RamView, October 28, 2007
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Game #8: Browns 27, Rams 20

It has gone from a crazy idea to a cynical idea to a depressingly realistic idea. Are the St. Louis Rams going to go 0-16? The offense rebounded against Cleveland today only to be let down badly by the defense, a reversal of recent roles which led to an eighth straight loss. With Marc Bulger, Steven Jackson, and others, injured again, will nothing ever go right for this team? Will they make history and go – gulp – winless?

Position by position:
* QB: As the Rams marched off to a 14-0 lead, Marc Bulger (24-36-310) looked more like his old self. He was getting time, passing in rhythm and throwing accurately. His long balls were underthrown, but Torry Holt made things happen with those, a 39-yard bomb on the game’s first play and a 25-yard catch to set up the Rams’ 2nd TD, a 1-yard Bulger-to-Holt bullet that Marc completed without a lot of room for error. The Browns caught up, but Bulger kept the Ram offense moving efficiently, finding Isaac Bruce open in zone coverage, hitting Randy McMichael to get out of trouble, even hitting Drew Bennett (!) on the sidelines to keep the chains moving. With time running out in the 1st half, Bulger and Bennett worked a short pass for 18 yards to set up a FG and a 17-17 tie. Bulger’s halftime passer rating was 115.4, and it looked like he and Browns QB Derek Anderson would have a 60-minute shootout. After Cleveland went ahead 24-17 in the 3rd, Bulger led the Rams back to midfield, but paid a price - a helmet to his right thumb. (Not another QB thumb injury! Word has it that Brenda Warner has insisted that Marc have his hand x-rayed.) Briefly replacing Bulger, Gus Frerotte (1-3-12) took a sack and could only advance the Rams to another FG. Contrasted with Bulger, Frerotte held the ball for an eternity on his dropbacks, like he was waiting for the wind to shift. Or maybe the continents. Bulger returned for the 4th quarter with a heavily-taped thumb that reportedly caused him pain on every snap. And he did hit Holt and Bruce with long passes with the thumb taped, but he also sailed one way over the head of an open Bruce late in the 4th, and in Cleveland territory in the game’s final minute, needed about six inches more air under his only major mistake of the day, a long pass meant for Holt that Leigh Bodden made a fine lunging play on for the game-sealing INT. Rams fans will have to wait another day for Marc to pull the team out of the fire. With good luck, the upcoming bye week will be time enough for to improve the condition of his bruised thumb and cracked ribs. If he can continue to play as he did today, there’s a good chance Marc Bulger can still lead this offense to some wins.

* RB: With Steven Jackson's (8-41) return to the starting lineup, Ram fans got a tantalizing look at the offense the way it was meant to be this season. The second time Jackson got the ball, he busted off the left side for 22, setting up his own 2-yard TD plunge a couple of plays later. He ran with good effort and good power and was posing a problem for Cleveland’s defense. But Jackson only lasted a quarter, forced to leave the game with back spasms. Brian Leonard (15-33) was plugged into the power role but just didn’t have it. He got stuffed for no gain on 4th-and-1 the next drive, and lost 5 to open the drive after that. Leonard could make the occasional gain by making a move, but didn’t accomplish much in the tackle-breaking power runner mode, which was where he needed to come through big today but didn’t. With the Rams trying to tie the game in the 4th, Leonard’s number was called on 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1, but he couldn’t make anything happen behind the Rams’ very-makeshift offensive line. And while there’s no doubt the line played a big part in the Rams’ running woes, you kind of hoped Leonard would help them out by breaking a tackle or two. Since he couldn’t, it’s just as well for now that Jackson is expected to return after the bye week.

* WR: Torry Holt’s (6-110) practically been re-born the last couple of weeks. He proved a dangerous deep threat today, beating Leigh Bodden for 39 to start the game, and beating Bodden later for 25, outfighting him for a jump ball at the 3. That set up a well-earned TD for Torry, plucking a spear from Bulger out of midair. Drew Bennett (6-63) came through in the clutch for the first time all year. Four of his six catches moved the chains, including an 18-yard catch-and-run up the sideline with time running out before halftime that set up a last-second FG. While the Rams finally got the game from Bennett they’ve been looking for, Isaac Bruce (6-70) delivered as always. He converted two third downs to set up the Rams’ final FG. The Rams failed to score in the 4th despite long catches by Holt (24) and Bruce (22). Bruce kept the very last drive alive on 4th-and-5 by drawing a 20-yard DPI on a difficult pass up the sideline. Randy McMichael (2-39) made a couple of nice plays, but was targeted seven times and could have been a bigger factor. Maybe he’ll start to emerge as the fourth threat now that Bennett has finally filled his role as the third WR. Too bad this was (another) loss, because it was the best game the Ram receivers have had as a unit this season.

* Offensive line: Much better time for Bulger to throw than past weeks, meaning, any at all. Though he took some lumps, Bulger actually wasn’t sacked at all, behind this week’s line-of-the-week of Alex Barron, Milford Brown at LG, Andy McCollum, Brandon Gorin at RT, and one Nick Leckey at RG most of the game after Richie Incognito suffered a knee sprain. The only sack was of Frerotte, with McCollum getting beaten, but that was a play where Gus held the ball too long, then walked right into the sack. Kamerion Wimbley wasn’t a factor all day, and Cleveland seemed to have to blitz to put much pressure on Bulger. Barron did get beat pretty cleanly on the hit that put Bulger out of the game. Run blocking, or lack thereof, was the big issue today, especially with Jackson and Incognito out of the game after the first quarter. Leonard got stuffed on 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1 early in the 2nd. Willie McGinest blitzed around Barron and dropped Leonard for -5 to start the next drive, aggravated by Brown’s false start the next play. The Rams averaged only 2.4 a rush after Jackson left the game. From the Cleveland 16, right before the final 2:00 warning, Leonard tried left end but got nothing. The Rams took a timeout before the 4th-and-1 play, which had Leonard in a single-back formation. At the snap, McCollum and Leckey got knocked backward. The play was supposed to go behind Brown, and he made a hole, but Sean Jones shot through it for Cleveland and wrapped Leonard up for a loss. A lead blocker would have picked Jones up, though the negative surge of the middle of the line sure didn’t help the play, either. That topped off an across-the-board failure by the Ram offensive line to sustain the run, against a team bad at stopping it. Twice today the Rams had two shots to gain one yard for a critical first down. They didn’t get either one. They didn’t deserve to win the game.

* Defensive line/LB: Boy, you thought the pass rush was anemic with Leonard Little? It was anemic and bedridden without him today, as Derek Anderson looked as comfortable behind center as a kid playing flag football QB in the park. The defense had a good first quarter. Will Witherspoon stayed on his roll, stuffing two runs in the first en route to a team-leading 9 tackles on the day. But instead of waiting for the 2nd half to go south, the Rams did it in the 2nd quarter today, giving up 17 points and letting the Browns back into the game. And though Anderson’s passer rating was 129.5 in the first half and 143 for the day, Cleveland got back into the game via the run. Sitting back thinking the Browns would have to pass their way back in the game, the Rams instead got gashed by Jamal Lewis for 12 and 10 yards, with DTs splattering to the ground and Lewis not getting touched till he hit the secondary. Cleveland ran 6 times for 42 yards on their first TD drive. Late in the 2nd, Witherspoon made a couple more stops to slow the pounding, so Cleveland got clever, dialing up an 18-yard Josh Cribbs end-around on 2nd-and-9 to set up a Kellen Winslow TD. Three Rams had chances to stop the Cribbs run short but couldn’t. With the game all even at halftime, Little showed some leadership, tried to make his presence felt, by delivering a little fire and brimstone to his defensive cohorts on the sidelines. Good try, but it didn’t take. The Browns sailed downfield right after halftime, converted two ridiculous third-and-longs, with Anderson continuing to get all day to throw. Little’s replacements did virtually nothing. Trevor Johnson had 2 tackles, while Victor Adeyanju, though he played well last week, didn’t even make the box score. Cleveland was driving for a clinching TD early in the 4th until Adam Carriker got his first career sack, taking Anderson down with one arm and forcing a FG. They kept the Browns close by forcing a 3-and-out the next possession, with Witherspoon blitzing in for the Rams’ second, and LAST, sack of the game. But with Steven Jackson out injured and Marc Bulger fighting a fresh batch of injuries, it was too late for the offense to capitalize on the defense finally making some plays. For all their good play with their backs to their goal line in recent blowouts, the Ram defense was a big letdown today in a game the team had control of, and a realistic chance to win.

* Secondary: Braylon Edwards (8-117) didn’t just own Unca Fakhir Brown, he pwned him, beating him for two TDs and every other pass thrown his and Fakhir’s direction. It was shades of Plaxico Burress in the Meadowlands in 2005, right down to the DC’s numbskull idea to SINGLE cover the receiver who’s been killing you all day. Anderson and Edwards connected several times on sideline passes that Brown had a chance to make a play on, but never tried to find the ball. Turn your stinkin’ head, Unca Fakhir! Gawd! Not a great day for OJ Atogwe, either; Kellen Winslow beat him for a TD and Edwards CRASHED into him on the last play of the 3rd quarter, a collision OJ decisively lost. The secondary made up for covering Edwards poorly by also covering Joe Jurevicius poorly. During Cleveland’s TD drive to start the 2nd half, Jurevicius converted a 3rd-and-11 and a 3rd-and-17 thanks to poor tackling, and on one play, three Rams standing around while Jurevicius ran through them. Perhaps they were mentally exhausted trying to figure out why Jim Haslett almost never gave Unca Fakhir any safety help. (I did see Pisa Tinoisamoa sent over to chip Edwards one play.) Or why Tye Hill, who again this week wasn’t thrown at much, didn’t match up against Edwards more often. We won’t know if this week’s secondary problems were fixable, because it didn’t look like Jim Haslett ever tried, sitting his DBs in soft zone coverage all day instead and watching them get beat.

* Special teams: Fairly quiet day on special teams. Coverage units had some trouble with dangerous Browns returner Josh Cribbs; he nearly broke a punt return for a TD in the 2nd, gaining 18 yards, thanks largely to Donnie Jones kicking him a line drive. The worst play of the day belongs to the coaches, though, calling a STUPID pop-up kickoff late in the 1st that the up man still returned to the 38. That play was as responsible as any for Cleveland scoring a FG on that drive. Jones had a poor day despite his 47-yard average. Linehan wanted him to pin the Browns deep punting from the 49 midway through the 4th, but I knew the second the punt unit came off the sideline that Jones would plonk it in the end zone, which he did. All we really learned from Brandon Williams' performance last week was that Seattle has bad special teams. He didn't return anything farther than the 26 today. Jeff Wilkins was at least perfect on FGs, though; 2-for-2. His kickoffs were deep, and effective, when the coaches had the brains to let him take a full rip at it.

* Coaching/discipline: For a change, the Rams weren't doomed by Scott Linehan's game plan from the start. He got everything clicking on offense. He had Bulger getting the ball out quickly, he established Holt in the passing game, and established Jackson on the ground. The Rams attacked downfield and with good balance. Linehan even dusted off a RARE gadget play, except it worked out hilariously when Jackson flea-flickered to Bulger and Marc ended up dumping it back off to Steven for a 1-yard gain. Still, Linehan did his homework well as far as the framework of his attack was concerned. The problem today, like in the 49er game, falls more on individual plays. I agree with going for it on both of the 4th-and-1's. It was the right move from the Cleveland 33 in the 2nd, because you're not going to rely on Wilkins to hit a 50-51-yarder there, not this year. And from the Cleveland 16 with 2:00 left in the game, down 7, you're obliged to go for it, especially when it's only one yard. Like they say, if you can't make that yard, you don't deserve to win, and the Rams made it neither time, helped not a bit by running nearly the same play on the two attempts. And if you’re going to run up the middle there, with the defense expecting it, you absolutely have to do it with a lead blocker for Leonard, who hadn’t broken a tackle all day. As it turned out, on the final 4th-and-1, Sean Jones shot the gap when he normally would have been picked up by a lead blocker. Instead, he stopped Leonard’s momentum for the takedown. C’mon, I know that’s a block McMichael would have made; why wasn’t he in the backfield? Linehan's also taking heat for the 3rd-and-1 right the play before, which was run from a 3-WR formation. Strangely enough, that’s the play that probably could have gone up the middle, since the formation was meant to spread out the defense. Leonard got stuffed going around the end instead. Especially since he took a timeout right before the fatal 4th-and-1 at the end of the game, I’d have expected Linehan to have better plays in those situations. But yet again this season, he came up short.

Jim Haslett came up even shorter, outmaneuvered by the Browns offense most of the game. Haslett, unwisely, rarely rolled any help Fakhir Brown’s way to compensate for his mismatch against Edwards, and he appeared to do little in the way of blitzing to compensate for Little’s absence at end. All that docile strategy accomplished was to give Anderson extra time to beat Brown. Over. And over. Cleveland passed on 2/3 of its first-quarter plays, but once they started pounding the ball, and mixed in some movement and misdirection, the Ram defense looked as unprepared as it has all season, on their heels all the time. Zone coverage is the correct play in many situations, but the Rams played it much too soft in the 3rd, allowing Joe Jurevicius to convert a 3rd-and-17, with three Rams standing around sucking their thumbs after he caught the ball. One of the rare times Haslett did blitz was a time when you probably shouldn’t, 3rd-and-11, a killer play that Jurevicius broke for 29 to set up the Browns’ lead TD, and on the same drive where he converted the 3rd-and-17. Play tighter zone on those two plays, and Cleveland doesn’t score. But with one of the rare chances the Rams are going to get to win a game this season, Haslett got outcoached by Browns OC Rod Chudzinski, which won’t register as a ringing endorsement should anyone at Rams Park get any ideas to replace Linehan during the bye week. As I said last week, the Rams will be better off starting from scratch.

* Upon further review: Can't complain much about the Mike Carey crew today because all the iffy calls went the Rams' way. Bulger drew a cheesy roughing-the-passer call after a hit from Shaun Smith that barely even qualified as a glancing blow. McMichael would have fumbled late in the game but benefited from a surprisingly quick call that his forward progress had stopped. That never gets called that quickly these days. They were tight on calling downfield contact, which got the Rams several first downs on defensive holding or illegal contact. The toughest call of the game, Edwards' sideline tightrope catch in the 1st, was correct. I thought it was the right call after seeing it on the Jumbotron; I'm not sure Linehan should have challenged it. I'll give Carey and crew a good grade, but doubt Browns fans will grade him on as generous a curve.

* Cheers: Utter shock and disgust. What a disgraceful lack of professionalism. Halloween is Wednesday; what were the Ram cheerleaders doing in their regular outfits? Where was the naughty nurse? The naughty French maid? The naughty stewardess? The naughty lunch lady, for all I care, as long as it's naughty? The cowgirl? The Indian girl? The pirate girl? WHERE? It's not like the Rams had to spend anything for halftime – it was the annual military parade – how about forking out some dough for some doggone cheerleader Halloween costumes? Damn, I had one thing to look forward to all season and you take that away from me, too? It was neat to have a bald eagle fly down at the end of the national anthem, but that in no way makes up for the absence of Marilyn Monroe or Daisy Duke. Attendance was in the 45-50K range, and 10-15% of that was Browns fans. Ram fans got the noise up there at times but didn't really do it consistently. Cleveland had a bunch of false starts, but not because of us. Actually enjoyed watching the game with the Browns fans in our section; good luck to them the second half of the season.

* Who’s next?: The tea leaves don’t seem to reveal that “bye week” means bye to coach Linehan, so instead of any front office intrigue, everyone at Rams Park will have a couple of weeks to devote their energies toward the New Orleans Saints, whom the Rams will face in the formerly hot-and-stinking Superdome in two weeks. The Saints were once 0-4 and downtrodden like the Rams; today, they’re 3-4 and just a game out of first place in the NFC South. After starting the season with 1 TD vs. 9 INT, Drew Brees is now on fire in a good way, with 8 TDs vs. 1 INT. His offensive line, which was a mess earlier in the season, healthy, but playing poorly, hasn’t allowed a sack the last four weeks. Marques Colston had 3 TDs against the Whiners Sunday, and is a mandatory start in your fantasy league, since he’s likely to draw single coverage from Unca Fakhir. Veteran David Patten seems to have emerged as their second-best option over the disappointing Devery Henderson. Tye Hill can play two valuable roles against the Saints: shut Patten down with his superior speed, and yell “BALL!” at Unca Fakhir every time Brees throws to Colston. The Rams aren’t going to get any pass rush from their DEs anytime soon. It’ll be up to the secondary to play with some backbone and to Jim Haslett to figure out he has to do some blitzing to even slow the Saints down a little in two weeks. Anything short of that, and Brees will pick the Rams apart. And all that’s without accounting for Reggie Bush, the #1 Saint RB with Deuce McAlister out for the season. The knock against Bush is that he hasn’t gotten the most out of every play because he’s trying to turn it into a big play, but he seems to be maturing out of that rookie mindset the last couple of weeks. With his speed and skills as a receiver, he’s in a prime spot to terrorize a defense that struggles to stop passes to Leonard Weaver.

If you’re thinking the Rams would have to win in a shootout to win in New Orleans, we’re on the same wavelength. The Saints’ key passing defense statistics are in the bottom quartile of the league, including yards allowed, passer rating against (nearly 100), and they’ve sacked opposing QBs just 11 times, with no player carrying more than 2 sacks to his name this season. That doesn’t mean Barron and Gorin won’t have their hands full with Charles Grant and Will Smith, respectively. But if the Ram passing game operates with the tempo it did today, against a defense as similarly bad as Cleveland’s, Marc Bulger’s going to see guys like Fred Thomas and Jason Craft on the field a lot, and those are two guys who might as well have “THROW AT ME” stitched across the backs of their jerseys. And, if there’s as good a chance Jackson will be close to full strength as it sounds, he’ll go a long way toward keeping the Saint defense, 23rd against the run, on its heels. If the offensive line can’t win the line of scrimmage, though, we might as well forget this game, too; it’s not like the Ram defensive line will return the favor.

Sean Payton and Scott Linehan are both second-year head coaches. They both started this season 0-4. Payton’s team has fought its way back to contention. Linehan’s much-less-healthy team has only fought its way to the front of the 2008 draft. But come two weeks from now, the Rams will be as healthy as they’re going to be all year. Linehan will have all his skill players available. His team will have the advantage of a week off. Will Linehan get his team to fight its way back, to even the smallest of respect, the way Payton’s team has turned it around? Will Linehan start showing he was a good hire in the first place, like Payton has been? You’ve got two weeks to throw everything you’ve got at the Saints, coach. Good luck to you.

-- Mike
Game stats from nfl.com