RamView, November 26, 2006
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Game #11: Rams 20, ***** 17

It took a little luck, but with a lot of clutch play, a lot of chewing gum and baling wire to hold the offensive line together, and big coaching mistakes (by the opponent), the Rams pull out of their five-game tailspin and three-game losing streak in the series with a win over the Niners. Here's to a couple of new streaks!

Position by position:
* QB: It ain’t how you start, it’s how you finish, and after struggling for about 56 minutes, Marc Bulger (23-34-201, 80.6) put together a sublime drive that brought the Rams a come-from-behind victory. Marc did not start well, killing the opening drive with a stupid pass that Manny Lawson made a spectacular play to intercept. You’re not off to a good start when your throwaway passes are off, meaning, catchable by a defender. Marc never really got the ball downfield at all today. The Rams settled for their first FG after a 4-yard pass to Isaac Bruce on 3rd-and-5 at the SF 10. The long ball just wasn’t hitting; Bulger missed connections with an open Torry Holt a couple of times, and 49er DBs swatted a couple more away. Up 10-7 close to halftime, Marc got plowed under by Bryant Young, bringing Gus Frerotte off the bench. Gus completed just one pass, but it was a big one, a 27-yarder to Kevin Curtis, who set up a FG. Bulger returned but the offense still struggled, stalling three times in its own end in the second half, while the Niners put together two epic drives to take a 14-13 lead and then extend it to 17-13. Settling for that FG left Bulger an opening, though, and he pounced on it. OK, after Young pounced on him for a 10-yard loss, with Bulger loitering in the pocket long enough for Bryant’s next Social Security check to arrive. And the home crowd pounced on Bulger next. But he overcame the boos and the now 90 yards of field in front of him. Two dumpoffs to Steven Jackson and a 4th-down run got the Rams out of the hole. Bulger hit Isaac Bruce and then Stephen Davis to put the Rams across midfield at the 2:00 warning. Marc came out next with a big play, his long pass of the day, a 20-yarder over the middle to Bruce. Three short passes and another 4th down conversion put the Rams at the SF 5 with 0:27 left, where Bulger made his best throw of the day, a low liner that could only be caught by the sliding Curtis, for the winning TD. Marc located him right away and delivered a perfect throw. So you want to talk about clutch? How about nine straight completions for 76 yards on the game-winning drive? On a day when he was having far from his best game, Marc played his best when the pressure was the greatest, and drove his team to a badly-needed win.

* RB: The toast of Rams Nation wears the #39 jersey, as Steven Jackson ground up the hated ***** and spit them out, rumbling for 121 on the ground and enhancing what ought to be a Pro Bowl resume with nine catches for 71 more. Jackson had 14 gains of five yards or more, and he has proven again that he can carry the Rams as Marshall Faulk did in his prime, but in a far different style, much more ground-n-pound than Bob-N-Weave. Practically all of Jackson’s yardage came right up the *****’ gut, though he outran Jeff Ulbrich to the corner for 8 to convert an early 3rd down. He had 50 yards of offense on the Rams’ first FG drive and converted a 3rd-and-1. Stephen Davis (5-25) chipped in two carries for 13 on that drive and spelled Jackson effectively. After Will Witherspoon forced a fumble on a 2nd-quarter punt, Steven blasted off with a 36-yard TD the next play, helped by his offensive line blowing the ***** away and a downfield fake on the safety. He was over 100 yards at halftime, but the Rams got pass-heavy and forgot him in the second half. But that set the stage for Steven to make big plays with the game on the line. He personally got the Rams out of a second-and-20 hole from their 10 with two catches for 19 and an agonizingly patient 6-yard gain on 4th-and-1. With the Rams nearing the 49er red zone inside of 2:00, Jackson was again Bulger’s reliable receiving outlet, taking a couple more short passes. But that set up another 4th-and-1, from the SF 13. And what’s all this about Jackson not being a reliable short-yardage back? With the game and season on the line, he cranked out four yards to get the 1st down and drew a penalty when the ***** wouldn’t let him get back up, probably because they didn’t want to get run over any more. The Rams scored the winning TD the next play, but wouldn’t have gotten that far if not for the dominating effort of their star RB.

* WR: He wasn’t among the statistical leaders, but Kevin Curtis (3-41) made two of the game’s biggest plays. With only seconds left before halftime, he went down to catch a pass from Frerotte, and was smart enough not only to get back up and run out of bounds to stop the clock, he was smart enough to run upfield doing so, and those last 5 yards of that 27-yard reception put the Rams in FG position. Not to mention that Curtis won the game with a sliding TD catch at the goal line. A lot of clutch in Kevin’s game today. Isaac Bruce was the most productive wideout, 6-63 with a big 20-yard catch over the middle that helped set up that TD catch. Torry Holt (4-30) had another dog game against the *****, drawing a lot of double-teams, unable to shake Walt Harris or make a long connection with Bulger. But for a player’s, any player ever’s, first eight seasons, he’s now #1 all-time in receiving yards, passing Jerry Rice today. He’s got that and the first-eight-seasons receptions record with 1/3 of the season to spare! Is that more amazing, or is it more amazing that morons at ESPN leave him off their top-5 receivers list (Michael Irvin) or make declarations that Steve Smith is “definitely” the best WR in the league (Sean Salisbury)?

* Offensive line: A star may not have been born today, but a starter sure was, left guard Mark Setterstrom, whose dominant run-blocking led Jackson to his big day. Right after the *****’ fumbled punt in the 2nd, Setterstrom drove his man several yards off the line and on the ground. That and a big block from Aaron Walker gave Jackson plenty of room for his 36-yard TD run. Jackson got some HUGE holes today, and this from a line that had Todd Steussie at LT, Adam Goldberg rotating in at guard, and for stretches, somebody named Brett Romberg at C, due to Richie Incognito’s sprained foot! Not to mention Setterstrom in his first career start, opening holes for Jackson over and over. Joe Klopfenstein made his best block of the season on a Jackson breakaway in the 2nd, blocking-sledding his man into another Niner to give Steven room. Strategically and psychologically, the Rams looked determined to beat the ***** around, and they largely succeeded. Getting the ball out quickly, Bulger usually had good protection, though he was sacked twice and took a big hit right before halftime. On the first sack, Roderick Green smoked Steussie, Jackson unwisely ignored him, and Bryant Young beat Adam Timmerman up the middle. Right before halftime, Young didn’t get a sack, but he crushed Bulger on an offsides play, a missed assignment by Setterstrom, who turned the other way. Young also sacked Bulger at the beginning of the game-winning drive, but that was completely Marc’s fault; he must have had 7 or 8 seconds to throw. Why the hell can’t the Rams block the 600-year-old Young? 1.5 sacks today? COME ON! But by any measure, sacks included, the ragtag Ram o-line controlled the line of scrimmage today, and earns at least one game ball.

* Defensive line/LB: Bend-but-don’t-break suggests the Marmoset Defense isn’t already broken, but it’ll have to do to describe today’s defensive effort. Frank Gore predictably gashed the Rams for 134, and the Niners ran for 171, as the Rams tackled badly at every level of the defense and did a poor job pursuing the ball. They didn’t sack Alex Smith even once, not just today, but at all this year. But they held San Francisco to 17 points and got a “W”. Pisa Tinoisamoa stopped Gore just short on 3rd-and-7 to end Frisco’s opening drive. In the 2nd, after Leonard Little stopped Gore for no gain on 2nd-and-7, a blitz rushed Alex Smith into throwing a long INT to Tye Hill. The times they stopped Gore and forced Smith to pass were big, because otherwise, Gore was rolling. He already had 66 yards by the time he ran over OJ Atogwe for a 12-yard TD late in the 1st half, a play I saw too much of today. Leonard Little would get blocked by a double-team, and there’d be no one else out there to get Gore. Poor outside containment by the LBs/defensive scheme, poor ball pursuit by the LBs and DBs. Wasn’t a memorable day for Little; he had a sack erased by a LaRoi Glover penalty and badly blew another one, slipping off Smith instead of wrapping him up. The 49er o-line punished the Ram front, and linemen and linebackers alike blew tackles to give up long gains. I’m not sure any of the Ram DTs did a damn thing; most of the day you hardly knew they were even on the field. They were that blank space that Gore would run through for big gains. The ***** took a 14-13 lead in the third with an epic 8:30 drive, even though Brandon Chillar smartly stuffed a reverse. Smith converted two third down passes and hit Eric Johnson for a TD on 3rd-and-goal from the 1. The Rams stopped the Niners early in the 4th but got run over the next possession for another epic scoring drive, this one 7:30. But a funny thing happened. After back-to-back 11- and 18- yard runs, a reportedly-winded Gore was done for the game. Why didn’t Haslett think of letting the opposing RB just tire himself out before now? Of course, that didn’t stop Frisco; Maurice Hicks drew 9 and a cascade of boos from fed-up home fans. From the Ram 13, Fakhir Brown stopped Michael Robinson for 6 on 2nd-and-7. That proved to be big, because on 3rd-and-1, Robinson, on the 11th running play of the drive, ran smack into Chillar, who got help from Raonall Smith to prevent a gain. (Smith and Claude Wroten both got time at DE; Victor Adeyanju appears to be out for the season with a broken arm.) That proved to be the biggest play of the game when the ***** kicked a cowardly, chicken-hearted, gutless, spineless, sackless FG to go up by 4 instead of putting the game away, though Gore’s mysterious loss of stamina may have affected Mike Nolan’s decision somewhat. And look at Chillar; he led the D with 7 tackles and made the game’s key tackle, even if it did require the RB to run into him and his blocker. The Rams grabbed the lead after that FG, and with time running out, good pressure forced a very bad pass and INT out of Smith. I don’t know what to say about this defense today. It was terrible. They didn’t have a sack. Tackling was terrible. Now they’re not only getting dominated physically, they’re playing with poor fundamentals. The keys have to be the 49er turnovers, a decent day (5-11) on third down, and weird mistakes and calls by the *****. Without those, the defense didn’t play anywhere near well enough to win. But win they did.

* Secondary: Poor tackling was a big issue in the secondary. Tye Hill blew some, including one miserably-failed attempt on Vernon Davis in the 2nd. A second-grader asking Davis for a piggyback ride would have made more impact than Tye did there. OJ Atogwe had nine tackles, but still missed too many, and Gore ran right through him for his TD. The worst tackler, though, was Jerome Carter, who blew a couple of downfield tackles badly and didn’t even make the stat sheet. Hill and Atogwe made up for their tackling somewhat with INTs. Tye’s was football art; he stayed stride for stride with Antonio (D! U! I! A! B!) Bryant down the sideline and caught the ball as if it was meant for him. The pick helped lead to the Rams’ first TD, though Tye’s exuberance got him a taunting penalty. Atogwe’s INT sealed the game, a bad overthrow by Smith, but Ram DBs have dropped that kind of pass too often in the past to take OJ’s play for granted. OJ also had a key breakup of a pass to Eric Johnson early in the 3rd. Hill missed the second half with a quad problem, and his substitute was – Ron Bartell, who filled in nicely, breaking up a sideline pass to Bryant with a good hit. True, the ***** focused on the run, but this was a sizable improvement for the secondary over the game in San Francisco: 148 yards vs. 233, and only a couple of impact plays allowed: back-to-back Bryant catches on Frisco’s first TD drive. Maybe not pretty, but effective.

* Special teams: The impact special teams plays were good ones for a change, and game-winning ones at that. Witherspoon stripped Arnaz Battle on a punt return to set up the Rams' first TD. Jeff Wilkins drilled a 51-yard FG at the first-half gun to put the Rams up 13-7. And God bless Bob Ligashesky for not calling a squib kick after the Rams had taken the lead with 0:27 left in the game. Maurice Hicks returned the ensuing kick only to the 24. For reasons no one in the universe can explain, the Rams' kick returner today was the immortal Kay-Jay (I'm Not Arlen) Harris, who predictably stunk at it (19.3 a return) and nearly fumbled one kickoff away. Good thing Linehan had HARRIS back there and made Willie Ponder inactive, huh? Cripes.

* Coaching/discipline: On 4th-and-1 from the Ram 7 with 4:00 left, there was exactly one person in the stadium who didn't think the Niners would get the first down and put the game away if they went for it. Luckily, that person was their head coach, Mike Nolan, who settled for the chippie FG and kept the Rams in the game. Nolan also passed on a 51-yard FG attempt early in the 2nd to let his punter splash one in the end zone. His kicker, Joe Nedney, hit a 56-yard bomb at the end of the 1st half here last year, so there's a couple of big decisions Nolan will have to explain at press conferences on Monday. Oh, and thanks, coach!
Postgame reports revealed that Scott Linehan turned play-calling duties over to Gregg Olson today. How much of a difference that actually made, who knows, but this week's game strategy was more sound than last week's. The Rams committed to the run, which kept the ***** from blitzing their heads off. The continued depletion of the offensive line dictated a conservative passing game, but the Rams got away with being much too conservative and uncreative. Everything's a sideline pass, a quick slant or a dumpoff. Very few of their passes on third down were thrown for the first-down distance, which bit them a couple of times. Still, they could have won last week with this game plan, and will have to run something similar, hopefully a little more wide-open, next week against the potentially blitz-happy Big Dead. I don't have a big problem with Linehan taking the FG on 4th-and-1from the 49er 6 in the 2nd. It was a long drive; you want to come away with something, and you also had the risk factor of having a new center in the game. The challenge of the Holt non-fumble was obviously a good one, but I suspect the challenge of Lawson's INT wasn't. It was clear on the JumboTron that he got an elbow in, and if that makes it a catch, that's a rule the coaching staff ought to know. But Linehan deserves several kudos: delegating to Olson was a good leadership move, his team played with good effort, and he managed the clock well at the end of each half.
Jim Haslett becomes less and less relevant as a strategist as opponents make it clear that they're just going to run on his rancid defense all day. The ***** averaged over 5.5 a pop, and the defense's tackling and ball pursuit were poor. I can't say why the defense has slipped so badly in fundamentals, but it's up to Haslett to get it turned around. The Rams didn't appear to blitz a lot today, but Gore ran away from one on his TD run. Haslett did rattle Alex Smith into drive-ending incompletions a couple of times, blitzing Chavous in the 1st and bringing the house early in the 4th. 5-for-11 isn't great 3rd-down defense, but it’s better than usual for the Rams, so Haslett earned some points for strategy today. But there's no scheming around a run defense that can't stop anyone. Haslett has to get it working.

* Upon further review: Instant replay saved Terry MacAulay's crew from a failing grade; I never thought for a second that Holt had put the ball away on the play that was originally called a fumble return TD in the 1st. And he didn't. The call on Manny Lawson's INT appeared good on replay; he got an elbow down. The taunting penalty on Tye Hill was called WELL after the play. If it's blatant, make the call right away! Instead, they let the ***** lobby them for a flag; lousy officiating. MacAulay flipped and flopped on charging a timeout for Bulger's injury before halftime. He should have thought more about calling Bryant Young for roughing. On an offsides play, officials usually make a much better effort to protect the QB than Marc got there. They get points for the late delay-of-game call on the Whiners but lost them back for making the home crowd sweat Curtis' winning TD catch, which was pretty clear. A passable job, barely.

* Cheers: Nice day outside + 5-game losing streak = 3/4, which is how full the "sold out" Dome was today. Crowd noise was pretty good; Fox announcers mentioned it a couple of times, though there were also times the crowd's collective mind wandered. A for effort; D for attendance. The little I heard of Fox's team of Ron Pitts and Jesse "The Bachelor" Palmer sounded all right. (Next week's broadcast team: Thom Brennaman and Joe Millionaire!) Bonus points to Palmer for dropping a Greg "The Hammer" Valentine reference. On radio, Steve Savard completely blew the Holt non-fumble in the 1st. I'm a few rows in front of the radio booth, with a broken pair of binoculars (don't ask), yet I could tell it wasn't a catch, while he was positive it was. Good broadcast otherwise; with Jim Hanifan aboard, you always know which linemen are performing and which aren't. Halftime show was the time-honored Punt, Pass & Kick competition, and in case you missed it, the Ram cheerleaders finished the NFL Network Cheerleader Playoffs in a three-way tie with San Diego and Atlanta, but San Diego won the tiebreaker by winning the dance competition. Maybe next year!

* Who’s next?: Next week will see the ultimate battle between the resistible object and the movable force, as the Arizona Cardinals and their league-worst 69.7 rushing yards a game come to the Dome to face the Rams and their league-worst 154.8 yards a game rushing defense. The Rams are going for the season sweep, but almost shouldn’t be, since they benefited from massive gift turnovers by Kurt Warner to barely hang on to a 16-14 win in the Pink Taco Dome in September.

Rookie Matt Leinart replaced Warner a few weeks ago, and he threw for a rookie-record 405 in the Big Dead’s loss today at Minnesota. And he had to! Arizona ran for only 17 yards, as their god-awful offensive line threatens to turn Edgerrin James into the greatest free-agent bust in any sport. Edge hasn’t topped 100 yards yet this season, and though he had 94 against the Rams, it was on 24 carries, which usually gets you about 130 against the Marmoset Defense. Given the banged-up Ram secondary, and Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin combining for 20 catches and 312 yards against the Vikings, the Rams may want to let the Big Dead run! But the Big Dead still lost despite those passing stats. They’re 2-and-9. There are many ways to make them lose. If the Rams can put a good rush on Leinart, he’ll look a lot more like he did in Oakland and Green Bay (40% completions, 7 sacks, 3 INTs) than he did in Minnesota. He’s only taken three sacks the last three weeks, but as with many rookie QBs, he’s susceptible to throwing INTs (9, vs. 7 TDs). And he’s no running QB, so he’s a stationary target for whatever blitzers Jim Haslett wants to send, or for Leonard Little, who’s got a shot at taking over this game single-handedly. Unless the Big Dead beat themselves, which they’re good at, the game will ride on how well the Rams pressure the passer, so the heat better come one way or another, or St. Louis will revert back to Doom-and-Gloomsville.

Bulger threw for over 300 in Arizona, thanks to Holt having one of his best games of the season. Jackson, on the other hand, struggled as a rusher, with just 2.6 per, though he had 121 total yards. That wasn’t a typical game for the Big Dead D, which gives up over 120 a game rushing. Scott Linehan did a great job of game-planning to neutralize the Big Dead blitz in the first meeting, and he’d be well-advised to do it again. The Arizona defensive line, with Bertran Berry out for the season, doesn’t generate any sacks at all; they have to blitz Karlos Dansby or Adrian Wilson to get anything. Draw Jackson, screen to him, get the D off-balance, then zing one to Holt. Maybe not that easy, but if they can establish any kind of offensive rhythm, the Rams should be able to dictate to the Arizona defense. I repeat: they’re 2-and-9. They made Brad Johnson look like Dan Fouts today. The Rams, with the same 5-and-6 record as Minnesota, just don’t have a lot of excuses not to establish their offense against Arizona, which on top of everything else, is a terrible road team, 0-5 this year, 7 straight road losses, and YES, I know they won here last year.

After the five-game losing streak they just ended, you hate to say any game is a should-win. What it is, though, is a must-win, at least as far as any distant playoff hopes the Rams have are concerned. It’s an especially big win to get with the Bears following Arizona on the schedule. You’ve got to beat teams when they’re down, especially at this time of year. Scott Linehan’s missed a couple of chances to do that this season, so let’s hope he capitalizes on the positive change in momentum heading into next week, a game a well-coached, well-prepared team should, and must, win.

-- Mike
Game stats from nfl.com