attempt for Quintin Mikell late in the game. Clay Matthews and especially Eric Walden came down on top of Bradford after he released a pass in the 2nd; easily could have been called roughing. But everything was close enough to at least give Hochuli the benefit of the doubt over my second-guess efforts. B
* Cheers: The Ram broadcast drew Chris Myers and Tim Ryan for the second straight game (I think), but they mainly seemed happy they were getting to call a Green Bay game. I've always liked Ryan as an analyst but both teams playing a lot of no-huddle made it difficult to really let him shine at breaking down replays. Ryan pretty much nailed the Rams' problems, not that it's that hard, and also exactly agreed with most of us in laying out what the Rams had to do on offense and defense in his pregame rundown. The big shock is that the Rams actually went with us strategically. I'm also glad Ryan pointed out the Packers' brown helmets are supposed to resemble old leather helmets. Up until then, you had to wonder how the hell those chocolate helmets weren't melting, let alone offer any protection. Cool touch, though. I may be one of the few who liked the Green Bay throwbacks. If the Rams ever go for old school blue-and-white throwbacks, though, I have to insist they have a winning season first. They have to prove worthy of those colors, don't they?
* Who’s next?: Like the Rams, the St. Louis Cardinals are playing teams from Wisconsin and Dallas this week and next. Unlike the Rams, the Cardinals are doing so for a world championship. The Rams will just be trying to avoid 0-6. Too bad the Rams aren't a lot more like their baseball colleagues. The Cardinals overcame potentially devastating injuries this year (Adam Wainwright all season; Albert Pujols in midseason). Their offseason chance on an older free agent panned out; Lance Berkman just won the Comeback Player of the Year award. From David Freese to Jason Motte to John Jay, the Cards have developed young players who have become key contributors. They even traded a young player they didn't like (Colby Rasmus) for key contributors. And the Cards have incomparable stability at the top of their organization, a successful GM and a Hall-of-Fame manager. Sure, if Tony LaRussa coached the Rams, he'd have two left-handed backup QBs and another QB he'd only use on exactly 3rd-and-15 in road games. But there's little doubt in St. Louis that the Cardinals are a direct reflection of LaRussa's leadership. They willed themselves out of a big hole late in the season and knocked off the best team in the game to get where they are. We just saw Steve Spagnuolo's Rams against the best team in the league, and we know where they are.
Speaking of strong leadership, the Dallas Cowboys get it from QB Tony Romo. Guy beat the ***** with cracked ribs and a collapsed lung, then beat the Redskins with squat at WR and a center seemingly snapping him the ball at random. We infamously saw the Rams' inability to deal with Romo's mobility the last time they were down there. I doubt much has changed. Romo's getting the ball out quickly, and his line's giving him time on longer routes. The Rams also run into the bad timing of hitting Dallas as their WRs are getting healthy. Bigger, faster receivers who excel at winning jump balls? Not what the Rams secondary needs to see. They won't be able to challenge those guys at the line, so slant routes will be open all game. But the focus probably won't be on Miles Austin or Dez Bryant as much as it will be on Jason Witten. If the chips are down, Romo's looking for Witten first. Dallas also loves its screen passes, which Romo will throw to just about anybody. They actually widen the field better with those than they do with Felix Jones, despite his reputation for speed. Though you can bet he'll be dangerous against the Rams with cutbacks, Jones looks most effective to me on middle runs. Though less experienced, and not the bunch of maulers they were a few years ago, the Cowboy o-line holds its own pretty well, especially the middle. Ndamukong Suh barely got his name called during the Detroit game. However, someone like Robert Quinn ought to be able to give LT Doug Free problems with his speed. It also looks like Dallas misses having Marion Barber around when they get close to the goal line. The biggest thing the Cowboy offense has to overcome, though, turns out to be Romo himself. He's pretty much lost two games for them with dumb interceptions. The Rams' best chance to stay in this game will be to bait him into those kind of throws. Seems a lot of times like Romo thinks he's got a receiver over the top, but he doesn't spot the defender or execute the throw. By hook or by crook, the Rams need to exert pressure on Romo and maybe he'll keep them in the game.
The Rams luckily don't face Ryan family defenses very often, but they do Sunday in Dallas. Like Rex in New York, Rob loves to overload one side of the line and blitz from there. It'll be especially up to Bradford to diagnose those and keep himself out of trouble. Dallas will hit him a lot otherwise. Ryan tries to scheme it so Demarcus Ware can't get double-teamed, but I've seen teams have no trouble running inside of him. The Lions had no trouble single-blocking him with Jeff Backus or Gosder Cherilus even when they were forced to pass a lot. The Redskins took care of Ware with just Chris Cooley at times. The Rams tackles may still be completely challenged by Ware; I'm just saying they don't have to be. A surprise key player on the Dallas D is ILB Sean Lee. In just his second season, he's already an excellent run defender and already better than any Ram LB at taking away cutback lanes. Like James Laurinaitis, Lee's already got 2 INTs this year, too. The Cowboy defense can be attacked, the question is really if the Rams have the tools. Dallas can't cover TEs and struggles against TE-wide and 2-TE passing formations. Those formations would even help the Rams protect Bradford by making Dallas drop a guy like Anthony Spencer into coverage. And Dallas will bite on play-action and leave TEs open near the goal line. They're pretty sloppy in the secondary in their assignments, period. The McDaniels offense on paper should have a field day against the Cowboys. But unless several players on the offensive side grow up, the Rams are probably looking at 0-6.
One of these days in the Spagnuolo era, his team needs to show it can jump up and bite a better team in the butt. Almost 40 games under Spagnuolo now, almost 30 losses, still haven't seen it. The Dallas Cowboys are clearly better than the Rams, but they're mistake-prone and (unlike the Packers) beatable. Spagnuolo needs to sneak off with a win in a game like next week's while he's still got the opportunity.
Game stats from nfl.com