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    RamView, 12/24/2006: Rams 37, Redskins 31 (OT) (Long)

    RamView, December 24, 2006
    From Row HH
    (Report and opinions from the game.)
    Game #15: Rams 37, Redskins 31 (OT)

    Merry Christmas from the Rams, who rack up close to 600 yards of offense, beat the Redskins in the Dome for the first time, and of all things, keep their NFC playoff hopes alive, with a 37-31 thriller.

    Position by position:
    * QB: Today's postgame spotlights weren't aimed at Marc Bulger, but his contributions must not be overlooked. Part field general, part silent assassin, Marc helped keep the Rams' season alive with one of his very best performances. As a field general, he rallied the Rams from a two-touchdown second-half deficit, and directed TD drives of 85, 83, 82 and 69 yards, plus a FG drive of 87 yards. In the role of silent assassin, Marc looked more calm and cool in the (very solid) pocket than he has all season, and before you even realized it, he piled up stats that more than validated his Pro Bowl selection: 25-38-388 with 4 TDs and a passer rating of 134.5. Marc started off slowly, as usual. Early on, he panicked with just a moderate rush coming and dumped off to Steven Jackson for a loss just as Kevin Curtis streaked open deep downfield. Marc didnít let that linger long, though. Next drive, he throws another of those end zone passes only his man can catch, a dart to Isaac Bruce in the back of the endzone, for the Ramsí first TD. He followed that by putting the Rams in the lead, hitting a wide open Bruce for 43 and then throwing a perfect out pass to Dominique Byrd, who took off with it for a 27-yard TD. Marc took only one sack today and threw in excellent rhythm, never holding the ball too long. In the 3rd, he hit Jackson with a tricky short pass to beat a blitz for a 64-yard TD, a game-changing play that kick-started the Ramsí comeback from a 28-14 deficit. That play was like to the one Steven played into an INT against the Big Dead, but Marcís pass this time was on time and accurate. Marcís dead-eye day continued with a 22-yard sideline pass to Torry Holt late in the 3rd, which led to a shovel-pass TD to Stephen Davis, Marcís 4th of the day. Bulger made his biggest play of the day with his feet. On a 3rd-and-9 near midfield, Bulger shocked the world by taking off, but that was a superb idea given the acres of open space he had. The 29-yard scramble set up a Jeff Wilkins FG to put the Rams ahead 31-28. After the Redskins tied the game again, Marc moved the Rams for yet another long drive. Starting from his 13, he went 3-4 for 56 yards, including a clutch 3rd-down pass to Kevin Curtis, to get the Rams into winning FG range. Wilkins couldnít cash that in, and Jackson made the big play in OT, but Marc deserves a game ball as much as Steven does, repeatedly leading the Ram offense out of bad field position for scores and playing as well as he has all season. An impressive, Pro Bowl-worthy performance.

    * RB: Steven Jackson actually got off to a slow start today. At halftime he had just 43 yards rushing, most of it on the Ramsí first TD drive. Steven exploded in the 2nd half, though, and ended with an outrageously good day that surpassed even some of Marshall Faulkís peak accomplishments. On a 3rd-and-4 midway through the 3rd, with the Redskins blitzing, reminiscent of a Faulk play against San Diego in 2000, Steven immediately knew heíd be open and started waving for the ball almost at the snap. Bulger hit him with a short pass, he outran the LB, who blitzed and had to double back, broke a sloppy safety tackle and was off to the races. About 50 yards later, in the face of the oncoming Train, Sean Taylor won the Massengill Player of the Year award, back-pedaling away from Jackson instead of trying for the tackle, and Steven scored easily, a 64-yard TD that brought the Rams within 28-21. I bet if you run that play back slow enough, you can see exactly when Taylorís testicles retract into his body cavity. That play got Jackson rolling. Next drive, he gained 8 with a Faulk-like jump cut and bounced a run outside for 17 behind a nice downfield block from Holt. That set up Stephen Davisí game-tying 10-yard TD. With the Rams up 31-28, Steven tried perhaps too hard to convert a 3rd down: driving for extra yardage, he got stripped by Cornelius Griffin to set up a tying Redskin FG. He appeared to make up for that near the end of regulation, setting up a Jeff Wilkins FG attempt by juking his way for a 24-yard catch. When the FG didnít pan out, Steven took things into his own hands in overtime, blasting through a hole on the left side for the game-winning 21-yard TD, stiff-arming off another weak tackle effort by Taylor. That capped off a Ram win and an amazing day for Jackson: 33 rushes for 150, 6 catches for 102, 2 TD. 200+ total yards after halftime. He broke Faulkís team record for season receptions by a RB and became the first Ram to rush for 100 and receive for 100 in the same game (Note: the Rams are 1-0 when that happens). Steven Jackson had the best game of his career when his team needed it the most, and provided ample proof that he is one of the NFLís elite players.

    * WR: With Torry Holt (4-54) drawing extra attention, it was up to Isaac Bruce to make the Redskins pay, and boy, did he, climbing to #7 on the all-time receiving list with 9 catches for 148. After Holt drew a long DPI early in the 2nd, Ike capitalized with a nifty 10-yard catch in the back of the end zone to even the score at 7, though it took the refs a while to figure out the catch was good. Next drive, Ike worked his way wide open in the secondary for a 43-yard catch-and-run, which set up a 27-yard TD the next play toÖ Dominique Byrd (2-39)? The rookie made a nice catch, wheeled out of a tackle and motored up the sideline. Holt kicked off the Ramsí tying TD drive in the 3rd with a nice sideline catch for 22, and Kevin Curtisí lone catch appeared to be a clutch one, an 18-yard leaping grab on 3rd-and-6 with under 2:00 to play. With Holt as the deep threat, Bruce making 3 plays of over 20 yards, the TEs making plays and Jackson omnipresent as a big play threat, this is as dangerous as the Ram receiving corps has looked for a while.

    * Offensive line: A strong game for the Ram offense up front. Jackson continually got big holes, and Bulger had a pretty solid pocket and time to throw most of the day. Bulger was sacked just once, when Andre Carter beat Todd Steussie soundly at the snap. But Steussie held up well enough otherwise, and Alex Barron didn't let anyone on his side sack the QB (though he did have another false start). Sure, there were plays where Bulger was hurried, or had to step up, but the Ram tackles did solid work, staying with their man, keeping in contact with him, keeping him in front of them. Mark Setterstrom, Brett Romberg and Richie Incognito in the middle continue to be a big story. They clogged the middle and gave Bulger solid pockets to step into. Washington blitzed frequently, but the Rams either picked it up or had the right play called. Romberg has been a find, as has Setterstrom, who Jackson runs behind a lot. Steven's game-winning TD came behind great work on the left side by Steussie and TEs Aaron Walker and Joe Klopfenstein. Walker has been a solid blocker all year, and Klop was awesome on that play, effectively tying up two Redskins. Jackson got great blocking from Holt on a couple of runs, including his first TD. A complete team effort, and it bears mentioning again the yeoman work the Rams are getting out of their backup LT, a second-year RT and three interior linemen without an NFL start between them prior to this season.

    * Defensive line/LB: The Ram defense doesn't really deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Muhammed Ali, but that was rope-a-dope D today if I ever saw any. Sometimes the Ram defense was Joe Frazier; other times it was Frasier Crane. Washington marched methodically downfield for an easy TD their opening drive, running whichever direction they wanted to. Outside containment was particularly poor, including on the TD run by TJ Duckett, who didnít really seem to have a lot of resistance. After that, though, the Ram defense manned up a little. Ron Bartell gave them some starch, and Will Witherspoon and Brandon Chillar stuffed Ladell Betts runs, as the 'Skins 3-and-outed twice and did not cross midfield, while the offense gave the Rams a 14-7 lead. Momentum swung again, though, after Washington blocked a punt midway through the 2nd. True, the TD drive was just 8 yards, but Betts still scored easily, as a guard rode Chillar out of the play, a TE got out on Witherspoon, who dove futilely, and two DBs came late and with little help. Poor outside containment, typical non-play from the center of the line and a lot of running at Brandon Green helped Washington run up 176 rushing yards, 129 from Betts on 29 carries. But the pass "rush" was even worse, barely even threatening Jason Campbell throughout the course of the game. Campbell wasn't sacked at all, and there were way too many plays like the TD pass to Chris Cooley right before halftime, where Campbell had a good eight seconds to throw. Cooley beat Witherspoon for the TD, but how fair is it to expect Will to keep coverage that long? Earlier in the drive, a big tackle-for-loss by Jimmy Kennedy went for naught when Betts took a short pass for 21 on 3rd-AND-15. Washington appeared to put the Rams away after halftime. Campbell wounded them with a 3rd-down scramble, and Betts rode another power sweep into the end zone from the 7 to go up 28-14. Witherspoon and Dexter Coakley got bodied out of the play and Betts easily overcame Fakhir Brown's lousy effort at the 2. But then they toughened up again. Bartell stuffed Betts again. OJ Atogwe made the first of two TD-saving plays. Leonard Little stuffed Betts to force a 3-and-out. All that defense let the Rams catch up and then take a 31-28 lead. After Jackson's 4th-quarter fumble, Green made a big play to stuff Betts on 3rd down and force a FG. With the game tied at 31, and the 2:00 warning looming, the Rams let Betts break off another big run, into scoring position, but Atogwe saved the day to help force overtime. In the extra session, Raonall Smith (!)stopped Duckett cold on 3rd-and-1 to force a punt and get the Rams the ball back for the game-winning drive. So the Rope-A-Dope defense did it again. Run defense was spotty at best, pass rush was awful, and they got pummeled most of the game, but they landed big punches in the clutch, and the team still won.

    * Secondary: Youth was served today. The Ram secondary failed badly at times to contain the run, but still made most of the game's biggest defensive plays. Ron Bartell, playing like the big, physical DB we hoped the Rams got when they drafted him, rocked a reeling defense back on track with a big hit on Betts late in the 1st. The hit was a real momentum-changer, bogging down Washington's second drive near midfield. In the 3rd, Bartell blitzed in and trapped Betts for a loss to stop the 'Skins again and set the Rams up for the 28-28 tying drive. About then was when OJ Atogwe got started, making two very big plays down the stretch. Betts ran through a huge hole on the left side for a 7-yard gain late in the 3rd, which would have been much larger had OJ not chased him down. And impressively, OJ caught Betts even though he had blitzed from the opposite side of the formation. But OJ's biggest play today, and of the season, came with just over 2:00 left in the game. Betts broke away with a 25-yard run off the right side, and was surely about to set up the Redskins for a game-winning score. But as OJ caught up to him, he clubbed at the ball, as he's done all season, and this time, he hit paydirt, popping the ball out of Betts' hands for Corey Chavous to fall on. A game-saving, and who knows, possibly season-saving play by Atogwe. Tye Hill had a nice game, too, with some nice downfield stops, and it turned out that Redskin WRs totaled just 3 catches for 29 yards. There's more talk about the young offensive line lately, but the young Ram secondary had a standout game today.

    * Special teams: Jeff Wilkins is normally "Money" but has bounced a couple of checks this month, including a 41-yard game-winning attempt at the end of regulation that veered a couple of feet wide left. Dane Looker's hold was good, but the snap was high, which I don't doubt messed the kick up, and which also has me worried that Chris Massey has gone into some kind of long-snapping slump. The punting game fared even worse. Apparently jinxed because I mentioned it last week, Matt Turk had the first punt block of his career, by Vernon Fox in the 2nd, setting up a Redskin TD. The "protection" inexcusably just let Fox trot right up the middle untouched. An apparently-rattled Turk followed that block with nasty 25- and 36-yard shanks. Blocking was also absent on just about any Ram special teams return. Almost every kick return saw Willie Ponder run to about the 18 and get killed by two or three Redskins pouring in unblocked. Shaun McDonald idiotically ran backwards with every punt return, with expectedly poor results: minus-1 net yards in four attempts. Until the last one, that is. Punting in overtime, the Redskins played Shaun to run sideways, with plenty of outside containment, but there was nobody up the middle, and Shaun FINALLY ran there, tearing off for 33 yards and putting the Rams in almost immediate scoring position. I can't put my finger on the problem Ė injuries? too few veterans in the lineup? fatigue? lack of speed? Ė but Bob Ligashesky's special teams have floundered badly down the stretch after playing at least average most of the season.

    * Coaching/discipline: After all the angst coming from here and other parts throughout the season, Scott Linehanís due for some kudos this week. The teamís seven wins guarantees theyíll finish better than they did last season, and the Rams are still alive in what passes for a playoff race in the NFC. Theyíve been flat at times, but the players havenít given up on Linehan all year, particularly today, down 2 TDs. Are they a great team? No. But theyíre better, and better off, than last yearís team. Thatís a start.
    Greg Olson called a super game today. He kept the Redskin D honest, and loose, with calls like throwing deep on the first play of the game and the early end-around to Curtis. Olson looked almost psychic with his ability to catch the Redskins blitzing. Jacksonís long TD came against a blitz, as did Davisí TD, which was a masterful call, a shovel pass with Washington bringing three extra suckers, er, rushers. The play passed them all right by. Olson has also been setting up defenses beautifully with fake 90-flips in short yardage situations in recent weeks. Defenders wary of the flip jump out on Jackson and miss the inside handoff and Davis going right by them. The Ram timeout with 0:10 left in the game, followed by a Bulger kneeldown, looked pretty inexplicable, but reportedly had to do with setting up Wilkins exactly where he wanted to kick from. Guess he should have picked another spot. Jim Haslett had more success blitzing today than Gregg Williams did. It didnít show up in the pass rush, though; it showed up in run defense, where well-timed, well-placed blitzes stopped Betts cold a couple of times, especially with Bartell coming in extra. Like the players, the Ram coaching staff made some nice moves at exactly the right times today.

    * Upon further review: The Rams got their best-officiated game of the season from Bill Leavy's crew, with a major assist from the JumboTron operator. Bruce's TD catch in the 2nd was originally called off, but the refs were pretty leisurely about getting the ball back in play. This allowed time for several inconclusive replays on the big screen. With Linehan plainly watching, relying on it for his decision, and the crowd yelling for the 'Tron to put up a better angle, it delivered, showing Isaac with both feet in and control of the ball, and away went Linehan's red flag. Review, TD, Rams. Other than Ram blitzers getting held a couple of times, that was Leavy's only hiccup of the day. Bruce's TD was set up by a good (and obvious) DPI committed on Holt. The Redskins were only flagged twice, but it was a cleanly-played, well-officiated contest.

    * Cheers: The Rams' first non-sellout since moving here ironically kept the best game, and best crowd, of the 2006 season off of TV for the rest of St. Louis to witness. The Dome was about 1/3 empty, in line with the game being on Christmas Eve, and those in attendance were pretty ready to boo. The Rams' early offensive stalls and inability to compete on Redskin TD runs were booed pretty quickly. But, whether out of holiday spirit or appreciation for the team's effort, the crowd settled into an upbeat mode, rallying the Rams on whether they were stinking or not, which is really what it's all about. Sound levels on some 3rd downs in the 2nd half, were better than anything since Opening Day. Rams Nation can be happy that the Dome fans finished the season on a high note. The last halftime show of the year was not, thankfully, the Jazzercize ladies, it was "America's Best Frisbee Dogs", starring Jumpin' Jack the Maniac, who has apparently been demoted from Captain. (Must have humped the wrong leg.) The Dome atmosphere still needs work, but the Rams are at least doing a better job of getting some fun activities out on the field for halftime.

    * Whoís next?: If the Giants win in Washington Saturday, the Ramsí game in Minnesota becomes a glorified exhibition game. Thereíd still be incentive to win: Scott Linehan will be in his old stomping grounds, and 8-8 just looks a lot better in the year-end standings than 7-9 does. Iím sure for many Ram fans, thatís far from enough to justify taking a tumble in draft position. But whether or not youíre in the play-to-win crowd (like me), the Rams have to prepare all week for this game like itís going to be for a playoff spot; theyíll just put themselves in a really bad position if they suddenly change tack on Saturday to empty the bench and keep their star players under wraps. I understand youíd eliminate the chance of catastrophic injury to a star, but youíd also only be setting up the guys who do play to fail, which does them little good. Whatever the Giants do, the Ram starters should figure on playing most if not all of the Minnesota game.

    The Vikings switched their calendar to 2007 a couple of weeks early, benching veteran Brad Johnson in favor of Tarvaris Jackson. The experiment didnít work well at all last week in Green Bay, as the Viking offense managed just three first downs. Jackson was 10-20 for just 50 yards. In preseason, though, he looked as promising as any of the other rookie QBs. Heís an intelligent, mobile QB with a good arm, and he has a good chance to start for the Vikings next year. Brad Childress kept him chained to the pocket Thursday night, and surprisingly, Minnesotaís o-line was quite porous, putting their rookie QB in frequent jeopardy. Childress could put Jackson on the move more, but Jim Haslettís usually had the answer to mobile QBs this season. Having dumped Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper the last two seasons, the Vikings have become a running team, and donít win if they donít run well. They havenít really done either in 8 of their last 10 games. Banged-up Chester Taylor has just 87 yards the last two weeks, so it wouldnít be surprising to see more of Artose Pinner. Taylorís much more the ďhome runĒ threat, but either way, winning Sunday will hinge on how the Rams fare against the run. The Viking WR corps is almost a joke. Troy Williamsonís feet are much better than his hands. Travis Taylorís the leading receiver with 52 catches, and they just cut Marcus Robinson. The biggest threat among their receivers is Bethel Johnson, and thatís as a kick returner. The Rams need to stack the box and make the Vikings try to beat them through the air.

    Minnesotaís run defense is as tough as any I can remember. They allow only 54.5 yards a game on 2.6 yards a carry, easily league bests. EJ Hendersonís had a very good season at LB, and Kevin and Pat Williams are tough DTs. The Vikings really hate defending the pass, though, even with a name secondary: Antoine Winfield, Fred Smoot, Dwight Smith & Darren Sharper. Chad Pennington dump-and-chased them to death for a personal best 339 yards two weeks ago. Thatís two weeks of passing for Chad; imagine what Bulger could do, and how comfortable Olson and Linehan will be, with the dump-and-chase strategy suiting them to a tee. Minnesota really hates it when you spread the field on them, so Iím expecting to see a lot more of Curtis and McDonald next week. The Vikings donít help themselves with a pretty soft pass rush; just 30 sacks this year, about 1/3 of it from blitzers. Former first round draft pick Kenechi Udeze has 1.5 sacks less than Anthony Hargrove this year. That would be zero. Key matchup will be (if nfl.comís depth charts are ever right) Mark Setterstrom vs. Kevin Williams, one of the leagueís best pass-rushing DTs. If he doesnít get overwhelmed, and Alex Barron can handle Darrian Scott, the Rams will have the table set.

    Whether that tableís set for a playoff party or a farewell party, we wonít know until Saturday. But itís funny how pulses are quickening in Rams Nation. The Rams have a decent chance to claim the last NFC playoff berth. And so what if itís a race for a booby prize, that the whole race is a farce. The Whiners are out of it, arenít they? The Big Dead, too. So are Mike Martz, Jon Gruden and Joe Gibbs and the rest of Dan Snyderís billion-dollar coaching staff. Yeah, if the Rams beat the Dead at home, and at least split with Seattle, like they SHOULD have, itís a whole other ballgame. At the same time, itís not like Linehan has bombed; just two of this seasonís seven rookie coaches, Sean Payton and Eric Mangini, have more wins. Next week could add some excitement to whatís turning out to be a credible season to start the Linehan Era.

    -- Mike
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    Re: RamView, 12/24/2006: Rams 37, Redskins 31 (OT) (Long)

    Thanks for posting such a detailed analysis of the game Mike. I missed the game, but I knew I could find out what happened during the game by reading your write up.

    I am glad to hear that Bartell is doing so well, and glad to hear that the St Louis crowd got into the game and supported the team.

    Frisbee dogs at half time....not too bad. I like to watch them.

    I am surprised that Wilkins missed an easy FG.

    My fantasy team was happy to have Bulger and Bruce, but not so happy to have Wilkins and the Rams D. We lost, but mostly because Willie Parker and Steve Smith got goose eggs.


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