RamView, December 9, 2012
From the Couch
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Game #13: Rams 15, Bills 12

Behind Sam Bradford and some unlikely contributors, the Rams make an unlikely second-half rally and pull out a late, tense win in Buffalo. Even more unlikely, the Rams have pushed their way into the NFC playoff race, winning the kind of game they've been losing for years. An ugly, but memorable, win.

Position by position:
* QB: Sam Bradford (19-39-209, PR 62.9) and the Ram offense sucked like a black hole for a lot of the game until Sam's Houdini act at the end. The Rams turned a Buffalo defense that hadn't been playing all that well this year into the Steel Curtain. They three-and-outed repeatedly. Bradford completed one of his first six passes. He could barely get the ball out without getting hit. He had no receiver that could get open. Bradford had 37 passing yards AT HALFTIME, was getting completely outplayed by Ryan Freaking Fitzpatrick, and it could have been worse. Mario Williams stripped him on a scramble in the 2nd but the ball bounced right back up into Sam's hands. He threw an idiotic INT to give away a Buffalo FG at the end of the half. Lance Kendricks was so UN-open on the play that Sam's pass hit a LB in the back. Only an acting performance as brilliant and unexpected as Ned Beatty’s in Network saved that play from being a pick-six. (See o-line.) Coming out of halftime throwing much more quickly, though, Bradford led the Rams 70 yards for a TD. He stood tall in the pocket, converted several clutch 3rd downs and revived Brandon Gibson's season, hitting him for 22 on 3rd-and-7 and with a perfect back-shoulder sideline throw for 16 the next play to set up the score. The Rams immediately fell back behind 12-7, though, and the deep passing game continued not to click. Bradford hit Gibson for 25 with his back to the goalposts in the 3rd, but led properly, Gibson doubles that gain at a minimum. Chris Givens appeared to drop a perfect bomb in the 4th as the Rams 3-and-outed yet again, at about the worst possible time. But with 5:00 left, Sam went into clutch mode and pulled a win out of thin air. He hit Kendricks with a beautiful pass over the middle for 22 to put the Rams across midfield. After George Wilson bailed him out by dropping a pick on 3rd-and-1, Austin Pettis bailed him out on 4th-and-1 with a fantastic catch for 9. Stone hands Wilson bailed him out with another drop before Bradford and Gibson took over, with a 15-yard sideline completion setting up Gibson's 13-yard TD two plays later. Gibson was only open by a shoulder, but Sam fired it in there for the win. Bradford also got them some cushion with a nice fade pass to Givens for the 2-point conversion. When the Rams needed him the most, Bradford led them on a 14-play, 84-yard, 4-minute touchdown drive. He showed abundant poise in the pocket and with the game on the line. Did Sam Bradford have a “pretty” game? It's all in the eye of the beholder. If you like grit, perseverance, mental toughness, and especially “W”'s, then this game was the Mona Lisa.

* RB: A second straight tough road for Steven Jackson (19-64), who had about as much room this week as a train passenger in India. He had all of two yards in the 1st, with the Rams getting beaten consistently up front, before banging out 19 yards on 2 handoffs to open the 2nd and at least keep the Rams in the field position game. Daryl Richardson (3-4) found that being able to hit the hole quicker doesn't help, well, when there's no hole. Jackson gave the Rams a little momentum before halftime with an 8-yard run and a good blitz pickup, but more importantly, got the ball rolling on the Rams' winning TD drive. Steven got the Rams 9 on a 2nd-and-10 delay handoff, cutting up inside Mario Williams' overpursuit. 2nd-and-long again later in the drive, and Jackson got most of it again, circling out of the backfield and dragging Nick Barnett 3 yards after the catch to set up a very makeable 3rd (then, 4th) down. Jackson did have a rare bad drop, and I think he blew it on a draw play late in the 3rd, running smack into the pile instead of cutting back into a huge lane on the left side. But he's getting the dirty work done for the Rams, and his teammates are helping it pay off.

* Receivers: Talk about unlikely heroes: Brandon Gibson (6-100) was on the field for almost 70 plays last week and wasn't even targeted once. This week, he's a huge reason the Rams won. He broke up an INT on a deep pass late in the 2nd. In the 3rd, his 22-yard catch-and-run (after a pretty good pushoff) kept the Rams' first TD drive alive on 3rd-and-7, and his very nice back-shoulder catch for 16 the next play got them in close. He made a big 25-yard catch to get the Rams out of a hole in the 4th. Gibson missed a tough but makeable catch early in the Rams' final drive but got them clutch plays at the end. 3rd-10 at the Buffalo 28, he outfought rookie Ron Brooks blanketing him for the catch, and juked him to get out of bounds. Two plays later, he narrowly beat Brooks on a post route for the game-winner, jumping and cradling the ball from harm. Austin Pettis (5-33) saved the game himself on 4th-and-1 earlier in the drive, wheeling and making a full-extension catch of a ball thrown three feet behind him. Game's over without that sterling effort. Brian Quick made a key play on his weekly catch, catching a 3rd-and-5 pass short of the mark on a drag route but dragging Justin Rogers two yards to get a crucial first down. Lance Kendricks (3-36) was decent blocking and had a couple of nice catches, stretching and snagging a 22-yarder to get the Rams' final drive in Buffalo territory. Notice, though, that most of those are second-half highlights. The Rams couldn't get open to save their skins until the end of the first half. Chris Givens (3-25) wasn't his usual self, which would have helped open up the field. But he and Bradford didn't seem to be on the same page a couple of times, he got dropped for a loss on an end-around and appeared to drop a bomb in the 4th after burning THREE Bills deep. But, for the first time in too long, the rest of the receiving corps stepped up while the main threat was kept in check. When the Rams needed plays, Gibson, Pettis, Kendricks and even Quick made them.

* Offensive line: One of the most unlikely, yet key, plays of this game was made by Barry Richardson, who I'm convinced is a soccer fan, probably Liverpool, because he saved the Rams 4 points late in the 1st half with his best Luis Suarez impression. With Stephon Gilmore breezing off with a terrible Bradford INT for a sure pick-six, B-Rich got a little tug from Kyle Moore and went down like he'd been shot. David Stern can fine him next week, but he got the call and saved the TD. That may have been the only play a Rams o-lineman made in the 1st half. Bradford just barely got time to throw and Jackson couldn't find much room. Alex Carrington, who looked like Bruce Smith for a while, beat Scott Wells soundly to force Bradford into Mario Williams for Buffalo's first sack, on just a 3-man rush. Two LBs had come in unblocked the previous play to blow up a Givens end-around. Next time the Rams had the ball, Carrington beat Harvey Dahl to force a throwaway, and B-Rich got beat to blow up a screen, 3-and-out. Marcel Dareus beat B-Rich the next series to flush Bradford to Mario Williams for a fumble and another 3-and-out, the Rams' FIFTH, and the Ram offense was in full meltdown. Dahl and B-Rich got Jackson some room to run in the 2nd, and the line got more comfortable with Bradford firing more quickly after halftime. Bradford had excellent protection for the 22-yard completion to Gibson on the first TD drive. Rodger Saffold gamely battled injuries, but Wayne Hunter did not struggle when called upon. Hunter stood up Mario Williams on a 1-yard Jackson TD run, and sealed the edge perfectly for a 3rd-down Bradford scramble in the 3rd. Dareus beat B-Rich again to hit Bradford to force a bad pass and another 3-and-out in the 4th, but with the chips down, the line came out on top. Jackson gained 9 to open the winning TD drive behind a Dahl block and Saffold carrying Mario beyond the play. 7 more the next play, with the whole line down-blocking left, which worked well all day, with Dahl and B-Rich mowing Bills down on the backside. Protection was good enough the rest of the way, and the Rams went on top to stay. Don't forget B-Rich's play, though, saving the Rams 4 points in 3-point win. A game-saver.

* Defensive line: The Rams came out with guns blazing. Pressure from the first of many blitzes created a sack for Kendall Langford on the game’s second play, and James Laurinaitis blew an INT on the third but got the 3-and-out. The next drive, Langford stuffed Fred Jackson, and Chris Long came on a rare stunt and hit Ryan Fitzpatrick to force a bad throw for another 3-and-out. Michael Brockers picked up a sack off more blitz pressure the next drive, and the Rams looked headed for a shutout. But C.J. Spiller put a crack in the dam, slipping Jo-Lonn Dunbar’s poor tackle for a 15-yard screen pass on 3RD-AND-13. A dumpoff to Scott Chandler beat a blitz for 14, and Fitzpatrick exploited enough soft coverage to set up a Buffalo FG. Two quick strikes put the Bills right back in scoring range at the end of the 1st before either Brockers or Quintin Mikell made a huge play, forcing a Fred Jackson fumble, recovered by Laurinaitis. The Rams resumed domination. Long impressively tracked down Brad Smith on 3rd down to score another 123-kick. Josh Hull and Dunbar collapsed the pocket with a blitz to set up the Rams’ 3rd sack, which Brockers got a piece of. Long helped make Fitzpatrick settle for another FG off Bradford’s late 1st-half INT with a pressure, and the Ram offense made the defense’s 1st-half work finally stand up with a TD after halftime. So, as usual, what did the defense do with the fresh lead? Piss it immediately away. Spiller ran for 13 inside Long’s overpursuit, then 14 more, stiffarming Janoris Jenkins to the ground while Dunbar and Rocky McIntosh both laughably ran into the same double-team block. William Hayes failed to recover a Fitzpatrick fumble when ALL HE HAD TO DO WAS FALL ON IT. With Ram DBs avoiding Bills receivers like they were carrying bubonic plague, Buffalo walked right back to a 12-7 lead. But the Rams battened down the hatches. Mikell flushed Fitzpatrick a couple of times to force a “4-and-out”. The front stuffed the Bills running game all day, the rush was in Fitzpatrick’s face all day, and it all came together at the end of the game. Jermelle Cudjo stuffed Fred Jackson one last time to kick off another 3-and-out. After the offense finally re-took the lead in the final minute, the Rams made it stand up. 2nd-and-10 with Buffalo nearing midfield, Mikell and Dunbar collapse the pocket with a blitz to create a sack for Robert Quinn, the Rams’ 4th. And on the next play, Hayes beat David Snow to the inside, forcing Fitzpatrick to alter his throwing motion and lob a moonball that Dunbar fair-caught to seal the game. I’ve mentioned some individual offensive efforts, but the Ram defense won this game. Brockers and Langford were rocks in the middle. Long was relentless as usual. Mikell and Dunbar were blitzing menaces. Laurinaitis was solid, and the Rams got good play from Hayes, Hull and Eugene Sims off the bench. Except for that 3rd-quarter nap, a terrific team effort.

* Secondary: For an unlikely star of the secondary, how about Quintin Mikell? He was a blitzing force, a good run-stopper and was in on some of the game's big plays. He blitzed on at least two of the Rams' sacks, including Quinn's in the final minute. He helped hold Buffalo to a FG in the 1st by dropping Fred Jackson for a loss, even though Fitzpatrick saw the blitz coming, and later prevented a likely score by forcing a fumble. After Hekker's 2-yard punt in the 4th, Mikell helped keep the Bills out of FG range, blitzing Fitzpatrick from opposite sides on back-to-back plays and flushing him for minimal gains. Janoris Jenkins made several open-field stops, including on a T.J. Graham end-around that could have been a big play. Fitzpatrick went deep after Jenkins in the final 0:30 trying to draw a DPI, but the rookie didn't bite, maintaining textbook coverage. Ram DBs had Fred Jackson's number. Trumaine Johnson made a good open-field tackle on Fred and stuffed him on a run. Craig Dahl made a sweet stop on a tricky Jackson screen as part of a 3-and-out in the 2nd. After Dahl left the game due to a concussion, Darian Stewart filled in well. The main disappointment, besides Rams coaches continuing to line the CBs in a different time zone than Buffalo's slow-footed receivers, was Cortland Finnegan. Stevie Johnson beat him for 34 in the 1st. He kept a 2nd-quarter drive alive with a stupid facemask penalty. Finnegan was 12 yards off Johnson on a 10-yard quick screen on Buffalo's TD drive. I don't get it. The Rams are paying a lot of money to have Finnegan lay a mile off receivers and let them make catches right in front of or next to him. They could have just kept Justin King to do that. Finnegan should be an excellent weapon; let’s start using him better.

* Special teams: Despite 17- and 19-yard returns in the 4th quarter, the Rams punting team did a pretty good job on dangerous return man Leodis McKelvin. Most punts either had to be fair caught, or McKelvin couldn't get much of a return out of them, with good coverage by Rodney McLeod and Bradley Fletcher. Greg Zuerlein didn't take McKelvin out of play at all on kickoffs, which were disappointingly short for him. Hekker avoided disaster in the 4th after letting the snap shoot through his hands. He tracked the ball down, and using some of his rugby-style kicking experience from Oregon State, managed to get a punt off in very tight quarters. It netted all of two yards, but Buffalo would have scored at least three if he hadn't gotten a foot on it. Givens took advantage of short kickoffs to give the Rams good field position, and Pettis had an early 23-yard punt return. The Rams actually look ready to break one of these pretty soon. In a good way.

* Strategery: Loved half of the Rams’ defensive strategy, which once again this week was to blitz the opposing QB’s head off. That paid off early and often. The blitzes would collapse the pocket, then a lineman would clean up for the sack. Heavy blitzing also forced Buffalo to keep Spiller in to protect more and reduced him as an offensive factor. The Rams also ran some stunts, a perfect way to attack Buffalo’s line of fill-ins and a center making his first NFL start. That paid off early for a 3-and-out. They moved Mikell around on blitzes like they were playing three-card monte. The gutsiest call of the game came in the last 0:30. With Buffalo probably 20 yards from a tying FG try, here comes Mikell and Dunbar over LT, and Fitzpatrick’s buried in the pocket for the final sack.

The other half of the defensive plan, though, is the staff’s insistence on dumbfoundingly soft pass coverage. You’re going against a QB with no arm who loves to throw screen passes. BY ALL MEANS LAY TWELVE YARDS OFF RECEIVERS ALL DAY. By all means turn Ryan Fitzpatrick (24-for-29) into Joe Montana. By all means give back the lead in the 3rd no sooner than you took it. Quick screen to Johnson for 10, Finnegan 12 yards off him. 2nd-17, quick screen to Graham for 11, Jenkins 8 yards off. At the Ram 27, quick screen to Graham for 16, with barely anyone even lined up across from him. That happened more than once - it was on purpose! Buffalo would split two receivers to one side, and Mikell, 8 yards off, would be the only Ram even in that part of the picture. From the Ram 11, ANOTHER screen to Johnson, with Jenkins 9 yards off, feet almost on the goal line. Then they get completely fooled by Buffalo throwing a play-action TD to a backup TE, a trend you can spot at home watching SportsCenter. I know, I know, they’re winning, but with these terrible coverage schemes, the blitzes better keep getting there, or the Rams will give up 70.

Through 10 weeks, the Buffalo defense had managed eight 3-and-outs. In just the first half this week, the Rams 3-and-outed FIVE times. Didn’t Brian Schottenheimer use to go up against the Bills twice a season? Looked like he’d never seen them in his life. There was one play where the Bills had TEN in the box and the Rams couldn’t check to anything besides Jackson getting stuffed. But, a sign that the Rams have a professional-quality coaching staff for the first time in years –successful halftime adjustments! Schotty spread the field, Bradford took shorter drops, got the ball out faster and went after Buffalo’s weakest link, the rookie Brooks. Schotty also set up some nice route combinations. Givens cleared out for Gibson on the big 22-yard catch on the first TD drive; Gibson returned the favor on the 2-point conversion. Also loved the fake smoke route to Givens on the long goal line throw to Gibson. The Rams moved the ball far better in the 2nd half; good work by Schottenheimer to figure Buffalo out. Even if it seemed to take a long time.

* Upon further review: Buffalo can not be happy with Gene Steratore for calling back Gilmore's pick-six before halftime thanks to B-Rich's dramatics. That's a game-deciding call. Other than that, this looked like a very-well-called game. I think many crews would have incorrectly called Gibson for OPI on the 2-point conversion, but he didn't touch anyone, and this crew made the correct call. They got a very difficult spot right when Mikell flipped Fred Jackson in the 3rd, but I thought the crew missed about a half dozen others. The Rams shouldn't have needed Gilmore's illegal hands penalty early in the 3rd; Gibson's catch on the play was marked a yard short. Moore hit Bradford's facemask in the 4th, but there was no way Steratore would have seen it. B-plus, though Buffalo fans won't grade them as high at all, not that I'd blame them.

* Cheers: Old friend Mike Martz was pretty helpful on this week's broadcast, pointing out the Bills' tight man coverage on 3rd downs in the 1st half and Bradford getting the ball out off quicker drops in the 2nd half. Other times, I wondered who kidnapped Martz and replaced him with Steve Spagnuolo. He liked Buffalo clearly settling for a FG with :32 left before halftime AND two timeouts? In fact, Martz insisted Buffalo had to start taking shots into the end zone, from the 23, which told me Martz STILL hasn't learned how to use timeouts all these years. Ron Pitts was likeable, but not very good. He called the Rams' LT “Safford” and missed more spots than Dick Stockton without his bifocals. He said a 6-yard Spiller run gained “at least nine” and missed the spot on one punt by 6 yards. Martz's overuse of the phrase “take the cheese” only made him sound cheesy. Catchphrases are best used in smaller doses than 90 times a day, Coach.

* Who’s next?: If next Sunday is indeed Steven Jackson's last home game in St. Louis, the Minnesota Vikings are one of the best opponents to mark the occasion. With Jackson and Adrian Peterson toting the rock, fans will be treated to watching two of the best backs of their generation trading plays. And the Vikings were the opponent in one of the best games of Jackson's career. In the last game of the 2006 season, Steven ran for 142 yards and 4 TDs; the 41-21 victory got the Rams to 8-8 and gave Steven over 1,500 rushing yards and 2,334 yards from scrimmage, still the sixth-best season in NFL history.

Both defenses are likely to take the same approach to stopping these superstars. Load up the box and clog up the middle. Peterson has scary outside speed, but Minnesota likes to set up mainly middle runs for him and let him bounce them outside. He’s a threat to score on every play. The Ram safeties have to have their best games against the run. And James Laurinaitis better buckle his chin strap tight. Center John Sullivan and guards Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco are excellent run-blockers, first-round pick Matt Kalil is having an excellent season, and Peterson’s also got the league’s best fullback in front of him. Jerome Felton just got done making the Packer linebackers look like a bunch of little girls. Little wonder Peterson is on track for a 2,000-yard season. So why aren’t the Vikings winning more games? Their passing game is awful. Hell, they just lost a game where Peterson ran for 210 yards. You don’t have to stop Peterson to beat Minnesota. Slow him down a little and go for the much easier task of shutting down Christian Ponder. Minnesota’s passing game relied on Percy Harvin even more than the Rams’ relies on Danny Amendola, and they’ve lost Harvin for the season. The Rams have no excuse not to load up the box and take away the short passing game. The coaching staff should be hauled off in handcuffs if they don’t press-cover the Viking WRs. None of them can get open. Rookie Jarius Wright could be a threat in Harvin’s slot role, but that’s not really clicking yet. Double- and triple-team Kyle Rudolph, who Ponder ceaselessly tries to force passes to without Harvin to lean on. Let Ponder try to beat you deep. He lacks the arm to drive the deep ball. He’s a little frisky as a runner, but, honestly, let him run. He’s not pinpoint-accurate out of a drop, but on the move, he’s noticeably worse, and running seems to rush him into making poor decisions. Ponder had regressed to the point that Vikings HC Leslie Frasier recently talked openly about replacing him with Joe Webb. The Rams need to stop Peterson on 1st down and force panicky Ponder and mediocre-at-best OC Bill Musgrave to try to come up with ways to beat them. And SMOTHER those receivers, will ya?

Similarly, the Vikings will load up the box for Steven Jackson, though it remains to be seen how well that will work. A Packers team that hates to run moved the ball on the ground against Minnesota with little trouble. The Rams’ plan can be as simple as just remembering to run away from Jared Allen. At LDE, neither Brian Robison nor Everson Griffen is a run defender, and LB Erin Henderson also looks like a liability on that side. It will help the Vikings a lot that Chad Greenway, the NFL’s leading tackler, can key on the run more than he did in Green Bay. Allen’s sack production, though good, is way down from last year. He’s not getting as much help from the rest of the line. Frasier seems like a cover-2 guy who doesn’t like to blitz a lot, but that could change for the blitz-vulnerable Rams. I liked the job the Minnesota secondary did in Green Bay. They forced Aaron Rodgers to make a lot of perfect throws to beat coverage. (Which he did.) They’ve got a bigger margin of error with Bradford throwing, and rookie safety Harrison Smith has quickly developed into a legitimate playmaker. Amendola’s return would be a major boost, but the Rams are especially going to have to get the run going against the Vikings. Chew up clock, set up play-action, make Musgrave panic into taking the ball out of Peterson’s hands (which happens up there, unbelievable as that may be).

Jeff Fisher has raised the bar in his first season in St. Louis. For the rest of the season, the Rams are in the playoffs. Keep winning or your season’s probably over. The juice of playoff futures being on the line makes this an more intense matchup than it already was with the possibility of Jackson playing his last game here. The Rams haven’t had a game with this much on the line since the end of 2010. Can Fisher harness the emotion and energy of such a big game and channel it for good, or will the Rams shrink from the spotlight like they did in Seattle? Unlike Steve Spagnuolo then, though, Fisher’s done this before. Is it too soon to ask so much of a team that is still very young? Let’s see if Fisher can raise the bar one more time.

-- Mike
Game stats from espn.com