RamView, 11/24/2013: Rams 42, Bears 21 (Long)
RamView, November 24, 2013
From Row HH
(Report and opinions on and from the game.)
Game 11: Rams 42, Bears 21
A second straight impressive win for the Rams, deep-dishing the pain to Chicago with 258 rushing yards in a 3-TD victory. This isn't the Greatest Show on Earth, folks, but it is a great show.
* QB: I drive an old Chevy with 295,000 miles on it. It's far from the greatest car in the world but it sure gets the job done. I'm thinking about naming it “Kellen”. Kellen Clemens (10-22-167, 86.7 PR) sure didn't have Drew Brees numbers, but many of the plays he made were clutch ones. After getting sacked in the 1st, Clemens kept a TD drive alive by immediately hitting Stedman Bailey (!) for a 1st down on 2nd-and-19. He'd hit Jared Cook a few plays later for his one TD pass of the day. 3rd-and-1 in the 2nd, Clemens kept a FG drive going by stepping up from a blitz and shot-putting a pass to Cook for 27. He made a couple of key passes on another FG drive in the 3rd, a tough 18-yard throw to Cook in traffic on 3rd-and-7 and a 32-yard toss to Tavon Austin after stepping up and away from a charge by Julius Peppers. Trouble appeared to be headed the Rams' way in the 4th. Chicago had just pulled within 6 and a Scott Wells penalty had the Rams in a 1st-and-20 hole. Next play, though, play-action, Clemens fires to a wide-open Cook for 29, and the drive to put the game away rolled on from there. Clemens missed some throws, including a wide-open screen to Austin that looked like a big play, and Chris Givens spared him an INT by breaking up a bad throw. But Clemens has done precisely what the Rams needed him to do. He's taken the wheel from Sam Bradford without driving the Rams into a ditch. Every time he stepped up in the pocket and made a big play this week was a reminder of how Kellen Clemens has stepped up at QB for the Rams so far this season.
* RB: Pick whatever heavy equipment you like, the Rams used it on the depleted Bears defense, steam-rolling, plowing, trucking and bulldozing for 258 yards and nearly getting two RBs over 100 yards. Zac Stacy (12-87) looked like he was on the way to a 200-yard game by himself. He took his first carry for 10. After punching in the Rams' 2nd TD from the 1, he bounced a run left for 35 to set up Cook's TD for a 21-7 lead in the 1st quarter. Stacy got canyons of running room at times, and if he had track-star burst, he'd have run for a mile. Just before halftime, though, he showed some really sweet quickness cutting back a right-side run off Corey Harkey and Rodger Saffold's blocks to gain 17 more. That also seems to be the play, though, where he took a blow to the head that kept him out of the 2nd half. Send in Benny Cunningham (13-109), who almost didn't miss a beat. After Austin's long catch in the 3rd, he tore around right end for 16 and burst through the left side for another 13 to put the Rams in range for a FG. With the score 27-21 in the 4th, Cunningham showed the steel it takes to close out a game. He banged out 4 yards, then sped outside for 27 more off a Saffold pull block. 13 more off yet another Saffold block, then another 5, another 3, and then to put the Bears away, Cunningham runs right from the 9-yard line, cuts inside another outstanding Harkey block, follows another impressive block from Saffold and dives at the goal line from the 3 for the finisher. Cunningham can run like Stacy, and looks faster than Stacy, but doesn't quite do the whole job. He's well behind Stacy as a pass protector, and ball security's still a worry after he nearly fumbled one away deep in the Rams' end late in the 3rd. Cunningham's growth out of those problems would give the Rams quite the 1-2 RB punch.
* Receivers: Lightning struck fast, only about 1:30 into the game, when Tavon Austin took a pitch on a play set up to look like an end around left, stopped on a dime, left nine cents change, turned back up the right sideline, and behind a good block by Chris Givens and a SMASHING block by Austin Pettis, scampered 65 yards for the Rams' opening TD. Austin (2-39) set up another score on a 32-yard deep cross, beating Tim Jennings' man coverage, and probably lost out on another TD when Clemens missed him on a screen in the 3rd. Just the threat of Austin having the ball set up the Rams' two-point conversion in the 4th. Clemens play-actioned an end-around left to Austin and threw to Isaiah Pead in the right flat. Jared Cook's (4-80) family must be relieved he's turned up after about a ten-week disappearance. Cook was not hard to find this week; he was everywhere. He drew an end zone DPI that kept the Rams' 2nd TD drive alive and used a “veteran move” to get open in the end zone for the Rams' 3rd TD. Cook added big catches on both FG drives and a 29-yarder down the seam on the game-clinching TD drive. Three of his big plays were on 3rd downs, and such clutch play from Cook will be very welcome the rest of the way. Givens' (0-0) best attribute was his blocking. Bad footwork on an attempted sideline catch cost the Rams a FG chance before halftime, and after making a good move to get around coverage on a deep ball in the 4th, he let it go through his hands. It would be a plus to get Givens going again as part of the Rams' recent receiving revival.
* Offensive line: Rodger Saffold was all right as a tackle but has found his calling at guard. First run of the game, he pops two Bears on the pull to get Stacy a lane for 10. Saffold and fullback Corey Harkey have been run-blocking revelations. Harkey and Jake Long sealed the left side on Stacy's 35-yard run in the 1st. Harkey had a key block on Stacy's 17-yard cutback run late in the 1st half. The Rams had to switch RBs, and LGs, to Shelley Smith after Chris Williams suffered a concussion, but kept on rolling. Lance Kendricks and Stedman Bailey (!) set a HARD inside edge and Joseph Barksdale kicked out to get Cunningham a quick 16 in the 3rd, then Harkey led him into a left side hole for 13 more. When the Rams needed to finish off the Bears up 27-21, the line was primed. Kendricks took out Shea McClellin and Saffold destroyed LB James Bostic to spring Cunningham for 27. The Rams were a balanced offense against Chicago. They could run right AND left. Couple of plays later, Long and Saffold open up the left side to get Cunningham 13, then down at the goal line, Saffold and Harkey again, mowing Bears down like extras in a Schwarzenegger movie to get the clinching TD. I didn't follow the Rams in the '80s but imagine Eric Dickerson must have gotten blocking like this more than a few times. Everything is clicking for the Rams in the run-blocking game. You're just not going to lose when you can pound out 258 rushing yards. Though Clemens was sacked only twice, pass protection was nowhere near as good, which isn't very acceptable against a team pressuring the QB as ineffectively as the Bears have this year. Clemens had to step up repeatedly from pressure on the edge. Long nearly let Julius Peppers kill Clemens on his 32-yard pass to Austin. The sacks came on blitzes up the middle. In the 2nd, both Saffold and Williams lost their men to allow the pocket to collapse. James Anderson blitzed in untouched in the 3rd for the other sack, with either Cunningham or Scott Wells missing him. That forced the Rams to settle for a FG. If their best blitz pickup, Stacy, is going to miss any time, they're really going to need to tighten up their act in pass protection, but the o-line, tight ends and even WRs earn game balls for their sterling, dominating run-blocking.
* Defensive line: Josh McCown was harder to finish off than a healthcare.gov insurance application, but even with just one sack late in the game, the Ram defensive line was in his face and in his head more than enough to affect the course of the game. They let the Bears bounce back pretty quickly after putting them in a 14-0 hole, though. Matt Forte (16-77, 7-40 recv) took off for 26 on a draw play Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers overshot pretty badly, beat Chris Long, who got blocked by the TE, around left end for 11 and then maddeningly burned the Rams with another high school draw play, catching William Hayes out of position for 19 more to set up Chicago's first TD. Chris and Kyle Long almost didn't play against one another at all. Their most prominent meeting was when Chris high-tailed it off the Ram sideline to restrain Kyle during a flag-filled fracas in the 2nd where Kyle got a roughing penalty for kicking Hayes. The Rams shut down any thoughts the Bears had of a late halftime run when Quinn stuffed a handoff and Long deflected a screen pass at the Bears' goal line and nearly turned it into a pick-six. Trying to sack McCown was like trying to grab a fist full of Jell-o. The Ram 4-man rush could often close the pocket on him, but not the deal. He would slide up and hit a big receiver or Forte over the middle for key gains. But he always had a Ram right on his back. Long got pretty consistent penetration against Jordan Mills. Robert Quinn was a heartbeat from sacking McCown about a dozen times and got hits on him that affected a couple of throws. Neither 4-man rush nor blitzing got it done right after halftime, and after Chicago drove six-plus minutes to get inside the 5, McCown had Michael Bush all alone in the flat for what looked like a certain TD, but with Hayes penetrating and getting his hands up, McCown showed the Ram rush had gotten in his head a bit, rushed the throw and botched it, with the Rams holding strong for the rest of the goal line stand. (Though, if Alec Ogletree had not stopped McCown on a 3rd-and-goal scramble, the key block would have been on Chris Long, by his brother.) The Rams finally caught on to the high school draw late in the 3rd. Long stuffed Forte on one and Eugene Sims drew a hold to kill a drive. The front line played well on Chicago's 4th-quarter TD drive but didn't get enough support from the back 7. Quinn blew up a play-action on 2nd-and-goal but Brandon McGee committed a hold in the end zone. Quinn then drew a blatant hold from Jermon Bushrod to force the Bears back, and Michael Brockers drove them back further with a splendid train wreck of a sack. If only referee Jerome Boger had correctly seen it that way. After the Bears and the zebras worked so hard to get Chicago that TD, the Ram offense responded with a strong TD drive, and up 35-21, Quinn stuck a fork in the Bears with his 13th sack of the season, a classic sack-and-hack that knocked the ball free, with Quinn himself athletically whirling and pulling McCown away to grab it and run away with a 31-yard TD, a nice reward for 60 minutes of unrelenting pressure. That was the only sack for the Rams, but make no mistake, they played a significant role once again in winning a game.
* LB: The LBs made the Rams' bend-but-don't-break defense work. They gave up a lot of nibbles, and LBs and safeties seemed late to cover underneath routes the entire game, but made enough big plays to make much of the Bears' statistical efforts futile. Alec Ogletree's (11 tackles) best plays were as a run defender. He held up Forte on his initial carry to let Trumaine Johnson strip the ball away and stuffed a Michael Bush sweep to help force a 3-and-out in the 2nd. Jo-Lonn Dunbar seemed to miss as many tackles as he made and had to be the least successful tackler on the field. But he also blew up a screen to Forte for a big loss in the 1st and pressured McCown into a throw that kicked off a multi-penalty near-riot in the 2nd. Forte had little trouble running through Dunbar's or Janoris Jenkins' tackling when he had to, though. Tackling against Chicago's enormous WRs was predictably poor. T.J. McDonald resumed his pre-I.R. tackle-whiffing ways. LBs and DBs alike got mowed down to turn simple screen plays into big gains. The big plays are what ultimately matter, though. James Laurinaitis recovered Forte's early fumble to set the Rams up for a 2nd TD just 2:30 into the game. He and McDonald made big run stops on the goal line in the 4th to make Chicago work for their last TD (with a lot of help from good and bad penalty calls). The key sequence of the game came right after halftime. The Bears set off on a 75-yard, 14-play, nearly 7-minute drive, and appeared set to close to 24-21 inside the Rams' 5. But Ogletree, again flashing that outstanding closing speed of his, made an excellent open-field play to stop a McCown scramble at the 1. The Bears went for it on 4th-and-goal, and lived to regret it when Dunbar knifed inside left tackle and crashed into Bush head-up for a perfect form tackle and a 4-yard loss. That tackle swung the game, as the Rams drove from there to a FG and never really looked back.
* Secondary: The already shaky Ram secondary may be teetering on the brink after this game. Cortland Finnegan's season ended during the week after a newly-diagnosed broken orbital bone from week 4. That pressed rookie Brandon McGee into service, which did not go terribly well. 3rd-and-a mile after the Kyle Long riot play, McGee gives it all back with unthinking illegal contact downfield. He drew a DPI in the 4th with awful coverage of Earl Bennett, grabbing him and never looking for the ball on only about a 20-yard streak to the end zone. After the Rams made a goal line stop, McGee reset the down marker with a hold in the end zone. I guess we know why he hasn't played all year. Well, he could be starting now. Trumaine Johnson knocked himself out trying to tackle Bennett in the 3rd. He'd knocked the Bears for a loop on their opening play by stripping Forte for a fumble that set up the Rams' 2nd TD. Janoris Jenkins got turned inside out by Brandon Marshall (10-117) for Chicago's 2nd TD. Late-arriving safeties or LBs left receivers wide open underneath all day, and McCown cashed in repeatedly. TE Martellus Bennett (4-62) popped wider than wide open over the middle several times and also beat McDonald for the first Bears TD. Jenkins, though, made a key play during the Rams' goal-line stand in the 3rd with a perfect shutdown of a fade pass for Alshon Jeffery. And if the idea behind leaving the middle of the field open all day was to prevent getting beaten deep, it mostly succeeded. Hard to guess what's next for the Rams' decimated secondary, though.
* Special teams: I'm still mad over the Rams' worst play of the game, and it didn't even count. The stat sheet will show they did a good job limiting Devin Hester on returns. Most of Greg Zuerlein's kickoffs were too deep to bring out, and when Hester tried, he got shut down early by excellent coverage from Chase Reynolds or Stedman Bailey. Ray Ray Armstrong made a big play to trip Hester at full speed on his first attempt. Bailey got downfield so quickly as the gunner on one punt he got Hester to settle for a fair catch. But that was the nagging thing to me in row HH. Why even let Hester field the ball? Punt the thing out of bounds. Why even flirt with disaster? Sure enough, to start the 4th, Johnny Hekker air-mails a line-drive punt DIRECTLY TO HESTER with about two seconds of hang time on it, and there's no Ram within ten yards when he catches it, or even most of the time he cruised away with what could have been a game-changing 62-yard TD return. “Could have”, because the play came all the way back because of a holding penalty at the line of scrimmage. You'd still think Hester's NFL record for TD returns would be reason enough to avoid him, but there's always dummies out there, including at Rams Park, who just think it's a great idea to kick to him. Let me know when it ever proves a good idea to poke that particular Bear.
* Strategery: If only game-planning was as easy for Brian Schottenheimer every week. With an opponent struggling against it as the Bears are, you run at them until they prove they can stop it. They couldn't, ball game. OCs always get themselves in trouble and get away from what's working to try and show everyone what a genius they are. Kudos to Schottenheimer to be smart enough not to fall into that trap. The Rams tormented the Bears' young LBs with play-action and misdirection. Schottenheimer cooked up some especially good plays for Austin. The fake end-around for the first TD was sublime, and the misdirection screen pass was a great call even though it didn't work. The two-point conversion was a masterful fakeout, with Austin drawing attention one way while Pead ran free for the catch and score on the back side. I also love it when a scouting report comes together; the Rams took advantage of McClellin's overpursuing habit on multiple occasions. Even the 32-yard pass Clemens made to Austin was a sweet call; he's open and single-covered on the deep cross because Cook drew extra attention away on a shallow cross. Schottenheimer's doing what he and the Rams do best, and they're coming out on top.
I felt less bullish on the rest of the staff. Kick directly to Devin Hester all day? Really? F for that. I haven't figured out why Bears receivers were persistently open smack in the middle of the field. They didn't take away from coverage to put extra pressure on McCown. When they did blitz, they'd zone blitz and have Hayes or Langford dropping back to cover a receiver (head smack). If they left the middle open to take away the deep ball, I sort of get it, but I wouldn't have scouted the Bears with their backup QB and big possession receivers as a bombs-away threat. But the Rams didn't get burned deep, either, and they made the Bears go 11 or 12 plays on their scoring drives, and 14 on the long drive that failed. Combined with the offense's ability to hold the ball a long time, there was method in that apparent madness. We'll probably see it again when the Saints come to town in December.
* Upon further review: Ah, Jerome Boger, the NFL's best referee (he did Super Bowl XLVII) and the worst referee who ever lived at the same time. Boger and crew did all right for a while. They got three correct flags, McCown for grounding, Tony Fiammetta for a blatant face mask and Kyle Long for roughing, on the riot play in the 2nd, but the failure to blow the whistle let a lot of mayhem happen. And both Long brothers could have been ejected, Kyle for kicking Hayes, Chris for coming off the sideline to police the fracas. Boger did well not to let Chicago get away with several blatant holds and blocking violations. The hold that took back Hester's punt return TD was obviously a big call. The crew appeared determined to keep the Bears in the game in the 4th, though. The side judge tried to give Forte a TD when he was clearly down at the 1. He's looking right at it, too; how do you miss that by so much? Boger followed that on 3rd-and-goal with one of the worst calls of the season, calling Brockers for roughing on a perfectly clean, perfectly legal hit to McCown's chest. Despite the fact that he was looking right at the damn play, Boger's claim that Brockers led with his helmet was completely wrong, which the league should confirm this week by declining to fine Michael for the penalty. I don't know what is more mind-bogglingly awful, the NFL's protect-the-QB rules or some of the referees it has trying to enforce them. It's adding up to epic fail. Grade: D
* Cheers: A sellout crowd finally got to see a Rams home win, the first one since early October. Of course, that was not a happy result for the 1/3 of the crowd that came to cheer for the Bears, who appeared to be in all but total control of the lower bowl, making the game look and sound like a Bears home game on TV at times. My personal thanks again to all of you PSL holders who make St. Louis look so good by selling your tickets to opposing fans. As usual, I'll remind everyone that just as many Chicago fans come to St. Louis for every Cubs-Cardinals game, and Cardinal fans are never criticized. Far from a silent majority, Ram fans were the loudest we've been all year, almost from wire to wire – the hot start helped – drawing a couple of penalties and possibly a couple of timeouts. Why this does not translate to TV, I cannot say, other than acoustics has never been one of the Dome's strengths.
* Who’s next? The last time the Rams met the *****, their 2013 season bottomed out (we hope) with a dreadful 35-11 loss that capped off a miserable 1-3 start and launched a 5-game winning streak for their biggest rivals. The worm may be turning again, though. The Rams are 4-3 and have been highly competitive since that Thursday night humiliation.
The 49er offense has shown unexpected vulnerability so far. Tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis have had a lot of trouble dealing with edge speed. Their running game has been a stultifying endless loop of handoffs up the middle, behind Jonathan Goodwin, their worst blocker, that don't go anywhere and have Frank Gore kind of showing his age. Colin Kaepernick's looked indecisive even when they're winning. Inexplicably, he's looked tentative to run, and he's failing to see receivers wide open downfield... That's how I started my 49er preview in week 3, and things still look pretty similar. Kaepernick has really struggled with blitzes lately and is 31st in the league in completion %. I'd argue the ***** have set their young QB back this season playing it too safe with him. With defenses prepared for the read option now, they've chained him to the pocket, only just recently putting him in some moving pockets. He's getting blitzed with impunity; his inexperience reading the field and the subpar work of his tackles and fullback picking up blitzes have gummed up the 49er offensive gears in recent weeks. Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin are his only receivers, so defenses double-team Davis, and Boldin can't stretch the field. And with the passing game tied in a knot, the ***** couldn't make teams like the Panthers or Saints pay for stacking 8 or 9 in the box to stop Gore. That, and an offensive line I've felt all year has been overrated, is how you get to be 29th in the league (46.7%) on 3rd-and-short. Anthony Davis is slow-footed and slow out of his stance at RT. Mike Iupati's been hurt, Adam Snyder is a major downgrade, and the interior line and fullbacks miss a lot of blocks. For being called the best tackle in the league as often as he is, Staley doesn't look any better in pass pro lately than Jake Long. They did dominate the Rams back in September, though. Staley has gotten the better of Robert Quinn in past meetings. That's a key matchup for the Rams, who obviously have to defend the still-potent Gore much better than last time, and especially have to do it by setting much better edges, where Quinn has improved by a long stretch. The wild card for this game, and likely the *****' season, is Michael Crabtree, who's due back soon after tearing an Achilles tendon back in OTAs. If 100%, Crabtree opens up the 49er passing game and stretches the field, and he's a receiver the Rams have NEVER had an answer for. The Niners didn't need Crabtree to beat the Rams in September, but they'll need him in November if the Rams can execute the blueprint that's been successful against them lately.
Crabtree can make the 49er offense much different from what it was in the first meeting; the Ram offense is already much different from September. Obviously, Sam Bradford's out, and Rams backup QBs do NOT have an encouraging history at Candlestick Park, but with Rams RBs running for only 22 yards in the first game, though, the running game is the biggest difference. Ray McDonald has been hurt and the Niners have been vulnerable to the middle run. To truly capitalize on that, though, the Ram offensive line has to play at least 100% better than it did in week 4, when it gave up 5 sacks and did nothing to help the running game. Scott Wells has to be far better than to get dominated by Glenn Dorsey. Joseph Barksdale needs to be a far more physical presence instead of getting shoved around. Making the Rams' humiliation in week 4 exponential was the fact that the ***** dominated them without Aldon Smith or Patrick Willis. His two sacks Monday night show Aldon's getting revved up again after missing 6 games in rehab. So far offenses are still getting away with double-teaming Justin Smith, which helps get that middle running game going and reduces the impact of the *****' two all-pro ILBs. The Niners have tried to counter that by using Justin in a stand-up role. Even if that doesn't continue as Aldon gets back up to speed, I'd still like to see the Rams run that direction a lot, both to keep the pass rush honest and because it means they're not trying to run at Ahmad Brooks, which was completely fruitless last time. The Rams will really need Zac Stacy out there for his blitz pickup. NaVarro Bowman was a blitzing machine in the first game and the Ram RBs who were active (Stacy was not) showed no clue they could pick up a blitz ever. That can't happen again. The 49er secondary devoted extra effort to containing Tavon Austin in September, with spectacular effect - he had just two catches for 6 yards. His recent explosiveness should help open up the field for the rest of the receivers, though, and with a credible running game to set up the passing game, the Rams should be able to give San Francisco a game much more like either of last year's instead of a rerun of this September's ludicrous display.
The Rams have lost more division games than they lost last season, and to match 2012's division win total, they'll have to win three very tough road games. 4-2 would be a big stretch, but Rams Nation doesn't have to settle for 1-5, either. This is a game the Rams can win, and they get San Francisco off a Monday night game on the other side of the country. Jeff Fisher to his credit has had the Rams playing tough in most division games so far in his short tenure here. Let's see if he can pull everything together and make up for the one week he didn't.
Re: RamView, 11/24/2013: Rams 42, Bears 21 (Long)
Just a LOT of funny comments in this one. Looks like it was fun to write.
Keep up the good work.