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RamView, 11/27/2011: Arizona 23, Rams 20 (Long)
RamView, November 27, 2011
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Game #11: Rams vs. Arizona
Let the epitaphs begin for the Steve Spagnuolo era in St. Louis. In the last “must-win” game he'll coach here, Spagnuolo's run defense once again went belly-up, the offense wallowed in mediocrity, and the coaching staff continued to kill the team with stupid “strategy” on special teams. The Rams lose AT HOME to the freaking Cardinals for the SEVENTH straight year, and I have had freaking ENOUGH of this.
Position by position:
* QB: Pretty average game for Sam Bradford (17-31-208, 85.8 PR). He made some nice throws and missed some makeable ones. He threw a TD pass, so that's news. Ultimately, he couldn't elevate his offense's level of play over the poor performance of his line. And the Ram defense. Granted, a daunting task. His first impact play was a costly fumble after Sam Acho sacked him in the red zone in the 1st. You know, if I had Adam Goldberg protecting my blindside, I'd try to have eyes in the back of my head as much as possible, but an unsuspecting Bradford got nailed from behind instead, and it was little surprise the ball came loose. From midfield before halftime, Bradford got the Rams inside the 5 with passes to Brandon Gibson and Brandon Lloyd. We'll call Lloyd's pass an intentional back-shoulder throw for now. First and goal, though, bang, it's Acho from the blindside again, and the Ram offense only produces three points in the first half. Bradford set the Rams up for another FG in the 3rd with a 35-yard bullet to Austin Pettis, and by getting a 3rd-down pass thrown away under pressure to maintain field position for Josh Brown. The Rams stalled for a couple of drives while down 20-13, including a 3-and-out in the 4th. Bradford threw poorly behind an open Lloyd on 2nd down and too high for Pettis on 3rd down. But Bradford rallied right after. He drilled one to Lance Kendricks in triple coverage to get the Rams close and then, at last, threw a perfect fade pass to Lloyd to beat a blitz and score the tying TD. But the Rams' final drive ended when they couldn't convert on 3rd-and-1. Bradford managed the offense well enough and didn't hurt the Rams with any glaring mental mistakes, which has been one of his strengths this season. But the net effect of that this week was like being the one person on the Titanic who remembered to lock their cabin door.
* RB: Other than an awesome blitz pickup where he flipped Darryl Washington head-over-heels to give Bradford time to throw the tying TD to Lloyd in the 4th, Steven Jackson (17-64) wasn't that much of a factor this week. He didn't get a whole lot more running room than he got last week. The coaching staff apparently didn't want to give him the ball on 1st-and-goal at the 3 in the 2nd, or on 4th-and-inches in the 3rd, or on 4th-and-1 in the 4th. He was used heavily in the opening drive, and had his longest run of the day almost right away, a 19-yard rumble up the middle. He also had an 11-yard run around left end with Jacob Bell pulling in the 3rd. But those brief plays deep in his own territory were about his only highlights. When he did get a gigantic hole like Beanie Wells got all day, on a draw play in the 2nd, a play Wells would have taken for 70, Paris Lenon manages to grab him and hold him up for a modest 4-yard gain. Perfect example of the Arizona defense making plays that the Ram defense didn't. But it's still dumb to have to wonder where the heck Steven Jackson has gone in the Ram gameplan, especially against the very same team he just beat up for 130 yards. Jerious Norwood (!) (5-22) sneaked in and stole some carries, including a 10-yard cutback run off an Adam Goldberg blitz pickup. But I don't think I'm the only one around wondering what's going on with the Rams' running game.
* Receivers: The Rams have become so outmanned at receiver that it's impressive what Brandon Lloyd (5-74) is able to accomplish. He beat Michael Adams on a corner route for his 4th Rams TD (16 yards) in 5 games, and made a falling, back-shoulder catch at the Arizona 3 before halftime to set up a FG. He also converted a couple of first downs with his usual array of kneeling or diving catches, which have almost become routine. What Lloyd needs – think we've been saying this for a while now – is more help. He nearly threw a TD to Brandon Gibson early in the game, just missing his fingertips from 30 yards out. Running as though he was Fred Sanford, Gibson had only 2 catches on 7 targets and often tends to be not quite where Bradford thinks he's going to be. Lloyd and Gibson each had a drop – Lloyd's should have been intercepted – and Lloyd added a false start. Gibson's big play was a 22-yard catch-and-run right before Lloyd's falling catch before halftime. Lance Kendricks' biggest contribution was a costly fumble deep in Rams territory in the 3rd that led to a TD (but not a challenge). I know Illini Mike is out, but boy has the TE been exactly the opposite of what we were told it would be in the Josh McDaniels offense so far. Austin Pettis (3-45) came from out of nowhere with a diving 35-yard catch down the far sideline in the 3rd to set up a FG. That's rookies, I guess. You get the good and the bad.
* Offensive line: The Rams made a bold, creative move this week and re-shuffled their offensive line to get their five most experienced players on the field. Harvey Dahl to RT, Jason Brown to RG, Adam Goldberg to LT. Applaud the effort, but it ultimately bore out the poor job the Rams have done in acquiring players for this line. Brown was an even bigger joke at RG than he's been at center this season. He was regularly beaten badly by Darnell Dockett, had a holding penalty and two false starts, and got Jackson stuffed a couple of times. A false start on 1st-and-goal at the Arizona 3 killed a Ram drive before halftime and appeared to come because Tony Wragge snapped the ball late. Why can Rams centers not get the bloody snap count right? Wragge also made life miserable for Bradford with a lot of short shotgun snaps. Jacob Bell got blown up and got Jackson stuffed on the opening play of the game, but at least had a manly block to spring Steven for 11 in the 3rd. Jackson's longest run of 19 came a lot from a solid interior block by Billy Bajema. The Rams only allowed two sacks, but both were by Sam Acho (who I believe has ALL his career sacks against the Rams) whipping Goldberg, and both were disastrous. Acho hammered Bradford for a sack/fumble in the red zone in the 1st, and got him again with the Rams rapidly back-pedaling from the Arizona 3-yard line late in the half. More golden scoring opportunities thwarted by a veteran offensive line whose play has come up well short of what they're getting paid. It's gotten to the point where the coaches appear unwilling to trust these veterans to block a running play on 4th-and-inches. They say if you can't make those inches, you don't deserve to win. What if you don't believe you can make those inches? Wow.
* Defensive line/LB: Well, Chris Long played his butt off like he's been doing for weeks now, and made a great effort to track John Skelton down from behind for his 10th sack of the season in the 1st. And now for the bad news. The Rams were literally ten times worse defending the run this week than they were in Arizona. Instead of holding Beanie Freaking Wells to 20 yards, they let him roll up a franchise-record 228 yards. Make that eleven times worse. The Rams followed Long's sack by giving up a 71-yard Wells run. They got caught blitzing over RT; Wells ran off LT, Darell Dorell Scott, Robert Quinn and James Laurinaitis couldn't get off blocks, Brady Poppinga thought sweep and gave up gap integrity; bye-bye Beanie. Darian Stewart made the run twice as long by blowing a tackle at midfield, but give Josh Gordy the hustle award for tripping Wells up inside the 10 and saving the Rams 4 points. There were more big holes in the Ram defense this week than there are in Rick Perry's debating skills. Laurinaitis and Poppinga got blocked as a Wells run off-tackle beat another blitz later in the 2nd for 12. Wells gained 9 on the first play of the 2nd half through a huge hole in the middle, after Fred Robbins and Gary Gibson got buried. Wells didn't even always need a hole. He ran right through Laurinaitis for 10 in the 2nd. After the Kendricks fumble, he ran through Laurinaitis for 7, then through Chris Chamberlain and Justin King for a TD to put Arizona up 13-10. I have to believe Laurinaitis' injured foot was bothering him, to play as poorly as he did. The D did show a little life. Robbins helped hold two red zone possessions to FGs with a tackle-for-loss and by drawing a holding penalty. They started the 4th with probably the prettiest defensive play of the season. Gibson beat his man with a spin move, hit Skelton as he threw, and Laurinaitis made a diving one-handed catch for the INT. The offense got no points off of that, though. Robert Quinn got the Rams' third sack after strong rush from Long flushed Skelton to him. Poppinga later not only blew up a Wells run, he stole the ball from him for another turnover. Only three points off that, but it tied the game at 20. Could the defense keep its momentum? Nope. They got no rush on a 3rd-and-long and let Skelton hit Larry Fitzgerald on a drag route for the 1st. Next play, ALL THREE linebackers overrun the flow of play and get blocked, Jeremy Bridges pins C.J. Ah You inside, and Wells bolts through another gaping hole for 52. Stewart blew another diving tackle that would have saved 30 yards (and got injured). Quintin Mikell chased Wells down to save a TD, but not the game, as Arizona kicked a game-winning FG. For whatever reason, Steve Spagnuolo trusted this defense to get the Rams the ball back at the end of the game. They didn't. Wells and LaRod Stephens-Howling banged through two first downs to run out the clock. Wells ended the day becoming the SECOND RB this year to set a franchise record against the Ram defense. And on a day where QB Skelton couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with most of his passes, that's incredible, and incredibly inexcusable. The Rams easily could have afforded to focus on Wells. Instead they let him run them blind.
* Secondary: With John Skelton doing his best Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn impression, the Ram secondary wasn't terribly tested this week, and gets at least a passing grade. Rod Hood's reputation as a playmaker bore out once he was finally able to take the field. He picked off an overthrow of Larry Fitzgerald in the 1st. The Rams did a very effective job on Fitzgerald, allowing just 3 catches for 55 yards and no passing TDs. Most of the time this appeared to come via safety help over the top, but Hood stonewalled Fitzgerald perfectly one-on-one on an attempted fade pass inside the Rams' 10 in the 4th. Fitzgerald didn't even make it to the goal line. Fitzgerald beat Justin King and Mikell for 41 to set up an Arizona FG earlier, though, and his 9-yard 3rd down catch in the 4th kept the winning FG drive alive. Darian Stewart blitzed in clean for one of the Rams' three sacks and also blew up a screen pass, but he also had horrible misses downfield on Wells' two longest runs. Credit to Josh Gordy and Mikell for chasing Wells down and saving the Rams points, but it's unfortunate it ever got that far, also unfortunate Stewart was injured on the 52-yard run. It looked like the secondary would have been fine, though, even if Skelton had shown beyond-rudimentary passing skills.
* Special teams: Ha, I guess the special teams broke even this week. Nick Miller started off his Rams career with a bang, an 88-yard punt return TD that put the Rams ahead 7-0. It looked like Chris Chamberlain who wiped out two guys with the awesome block that sprang him, then solid blocks by Justin Cole and Eugene Sims got him the corner. Quinn Porter had a good day on kick returns. Wasn't a threat to break anything, but got most out around the 25. But they gave it all back in the 3rd when Patrick Peterson burned the Rams for the SECOND time this season, with an 80-yard punt return TD. He lost Nate Ness and Craig Dahl with a quick cutback right after the catch, Sims dove at him and missed, and he was gone. And now we know why Spagnuolo didn't try the 51-yard FG in Arizona. Shortly after banging one through from 49, Josh Brown couldn't duplicate the result from an extra yard out. Even in a week they score a TD, special teams can't win the Rams any games.
* Coaching: There are times during a game where a coach can contribute directly to a win. Steve Spagnuolo missed a big chance in the 3rd when Kendricks fumbled but Sam Acho recovered the ball with his feet out of bounds. That play happened on the Rams' sideline, from where it seems like Spagnuolo should have had one of the best views in the stadium. Not only that, but the “coaches upstairs” are asleep at the wheel, or out getting a sandwich, while the whole TV crew sees what went on clear as day. As Arizona snapped the next play with no red flag flying, all I could think at home was, yep, there's another instance where a good coaching staff would make a difference in a game. If only the Rams had one.
Then there's the continued decision to kick TO Patrick Peterson. Why? Why at all? The last game taught you NOTHING? And yet here he is in the 3rd quarter traipsing away with another long punt return TD kicked directly to him. (Cue Arthur Carlson: As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!) Now, Spagnuolo said after the game that the punt was supposed to be out of bounds. And Donnie Jones claims he “mis-hit” it. So, he meant to kick it out of bounds, but it flew 55 yards, with six seconds of hangtime, to Peterson smack in the middle of the field? He mis-hit that punt by at least 20 yards? COUGHB.S.COUGH- Jones either kicked that as called or misheard or misunderstood the call. And that's avoided by just telling him to kick everything out of bounds before the game even starts, like they should have done.
The thing I expected Spagnuolo to do most of all was coach this game like his job was on the line, and he didn't. Yes, the ball was on the Rams 30 on 4th down in the 3rd. But there were inches to go. A lot of situations, I'd agree, too risky. But what was Spagnuolo risking there? That he'd fall to 2-9? One play later, Peterson's returning the mincing, fraidy-cat punt for a TD. 4:04 left, 4th-and-1 at the 36, Spagnuolo chooses to punt again and trust his defense to get the ball back. A defense that let Beanie Freaking Wells break the single-game rushing record of one of the NFL's charter teams. Great choice, Coach! What were you risking, that you'd go 2-9? Arizona pounds out the clock, and now you ARE 2-9. And reports are that before halftime, Josh McDaniels had to coax Spagnuolo into taking a shot at the end zone. Spagnuolo was going to let a good 30 seconds run off the clock and then send in the FG team. I like Steve Spagnuolo. I wanted him to succeed here. But he has turned into the coaching equivalent of Marc Bulger after too many hits.
Josh McDaniels looked like he at least tried. He mixed things up with some jumbo formations, a couple of Wildcat plays, an option pass for Lloyd off an end-around, just none of it worked. The short-yardage offense was a real cluster, um, bomb, per usual. I don't like the rollout pass to Spach on 3rd-and-4 with the play-fake to Jackson drawing the defense in to help defend it. First-and-goal at the 3 before halftime, they're in a wacky-pass spread formation, as if to concede they can't run down there. Maybe McDaniels was trying to spread the field for Jackson – the line false-started, so we'll never know – but I don't believe the Rams tried that again in a short-yardage situation. They spread the field on the failed 3rd-and-1 at the end of the game, but that was a pass all the way. Which failed. That'd be two games in a row against the Cardinals, who are not the Steel Curtain, that McDaniels has been unable to figure out how to convert a short-yardage down. Not the wunderkind we were hoping for when Spagnuolo hired him.
We're left with a defensive “guru” who's piloted by far the worst run defense in the league this season, a defense that's given up the two biggest rushing games of the season, two franchise records at that. Now, they did a fine job keeping Fitzgerald under wraps. I assume for now that they were keeping safeties out of the box where they would typically have them in, keeping an eye on Fitzgerald at the expense of Wells getting loose. However, I don't think Fitzgerald was going to get the 228 yards Wells got, even man up on Justin King all game. Is it much surprise this staff didn't make successful adjustments, or just stuck with what wasn't working? Nope. Hope here's that Stan Kroenke won't make the same mistake January 2nd.
* Upon further review: Mike Carey and crew called a fine game except for one play. They caught the obvious holds in pass protection and on special teams in a game that didn't have many challenging calls. They made a good, difficult call on the Wells fumble; his knee wasn't off the ground by much. The fumble by Kendricks in the 3rd was called correctly, but the recovery wasn't. By the time Sam Acho had complete possession of the ball, his feet had swung out of bounds. But the only people to notice the ball should have therefore stayed in the Rams' possession were TV announcers, including Fox's officiating expert, Mike Pereira. Granted, that's a difficult call on the field. But if Carey's challenged on it and gets the looks we and Pereira had on TV, it gets overturned, along with the tide of the game, since it led to an Arizona TD. But I blame the Rams more for failing to challenge than the referees for missing it. A-minus
* Cheers: Lucky dogs Sam Rosen and Chad Pennington got to do a Rams-Cardinals game for the second time this year for Fox. And this was a well-called game. Pennington got some overdue recognition for Darian Stewart in the pre-game, then Stewart didn't come close to playing up to the hype. Rosen and Pennington both saw Acho out of bounds on the live play of the Kendricks fumble. If only everyone else in the stadium were as much on top of things. Rosen's voice seemed to crack on all of Wells' big runs, as if to say, What the hell are they doing letting him break off another one?! I do think Pennington misread the crowd booing the offense off the field at halftime. I don't think it was for conservative playcalling as much as it was for getting inside the 5 and FAILING. AGAIN. The crowd played better defense than the Rams did, getting a false start on 4th-and-inches that forced an Arizona FG. Um, don't look for a lot of positive crowd noise the rest of the season.
* Who’s next?: A lot of people predicted the NFC West would be won by the Rams in 2011. A lot of those same people predicted the San Francisco ***** would be in the thick of the battle for the right to select Andrew Luck in the 2012 draft. What's actually happened is more evidence people should never gamble on sports. The ***** have the second-best record in football, and eliminated the Rams from the division race two weeks before the two teams even met for the first time this season. Yeah, we sure called that one.
Rookie head-coach and notorious hand-shaker Jim Harbaugh has his team winning games the old-fashioned way. There is nothing fancy about the *****. They're all about kicking butt in the trenches. Run the ball and stop the run. Win the turnover battle, win the field position battle. It's not pretty. It's not nuanced. But it sure as hell works. It's a great way to get to 9-2: be the best scoring defense, the best run defense, force the most turnovers, be the #6 run offense. Like I said, nothing fancy; the ***** rarely blitz, they just take their guys and beat your guys. The front seven is widely ranked the best in the game. They have too much speed to run wide well on, especially for the Rams, but run up the middle at them and you're going at one of the best LB combos in recent years. Patrick Willis already has 93 tackles this season and wears the crown as best ILB in the league. And he may not even be having the best season in his own unit, as 2nd-year ILB NaVorro Bowman has exploded this season for 103 tackles of his own. They're the physical and emotional heart of the 49er defense. It takes an amazing blocking game from your TEs and FBs to even slow these guys down, and that's a factor the Rams just don't have. It'll be no trolley ride in the park for Steven Jackson, that's for sure; San Francisco hasn't allowed a rushing TD ALL SEASON. The Rams may try a less-idiotic version of their Seattle strategy. Spread the field but keep Jackson in the freaking backfield this week. The ***** stock plenty of pass-rushing threats, especially from the OLB positions. Rookie Aldon Smith leads the team in sacks. Both he and Ahmad Brooks are formidable speed rushers for Harvey Dahl and Adam Goldberg to deal with. And DE Justin Smith typically eats the Rams for lunch. Regardless of what Josh McDaniels may actually think, the passing game is going to have to get the ball out quickly. The 49er front seven is typically so dominant they don't rely on their secondary to be much more than average. They remade the secondary this year, signing Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers, who's having one of his best pro seasons now that he's finally hanging on to interceptions (5) instead of dropping them. It's not a weak link, but it's the weakest link the Niners have on D. Dallas beat that defense by stretching the field; the Rams are going to end up needing to do so.
Harbaugh's no-nonsense approach is also evident in his offense. Big, physical line that blows people off the ball. And if that isn't enough, the ***** get even bigger and more physical by using more jumbo formation than we've seen in the league in some time. That all sets up heavy doses of Frank Gore, who has everything you want in an NFL RB. He's a patient runner, powerful up the middle, but also quick to the outside and able to get himself small and pop through small gaps in the line. He's also excellent in blitz pickup and as a receiver. If the Rams can't stop him, they'll leave themselves open to play-action and passes out of run-heavy formations. Alex Smith has been a great reclamation project by Harbaugh, going in one season from mega-draft bust to a top-10-ranked passer. He's completing passes at the highest rate of his career, isn't hurting himself as much with INTs and hangs in the pocket tougher this year than I've seen in the rest of his career. He's still dangerous on the move, though; he can get to the outside when pressured and scramble. The passing game is still the most attackable part of the 49er offense, especially if the Rams can find a way to acquire Haloti Ngata in time for this game. If not, the right side of the Niner line has been vulnerable to stunts and to the types of overload blitzes Steve Spagnuolo has liked to run in the past. The 49er receivers aren't an especially dynamic group and don't have the greatest hands. The biggest dangers are the TEs, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, but Spagnuolo's been great at taking that position out of games. (Look for a lot of 3-safety nickel.) If the ***** have an Achilles heel that's going to keep them from making a deep postseason run, it's their red zone offense. Watching their last three games, they've had to settle for a LOT of FG attempts. They'll let a bend-but-don't break defense stay in the game, at least for a while.
But let's face it. If Beanie Freaking Wells can run for 200 on the Rams, Gore can run for 400. The Ram offensive line in any configuration doesn't have the wherewithal to stop the ***** up front; they're dominated there, too. And yet the biggest gap between these two franchises may be on the sidelines. The Ram coaching staff to a man hasn't shown the skill to come up with a good game plan for anyone, let alone one for a much-better team like the *****. The *****, who were worse off heading into this season than the Rams. Harbaugh has made the difference for San Francisco this year where Spagnuolo has failed. Time for the Rams to start looking for their own Harbaugh.
Game stats from nfl.com
Re: RamView, 11/27/2011: Arizona 23, Rams 20 (Long)
Acho has 3 of his 5 career sacks against the Rams
Re: RamView, 11/27/2011: Arizona 23, Rams 20 (Long)
Brilliant. Mr Franke for head coach please.
Re: RamView, 11/27/2011: Arizona 23, Rams 20 (Long)Steve Spagnuolo missed a big chance in the 3rd when Kendricks fumbled but Sam Acho recovered the ball with his feet out of bounds. That play happened on the Rams' sideline, from where it seems like Spagnuolo should have had one of the best views in the stadium. Not only that, but the “coaches upstairs” are asleep at the wheel, or out getting a sandwich, while the whole TV crew sees what went on clear as day. As Arizona snapped the next play with no red flag flying, all I could think at home was, yep, there's another instance where a good coaching staff would make a difference in a game. If only the Rams had one.
Great write up as usual Mike.
Re: RamView, 11/27/2011: Arizona 23, Rams 20 (Long)
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