RamView, December 21, 2008
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Game #15: ***** 17, Rams 16

If thereís a way to lose, the 2008 Rams will find it. Today they played about 3Ĺ pretty good quarters before a massive chokejob down the stretch allowed the awful ***** to overcome a 2-TD deficit and claim a win they absolutely did not deserve. So, thatís the Ramsí ninth loss in a row and their eighth straight in the NFLís worst division, in which they managed to go winless this 2-13 season. Merry Christmas, Rams fans!

Position by position:
* QB: Feel free to ask Marc Bulger (19-36-227, 70.0 passer rating) to manage your offense for you; just donít ask him to win the game. Marc stuck to the brand of competent-but-unspectacular ball heís been playing for a few weeks now. He didnít complete anything downfield until late in the 1st quarter. That was when he got Torry Holt involved with a couple of medium passes that set up the Ramsí first FG. They settled for that after Bulger couldnít hit Steven Jackson as the hot on a 3rd-and-2 blitz. Bulgerís been quickly looking for that outlet lately when heís been blitzed, to the exclusion of anything else, but today he showed early signs of progress by looking downfield more under pressure. That was truest of the TD pass to Keenan Burton. With a blitz coming at him, Bulger threw a perfect 30-yard toss to Burton behind the 49er secondary. Bulger showed the power of the dumpoff late in the half, as a couple of long screens by Kenneth Darby set the Rams up for another FG and a 13-3 halftime lead. Marc played pretty mistake-free ball, even as a receiver, where he had another catch to pass Drew Bennett on the season. He did take one pretty dumb sack, rolling out on what looked like a naked bootleg and letting the rusher close on him instead of chucking the ball out of bounds. Pretty clear Bulger doesnít roll out very often. And this year, he hasnít pulled the Rams out of the fire very often. Up 16-10 late in the game, needing a first down to keep the clock moving, Bulgerís 3rd-down sideline pass for Holt was knocked down on a nice play by Nate Clements. The Ram QB showed a glimmer of clutch play when the Rams got the ball back trailing 17-16. He hit Donnie Avery with a couple of sideline passes, with Averyís spectacular catch on 4th down at the enemy 45 keeping the game alive. A couple of plays later, though, Bulger snuffed the rally out, throwing what just looked like a bad pass well wide of Avery and into the hands of somebody named Tarell Brown to end todayís miserable experience. Bulgerís had his teamís back before and led it on 4th-quarter comebacks. Maybe thatís the next step to getting his swagger back. He didnít have it today. And while Marc Bulger didnít lose the game for the Rams today, itís getting more and more frustrating to settle for his very average, donít-lose-the-game play when the Rams are paying him like an elite QB who wins games for his team.

* RB: I guess Iím a bad fan, but the thing that sticks out about Steven Jackson today is his continued inability to stay on the field. He missed time in the 2nd half with a hamstring ailment at a time you wished he would have been out there wearing out the 49er defense and putting the game away. Yes, he had 32 carries, and yes, he cracked 100 yards (108), and heís trying his best out there; it just hasnít been enough. The 3.4-a-carry average testifies to the lack of running room Jackson had, banging up the middle a lot for short gains. He had his best success out of ďWildcatĒ formation. For some reason, the o-line made better holes with Jackson taking the snap directly, and he had several big gains out of that alignment. Maybe the Rams should have used ďWildcatĒ down at the goal line. First and goal at the five with the Rams about to put the game away in the 4th, Jackson took a big loss trying to sweep left, then got strung out trying to bounce a run right. The Rams settled for a FG. He nearly lost a fumble the next drive. Then, with 4:00 left, the time is here to grind out a victory up 16-10, but Jackson managed only 4 yards on 2 carries as the Rams 3-and-out. There may not have been much wrong with Jacksonís game per se, but I sure hope heíll stay healthy for 60 straight minutes someday; heís getting a lot of coin to do it. Have you ever tried to hold a dog or cat that really, really wants to be put back down? That must be what itís like to try to tackle Kenneth Darby, who showed a lot of wiggle as a receiving (5-57) weapon and set up a first-half FG with a couple of long gains on screen passes. Unfortunately, a memorable play of the day for Darby was the one where he ran into the umpire and went down like a ton of bricks. Dude didnít even wrap Darby up, just blasted him down with a shoulder! ďStarting at middle linebacker for the Rams Ė number 53 Ė Garth DeFelice!Ē

* WR: The receiver of most note was the amazing Isaac Bruce (7-61), who made history twice, with his 1,000th career reception in the 4th for a TD, followed the next drive with a catch that moved him into 2nd all-time on the receiving yards list. I know, I know; wrong team. Iím sure, though, I wasnít the only one in the stands isoíing on Isaac a lot today; he was wide open several other times but Shaun Hill didnít find him. Torry Holt (4-55) worked the middle of the field well, likely energized a bit by having Isaac back in town. Moving from the past to the future, Donnie Avery (5-56) blew a blitz adjustment to kill a 2nd-quarter drive but made a couple of sideline catches, one with an outstanding right-footed tap-in on 4th down, to keep the Ramsí final drive alive. Keenan Burton also fouled up a route in the 2nd to kill a drive but made up for it a little later with his first career TD, a 30-yarder where the 49er secondary blew their assignment pretty badly and just let him cruise in behind them. Gonna have to start getting more than one catch a game out of Burton, though. Thatís as many as Bulger had. Or Daniel Fells, though I admit his 12-yard rumble was fun to watch. I donít know what they have to lose by going to him more often. Every receiver on this team HAS to get better at getting open, though, or weíre going to have season after season filled with dumpoffs. When Takeo Spikes sacked Bulger in the third, the Rams went five wide, and the Niners blitzed, so thatís five guys going one-on-one, and Bulger had nobody to throw to. Thatís unacceptable. The youngsters are going to have to cut way back on their mistakes and be getting open better nine months from now.

* Offensive line: A missed blitz pickup nearly got Bulger killed on the gameís opening play, but the offensive line generally protected the QB well again, for the fourth straight week. Bulger was sacked three times, but two of them were coverage sacks. The third came at a bad time, with Justin Smith beating John Greco to drop Bulger on the game-ending drive. The Rams had to spend a timeout, three plays and 30 seconds getting out of that hole. Smith owned Greco, who played the 2nd half for an injured Jacob Bell, the whole 4th quarter, the first time Iíve seen any weaknesses in Grecoís play. Greco wasnít the only sub to get in today Ė after an Alex Barron AAAGH! drive-killing false start on 3rd-and-3 in the 2nd, Adam Goldberg, whoíd seen some action at RT earlier, took over there and we never saw #70 again, leaving the appearance that somebody on the Rams staff has FINALLY gotten tired of Barronís act. Let him be somebody elseís coach-killer next season en route to false-starting his way out of the NFL. Richie Incognito blocked a couple of screens for Darby well, and saved Bulgerís butt near his own goal line with a nice blitz pickup, but committed a hold in the 3rd on 2nd-and-4 to bury a drive in the starting gate. And got booed, naturally. Jackson got some early running room behind Orlando Pace, but run-blocking was a struggle on the day. Jackson had barely 3 yards a carry and the Rams couldnít run when they needed to the most, near the 49er goal line or late in the game trying to protect a lead. Pace no more than waved at Michael Lewis as he blitzed around him to stuff Jackson late in the 4th, but most of the play wasnít assignment breakdowns as much as it was the ***** getting there the fastest with the most and the meanest, or well-timed blitzes like Patrick Willisí crucial stuff of a Jackson draw on the final drive. For the second straight week, the Rams were in position to win but didnít want it more than the other team and lost anyway. And even if youíd rather say they were physically outmanned, itís still plenty of occasion for plenty of change.

* Defensive line/LB: The Rams had done a pretty good job against the run the last two weeks, and they were terrific stopping the run today, holding 49er RBs to 38 yards. OK, so the Niners didnít have Frank Gore, but the Rams still did a lot right. Adam Carriker (3 tkl) was very solid, stuffing a couple of runs and holding his ground in the middle all day long. Iíd have thought Victor Adeyanju had a lot more than the 2 tackles he has on the box score. He stuffed a couple of runs and had to be in on a couple of others. He was effective holding his ground at DE and pursued well down the line. And it may be coincidence but the opponentsí long runs seem to have gone away ever since Todd Johnson replaced Corey Chavous at SS. He had credit for just 3 tackles, but heís not blowing them out there, either. For most of the game, the Rams also did a very good job of getting to and putting pressure on an overwhelmed Shaun Hill. With a great second effort on a blitz, Fakhir Brown knocked the ball out of Hillís hand for the Ramsí first sack in the 2nd. Pisa Tinoisamoa is on the best multi-game streak of his career. He stuffed two or three runs among his nine tackles, which also include two sacks. Pisa and Leonard Little had back-to-back sacks to snuff a 49er drive in the 3rd. The Rams forced a bunch of 3-and-outs and didnít let San Francisco get anywhere the first 53:00 of the game. Then the Rams stopped getting to Hill, and when they did, Hill, the *****í leading rusher with 45 yards, burned them with a big 17-yard scramble on 3rd down to keep alive a drive that ended with a TD pass to Isaac Bruce and a 16-10 score. With about 2:20 left, Pisa made what appeared to be the decisive play of the game. Pressure got to Hill, and he stepped up to scramble again. This time, though, Pisa cut him off in the hole. And when Hill tried to circle around left tackle to keep running, Pisa met him on the other side for a big sack. 2nd-and-17, ***** pretty far back in their own end, that should be it. But James Hall jumped offside to make things easier for San Francisco, and pressure never got to Hill again as he bombed the ***** into an unfathomable lead. Will Witherspoon got a lot of snaps in a DE/3-4 rushing LB role but could never quite get to the QB. Hall turned a 3rd-and-10 into 3rd-and-5 the previous TD drive by jumping offsides. Itís as if he took it upon himself to find a way to help lose the game. How coincidental is it that nearly every team James Hall has played on has been downright terrible? Hall seems to have a good heart but I donít see how you end the culture of losing around here without letting guys like him go. This has to stop sometime.

* Secondary: After capitalizing on Shaun Hillís dreadful play for three quarters, the Rams secondary matched him in the 4th, choking the game away with awful play. They had a monster 2nd quarter. O.J. Atogwe stole the ball from Vernon Davis at the end of a long reception to snuff out a scoring drive. Next possession, Hillís intended deep pass for Davis was horribly underthrown and picked off by Atogwe. (Quinton Culberson had Davis nicely covered anyway.) Ron Bartell picked off an awful overthrow of Bruce in the 2nd and added another INT in Rams territory in the 3rd. Hill entered the 4th quarter with 89 yards passing and a sub-25 passer rating. And none of it mattered after Hill rang up 127 yards and 2 TDs in that fateful stanza. Fakhir Brown was beaten, and badly, by a classic Bruce move in the end zone for San Franciscoís first TD. That was nothing compared to the game-winning play. Hill delivered a bomb, carried by hot-air balloon, from midfield. Brown somehow looked beaten on the play by five yards, and for the second straight week, Atogwe was beaten badly by his man on the gameís biggest play. And though the 49er receivers got away with running overlapping patterns, and the hangtime on Hillís pass allowed Brown, Atogwe and Todd Johnson to catch up, the Rams still failed to make a play on the thing, and Josh Morgan stuck a knife in the Ramsí backs with a 48-yard TD catch. The play was a microcosm of the Ramsí 2008 season. They donít make plays in the clutch; instead, they find ways to lose. Mission accomplished!

* Special teams: Often, a player who gets snubbed for the Pro Bowl gets revenge with a career game the next week, but Donnie Jones was just inconsistent today, with a couple of shanks to go with a couple of 60-yard-plus bombs. He averaged 48.9 for the game, but also failed on a couple of chances to pin the ***** deep. Josh Brown hit all 3 FG attempts, and his deep directional kicking helped limit Alan Rossum as a kick return factor, as did Travis Minor and Jonathan Wade with nice special teams stops. After all the joking about his winless high school record, Al Roberts may be one coach weíll miss around here next season.

* Coaching/discipline: For the longest time this week, it didnít look like the Ram coaching staff was going to turn in an abysmal performance. Jim Haslettís team wasnít flat at the start of the game or the second half. He set an aggressive tone by going for a couple of early 4th downs. Good start. Al Saundersí game-calling wasnít awful. Run-pass balance was very even. He mixed in a lot of ďWildcatĒ formation, quite successfully. San Francisco was rarely able to stop it. Iíd wondered how well Rick Venturi could get pressure on Hill after the ***** successfully picked up his favorite blitz with Jason Craft the last time out. Turns out he had a few wrinkles. Witherspoon did a lot of rushing from a DE position. He blitzed Brown for what seemed like the first time all year, and blitzed Pisa a lot more than he usually gets to. The results? Hill was reeling, the Niners couldnít move the ball, and the Rams had a comfortable lead.

But when you talk about this team not knowing how to win, you have to include the coaching staff. Overconservatism crept in. I donít think the Niners were picking up blitzes down the stretch; Venturi just wasnít bringing them. I donít think the Rams were playing pure prevent, but the results were the same. After going for it early, I thought Haslett was going to stay aggressive, but the Rams kicked FGs on 4th-and-2 from the 25 in the 2nd and on 4th-and-goal from the 4 early in the 4th. Both those FGs really showed a lack of trust in the offense. On the first one, all the radio crew could come up with was that Haslett decided to kick so they wouldnít get a penalty going for it on 4th down and get moved out of FG range. What a terrible mindset to have as a coach if thatís true. The 4th-and-goal FG really bothered me at the time. The FGís good because it now forces San Francisco to score 2 TDs, but are they that much better off down 10 but pinned inside their own five, as well as the Ram defense had played up to that point? My thinking may be a little off-kilter here, but that FG didnít really show faith in the Ram offense or defense.

Then there was Saundersí abysmal late-game offense. The Rams 3-and-out with a 6-point lead, with Nate Clements breaking up a predictable sideline pass to Holt on 3rd down. And though the Rams still had all three timeouts down a point with 2:20 left, Saunders steadfastly refused to use the middle of the field. I must have yelled five times that possession, ďYou can throw over the middle Ė you have all three timeouts! You can even run!Ē Gulp. When Saunders finally did try to use the middle of the field, it was a draw to Jackson that Patrick Willis stuffed almost as soon as Jackson got the handoff. I donít know whoís got the ďtellĒ, if itís Jackson, Bulger, one of the linemen, or Saunders in the formations he uses, but the Ram offense has not been hard for defenses to figure out this year, and Saunders has almost never fooled a defense all season. This was just the most prime example.

And so whoís presided over the longest losing streak in all the Ramsí years in St. Louis? Haslett, Venturi and Saunders. I donít care if you bring in Martyball, or the Ryan Express, or use the Schwartz, lead with ďThe ChinĒ or let the Meeks inherit the dearth, but this coaching staff has to be swept clean.

But maybe keep the high school special teams guy.

* Upon further review: The unknown Carl Cheffers didnít acquit himself too badly as head referee. The worst member of the crew had to be the replay official, former referee Larry Nemmers, for questioning the two Avery sideline catches in the last drive, stopping the game and the Ramsí momentum. The first challenge was ridiculous and never should have been made. Avery easily made that catch. The second, with the foot-tap barely inside the sideline, was more reasonable, but really wasnít that hard a challenge to get right. The crowd would have liked a couple of more San Francisco DPIs than were actually called, but there werenít any game-turning calls in what seemed to be a well-called game.

* Cheers: The stadium was maybe half full with fans and mostly half-hearted in fan effort, except for one player for whom our hearts were full: the great Isaac Bruce. The love in the building for Isaac led to a surreal event in the 4th quarter: 35-40,000 fans giving a standing ovation for a touchdown scored by the other team! Bruce was serenaded loudly after every catch and got standing ovations for his two career marks. Isaac returned the love by kissing the FieldTurf, a highly classy curtain call by a highly classy player. In case anybody at Rams Parkís wondering when they lost the fan base this year, Iím pretty sure it was February 28th. Cheering for the other team has karmic backlash, though, which we felt in spades when everything was said and done. Little and Holt also received nice ovations from appreciative fans guessing their days here might be numbered. Weíd like to say the same for Incognito, roundly booed in player intros and after his holding penalty in the 3rd. Bulger wasnít received really well in pregame, either. A much classier moment was the standing ovation from fans, players and referees for a local Army soldier who lost a leg in Iraq. We were a few cheerleaders short on the field again this week, but the explanation may be that the team is forcing some of them to sell themselves during games. Well, autographed cheerleader calendars, actually. Halftime was a tribute to some of the local high school football champs, including Mike Jonesí (he also did the pregame intros) Hazelwood East team. So no Frisbee-catching dogs this year. Poor Captain Jack the Maniac is probably catching sticks in some back alley somewhere for Milk-Bonz.

* Whoís next?: The greatest season in St. Louis Rams history ended in Atlanta, and so shall its worst, as the Rams wrap it up next Sunday against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome. One of the best stories of the 2008 NFL season, the Falcons have bounced back from the franchise-killing Michael Vick disgrace and Bobby Petrino debacle and transformed into a playoff team after todayís win over Minnesota. And bad news for the Rams, Atlanta still has a shot to win the NFC South next week, so they wonít be resting any of their stars. Certain Rookie of the Year QB Matt Ryan may not be a Pro Bowler, and still makes some rookie mistakes under pressure, but heís as competent a QB as Bulger and is already more of a clutch QB. He has provided the franchise the emotional lift it badly needed after last year, the kind of impact youíd like to get out of that position. Michael Turner has been a force at RB and a great free agent acquisition. He runs with terrific speed and power, and his line loves to block for him. The Rams have been better against the run lately but will be hard-pressed to slow down the Falcon superstar next week. Roddy White has blossomed into a terrific wide receiver and Ryanís favorite target. He is fast, strong and confident and his hands and concentration have improved greatly over early in his career. Ron Bartellís the only Ram DB with a chance of even slowing White down. Atlantaís the #6 offense in the league, and they protect Ryan extremely well; heís been sacked only 16 times all year. Unless Venturi and Haslett strike gold with the blitz, the Ram defense will be in for a long day.

Atlantaís defense isnít that special statistically Ė 21st against the run, 22nd against the pass. The Rams have a good chance to keep Bulger upright if John Abraham is still ailing from a recent thigh injury. Abraham IS the Falcon pass rush; his 16 on the season is over half the Falcon total. They may line him up over Orlando Pace at first but Iíd expect to see him at LDE vs. Goldberg, I guess, most of the game. Letís not plan on sending Abraham any get-well-soon cards. With as well regarded a group of LBs as Atlanta has in Keith Brooking, Michael Boley and rookie Curtis Lofton, itís surprising to see them as far down against the run as they are. If the Rams can pound Jackson at them for a full game and keep Abraham off Bulger, they may be able to get something going. I havenít seen a lot good, anyway, out of the Chris Houston-led Falcon secondary; maybe Bulgerís finally poised for a big day.

The key factor in this game could be the contrasting fortunes of these two teams. In one year, the Falcons have turned themselves into winners. Theyíre confident, know they can win, and with the division title and #2 playoff seed up for grabs, have a ton to play for. The Rams are entrenched in the culture of losing. Theyíre not confident, they find ways to lose and have absolutely nothing to play for. Iíll have a hard time blaming the Rams if they feel like I do. I know I just want to get this season over with. ASAP.

-- Mike
Game stats from nfl.com