RamView, October 23, 2005
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Game 7: Rams 28, Saints 17

Short four Pro Bowlers, two other defensive regulars and their regular head coach, the Rams persevere mightily and surge past the Saints with a big fourth-quarter comeback.

Position by position:
* QB: Jamie Martin (18-29-198) wasn't as solid as hoped, but was solid enough. The Ram offense sputtered much of the first three quarters, with Jamie killing drives with poor throws. What-the-heck throws way over receivers' heads, too-low passes for receivers in the flat, passes well behind receivers, and much too frequently, passes well short of the marker on 3rd down. 9 on 3rd-and-13. 6 on 3rd-and-10. 6 (fumbled) on 3rd-and 16. 6 again on 3rd-and-10. Six yards seemed to be the limit of Martin's downfield range, and when he took a sack to help blow up the Rams' opening drive of the second half, speculation in the stands was that Ryan Fitzpatrick would be an upgrade, if only because of his much-quicker feet. Stan Musial's statue outside Busch Stadium is going to move more this month than Jamie will. And Jamie's going to need plenty of Visine after spending the afternoon staring down receivers the way he did. But he made three plays involving Kevin Curtis that made big differences. A 42-yard pass interference set up the Rams' first TD. Martin and Curtis connected for 42 in the 4th to set up the Rams' second TD, a Steven Jackson run, like the first one. And Jamie got in Saint CB Mike McKenzie's way just enough to give Curtis room to score on a 5-yard reverse to give the Rams a late lead. Pretty clear you don't want to rely on Jamie Martin to win games for you. But – a big key today – Jamie didn't throw any interceptions, so he didn’t lose the game for the Rams, either. Chris Chandler wasn't one tenth as good last year. If Jamie can run the offense again next week without making a big turnover, his starting stint will be as good as Rams Nation can hope for.

* RB: Steven Jackson's (20-97) got this knack for starting off with a big play and then tailing off. He opened the game with a 43-yard run, bolting through a big gap left of center. He stalled after that, though, failing to get anything going on draw plays or end runs. Steven didn't look nearly as hesitant as he did last week; the blocking just wasn't there. He still scored the Rams' first two TDs: a 6-yard draw in the first and a tough, third-effort, one-yard TD on 4th-and-goal in the 4th. (Marshall Faulk (7 touches-37 yards) had nearly scored on a draw the play before.) That TD is exactly the kind of thing you want from your big back. And after Donte Stallworth's fumble a couple of plays later, Steven carried the load, 37 yards on 3 carries and a catch, putting the Saints well on their heels for Kevin Curtis' 5-yard, TD-scoring reverse. That's also what you want from your big back, or any key player, really: to take over the game at critical junctures. Steven's been just on the fringe of it up till now, but he stepped forward as a prime time player today.

* WR: Minus Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, Kevin Curtis (4-90) carried the passing game. He got a step on the Saint defender and drew a 42-yard interference penalty to set up the Rams at the 6 for their first TD. He beat his man again and made a smart basket catch, again for 42, again down to the 6, to set up the Rams' 2nd TD. Fine job on that play of shielding the ball from the defender. Curtis turned in his most important play with about six minutes left in the game, a reverse from the Saint 5 where he really turned on his 4.3 speed, zoomed around Martin's downfield interference and made an all-out dive for the pylon and the TD. Not much WR help for Curtis; Dane Looker (3-22) converted a 3rd-and-4 on the Rams' first TD drive, but Shaun McDonald had a couple of drops and just 2 catches for 20 yards, despite Martin throwing his way 8 times. Brandon Manumaleuna had one catch and a very sloppy fumble which nearly cost the Rams dearly.

* Offensive line: Given the Rams' injuries at WR and QB, it was vital for the Ram offensive line to play well, and for the third straight week, they had a very good game. They got things going on the very first play, as Andy McCollum and Claude Terrell stacked up Saints like cordwood and gave Jackson a huge alley to shoot through for a 43-yard gain. Pass protection was excellent. Martin was sacked just once, and he held the ball too long on that one. Charles Grant had just half a sack off Alex Barron, a far cry from the FOUR Grant Williams gave up last year, though Barron did commit a couple of holding penalties. The line did not excel at blocking for sweeps or draws. FBs Manu or Hedgecock will get out there on sweeps, but can't clear out a hole. And there are times that Jackson needs to cut back and take a 2-yard gain, which isn't much, but beats the alternative of taking a loss. The blocking up the middle doesn't seem to be there on draw plays. But allowing only one sack + Jackson gaining nearly 100 yards = a successful day in the trenches.

* Defensive line/LB: The defense started the game on its continued bad roll from Indianapolis, and nearly got the Rams blown right out of the Dome. Aaron Brooks had it as easy as training camp drills as he drove the Saints out to a 14-0 lead. The Rams put no pressure on him, tackled RBs very poorly, and QB rollouts (which SOMEBODY suggested they look out for last week) were as baffling to them as the obelisk was to the cavemen in 2001. The Rams started getting to Brooks with blitzes but also started killing themselves with penalties. The 2nd Saint TD drive was extended by two 3rd down penalties, including a 15-yard punch-in-the-groin penalty on Damione Lewis that harshed the buzz of a Jimmy Kennedy sack and got D-Lew kicked out of the game. Funny how the defense got better after he left. Though the Saints did a good job beating blitzes with swing passes to the RBs. And Pisa Tinoisamoa bit on EVERY fake Aaron Stecker put on him, giving up extra yardage. Pisa gets a spot at my poker table. The Rams did slow the 3rd Saint drive to a FG attempt, thanks to run stuffs by Pisa, Chris Johnson (!), Chris Claiborne, and Kennedy and Anthony Hargrove. That FG attempt was blocked by Tyoka Jackson, the first of his two very big plays. Still down 14-0 in the 2nd, the defense tried to pour gasoline on the fire, as a Corey Ivy interception was nullified by Brian Howard lining up offsides, but a Dexter Coakley sack ran that drive off the road. Coakley got noticeably increased playing time, and it paid off with 8 tackles. Blitzing paid off as Adam Archuleta stopped a drive in the 3rd with his 2nd sack. On New Orleans' next possession, DeJuan Groce stuffed a 3rd-and-1 run, and the Saints gave the Rams the ball back after a failed fake FG on 4th down. Hargrove was one of several who got up and over to make that big stop. After the Rams drew within 17-14 in the 4th, Tyoka delivered his second big play, separating Donte Stallworth from the ball on a reverse. Archuleta recovered to set up the Rams' leading TD drive. Once they got the lead, the defense held it, keeping good pressure on Brooks from a variety of formations and making big plays. Tackling has got to get better – Pisa, Arch and Coakley should be embarrassed the way they got run through at times in this game. But the defense came together in the nick of time, and deserves credit for its role in the victory.

* Secondary: The secondary started the game in clueless fashion, turning Az Hakim (6-100) into a feature receiver and blowing assignments. On the first Saint TD drive, Corey Ivy unwisely overplayed a 3rd-down pass that Hakim took down the sideline for 34, to the Rams 11. The next play, Donte Stallworth scores, with neither DeJuan Groce staying with him nor Mike Furrey picking him up. The next TD is even worse. Groce kept the drive alive with a holding penalty on 3RD AND 15. Two plays later, Hakim somehow ends up matched up with PISA, so his 17-yard TD is quite easy, and the Saints are up 14-0. Travis Fisher left the game after that with a groin injury. Funny how the defense got better after he left, too. Though Ivy lost an interception the next drive due to a penalty, Fisher's replacement, rookie Ron Bartell, defended a 3rd-and-14 pass to end the drive. After a bad 1st half, Groce picked it up in the 2nd. He defended a couple of passes and stuffed Antowain Smith on 3rd down late in the 3rd, forcing what became a failed fake FG. (Although the drive was extended by a holding penalty on Ivy, as the Rams shot themselves in the foot all day long.) Adam Archuleta had a big day – a couple of sacks, and a fumble recovery after the Rams pulled within 17-14. That let the Rams retake the lead, and the Saints looked done after Bartell batted down a sideline pass with just over 2:00 left, but Groce committed ANOTHER hold to give the Saints life. Lord help him if he's got to hold the dreaded likes of Stallworth and Devery Henderson. The safeties put the game away, though. Brooks threw a 30-yard pass to Ernie Conwell, but Jerome Carter got an arm in to prevent a clean catch, and opportunistic Furrey snatched the ball away from Conwell and took it back 67 yards for a game-sealing TD. Some promise from the secondary for a change today. Archuleta was big; Furrey gets better every week; Bartell made good plays; Ivy and Groce played well enough to nearly whitewash their mistakes.

* Special teams: Say WHAT? Special teams won the game? Well, they turned in two key plays. Tyoka Jackson blocked a FG attempt early in the 2nd, and the Rams didn't bite on a fake FG in the 3rd, stuffing a QB sneak. Terry Fair took over all return duties after an injury to Chris Johnson, but Bob Ligashesky’s got to be getting tired of Johnson running right into defenders on kickoffs anyway. Fair didn't return any punts but set up the Rams' 2nd TD drive with an aggressive kickoff return across the 40. Kickoff coverage was OK; Hakim usually got out to the 25. Brian Barker averaged a solid 44.4 a punt, but his coverage did a poor job keeping up with him; Hakim averaged 9 a return. And I don't know what was more disappointing: that the Rams never made Hakim the fumbling machine put a single ball on the ground, or Jeff Wilkins' 48-yard FG attempt in the 1st that barely got off the ground and plonked in the end zone, several yards short. Yikes.

* Coaching/discipline: The key call of this game came from the Saint sideline on 4th-and-1 from the Ram 21 late in the 3rd, Saints up 14-7. Jim Haslett's always been a go-for-the-jugular guy; I thought he'd try another running play. When he brought out the FG team, I wasn't buying an actual FG attempt for a second. Not only was the failed fake FG risky, it wasn't executed well; it would have come back for an illegal shift even if the Saints had gained the yard. Haslett's fake FG calls have almost always failed, especially against the Rams. His Sisyphean obsession with the play hurt his team again today.
Joe Vitt's never-say-die attitude has served the team very well. This team had every reason to give up falling behind 14-0, but didn't. Vitt's key call was to go for it on 4th-and-goal from the 1 in the 4th. That showed confidence in his team, and by pulling to within 17-14 instead of 17-10, he also put pressure on the Saints, who fumbled about a minute later. Not that they couldn't or haven't had it with Mike Martz, but the Rams really seem to have a bulldog mentality these last two weeks under Vitt. Offensively, I thought Steve Fairchild again did a nice job of mixing the run and pass. Why the heck Martz can't do that, I'll never know. Nice call on Jackson's first TD – a draw play out of an obvious passing formation. And I'll be darned if they didn't go back to that reverse play in a critical situation. Good thing it worked this time. I don't even think Larry Marmie ended up having that bad of a game. He FINALLY dialed up some blitzes, and two or three resulted in sacks. Dexter Coakley was on the field a lot more and led the team in tackles. With Little out, Marmie made some creative moves on the d-line. Brian Howard played some LDE, and late in the game, I believe right before Furrey's TD return, Jimmy Kennedy put on a major bull rush from RDE and flushed Brooks out of the pocket. It was pretty damn disappointing that Az Freaking Hakim could touch the ball 16 times against the Rams and not fumble, though. Does no one on defense or special teams know how to strip the ball? There's Az, carrying the ball like a loaf of bread like always, and he never loses it once. And Larry, could you fix it so we're not covering WRs with LBs, like on Hakim's TD? Talk about a bad matchup…

* Upon further review: Upon further (and further) review, the call on Mike Furrey's game-clinching INT TD return looks right. Ernie Conwell doesn't catch it cleanly, Jerome Carter gets his arm in and works it out, and it slides around in Ernie's hands until he hits the ground, and the ball hitting his facemask prevents him from getting a complete grip on it before Furrey swipes it. Despite all the national, and disappointingly, local media hooey, the play would have stood after replay. The ball’s always moving; you can't just freeze the tape like Fox and ESPN did and say it’s a catch. Mike Carey's work was average at best. He allowed a lot of holding, allowed a blitzing Corey Ivy to get swung around by the facemask on what became a big completion, bizarrely called the Rams for an illegal block on a kickoff they were defending, and left his field mike on once and deafened the crowd when he blew the whistle to restart play. Ref's revenge?

* Cheers: The crowd came out pretty strong but died completely as the Rams floundered in the first half. Booing was mainly for the defense the first two drives, though Martin got some, too, and calls for Fitzpatrick were in the air. With the score only 14-7 at halftime, though, the fans realized, as the players likely already did, that the Rams were right in the game, and energy level and decibels picked up dramat-ically in the second half. The crowd finally got the roar going that it is capable of, and probably helped draw a couple of Saint penalties. Given everything that’s happened to the team this year, they deserve more slack from the home fans than they’re getting during games. Both teams used the lame whole-team pregame introductions, apparently a lame attempt by Vitt to disguise Holt’s absence. Um, it wasn’t like everybody couldn’t see him out on the field in street clothes during warm-ups…

* Who’s next?: The schedule doesn’t do the beaten-up Rams any favors, as next week’s opponent is the 4-2 Jacksonville Jagwires, coming in fresh off a bye week. And they’ve won two straight on the road. QB Byron Leftwich is one of the NFL’s toughest players; he has to be, with all the crushing blows his linemen let him take. A lot like the Rams’ QBs, Leftwich will take a lot of time in the pocket, won’t run much, and will take a lot of punishment. Jimmy Smith is having a career resurgence at WR, and Leftwich has a lot of dare-I-say Plaxico-Burress-like size to throw to in Reggie Williams and rookie Matt Jones. The Jagwires have just two rushing TDs on the season. Fred Taylor’s almost a yard a rush off his career pace, but he has a power complement in Greg Jones, reminiscent (but the inverse) of Jackson and Faulk. Since the Jagwires score mainly by air, it looks like it’ll be up to the Rams’ pass defense to keep them in the game, the pass rush in particular, since the Ram DBs figure to be at a big size disadvantage. Leftwich’s been sacked 16 times; they’ve got a rookie at LT in Khalif Barnes, so if Leonard Little’s back, they could present the Jags some problems.
Almost all of Jacksonville’s sacks come from DE’s Reggie Hayward and Paul Spicer. The Rams’ offensive line play has been so good lately, you feel good that Pace and Barron can slow that pass rush down. But the Jags have one of the NFL’s strongest defensive interiors with Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. They get Mike Peterson (one of the draft picks the Colts acquired in the Marshall Faulk trade) room to lead the team in tackles. The Jagwire CBs don’t seem like anything to write home about, but Donovin Darius is one of the league’s top safeties, and the Jags have the NFL’s #2 passing defense, which will make it very tough on a Ram passing offense composed of backups. Surprisingly, with those two stud DTs, the Jags give up almost 121 rushing yards a game, so much like this past week, the running game and offensive balance will be the key for the Rams to win. I can’t believe they’ll be successful up the middle, so the Rams have got to get the edge rushing game working, and Martin has to turn in another mistake-free game, for the Rams to pull off the upset here. Maybe even the home crowd will get itself fully involved again and help the team achieve the moral victory of making it to the bye week at 4-4. Who knows?

-- Mike
Game stats from nfl.com