RamView, December 20, 2009
From Row HH
(Report and opinions on and from the game.)
Game #14: Texans 16, Rams 13

There once was a team from St. Lou / That was hit with a case of swine flu / After a week's worth of vexin' / They got beat by the Texans / But they'll get to draft Ndamukong Suh.

* QB: If you were to argue that Keith Null (18-27-173, 81.2 rating) lost the game today, I'd have a hard time refuting it, due to two costly turnovers. After the defense turned Houston over in the 1st, Null led the offense's opening possession across midfield before dropping a snap from center, which blew the timing of a scheduled handoff to Steven Jackson. Null still tried the handoff, but Jackson didn't look ready for it anymore, and Mario Williams recovered the gaffe to set up a Houston FG. Many areas of Null's game are developing, but one that regressed was the simple exchange from center, as he put two or three snaps on the ground today. That's an issue Null had better get a grip on quickly. Null's other huge error was an interception early in the 3rd. Coming as it did from the Houston 25, it cost the Rams at least 3 points, and the Texans would score 7 for themselves off the turnover. Trying to avoid a sack from Antonio Smith, Null fired while going down and was picked off by Dominique Barber. With experience, Null will learn that eating that ball would have been better there. I won't rip Null for those plays like I would if Marc Bulger or Kyle Boller committed them, because those two veterans should know better and execute better. And Null's just trying to make a play both times. He's trying to get the ball in Jackson's hands on the fumble, certainly a good thought. He appeared to have Ruvell Martin open on the INT; he just needed to remember at that moment that he isn't Brett Favre. Null continues to hang tough in the pocket. He'll stand back and make throws at times where you'd see Bulger cringing for impact, or Boller scrambling off with unpredictable, mostly not good, results. Null's got the team behind him. You can see he cares out there. The defense sees it, too. They were all tapping Null on the helmet, promising to pick him up after the INT. (They didn't.) The coaches' confidence in Null has already increased. He got to try a couple of long balls; one barely too long, one pretty underthrown. They had him throwing on 4th-and-1 in Ram territory right before the INT. Null hasn't developed killer rapport with one receiver yet, but he's hit nine different guys in both of his starts so far. One INT today is certainly an improvement over last week's five. I didn't see all the double-clutching he did last week, either. A lot of what's good about Null's game comes because he gets the ball out quickly. He's accurate on the short stuff. He can get throws off with a man in his face. The offense had good rhythm a lot of the day. There was just one 3-and-out, the inevitable Ram post-halftime fizzle. Null's head is always in the game. He set up the 3rd-quarter tying FG with an 18-yard completion to Brandon Gibson and a 20-yarder to Randy McMichael, a play he audibled to. Keith Null may not be NFL starter-quality yet, but he's progressing. He's passed Boller on the depth chart, mine anyway, and ought to get the Rams' last two starts. He's done enough right in two starts to transform whatever the Rams have been planning at QB next year, because that plan certainly ought to include him by now.

* RB: We've known Steven Jackson (20-82, 4-41 receiving) to be a fighter all season long, but he took it literally today, duking it out with safety Bernard Pollard in the 4th after one cheap shot too many. Jackson scored the takedown, too, so under hockey fighting rules, Steven won the fight. Trying to run up the middle was a losing fight for Jackson, though, so his success today came from bouncing the run outside or getting the ball in space. The Rams surprised everybody on 4th-and-1 in the 1st with a swing pass to Jackson, which he took up the sideline for 16. He bounced a run outside right for 35 in the 2nd, largely because Pollard committed too far inside. That run set up a FG, and a couple of runs late in the half got the Rams inside the 10 for Danny Amendola's TD. With Jackson sidelined after the fight to have a cut lip tended to, Kenneth Darby (3-5) converted a couple of third-and-shorts. Jackson sparked the Rams' last drive by weaving with a screen pass for 25 out to midfield. Another well-drawn-up, well-executed play, coming off a fake end-around and with key downfield blocks by Jason Brown and John Greco. Houston's one of the league's best run defenses, and they keyed on Jackson all day like everybody else in the league, but despite that, despite getting his helmet ripped off a bunch of times, despite Pollard's cheap shots, despite a bad back, despite either the swine or kosher variety of the flu, he rolled up 120 yards of offense and had his team in the game the whole way. Send that man to the Pro Bowl.

* Receivers: Ram receivers continue to have minimal impact. Danny Amendola (2-7) did have a TD. From trips right formation at the Houston 2 in the 2nd, he slanted right, then spun on a dime and slanted left into the end zone, leaving Dunta Robinson far behind for Null's TD pass. Nice play and play-call. Donnie Avery (4-32) led the WRs in receptions but had a drop and is really fighting the ball right now. Failure to catch a ball cleanly at the 4 late in the 1st half likely cost him a TD, but Avery did keep the drive alive for Amendola's TD. Brandon Gibson's (2-26) 18-yard play converted a 3rd down in the 3rd, followed immediately by Randy McMichael's only catch, a 20-yarder with a dangerous, hurdling finish that set up a long, game-tying FG. Ruvell Martin (1-23) turned a short pass into a big gainer to give the Rams some early momentum and threw a nice block on a smoke pass to Amendola. Martin appears to have some game but also appears still to be the 4th WR in an offense that doesn't go 4-wide very often. Null tried to go deep to Avery and Gibson. A bomb to Avery up the far sideline was close but long by a step or two. Avery came close to making a diving end zone catch in the 2nd but Null's throw was too far out of bounds and the Rams settled for a FG. A lot of coming close, not enough plays being made.

* Offensive line: Decent effort for an offensive line playing with two new starting guards, a tackle playing out of position and a center coming off a case of swine flu. Null was sacked three times, but none by Mario Williams, against whom Adam Goldberg had a respectable day. Houston did shuffle their line a lot, so it was Antonio Smith who beat Goldberg and pressured Null into the critical INT in the 3rd. Houston killed two Ram 4th-quarter drives with big sacks. Connor Barwin stormed up the middle unblocked on a stunt to drill Null with about 9:00 left. That was a slow-developing rush and all the Rams' middle blockers were tied up; I think the sack's on Null for not getting rid of the ball or fleeing the pocket sooner. Null had no chance to elude Smith on the sack that ended the Rams' final possession, though. Smith split Jason Brown and Mark Setterstrom with a bull-rush and about broke Null in half. The other sack was a big blitz in the first where both blitzers came at Jackson and he couldn't possibly block both. Williams was a factor, recovering the blown handoff in the first, largely as a result of Alex Barron failing to block him AT ALL. Just because the play's going to the right doesn't mean you don't block, Barron. Hopefully we're only going to have to put up with another two weeks of Barron pulling this crap in a Rams uniform. Goldberg seemed the best blocker today. Besides keeping Williams fairly quiet, his pull block helped Jackson get a nice gain early in the 3rd. All of Jackson's big gains rushing and receiving came to Goldberg's side, though a good share of that was Jackson bouncing stuffed middle runs outside and doing all the work himself. The Rams couldn't do much up the middle today. Greco at RG impresses me as the hardest of the interior linemen to budge, and there's plenty of value just in that. Did the Rams miss Richie Incognito today? Let's see. The Ram offensive line committed no penalties, while up in Buffalo, Incognito committed 3 for 30 yards. Even if they took a small step backward today, and pass pro was good enough to suggest they really didn't, this line's going to come together more quickly than it has with the big knucklehead as a constant distraction anyway. Richie: good luck, but good riddance.

* Defensive line / LB: The Rams were impressive against the run (55 yards by Houston RBs) but once again didn't leave much of an impression in pass rush, with a bunch of close-but-no-cigar efforts. After Houston converted an early 4th-and-1 in Rams territory, Paris Lenon knocked the ball away from Arian Foster to force a turnover. Darell Scott FLEW in from a good 20 yards away to claim the loose ball for St. Louis. That pair weighed in again after Andre Johnson's 49-yard catch, one of several big plays made possible today by the entire Ram defense getting completely fooled by play-action. Scott stuffed a run, though, and Lenon broke up a pass, to limit Houston's damage to a 2nd FG. The Rams shut Houston down the drive before thanks to a run stuff by James Butler and a couple by Leger (DOOZER) Douzable. Craig Dahl stopped a pass short of the marker late in the first half to force a Kris Brown 52-yard FG attempt that DOINKed off the upright. Dahl started the 3rd quarter by recovering a Matt Schaub fumble on a failed QB sneak. Run defense was solid. Scott, DOOZER and Cliff Ryan were terrific up the middle with a bunch of stuffs. Chris Long even held the edge well this week. The worst of it came when they couldn't stop Ryan Moats from getting a first down on three carries and sealing the game right before the 2:00 warning. He broke the Rams' backs with a tackle-breaking 7-yard run on first down. But maybe it doesn't get that far, if the Rams had sacked Matt Schaub at all. A big problem is the whole defense's rookie-like tendency to bite on play-action. The two longest plays to Johnson and Schaub's TD pass were all bootlegs right off play-fakes left, and Schaub had all day to throw all three of them because the Rams were so faked out. Another big problem was Leonard Little's absence. Long played mostly LDE in his place, and at least three times was a step from taking Schaub out for a huge loss. Instead, each time, Schaub hit a receiver for a first down. James Hall had an awesome sequence in the first half. He defended a deep pass over the middle, was in on a run stuff on 2nd down and drew a holding penalty on 3rd down. Unfortunately, all his plays for the day seemed to be confined to that sequence. The Rams pressured Schaub pretty well but are killing themselves by rarely finishing a good rush off with a sack. They've had none the last two weeks, and just 20 this season, good for a woeful 30th in the NFL. Sometime during a game you have to put the opponent in a long-yardage situation. The best way is to sack the QB. The Rams have to do better than this. There are new coaches and highly-drafted players here meant to address this problem. Yet it's a worse problem now than ever.

* Secondary: Any team that faces Andre Johnson knows he's going to make some plays. The idea is to limit the damage he does. But the Ram secondary failed at that decisively, yielding 9 catches and 196 yards to the league's best wideout. Johnson burned Ron Bartell one-on-one deep for 38 in the 1st to set up Houston's 1st FG. With the whole Ram defense biting HARD on play-action, he got behind James Butler and Craig Dahl AND Justin King for 49 to set up Houston's 2nd FG in the 2nd. The Rams kept Johnson modesty quiet enough to tie the game at 13 before he went beserk on them in the 4th. From the Houston 14, he ran what appeared to be the deepest comeback route in NFL history for a 30-yard gain. King laid ten yards off him in the slot off the snap and back-pedaled the whole time. Dahl got caught inside in deep zone coverage the next play, and Johnson slashed the Rams with a cross-field run, and catch, and run, that netted 44. Houston's most lethal weapon put them in range for the game-winning FG nearly single-handedly. Kevin Walter turned Bartell inside-out with a route very similar to the one Amendola scored on to score Houston's only TD. That pass was set up by TE Joel Dreessen's 22-yard catch-and-run that would have been a 4-yard catch had Danny Gorrer, in his first, and likely last, action in the Ram secondary, not failed completely on his tackle by failing to wrap up the receiver in any way whatsoever. A most idiotic-looking effort. Dahl had a nice play in the end zone, rocking Johnson to break up a TD pass that Bartell admittedly had covered well (he even TURNED FOR THE BALL!). King looked very good covering short routes, even stopping Johnson short to force that first FG. But Matt Schaub still threw for 367 yards, with Andre Johnson single-handedly outclassing the Ram secondary.

* Special teams: How weird is it to have good special teams week in and week out? The Rams? Amendola averaged 31 yards on kick returns, highlighted by a 55-yard explosion in the 2nd, that along with a facemask on the return, set up his TD catch a little later. Amendola returns kicks with decisiveness and determination we haven't seen here in a while. Billy Bajema's block sprung him for the big gain. Josh (Showtime) Brown was nails, hitting a 33-yarder to tie the game at 3 and a 52-yard bomb to tie it again at 13, game situations where he'd been missing kicks before and deflating the team. He followed the 2nd FG with a 75-yard kickoff to force a touchback. Donnie Jones (43.5 avg) was off a little but still pinned Houston inside the 10 once and inside the 20 three times. None of his punts were returned, and Brown's strong kickoffs, paired with good coverage, kept Houston's dangerous special teams from being a factor. For all that's gone wrong this year, the Rams have gotten special teams mostly right.

* Coaching: The defense held Houston to 16 points but still lost the battle today in that they couldn't come close to containing Johnson and couldn't sack Schaub and may never sack another NFL QB ever AGAIN. They had the most, and a lot, of success against Johnson with a safety rolled over to his side, but Houston won out with the number of times they were able to get Johnson matched up one-on-one. They forced some of that by using him out of the slot, but got plenty of one-on-one opportunities split wide, too, something I'm not sure why or how the Rams could let happen often. Steve Spagnuolo and Ken Flajole and company had better take big steps this offseason towards fielding a defense that can sack the QB next year. Blitzes were ineffective, and the only trick up their sleeves these days seems to be the 4-DE pass rush, which wasn't even that today with Little out. The failure of the Ram pass rush is one of this season's biggest disappointments.

I like a lot of what Pat Shurmur called on the offensive side today, though. The 4th-and-1 swing pass to Jackson was the gutsiest call of the season. Jackson's big screen pass late in the game was a well-designed play. So was Amendola's TD. The Rams originally tried to hurry the play, only to have Ed Hochuli hold up the game for Houston, “to match up”. Shurmur used a tricky pattern to get Amendola lost in trips formation and free for the TD. He took some shots downfield and called a game that showed some trust in his receivers instead of confining them to a 10-yard box. So now I'm going to be a hypocrite and ask if the end zone pass on 3rd-and-4 from the Houston 14 in the 2nd was really the right call. My initial reaction was to like the killer instinct the call showed. Now I wonder if it cost them 4 points not to just go for the first down there. Last, why does this offense do nothing but implode right after every halftime? The Rams have not scored a third-quarter TD all season (even against Detroit). Who's advising this staff on adjusting quickly and effectively to changing conditions, General Motors?

The main game management question today's going to be whether the Rams should have punted on 4th-and-10 at their 48 with 2:39 left. Back in week 2 of 2007, Scott Linehan went for it in very similar conditions against the ***** and failed. Punting didn't work out for Spagnuolo here, but I'm still fine with the decision. The Rams had been stopping Houston on the ground; had they done it one more time, they were looking at getting the ball back around their 35 with 2:00 left. Ryan Moats' first carry after the punt killed that hope, though. I apologize to Coach Spagnuolo for lumping him in with Linehan there. The Rams may come out worse in record this year than any of Linehan's seasons, but they're light-years ahead in team character and attitude. The rookie head coach has excelled at getting all his guys rowing in the same direction. Next year, set that boat on a course for a bunch of wins.

* Upon further review: Ed Hochuli's crew allowed too much chippy play. Jackson's helmet came off at least 4 times today; how does that happen without a penalty? Jacques Reeves' facemask on Amendola's long return seemed pretty cut-and-dried but the officials had to hold a conclave before confirming the flag. Pollard threw the first punch of the fight with Jackson and knocked his helmet off. Not only should he have gotten the only flag on the play, he should have been ejected. I was afraid Jackson could also get ejected; at least Hochuli didn't do that, making the useless offsetting personal foul call instead. After the fight, the ball was spotted a yard short, two yards from the marker, though Hochuli announced it was 3rd-and-1. The radio crew pointed out several more missed spots by the crew today as well. They didn't appear to affect the game, but it wasn't a stellar outing for the zebras, either. C-minus.

* Cheers: Just over 46,000 tickets were sold for today's game. I'll assume half the people who bought tickets actually attended. The crowd was small and not very noisy, though I'd like to think crowd reaction to the replay on the big screen helped convince Hochuli on the face mask penalty during Amendola's long kick return. Part of the halftime show was a video tribute to Merlin Olsen, in an especially nice touch, narrated by Dick Enberg. I thought the ceremony meant Olsen would get a banner in the rafters like Deacon and Marshall, but I guess he has to settle for his retired number and the Ring of Honor for now. Which he already had. Speaking of numbers, the new QB Reilly is wearing #13. Why haven't the Rams put that number on hold? Lastly, Tampa Bay 24, Seattle 7, huh? Half of me is mad Seattle lays an egg to the Bucs but can still beat the Rams for the ninth and tenth straight times this year. The other half would like to extend a friendly St. Louis welcome to Ndamukong Suh. The Rams are on the clock!

* Who’s next?: Unless they get lucky and knock Kurt Warner out of the game again, the Rams are probably looking at a holiday whuppin' in the Pink Taco Dome to loathsome Bill Bidwill's Cardinals again, with the division champion Big Dead looking for their SEVENTH straight win in the series. Reasons for hope might be that the middle of the Ram defensive line is playing a lot better than they were the first time the teams met, giving them a chance to make Arizona's 27th-rated running game look as bad as it really is, instead of giving up 183 freaking yards. Another reason is that Arizona's been a sloppy mess lately, getting embarrassed last Monday by San Francisco and barely slipping by Detroit today, combining for ten turnovers in the two games. But with the pass rush, or lack thereof, we've seen the last few weeks, Warner's likely to get the eons of time he usually gets in the pocket against the Rams, more time than he'll ever need to slice and dice a secondary well-overmatched not by just one, but two, world-class wide receivers. Without finding a path to Warner, the Rams will be hard-pressed to find a path to a win in the desert. Look for Warner to become the second QB in NFL history to throw 100 TDs for two different teams and for the Cardinals to achieve their first ten-win season since 1976.

Keith Null's welcome to draw inspiration from Warner's rise-from-obscurity story but will certainly have his work cut out. Arizona's blitzing will look a lot more like Tennessee to him than Houston. The Rams have had trouble establishing the middle run lately and did the first time against Arizona. They'd be well-advised to get Steven Jackson open in space outside, though it'll also help this time that he'll have healthy fullbacks in front of him. Maybe Pat Shurmur could dust off some of the play-action he NEVER used against the Cardinals last month?

With the Rams in secure possession of the first overall draft pick, a lot of Rams Nation probably doesn't want them to win next week. But like Houston today, Arizona's a very beatable team. They're hot and cold, they play sloppy, they don't run the ball well. The Rams have spent a lot of this season one step away from a big play. If they cover that receiver a second longer, they get the big sack. If the rush would force a throw a second early every now and then, the secondary could make a play. The offense comes a step away from hitting a long pass, a block away from breaking off a big run. It's been a lot of close-but-no-cigar for the Rams this season. You keep wondering if this will finally be the week they effort their way to a win over a team with a better record. They're sure due.

Eh, cigars are bad Christmas gifts anyway.


--Mike
Game stats from nfl.com