RamView, November 13, 2011
From The Couch
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Game #9: Rams 13, Browns 12

Steve Spagnuolo often says his goal every week is to outscore the other team by one point. Well, there you go. The Rams flipped the recent script and benefited from the opponent's untimely mistakes for a change in a 13-12 win over Cleveland. Ugly to be sure, but you know what's great about winning ugly? Winning, duh!

Position by position:
* QB: Though it wasn't pretty, and though that wasn't always his fault, Sam Bradford (15-26-155, 71.8 PR) did just enough to get the job done. He put the Rams ahead 7-3 with a nice 3rd-down, 7-yard TD pass to Brandon Lloyd breaking outside at the goal line on the first play of the 2nd quarter. Bradford was 5-for-6 on the drive for 54 yards, converting a 2nd-and-20 thanks to an amazing catch by Lloyd. Good thing the Rams had that patch of good play, because the passing offense mostly sputtered the rest of the day. Lloyd killed the opening drive with a bad drop. Bradford (6'4”) continued his maddening problem throwing the ball over the line of scrimmage in the 2nd when Scott Fujita tipped a pass to himself for an INT. (6'4!!! Grr) Later in the half, 3rd-and-6 from the Browns' 11, Bradford dumps a 2-yard pass that Brandon Gibson dropped anyway instead of using the ample time he had in the pocket to find Lloyd breaking open in the far corner of the end zone. FG time. That Bradford was a credible 7-11-59 in the 2nd half was surprising, because that was a half he survived more than anything. Chris Gocong batted down his 1st pass. Scrambling for a 1st down after the Browns blew up an intended shovel pass to Steven Jackson, Bradford got his lower legs crushed by 330-lb Ahtyba Rubin, and he had to come out of the game. For a play. He hit Lloyd and Austin Pettis to get the Rams out of a 2nd-and-14 hole and near FG position before a freak fumble by Jackson. That was followed by a 3-and-out and a 4-and-out and too much trouble getting plays off in time, costing the Rams a timeout and a penalty. Then another 3-and-out, with Bradford getting splattered by 335-lb Phil Taylor on 2nd down and throwing wild under pressure on 3rd down. But the Rams got some good fortune, points off a turnover, some downright luck at the end of the game, and as the St. Louis World Series champs might say, got a happy flight home Sunday night. For the passing game, this was a choppy performance at best. Bradford deserves a little better evaluation individually. I don't doubt strong Lake Erie winds played havoc with some passes. Tight ends and tackles were dropping like flies, hurting Bradford's protection. Bradford didn't get enough help from his receivers. But none of that prevented the kid from flying headlong into the Cleveland defense to convert that blown-up play in the 3rd, nor from jumping back onto the field a play after getting flattened. When you have a tough kid like that, you don't always need pretty numbers.

* RB: Also, when you have the toughest running back in the league, you don't need pretty numbers from your QB, either. Steven Jackson carried the Ram offense again, steam-rolling the Browns for 128 yards on 27 carries, his third straight 100-yard game. He got rolling on the Rams' TD drive, taking a screen pass for 11 and then busting for 12 off the right side through a big hole from Adam Goldberg. Concerned about Jackson, the Brown defense followed him running left while Bradford threw to Lloyd on the right for the TD. Jackson was key again on the Rams' next scoring drive. He drove up the middle for 8 to get a 1st down, and the next play, rumbled for 22 after impressively punking D'Qwell Jackson to the ground. The run put the Rams in short FG range. In the 3rd, Jackson got the Rams out of a hole, busting through Browns tacklers for 17 off an inside handoff. That drive ended in highly unusual fashion, though - a Jackson fumble, forced by a good play by Chris Gocong. He atoned for that, though, by grinding up the Cleveland D when the Rams needed it the most. After Josh Cribbs' fumbled punt return, Jackson tore off 5- and 6-yard runs to get the FG team in nice and close to give the Rams the lead. And after Cleveland amazingly botched a chance to re-take the lead with 2:00 to play, and the Rams then needing a single first down to put the game away, Jackson went out and got it. He charged up the middle for 6, then plowed over the left side for 4 more to put the game away. Steven Jackson is on an epic three-week run, 417 yards on a whopping 81 carries. I hope he's been eating his Wheaties.

* Receivers: Though Bradford's first pass of the day clanged off both his hands, Brandon Lloyd (4-48) was still a deciding factor in the game. He made a sideline catch late in the 1st as good as any catch made in the NFL this season. Lloyd grabbed a pass well too high and behind him with one hand, pulled it down and tucked it into his belly, also one-handed, while dragging his toes in-bounds. Before the catch, he again proved himself the Rams' best route-runner in years, faking Joe Haden to the ground with his cut. To end the drive, Lloyd, um, outmuscled Haden to work open at the goal line for the only TD by either team. Lloyd could use more help from his fellow receivers. Brandon Gibson (0-0, 3 targets) dropped a pass inside the 5 and made Bradford look bad on an early pass by running a very indecisive route. The pass sailed well past him, but to the spot where he should have been. Austin Pettis (3-31) converted a couple of third downs, but has some catching-up to do to get to Greg Salas' level of play at slot receiver. Mark Clayton (0-0) was apparently thrown to once, but from TV it was hard to know how much he was even on the field. He may provide Lloyd some help down the line, though. The Rams were down to Billy Bajema and Stephen Spach at TE after Michael Hoomanawanui (2-21) went down like he was shot in the 3rd. Rumbling downfield for 16 with a catch on a crossing pattern, Mike took what would in many instances be called a dirty shot to the side of his knee by Haden. He was running with power and appeared to be stepping up his game with Lance Kendricks out this week, so it's a shame to lose Illini Mike yet again.

* Offensive line: One of the Rams' key coaching moves this week was to bench Jason Brown at center in favor of Tony Wragge, and that move paid off. Wragge fired some low shotgun snaps, but the center of the Rams' o-line held noticeably firmer than it has with Brown in the middle this year. Jackson got an unusual number of good opportunities running right up the gut, and Bradford had better ability to step up in the pocket than he's had all season. Right before the first half 2:00 warning, Jackson converted a 2nd-and-8 on the ground behind Wragge getting more surge downfield than Brown's gotten all season. Harvey Dahl had a MANLY pull block on that play as well. There was new life across the whole line this week. Adam Goldberg played like a freaking animal. He had a key block to spring Jackson for 12 at the end of the 1st and threw a stiff block, along with Billy Bajema, to spring Jackson for 22 before halftime. Unfortunately, that was about the only time Bajema didn't struggle as a run-blocker. Rodger Saffold was arguably having his best game of the season before getting knocked out of the game in the 3rd due to a concussion. Needless to say, this greatly weakened the left side of the line. Saffold's replacement, Mark LeVoir, currently looks completely overmatched at the NFL level. Jacob Bell struggled in the 2nd half. Taylor beat the living snot out of him in the 3rd to drop Jackson for a big loss. Rubin beat Bell for a huge pass pressure in the 4th that, along with a tripping penalty on Goldberg, killed another drive. Later, 3rd-and-3 from the Browns 9, Bell gave up the only sack of the game when Taylor beat him from the snap to get to Bradford. But even with Bell's struggles, the Rams still protected Bradford better than any other time this season, giving him solid pockets and eons to throw on many plays. Definitely a winning effort.

* Defensive line/LB: Oh, the Ram defense bent, but it didn’t break, refusing to allow the Browns into the end zone for 60 minutes. They took some time getting pressure on Colt McCoy, and somehow let the very unthreatening Chris Ogbonnaya run for 90 yards, but made big plays when they needed them. James Laurinaitis forced an opening 3-and-out dropping back in coverage and stopping Greg Little on 3rd-and-1. Chris Long’s massive surge into the top tier of NFL defensive ends continues apace. He killed a drive in the 2nd by pressuring McCoy into a throwaway and stuffing Josh Cribbs on a Wildcat run. The Rams excelled at keeping the dangerous McCoy from hurting them with scrambles. Laurinaitis stopped a McCoy scramble well short in the 2nd to kill a drive that had been kept alive when 12th-year vet Fred Robbins idiotically let 2nd-year QB McCoy hard-count him offside. In the 3rd, Long continued winning the feud with McCoy, beating a double-team to force a throwaway, then flushing him into C.J. Ah You on 3rd down to stuff a scramble. The Rams gave up the lead later in the 3rd on the strength of a 32-yard Ogbonnaya run. Long got caught too far upfield, the fullback popped Laurinaitis and things went even worse downfield. And when the Browns got the ball back in the 4th with a 12-10 lead, the writing was on the wall: the Rams had to get a stop. And boy, did they. Great pressure from the right side flushed McCoy into Long for his 8th sack of what’s all of a sudden looking like a Pro Bowl season. On 3rd down, Long blew up an intended screen by wiping out FB Owen Marecic, leaving Laurinaitis to tenaciously chase McCoy down at the sideline for an 8-yard loss. That series was a critical moment in the game. The Rams followed it shortly after by recovering a fumbled punt and taking a 13-12 lead. Cleveland got great field position for the endgame and got back inside the Rams 10, helped largely by another stupid penalty on Robbins, horse-collaring a scrambling McCoy way out in the open where the whole world could see it. C’mon, Freddie! But the Rams held. Quintin Mikell and Brady Poppinga joined Laurinaitis to stuff an Ogbonnaya run. The Browns nearly fumbled away a bizarre handoff call to TE Alex Smith. Justin King stopped Ogbonnaya short on 3rd down. That left the Rams at worst 2:00 to drive for a winning FG, but the bungling Browns made even that effort unnecessary. Chris Long’s best game of the year came at the right time. He’s carrying the Ram defense like Steven Jackson’s carrying the offense.

* Secondary: Granted, the Browns don't offer a high level of difficulty, but the Ram secondary had to respond to YET ANOTHER season-ending injury, probably a career-ender at that, when Al Harris left early in the second series with a knee injury, and respond they did. Justin King even had a decent game. He broke up a pass for Josh Cribbs to force Cleveland's first FG, and forced the second one by breaking up a pass for Jordan Cameron in the end zone. Marquis Johnson broke up a pass for Ben Watson to end a drive. Josh Gordy made a HUGE play right before halftime to knock down a pass in the end zone intended for Evan Moore, with Quintin Mikell also arriving in time to break the play up. That play had been set up by the secondary's worst play of the day, which saw Greg Little get open deep behind Gordy and Craig Dahl for a 53-yard catch. King also played too soft on 3rd-and-short a couple of times and let Cleveland drives continue. The Rams faltered in the 3rd. King went for a strip instead of a tackle and let Ogbonnaya get away for most of a 32-yard run. Watson then beat King and Dahl for 22 with a one-handed catch. The Rams allowed a team with 8 plays of 20 yards or more ALL YEAR 5 such plays this week alone. That's not good. But the secondary limited the damage to FGs, and the line took care of business in the 2nd half. Like several areas of the team this week, just good enough to pull off a win.

* Special teams: Rams special teams got a lot better luck than they had last week. Some times, luck, as Branch Rickey might have said, was the residue of design; other times, well, it was luck. Most obviously, Cleveland managed to fail to go up 15-13 with 2:00 left after the center on the FG snapped the ball into the left guard's foot, the ball rolled to the holder and the mistiming caused death-and-taxes reliable Phil Dawson to snap-hook a chip shot into the woods. Or how about Donnie Jones clanging a 34-yard punt from deep in his own end, with the wind at his back, in the 3rd but then getting a 27-yard roll. Ultimately, the Rams won by sticking to their guns, kicking to Josh Cribbs instead of conceding distance and kicking away from him. They controlled him with deep directional kickoffs, and though one rolled out of bounds at the 2 in the 4th to set up Cleveland's final FG chance, it wasn't a terrible idea or a terrible kick; Cribbs made a smart play. The Rams had the lead at that point thanks to special teams anyway, namely one David Nixon, signed earlier this week. The Rams punted to Cribbs in the 4th despite the Patrick Peterson misadventure from last week, but this time they were the ones making the big play when Nixon ripped the ball away from Cribbs and Ben Leber fell on it to set up the winning FG. A very nice recovery for this unit after last week's meltdown.

* Coaching: The game appeared to get off to a promising start strategically on the Rams’ first play, where Josh McDaniels took advantage of weakness Cleveland showed against the *****, and got Britt Miller all alone down the sideline for 20 off play action. Perhaps because Bradford’s ankle improved, McDaniels was able to use more no-huddle, which was instrumental in the TD drive, as was the nice call on the TD play itself, throwing right to Lloyd after faking a sweep left with Jackson. The worst call of the day was choosing to run behind LeVoir immediately after he came in for Saffold, which only got him and Jackson wiped out for no gain. 13 total points certainly doesn’t make McDaniels’ day look successful, but he called a good game with a good run/pass mix and was denied better production by drops, fluky turnovers, injuries and a QB misread near the goal line before halftime. They had the Browns set up. 3rd-and-6 from the 11, Bradford gets wall-like protection and ample time to throw. Lloyd and the outside receiver ran routes that broke at the same time. The safety jumped forward to cover the outside man, leaving Lloyd a clean path to the corner of the end zone and a DB only in position to trail him. But instead of laying a fade pass for Lloyd in that back corner, Bradford dumps off a 2-yarder to Gibson. Sigh.

The big key on defense this week was not allowing McCoy to scramble. (Well, not allowing Cleveland into the end zone certainly was also big.) The Ram defense did a better job to contain a mobile QB than I can remember for any other game in the Spagnuolo era. There didn’t seem to be a lot of blitzing this week, the right choice given the state of the secondary along with McCoy’s mobility. You’d think the big screen pass to Ogbonnaya in the 3rd must have beaten a blitz, but the Rams were in a straight dime defense there, and Laurinaitis got blocked. Still, the right game plan for the opponent.

Steve Spagnuolo didn’t exactly convince us at the opening of the game that he knew what he was doing. There’s clearly a strong wind blowing in the stadium, presumably his reason for deferring after winning the coin toss. Josh Brown blasted the opening kickoff at least 80 yards with that wind at his back. Yet, presented with a chance to open the scoring with a 52-yard FG attempt with that very wind at Brown’s back, Spagnuolo again avoided the FG like it was a proposal for a Nancy Grace Playboy shoot and sent Donnie Jones in to pin the Browns deep instead, though the tailwind makes that a much harder kick. And splash it goes into the end zone for a 14-yard net. But Spagnuolo was vindicated for trusting his punt coverage unit this week, and the Arizona loss did not send the team into a death spiral to 1-15. Spagnuolo’s holding the team together despite their brutal start.

Also, a quick thumb to the nose for Pat Shurmur, who called more creative plays this week than he did his whole stint as the Rams’ offensive coordinator. Wildcat formation? (Thanks to Cribbs for idiotically tipping that off on Twitter.) End-arounds? Backup QB at wideout? A deep pass off of a reverse? What, were you saving this stuff for two years?

* Upon further review: I'm guessing Clete Blakeman's philosophy about pass coverage is, “Let 'em play.” The matchup between Lloyd and Haden didn't look like football as often as it did a wrestling match. Haden held Lloyd twice before the ball arrived breaking up a pass in the 4th. Then again, Lloyd got a pretty good push-off in on his TD route in the 2nd. Sheldon Brown came clean through Pettis to break up a pass and get a 3-and-out in the 2nd. Browns fans probably wanted a flag on Mikell on the TD pass attempt to Evan Moore right before halftime. Moore got a face mask penalty on that play that would have been better called as illegal use of hands. Little appeared down on the second play of the game but they let him get up and run for 6 yards. They did get Little for the obvious hold of Josh Gordy on the end-around to Cribbs in the 4th. If the crew meant to allow so much downfield contact, at least they called it consistently both ways. B-minus

* Cheers: Interesting analysis of the bomb to Little at the end of the 1st half. On TV, you had Jim Mora Jr. criticizing Gordy for failing to cover his quadrant of the field and saying Craig Dahl, jumping the in route, made the play he was supposed to make. On radio, you had D'Marco Farr criticizing Dahl for having his eyes in the backfield and failing to pick Little up. So who's right? My problem with Mora was that you can't call out Lloyd for a push-off on the TD pass and then say it's OK when Haden breaks up a pass in the 4th by grabbing Lloyd at least twice before the ball arrives. Other than that, he did a fine job diagramming plays like the Fujita interception and the bad route Gibson ran a few plays before it. Also give credit to the sideline reporter for managing to keep pretty good track of the Rams' 6,000 injuries. Good broadcast.

* Who’s next?: Yet again, it’s amazing how quickly things can change in the NFL. One week, the Rams are on their way to drafting Andrew Luck; next week, they’ll be going for their third win in four weeks, at home against the Seahawks. Not that that means in any way that the Seahawks are an easy target. Seattle’s got one of the best run defenses in the NFL and showed it this week by holding the Ravens to 75 rushing yards, over half of that WR runs and Flacco scrambles, in a 22-17 shocker that improved them to 3-6. The way the Rams have relied on Jackson the last three weeks, Seattle does not look like a good matchup for them at all. It’s going to be hard to move the ball against that big d-line, which with Red Bryant outside, effectively lines up 3 DTs. Or against MLB David Hawthorne, who’s played more than well enough to make Seahawk fans forget Lofa Tatupu. Or against career Ram-killer Leroy Hill. The Rams are also going to have fits protecting Bradford; when you’re depleted at tackle and TE, the last guy you want to see across from you is Chris Clemons. And Mark LeVoir is about the last guy you want to see trying to block him. Size and physicality extend to the Seattle secondary, where everybody’s at least 6’2” and Kam Chancellor hits like a linebacker. They may have sacrificed speed to get there, though. Earl Thomas can cover up mistakes with his Olympic-class speed, but Dallas burned Seattle deep several times last week. Lloyd and possibly Clayton are going to have to get the Rams some extension down the field. Seattle’s also had terrible problems covering tight ends for at least two weeks. Ravens TEs had 14 catches for 128 yards and 2 TDs Sunday. The Rams really need a healthy Lance Kendricks for this game. They’re not exactly going to light up the Seahawks with Bajema and Spach, and Kendricks’ blocking would be very helpful. Without him, the Rams could be looking at a long, hard slog of a game.

Then again, the Seattle offense doesn’t offer a whole lot more than Cleveland. Key 1: stop Marshawn Lynch, who unfortunately for the Rams is hot right now with back-to-back 100-yard games. A fine interior runner and tackle-breaker even when he isn’t in “beast mode”. Seattle runs very effectively behind the rookie left side of John Moffitt and James Carpenter. If the Rams don’t tackle as well as they have the last three weeks, they’ll get steam-rolled. Key 2: don’t let Tarvaris Jackson out of the pocket. He’s a much better passer on the move. Key 3: make Jackson throw to his left. He is a markedly better passer throwing to his right, perhaps because he’s been battling a pectoral injury all season. But his passer rating is terrible throwing to his left or over the middle. If the Rams can do only one thing on defense next week, they have to take the right side of the field away from Jackson. That’ll be difficult with Seattle bringing more imposing size with Mike Williams and Sidney Rice. Jackson and Rice haven’t clicked yet this season, but look out when that does happen. Also look out for dangerous Doug Baldwin in multiple-WR sets.

After all that, it’s going to come down to basic football between the Rams and Seahawks. The team that controls the line of scrimmage better and wins the turnover battle is going to be the one that wins the game. The Rams’ hospital wing full of injuries is going to make this a tough task. But division rivalries often bring motivation you don’t see the other 10/16ths of the season. Can Spagnuolo tap into that and keep the team on track another week? Stay tuned.

-- Mike
Game stats from nfl.com