RamView, November 3, 2013
From Row HH
(Report and opinions on and from the game.)
Game 9: Titans 28, Rams 21

The St. Louis Rams – the Sisyphus of the NFL, if Sisyphus eternally rolled a boulder over his own foot. With multiple opportunities to put the clash with the Titans away, the Ram run defense regressed badly and the offense could summon no killer instinct, again leaving Rams fans to go home feeling like Prometheus.

* QB: Kellen Clemens (20-35-210, 84.2 PR) gave the Rams what you hope to get from a backup QB. He managed the offense, put some drives together, and kept the Rams in the game. He kept the opening drive alive with his feet. He scrambled for 16 on one 3rd down and climbed the pocket to hit Brian Quick for 9 on another. Later seeing Jared Cook lined up on DT Jurrell Casey, Clemens exploited the mismatch for 18 before the drive was killed by a non-QB unforced error. He kept the offense in gear by completing his first 7 passes. He threw well off play-action all game and set up the Rams’ first TD getting the ball out quick to Lance Kendricks at the 20 and throwing a jump pass to Stedman Bailey (!) at the 5. The offense hit a major lull near halftime. Clemens threw 6 incompletes in a row. Gifted an interception in scoring range by Cortland Finnegan, various problems led to 4 straight misses – 3 by Clemens, one by Greg Zuerlein. No points and plenty of frustration at the Rams’ lack of killer instinct. Kellen got the offense back on track after halftime, with a 20-yard slant to Quick and a tough, against-the-grain square out to Chris Givens for 15, setting up a TD to put the Rams up 14-7. After a too-easy Titan rally, Clemens engineered a 4th-quarter scoring drive to re-tie the game at 21, capped by a 10-yard fastball to Jared Cook in a crowd at the goal line. Gifted the ball back with 4:44 to play, Clemens had his chance to put Tennessee away, but protection breakdowns and bad ball security led to a critical sack/fumble instead. Tennessee took a lead Clemens couldn’t make up despite a decent rally in the last 2:00. Similar story as last week for the Rams. Clemens didn’t set the world on fire but did enough to win the game had there not been line problems in the clutch and some receiver miscues. And it’s again a game where Clemens was not good enough to make the big play to overcome those issues, where Sam Bradford probably is. Clemens rushed to throw to his first read a lot with other options open, missing a lot of opportunities. His deep throwing accuracy is also a significant issue. He overthrew a fly route to Tavon Austin, who burned Jason McCourty out of the slot for what should have been a TD. Needing a TD from the 26 to tie, neither of Clemens’ throws was great. Pettis looked open for a back-shoulder throw on 4th-and-goal, but Clemens threw too far out of bounds. Kellen Clemens meets expectations for the Rams, but they’re the lowered expectations of a limited veteran backup. He’s a gamer who’s just good enough to make you feel bad you lost. Even with his positive attributes, going into 2014, the Rams probably need to risk a lower floor at backup QB, because Clemens’ ceiling isn’t high enough.

* RB: The Rams’ best option against the wrath of the Titans was to release the Zacken. Zac Stacy pounded out 127 yards on a very physical 27 carries. Even when he gained just 2 or 3, which was a lot of times this week, he made defenders pay. There is much more to Stacy’s game than 3-yard car wrecks, though. He was also the Rams’ leading receiver (6-51), starting his own TD drive in the 1st with a 12-yard catch out of the flat, and finished it by crashing off MLB Colin McCarthy for a 5-yard TD, the Rams’ FIRST rushing TD of the season. In the 3rd, he kept a drive alive by catching a slant for 12 on 3rd-and-5, and finished it off with the Rams’ 2nd rushing TD, banging out two 9-yard power runs behind strong blocking from Lance Kendricks and many others. Stacy had one of the runs of the year in the 4th to set up a tying TD. He hit the hole hard off Jake Long’s block, spun off one defender, got sweet blocks from Tavon Austin and Chris Williams, cut right, bounced hard off another defender, regained his momentum, ran through a McCourty ankle tackle and hit the right sideline with an escort from a hustling Jared Cook for the last 5 yards of a 32-yard gain, enhanced another 15 yards by a penalty. From some of the other names involved in that play, you can see how Stacy’s work ethic fires up the whole offense. He’s smart, too. He adjusted to make a play on a tipped pass in the 4th, and with the Rams driving to try to re-tie the game in the final 2:00, got out of bounds on both his receptions. The main problem is that Stacy can’t be on the field every play. Spelling him in the 1st, Benny Cunningham committed one of the game’s crucial errors. He burst through a big hole on a red-zone carry and looked certain to get inside the 10, but let the ball fly out of his hand, without being touched by anyone, for a soul-crushing turnover. That was Cunningham’s carry because Daryl Richardson was out with a foot injury and Isaiah Pead (0-0) was only active enough to tie up a roster spot. For Stacy, this week was another Herculean effort gone to waste, and in a cold tub somewhere, Steven Jackson is nodding and saying, “Get used to it, kid.”

* Receivers: Several of the Ram receivers “had moments” this week, and actually appeared to know what they were doing, but there’s still no consistent threat to put the fear of Zeus in a defense. Jared Cook (3-36) showed some toughness blocking and receiving, and some red zone ability with an 18-yard catch early and a tough TD catch to beat two Titan LBs late in the game. But right before halftime, when the Rams had a chance to take a lead, he dropped a pass to kill a drive and ran a lazy comeback route that was broken up easily right before Zuerlein’s FG miss. He also doesn’t move well to help Clemens under pressure, or is at least really slow to react, which is bad when Clemens needs him as a reliable release valve. Brian Quick (2-30) converted an early 3rd down with a tough catch over the middle and made a nice overhead grab for 20 to help set up the Rams’ 2nd TD. Chris Givens (4-55) had a couple of catches to extend that drive and a late 25-yarder sitting down in soft zone. For the 2nd straight week, the Rams went in the clutch to a receiver they barely went to all game, this time Austin Pettis (1-13), who I do think could have made a play on a better throw on 4th down or had he not been interfered with on 3rd down. The Rams got only 1 catch for 12 yards out of West Virginia rookie.. Stedman Bailey, who helped set up the first TD with a nice second effort. First round pick Tavon Austin (0-0) had little offensive impact; did all the draft enthusiasts mistake speed for quickness? It does not help when referees allow DBs to grab him downfield; he had at least one deep route thwarted that way and Clemens had to look elsewhere. But Austin’s rookie struggles may be the biggest disappointment of the Rams’ season, at least on offense. The receivers improved over last week without him, but it’s an improvement only from dreadful to pedestrian. It doesn’t take an oracle to see much more is needed here.

* Offensive line: The offensive line run-blocked nearly as well as last week, but when the Rams had chances to gain a decisive edge they too often got a breakdown up front instead. Run blocking went a lot better than pass protection. Clemens was sacked only twice, both times by Jurrell Casey, but was under major heat most dropbacks even though the Titans did not blitz often. Casey got an early sack on a blown rollout play; he didn’t bite on play-action and got to Clemens before Scott Wells could catch him. Casey’s a promising young player, but the Rams couldn’t handle ham-and-eggers like Sammie Lee Hill or Kamerion Wimbley well, either. After the Finnegan INT gave the Rams a golden opportunity to score before halftime, Clemens has to throw a pass away because Long can’t handle Wimbley. The Rams did their best work on the ground. Long, Chris Williams and Kendricks formed a shield wall to get an early 10 for Stacy. Shelley Smith made an Olympic-sized hole for Cunningham’s fumble run. They wiped out the Titan d-line on Stacy’s first TD run like Ajax mowing down Trojan soldiers. In the 3rd, Williams and Cunningham got Clemens time to hit Quick deep and the line again mowed a path for Stacy. On the 2nd TD run, Smith and Corey Harkey pulled left, Long down-blocked like a Minotaur, all a sight to behold as Stacy scored easily. But as good as the guys were at times, they made too many mistakes with the game on the line. After Tennessee tied the game at 14, the Rams feebly 3-and-outed. Williams false-started, Smith got beat to force a throwaway, Long got beat to force another. Still tied with 4:44 to play, and a good drive will win the game, but Williams commits a tripping penalty to put the Rams in a hole. With a dreaded empty backfield on 3rd down, Smith misses his block on Casey, Clemens can’t escape or hold on to the ball, and Derrick Morgan recovers to all-but hand the Titans the win. Run-blocking has been excellent, but the Ram line absolutely has to clean up its mistakes and pass protection, and know that they have to step up in the clutch, too, for the Rams to re-enter the win column any time soon.

* Defensive line: After having the Midas touch against Seattle, the Ram defense played more like the floor of the Augean Stables a mere 6 days later. The Rams deferred after winning the coin toss, intending to set the tone on defense. Their start was brutally tone-deaf. Chris Johnson cruised outside for 23 on the game’s very first play as Chris Long got pinned inside by the TE. Across midfield instantly, and aided on that side by three defensive penalties, Tennessee took barely 3:00 to take the lead. The front four woke up a little after that. Long and Robert Quinn collapsed the pocket on Jake Locker to get James Laurinaitis a sack to end the next drive. William Hayes helped shut down a promising Titan drive in the 2nd with a one-handed takedown of Locker for the Rams’ 2nd sack. Kendall Langford came up big before halftime. He finished a drive by taking Johnson down from behind on an attempted sweep on 2nd down and finishing off Locker for the Rams’ third sack after Quinn whipped Brian Schwenke on a rush from LDT. That wasn’t even Langford’s only sack of the half; Long flushed Locker into him for another on the very last play. Four sacks by halftime and only 7 points allowed, what am I complaining about? The Rams even took a 14-7 lead right after halftime. So, step right on their throats, right? No, let them coast easily to another quick TD. Quinn got buried on a Johnson run at him for 9. They get beat by a fullback screen for 23 on 3rd-and-1. Johnson then scores another much-too-easy 14-yard TD as the Ram line gets collapsed, LBs run into one another and he runs through Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson at the goal line. Clutch work, guys. The CJ2K reunion tour continued in the 4th with a 24-yard run around Long, who appeared very much to get held, setting up an easy QB draw TD for Locker against an unbelievably dumb formation. With the Rams needing a big play after Clemens’ fumble late in the game, the D instead gave them nothing, letting Johnson score another easy TD in just one play. Long got pathetically manhandled by a TE again and got no LB help. Johnson, who ran for 150, or 40 more yards than his last three games combined, even added an 18-yard run for good measure to milk a minute off the clock, Quinn getting buried again this time. How do you give up 196 rushing yards less than a week after you allowed only 30 to a much better rushing offense? Getting pinned inside much too often by non-linemen, Quinn (3) and Long (1) combined for fewer tackles Sunday than they had sacks (6) on Monday. Langford ends up on the ground too often, but at least he showed up. I’m not even sure what Michael Brockers did. A week after living up to their preseason hype for the first time, the Rams rocketed right back out of hype-rspace and crashed back to earth.

* LB: And now a tour of the Rams’ bad defensive play again from a little farther back. Alec Ogletree got mauled by fullback Colin Mooney and James Laurinaitis was also blocked well out of the first play of the game. Not much later, Darian Stewart, apparently surprised at the idea that Johnson might be fast, took him down with a horse-collar tackle after letting him speed around him despite good position on the edge. Laurinaitis did collapse the center on a blitz and sacked Locker with a takedown he might have learned from his father in the 2nd. “Safety” Stewart continued an afternoon of blowing assignments later, mistakenly following a fullback in motion, confusing Ogletree and allowing Greene to go by both of them for 28 on a screen pass on 3rd-and-1. Stewart also ran like Atlas with the world on his back while failing to catch Greene on the play. LBs figured too conspicuously in the Rams’ failure to hold a 14-7 lead in the 3rd. Laurinaitis gave up 9 by taking on a blocker instead of filling a gap. Jo-Lonn Dunbar, at least a step slow all day, got cleared out to free Mooney for another big 3rd-down screen. Johnson’s first TD came with Stewart and Laurinaitis running into one another and neither one of them getting out to cut Johnson off. It’s week 9. Shouldn’t Darian Stewart know where the heck to be on defense by now? Johnson got in two more big runs with Ogletree getting wiped out by Mooney or a TE and Dunbar looking stuck in mud. Laurinaitis did have 9 tackles. Ogletree looked great in pass coverage. Not too many humans, let alone LBs, are fast enough to track down Kendall Wright to prevent a 1st down or stop Chris Johnson out on the edge on a screen, but Ogletree did both those things. He was too helpless, though, on power runs. Screwups on the edge or filling gaps, along with the DEs getting washed inside, left way too many gaping running lanes. Again. It’s LBs, it’s safeties, it’s veterans, it’s rookies, they’re getting beaten physically, they’re getting beaten mentally, it’s a Pandora's box.

* Secondary: Tennessee’s passing game does not stretch the field much, and Jake Locker was pretty bad, 13-22-185 with two bad INTs. Cortland Finnegan baited him for one right before halftime, faking a blitz and dropping back right to where he knew Locker would throw. The secondary played as bad as Locker’s numbers other times, getting beaten by far from the Titans’ best options. Justin Hunter, with all of four catches all season, had two key catches on scoring drives. He beat Trumaine Johnson on a simple slant on 3rd-and-5 to keep the 1st TD drive going, and converted on 3rd-and-1 on their TD drive in the 4th with no one really covering him. Finnegan was five yards off. That’s OK, press coverage didn’t work that drive, either. Tight on Damian Williams on 3rd-and-5, Janoris Jenkins got burned for 20, getting so turned around by Tennessee’s fifth-best WR that he was actually back-to-back with the former Trojan on his break. Finnegan played with the cunning of Hermes but most certainly not the speed, which he needed to keep up with Kendall Wright. Wright smoked him for 18 on the Titans’ 2nd TD drive; Finnegan couldn’t cut him off even with a 10-yard cushion. Finnegan bit like Cerberus on play-action in the 4th and Wright burned him for 45 on another slant, but the Rams were spared by Rodney McLeod’s INT a couple of plays later, as Locker’s intended receiver broke one way and he threw the other. The secondary didn’t play at a high level. They can get away with that against Tennessee. I’m not as sure about the rest of the schedule.

* Special teams: Wonderful, a new streak for Greg Zuerlein – two straight games with missed FGs. With a chance to give the Rams a speck of momentum heading into halftime, his 44-yard attempt was to the right from the get-go instead. Zuerlein appears to kick a pretty straight ball; what happened to kicking at the middle of the uprights? His last two misses both look like they’re going where he’s aiming them. Kick coverage wasn’t too sparkling, either; they let an up-man return one line drive across the 30 and let Damian Williams out across the 30 another time despite a perfect deep directional kick, with Cody Davis making a spectacular whiff. The good news is that after eight weeks, Tavon Austin has finally started running forward with punt returns, to everyone’s benefit. He didn’t do it his first try, running backwards and losing 5, but he ran forward for a nice 15 in the 2nd, and with the Titans foolishly punting to him with about 1:00 left, ran forward, hit a seam and got up the sideline for 24, barely stepping out of bounds. Let’s hope this is the we