RamView, October 30, 2011
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Game #7: Rams 31, Saints 21

It's as true today as it was when Commissioner Bert Bell said it back in the '50s. On any given Sunday, any team in the league really can beat any other team. The Rams made those words stand up today with the biggest upset of the NFL season, gaining their first win of 2011 over the powerful New Orleans Saints.

Position by position:
* RB: This day was a triumph for Steven Jackson, tangibly (25-159, 2 TD, 191 total yards) and intangibly. He proved largely unstoppable for the Saints today, driving through their back seven like he was back in training camp running against light-resistance equipment. Jackson ripped off big plays any number of ways. 15 off a flanker screen. Multiple gains bouncing outside off of Jacob Bell blocks. And when has Jackson last looked so good as a cutback runner? Instead of staying outside with a pitchout in the 1st, he cut it back inside for 8. He had a big gain on 2nd-and-19 and a later cutback run for 12 on the Rams’ first scoring drive. How many times did Jackson get the Rams out of really bad spots in their own territory? Late in the 1st half, he cut back through New Orleans’ soft zone for 16, which got Donnie Jones some room to punt, which set up the heroics that followed. Jackson performed some of those heroics, powering through two or three Saints at the goal line for the Rams’ first TD. Then, after halftime, he exploded for 40 yards behind Lance Kendricks’ block on the left side to set up another TD run of his own, a 3-yard stroll. Just as important, though, was Jackson’s leadership and palpable desire. As early as the 2nd quarter, Jackson could be seen steaming over a missed blitz pick-up. But in the 4th, with the Rams’ lead slipping to 10 points and the offense getting sloppy with mistakes and penalties, Jackson took it to a new level. He started tearing into his teammates on the field. Then he blasted up the middle for 16 to get the Rams out of bad field position. When the offense came off the field, Jackson rounded them up on the sideline for a nice firing-up. The whole team got Jackson’s message. The defense forced a clutch three-and-out. The sloppy offensive mistakes stopped. Brandon Lloyd helped keep the ball away from the Saints with an impressive diving catch. Then the defense scored to put the game out of reach. Jackson simply wanted this win too much to let the Rams fritter it away. When they got off-track, he willed and cajoled them back on. And his play on the field backed him up. It hasn’t always been obvious who the Rams’ team leader is this season. Steven Jackson made it obvious today.

* QB: Like last week, the Rams got about everything they were going to get out of A.J. Feeley (20-37-175, 75.8 PR). And with it sounding like Sam Bradford will return next week, you know what? Feeley not only did his job, he exceeded expectations. Not that this had been much of an offense to keep afloat, but Feeley not only managed to do that, he navigated it successfully, too. Feeley will commit one devastating error a week, it appears. The INT last week; this week, a fumble at his own goal line that turned into an instant TD for the Saints’ first score. Feeley doesn’t have a reliable deep ball, either, as seen when he underthrew, then overthrew, Brandon Lloyd on back-to-back deep routes with TD potential in the 1st. But, as Saints acting head coach Joe Vitt might say, Feeley is what he is. And he’s pretty good at that. He got the ball out quickly and beat a bunch of blitzes that were right on top of him. He moved the Ram offense with excellent tempo. There were a lot of good gains on screen passes today because Feeley was decisive and quick. Yes, Feeley made some bad throws, and a couple of times, didn’t seize the reins of the offense like a QB needs to, while the Rams committed dumb delays of game and false starts. And the goal line fumble never should have happened. Feeley needed to see a quick unload was needed there, and failing that, should have done better to secure the ball. But when Bradford does return, we’ll want to see clutch plays like Feeley made. A nice 4th-and-2 pass to Greg Salas that not only got the first down but led him upfield into a big gain. A perfectly-timed TD pass to Brandon Lloyd through a gap in coverage that put the Rams ahead 24-0. He got sacked four times but also showed decent skill moving in the pocket and hitting his hot reads and checkdowns. After looking lost in the Rams’ offense all training camp, Feeley ran things competently and confidently. (Of course, the current offense is a lot closer to last year’s than it was in August.) Would you want A.J. Feeley starting your NFL team? Sorry, no. But I’d go to war with the guy as a backup. Good job.

* Receivers: The Ram receiving corps stayed quiet in the back seat while Jackson took the wheel. The Saint blitz definitely disrupted the passing game, but Brandon Lloyd (6-53) left a lot of yards and points on the field, too. That he and Feeley missed deep connections twice early was probably more on Feeley’s popgun arm, but Feeley beat an all-out blitz with a perfect pass to Lloyd on a quick slant late in the 3rd, and you could see before the ball got into Lloyd’s hands that he had a 78-yard TD. Unfortunately, Lloyd did, too, taking his eye off the ball and dropping it. He also had a costly crackback penalty and dropped a pass right before Jackson’s fiery on-field tirade in the 4th. Brandon Gibson (2-27) dropped a low but catchable pass in the 1st that would have extended a drive, and Billy Bajema (1-7) had a bad drop in the 3rd. Lloyd partially made up for his drops. He got behind the corner and the safety for an 8-yard TD before halftime. He made an impressive catch from his knees in the 1st and a jaw-dropping catch in the 4th. On 3rd-and-5, Lloyd dived toward the far sideline and snagged a ball inches off the ground for a 16-yard gain that allowed the Rams to eat a couple more minutes off the clock. At least if Lloyd is going to drop some passes, you’re also going to get big plays from him. Greg Salas (5-47) is flourishing in the slot receiver role. On the Rams’ FG drive, he took a quick screen for 10, then, on 4th-and-2, made a very clutch catch in the flat and turned it upfield for a big gain, almost a TD had his foot not just barely gone out of bounds. As far as catching the ball, Salas’ hands have come around. He’s excellent at getting upfield through traffic. He’s become a confident receiver the Rams can throw to with confidence. The caveat is that he has to take better care of the ball after the catch after putting a couple on the ground today. He was correctly called down the first time, but who wants to take that chance? The second time, he set up a Jackson TD run with a catch inside the 5, but only because Jackson himself pounced on the ball after it got loose from Salas. Rams TEs appear to have disappeared from the game plan; 3 of them combined for 2 catches for 9 yards. Provided their ball-handling improves, Lloyd and Salas look like a foundation for a good unit, though.

* Offensive line: It’s a dubious honor, but my vote for best Rams’ offensive lineman this year so far would go to Jacob Bell. Yes, he got called for a two false starts today, and Will Smith ran right over him for a sack in the 2nd. But Bell has been key to any success the Ram running game has had, especially today. He was the reason Jackson cut back as successfully as he did. Jackson frequently looked for Bell so he could cut a run back across the grain. Bell’s block got Jackson 8 on the pitchout cutback in the 1st, and he and Jason Brown had perfect blocks on Jackson’s 15-yard run in the 2nd. Obviously Bell hasn’t always played well in 2011, but when he has, like today, it’s the best he’s played as a Ram. I thought he helped set the tone for the running game. When Jackson was stuffed on runs, a tackle was usually at fault. Rodger Saffold and Adam Goldberg cost him a couple of big losses. On the other hand, Goldberg helped Jackson get the edge on his easy 2nd TD run. And though Lance Kendricks may have caught only one pass, he was huge in the running game. Jackson got his 40-yard run off a Kendricks block, and Lance made the key block a little later on Jackson’s first TD run. Feeley was sacked four times, and the Saint blitz pressured him a lot. Saffold, who continues to struggle, flatout missed Roman Harper on a blitz/sack in the 2nd. But I don’t feel that much of the pressure was actually the fault of the linemen. Will Smith faked Michael Hoomanawanui into whiffing on his 2nd sack. There were plenty of plays where extra blitzers came free at Feeley, but that was a case of Saints DC Gregg Williams bringing more guys than the Rams could block. The pass pressure was more Williams outscheming Josh McDaniels, or gambling and winning, and/or Feeley not getting the ball out quickly enough at times. On Feeley’s sack/fumble/TD, I don’t think it was the line’s fault that two Saints got through, and certainly not Cadillac Williams’ fault he couldn’t block them both. If not for all the false starts, I’d have been willing to give the line about a B- this week. But Bell flinched twice, Saffold had one in the 4th that set Jackson off, and the whole line had another, which tells me Brown screwed up yet another snap count at center. That threatened to sink the Rams more than any blocking issues did. There’s still time for this line to salvage its season if they’ll clean up the stupid nonsense.

* Defensive line/LB: For the first time this season, the Ram defense actually looked like a Steve Spagnuolo defense. Run defense and pass rush looked five times better than either has looked all season. Tackling was ten times better than it was last week. The Rams surprised strategically by going hard after Saint QB Drew Brees, a move that paid off in spades. Whoever woke Chris Long up, thank you, and please keep him that way. Long dominated Saint RT Charles (good grief!) Brown for THREE sacks with his speed. By the end of the day, Long had turned Brown into Fred Miller in Tennessee this time twelve years ago. Robert Quinn had his best game as a pro, beating Jermon Bushrod to the inside for a sack in the 2nd with the Rams rushing just three. What’s this? The Rams? Getting pressure with three rushers? Against the Saints? You’re not supposed to be able to sack Drew Brees. The Rams had hardly sacked anyone all season. But today, they got Brees SIX times, including Fred Robbins late in the game. James Laurinaitis was possibly even more dominant than Long was. He led the Rams with 10 tackles. He stuffed Chris Ivory on 1st down and broke up a downfield pass on 2nd down to stall the Saints’ first drive. He sacked Brees on a blitz the next possession. He held a bunch of runs to minimal gains and really set the tone for the Ram defense for the game. And this was a true team effort. Long and the rest of the Rams were strong against the run and held the Saints to 56 on the ground after allowing practically 300 last week. Gary Gibson blew up a screen pass. Chris Chamberlain atoned for last week’s struggles with a couple of good run stops and by destroying a screen to the fullback. Brian Kehl missed a couple of tackles but made up for it with a run stuff to help stop the Saints right after halftime. Run support from the secondary was excellent. And after giving up a soft TD drive punctuated by a Pierre Thomas run that made it a 24-14 game, the Rams bore down. Every Ram beat their man on 1st down, with Quinn pressuring Brees into an incompletion. Darian Stewart broke up a pass on 2nd down, and on 3rd, Long flushed Brees out of the pocket and forced a bad pass on the move. The next drive, it would be the Ram defense scoring to put the game away. Rams Nation has waited six excruciating weeks for the defense to play to its potential. They got there today. They didn’t give up any meaningful big plays and allowed one of the most feared offenses in the game only seven meaningful points. Where have you been, and won’t you come in and stay a while.

* Secondary: 180-degree turnaround for the Ram secondary from last week. It was their best tackling and run support game of the season. Darian Stewart flashed in to blow up an Ivory sweep in the 2nd. Josh Gordy missed a couple of tackles but made a major 3rd-down stop of Ivory in the 3rd to force a punt. With Drew Brees throwing for a ho-hum 269, and doing most of his damage in a desperation effort that kept his TD passes streak alive late in the 4th, the Ram secondary, minus seven injured corners, had its best game of the season. Gordy may actually be a find. It took a perfect pass to beat him on Dez Bryant’s TD last week. This week, he goes to the ground while ripping a bomb away from Devery Henderson for an INT that set up a Rams TD late in the 1st half. Al Harris continues to provide excellent veteran play. He broke up a pass for Marques Colston on the opening possession and continues to keep receivers in check physically. Marquis Johnson even played well despite coming straight off the PUP list. And besides being strong against the run, Stewart was clutch down the stretch. With the Saints trying to drive down 10, he broke up a 2nd-down pass to help force a 3-and-out. And with 3:00 left, he put the game away with a leaping interception and 27-yard TD return. And the secondary’s hidden success: holding the hottest tight end in the league, Jimmy Graham, to 4 catches for 39 yards. That all’s with a safety the Eagles said was too old (Quintin Mikell), a 36-year-old corner nobody else wanted (Harris), a 2nd-year street free agent (Stewart), a kid off the Packers’ practice squad (Gordy) and another kid who hadn’t played in a year (Johnson), getting the better of one of the best passing attacks around. My hat is off to all of you.

* Special teams: The hidden plays this week came on special teams, a unit that had an outstanding game. Dangerous Darren Sproles didn’t do much of anything on returns. The biggest reason? Dominique Curry, a guy I’ve been dogging all season as a poorly-used roster spot. Curry and Quinn Porter stuffed Sproles at the 12 on a kick return late in the 2nd, and right after halftime, Curry’s excellent submarine tackle stopped Sproles at the 15. Craig Dahl and Chris Chamberlain were also strong on returns. At the end of the game, Chamberlain even fielded what I’m pretty sure was the first offsides kick tried against the Rams this year. And extending excellence across all coverage units, Robert Quinn forged right up the middle to block a punt in the 2nd and set up a TD. Very unexpected the Rams would dominate on special teams, but very key to this week’s win.

* Coaching: Everybody at Rams Park can sit back down now; your seats all just got a whole lot cooler. The Rams won on the defensive side of the ball this week in practice. They emphasized tackling technique after last week’s fiasco, and this week we got their best tackling game of the season. Almost every tackle was a form tackle. Determination to tackle well will always lead to good overall defense. The best word to describe the defense today is rejuvenated. Bold strategy helped. After several weeks of vanilla D to cover up for a depleted secondary, and several years of playing it safe against the Saints, Steve Spagnuolo unexpectedly brought a lot of pressure after Brees. I think the Rams did more zone blitzing than they’ve done all year, and though Sproles burned not-exactly-a-corner Chris Long for 20 early, the zone blitzing really seemed to befuddle the Saint QB. Well, that and Long coming at him like a locomotive every other dropback. Still, in past years against the Rams, Brees has been able to sit back and pick and choose. This week, Spagnuolo had him chuckin’ and duckin’. Win to the Rams’ staff there.

And even with the success Gregg Williams had blitzing, I have to give Josh McDaniels a victory this week on points. The Rams had answers for Williams’ blitzing, the most important being Jackson, who got 29 touches. McDaniels also beat the Saint D a good half-dozen times with quick screens, and on one drive in the 3rd, got a first down out of an end-around to Gibson and another out of a reverse to Salas. He also stretched the field well with Lloyd, and honestly, probably should have gotten a couple more TDs out of that than he did. McDaniels has appeared to adjust his offense to his personnel well; it paid off this week.

* Upon further review: Hey, NFL refereeing may be coming around. James Butler got the NHL-quality retaliation penalty after getting bumped while out of bounds in the 2nd. There were a couple of interminably long delays that brought the crowd’s wrath, and the Saints could have gotten called for holding more often than… NONE. Walt Anderson and crew had a pretty easy day of it, though. The highest-profile miss was when Salas stepped out of bounds on his 4th-and-2 reception, a very difficult call to be sure. A-minus

* Cheers: When the St. Louis Cardinals appeared in the end zone with the World Series trophy, hell, when they appeared on camera an hour before the game started, I was afraid they would get the biggest cheers of the day from the crowd. Fortunately, things didn’t turn out that way. Though likely not topping 45,000, and a solid contingent of that Saint fans, the home crowd was still strong enough to get credit for a couple of false starts, and really turned it on in the 4th quarter after the video board played the movie montage I called for. Result: 3-and-out. I may have missed it before the game, but since I didn’t hear it, I’m hoping the “Rams Rules” video has reached its long-sought-for demise. And I hope Jacob Bell works as hard on his game as he did on his very funny “That’s My Dog” video. (It’s on YouTube.) He’ll go to the Pro Bowl if he does. There was so much excitement in the city over the Rams’ win there was even a parade downtown after the game. I must have gotten there late, though, all I saw were Cardinals players.

* Who’s next?: Funny how things change in just a week. The Rams go into next week’s game at Arizona having gotten a lift with a win; the Big Dead are scuffling their way through a six-game losing streak after gagging on a 3-TD lead in Baltimore Sunday. Both teams are 1-6, and when the Rams do beat the Big Dead, they tend to do it in Arizona. (They NEVER beat the Freaking Big Dead here in St. Louis.) So next week is a golden opportunity for a victory.

Kevin Kolb was supposed to be the answer to Arizona’s offensive problems coming into this season, but that hasn’t really come to pass. He’s thrown as many INTs as TDs, coughed the ball up 6 times and has a very pedestrian 77.8 passer rating. He has not been a terribly accurate passer, he’s very flinchy under pressure and is easy to pressure into bad throws and back-footed throws. And he’ll be playing next Sunday with a turf toe injury. Steve Spagnuolo should have the full playbook available to him against Kolb. He can blitz him to try to get big plays while not having to worry about getting burned in zone as much as the Rams could against other QBs. Kolb’s line also does not protect him terribly well; he’s been sacked 24 times. Their turnover ratio is a poor -5. Kolb has a super receiving threat in Larry Fitzgerald, whose matchup with Al Harris I’m eager to watch. Harris can get physical with Fitzgerald. If Kolb and Fitzgerald pick next week to be in sync, though, look out. Rookie Rob Housler looks like a threat to develop into the next dangerous young TE in the league, another one of those TE’s who’s actually a great, big WR. Arizona doesn’t have Tim Hightower to haunt the Rams with any more, but they do have the dinged-up Beanie Wells, who has powered for 4.5 yards a carry, and dangerously-fast LaRod Stephens-Howling as the change-of-pace and 3rd-down-type back. Over the years, the Rams have always seemed to find ways to make the Arizona running game three times as effective as it is against any other team. This week’s defense is the one that needs to show up at the Pink Taco Dome.

If you thought the Saints blitzed a lot Sunday, just wait for Arizona, which makes Gregg Williams look like Larry Marmie. I think they blitz every play. Josh McDaniels has to have counters to the Arizona run blitz, which has often held Steven Jackson in check. Against Pittsburgh last week, they were especially aggressive with OLB Clark Haggans (who may have been extra-motivated to play his old team). In just the first quarter of that game, he had a big tackle for loss, a deflected pass… and gave up a TD, when he failed to cover the Steeler TE. Heath Miller had a huge game in Arizona, and he’s not normally a big offensive contributor. Conclusion: Big Dead can’t cover TEs. Good week to establish that part of the passing game. Pittsburgh countered the Big Dead blitz with WR screens. Conclusion: throw to Greg Salas a lot. Though 1st-round pick Patrick Peterson and rookie A.J. Jefferson are playing quite well in the Arizona secondary, Richard Marshall is terrible and you can beat them with play-action. Conclusion: check to a play-action bomb anytime Brandon Lloyd is lined up across from #31. Whether it’s Feeley or Bradford behind center, this is the week to open the passing game up some. Arizona’s ranked 28th in pass defense and is one of the worst teams in the league at giving up completions of 20 yards or more. Don’t let them play a short field. Arizona can blitz on every down, blitz at halftime, blitz in the locker room, blitz during the National Anthem, all they want. A good team and a good QB will find the way around them. It’ll be the key to next week.

Once upon a time, I’d tell everyone that the Rams’ 2011 season wouldn’t really start until November, then they’d get into the NFC West race. I lost confidence in even that modest prediction to the point of opining the Saints would beat them 45-7 Sunday. (Hey, I did predict the Rams would do better than the Colts.) The ***** don’t look catchable for the division title, but with a win under their belts against one of the NFL’s best, the Rams suddenly look like they’re good enough again to make some hay down the backstretch. I imagine everyone in the Rams locker room will be out this week to prove the win over New Orleans wasn’t a fluke. Well, you know, there’s a real good way to prove that next Sunday. Make it two.

-- Mike
Game stats from nfl.com

Note from management: RamView will probably be delayed again next week due to work-related activities. I'll be shooting for Tuesday night.