RamView, December 24, 2011
From The Couch
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Game #15: Steelers 27, Rams 0

Twas the night before Christmas, thank goodness it's here.
The St. Louis Rams play just once more this year.
Receivers not open, plays called without care,
Steeler offense and defense running through Rams that aren't there.
And I in my jersey and Marshall Faulk cap
Had just woken up from a long winter's nap (because the Ram offense put me to sleep)
Weird sound at my door – a reindeer? A donkey?
No! It was Rams owner E. Stanley Kroenke.
I went after the man like rabid cocker Spaniels
Stan! Fire Spagnuolo! And boot Josh McDaniels!
Fire Devaney and Loney and put Craig Dahl down
Dump Jason Smith, also Jason and Josh Brown
Get Bradford some blocking that's proven protective
Get Chris Long more teammates who don't look defective
Get us playmakers! Some reputable names!
Promise in '12 we'll win more than two games?
Stan said, Don't worry. I hear you, my man.
I want you to check out my bullet-proof plan.
Look at the Vikings and look at the Colts
Winning their last games, the dummies, the dolts.
The Rams may be hopeless; I sure know that they suck.
But we're close to the rights to draft young Andrew Luck!
My jaw hit the floor, but he just chuckled gently
Gave a quick wink and jumped in his Bentley
Rolled down his window and rode off in the night
Cheering “Merry Christmas, Rams fans! And to all a good night!”

Position by position:
* QB: The Ram passing game was a squalid mess this week, but oddly, Kellen Clemens didn't look as bad as his terrible numbers (37.5% completion rate, only 91 yards passing, rating of 49.1). The game plan only asked him to “manage the offense” - the Rams called 33 runs, 26 passes – and Clemens handled that job. He looked poised in the pocket, ran when he had to, made some good throws under pressure. He didn't turn the ball over. He'll probably end up somewhere else next year, but he'd have a pretty good lead here for QB2 if training camp started today (which, for the Rams, it kind of has). Clemens' bad numbers have a lot of sources. Brandon Lloyd was rarely open. More bad hands from Danario Alexander. Overall shorthandedness at WR. Steeler blitzing kept Steven Jackson in to block, so Clemens didn't have him to dump off to every play. Where Clemens hurts the Rams is that he hasn't been accurate with longer passes. He missed an open Lloyd on the sideline downfield in the 2nd, and underthrew receivers several times under pressure. The killer play, though, was in the 3rd. With the Rams not quite dead down 13-0, Jackson surprised the Steelers with a wheel route, beat everyone downfield, and once he catches the ball, he's gone for a TD. Except Clemens overthrew him, and the Rams miss out yet again this season on a potentially game-changing play. Though he appears an improvement over A.J. Feeley, Kellen Clemens is ultimately a limited player. He can run an offense but he isn't the guy to rely on to make a big play; he isn't the guy who'll make his teammates better. An offense as bad as the Rams' this season can't really afford that at starting QB.

* RB: Congratulations to Steven Jackson (24-103), and thank you for being the one player worth watching on this offense this season. Late in the 1st half, Jackson became only the 7th player in NFL history to record 7 straight 1,000-yard seasons. The other six are either in the Hall of Fame or well on the way there. Jackson also cracked the 9,000-yard career rushing mark. Given the teams he's played on, that alone should get him into the Hall, but in reality, he may need another 3,000 to lock down what would have to be the coolest looking bust in Canton. A number of times this week, Jackson made Pittsburgh's defense look like a little less than a steel curtain. Shotgun handoffs may have been the Rams' best weapon on long-yardage downs. The Rams opened the game in a 3rd-and-12 hole, but Jackson slipped around Harvey Dahl's block around right end for 15 to keep the ball moving. He started the Rams' halftime 2:00 drive with bread-and-butter 8- and 9-yard runs. He missed out on a big, big play in the 3rd when Clemens barely overthrew him after he'd gotten alone down the sideline on a wheel route. He also was solid most of the day on his blitz pickups, which were responsible for most of the completions Clemens did make. Jackson got the Rams in FG position in the 4th, with a 14-yard run behind Dahl and a 15-yard run on 3rd-and-14. If there had been a Tecmo Steven Jackson, that's what Steven looked like on that drive. But Josh Brown miffed the FG and pretty well ended the game. Cadillac Williams (9-42) finished and pounded out some nice garbage time yardage, though it's hard to believe the Steelers cared a lot up 27-0. It's harder to believe Steven Jackson cares as much as he does on a team that is on the verge of being the worst in the league twice in three years. Watching him play, though, you know he does.

* Receivers: The Ram passing game doesn't exactly need a blueprint to beat it, but the Steelers sure had it: lock down Brandon Lloyd and dare any of the other jokers to beat you. The result? 7 catches for not even 70 yards by Rams receivers. Lloyd (3-29) was rarely open, well-covered, often legally, by Ike Taylor. The scorecard says Clemens targeted Lloyd 12 times. That's a terrible ROI. So this week was Danario Alexander's time to shine, right? Erm, not so much. DX (2-25) showed some effectiveness on a couple of slant passes, but had 2 or 3 drops, and despite his superior size, couldn't outfight the likes of Keenan Lewis for the ball at times. There was little sign of Alexander stretching the defense at all. More sign than there was that Brandon Gibson (0-0) even played, though. By the end of the game, Alexander was used as an in-line blocker more than anything else. Funny thing is, he's better at that than any of the tight ends. Any chance he'd be converted to TE next season? One of Clemens' best plays was a sideline toss to Lance Kendricks (2-13) with a blitzer in his face, but the Rams TEs were their usual selves: low-impact as receivers, negative-impact as blockers. The Rams went into this season thinking TE was going to be a position they'd rely heavily upon. No wonder they're 2-13.

* Offensive line: An offensive line bringing new meaning to the word “makeshift”, versus probably the league's most aggressive defense schematically, looked like a Godzilla-vs.-Bambi in the making, but the Rams' front five were at least Godzilla-vs.-Megalon in respectability. The right side continues to play fairly well. Harvey Dahl sealed the corner as Jackson converted the opening 3rd-and-12 with a sweep right. He and Bryan Mattison helped Jackson get 9 on a 2nd-quarter run, and it was Dahl and DX getting big blocks to spring Jackson for 14 in the 3rd. That keyed the Rams' best drive of the day. Jackson got 13 more on back-to-back rushes off LT with the Ram line shoving most of the Steeler defense to the right. Jackson later popped a 15-yard run into the red zone on 3rd-and-long off blocks by, of all people, Jason Brown, and a pancake from, of all people, DX. As they often do, though, Rams blocking saved its biggest failures for clutch moments. 3rd-and-4 at the Steeler 12, it was epic fail for Billy Bajema, as Troy Polamalu ran right through him to drop Jackson for a big loss. The Rams whiff the settled-for FG while I'm still wondering how the hell Bajema has managed to stick on this roster this long. He couldn't even hold Polamalu well enough to slow him down. Tight end blocking has been a horrible deficiency for the Rams all season. You kind of knew how this game was going to go when Polamalu whipped Kendricks on the opening play to stuff Jackson. The half ended with James Harrison whipping Bajema for a sack. Who the hell on the Rams sideline thought that would be a wise matchup? Who knows how many sacks Clemens saved; the Rams ended up allowing a reasonable three, though they didn't look very good on any of them. Mattison barely got a hand on Ziggy Hood, who dropped Clemens in the 3rd. Every Steeler beat their man that play, with Casey Hampton driving Tony Wragge about back to Gettysburg. Late in the game, Adam Goldberg ended up having to block Harrison and Lawrence Timmons. He chose to let Timmons, the inside rusher, go through untouched, and barely blocked Harrison well enough to prevent him from joining Timmons on the sack. The right side held its own. The Rams just need a whole new left side. And some tight ends who can actually block once in a while.

* Defensive line/LB: The Ram front seven has put its best foot forward a lot of the second half of 2011, but they stepped in a Steel trap this week. We had another “season in a nutshell” moment early in the game when James Hall had QB Charlie Batch dead to rights for what every other defensive player in NFL history would have turned into a sack and stripped fumble. Instead, Hall slid down Batch like a stripper down a pole, and he lobbed a sideline pass to Rashard Mendenhall, who beat James Laurinaitis for 35 yards, the Rams' MLB logically thinking the play was going to end with a sack. Good pass coverage held the Steelers to three, though, and was a hallmark of the 1st half. Pittsburgh really got the running game going midway through the 2nd. Mendenhall shake-and-baked Darian Stewart for 9. Two plays later, TE Heath Miller wiped out Chris Chamberlain, Mendenhall cut back, left Stewart in the dust and outran another 5 Rams for 52 yards, Quintin Mikell looking like he started the play with a piano on his back and added another every 5 yards. Then, typical Rams, some jabroni named John Clay scores a TD untouched on his FIRST NFL CARRY, as all the receivers in the trips set blocked Rams helplessly out of the play. The Rams unwisely had Eugene Sims in for Chris Long on the play; Sims couldn't even get off a TE block. And Fred Robbins, who'd been run through by Mendenhall earlier for a big gain, got wiped out 1-on-1 here by RG Ramon Foster. Josh Gordy blew a sack at midfield in the 3rd that let Pittsburgh drive on for a FG and a 13-0 lead, but pass coverage continued to keep the Rams in the game until the 4th. A long bomb set up Isaac Redman to go through Brady Poppinga like crap through a goose for a 1-yard TD. No Ram did themselves proud on Pittsburgh's final drive. Redman repeatedly ran through them. Chamberlain and Darell Dorell Scott had him for no gain on a play and he ran through then anyway for 7. Also through Craig Dahl and Stewart. He plowed in through Laurinaitis and Stewart for another 1-yard TD to send Steelers Nation home happy. Anybody who can figure out what Justin Bannan was thinking on that play, let me know. Unable to budge Chris Kemoeatu, he tried to go around him, – at the goal line? - got driven back to the 5, and there's your hole. What kind of day was it on defense? The Rams gave up 6 yards a carry and couldn't sack an immobile 37-year-old QB. The Rams really need a Heath Miller – he mauled people all day. Chris Long had a couple of pressures at best – I'm pretty sure he drew a healthy amount of extra protection, and that shut the Rams down defensively much like double-teaming Lloyd shut down their passing game. A contrast of a great franchise vs. a floundering franchise: the Rams even got dominated in the best phase of their game.

* Secondary: The Ram secondary played their butts off for three quarters, and were on their way to their best game of the season. Rod Hood broke up an end zone slant to Mike Wallace 1-on-1 to save the Rams 4 points on Pittsburgh's opening drive. Laurinaitis stopped Redman short on a dumpoff the next drive to secure a 3-and-out. When Antonio Brown slipped inside the Rams 20 in the 2nd, Josh Gordy was right there to claim his TEAM-LEADING 3rd interception of the season, a pass you just know Ron Bartell would have dropped. Hood briefly postponed a Steeler TD by tracking down Mendenhall on his 52-yard run. As depth behind (hopefully healthy) Bartell and Fletcher, I'd be very happy bringing Gordy and/or Hood back next season. Hood had a nice game, breaking up passes and supporting the run. Darian Stewart broke up a pass to Heath Miller to finish another 2nd-quarter 3-and-out. Quintin Mikell just barely tripped up Redman to save another 3-and-out in the 4th. 13-0, and the Rams are still in this thing. Not for long. Wallace burned Gordy to a crisp on a straightforward go route for 46 to set up a TD, with Stewart nowhere in sight to help. Next drive, Redman steamrolled Rams DBs on the ground, and Miller beat Craig Dahl at the 2 with an over-the-shoulder catch – I'd argue Miller pushed off – to set up another. The optimist in me still sees good things ahead for the Rams defense next year.

* Special teams: Just a fugly week for the Ram kicking game. The way Josh Brown and Donnie Jones have played this year, we have to be seeing about the last of either in a Rams uniform, don't we? While I'll excuse Brown for missing from 52 in the poorest stadium in the league to kick in, his 33-yard miss in the 4th was unforgivable. Brown, one of the highest-paid kickers in the league, is one of the worst in the league in FG accuracy, 25th coming into this week. 0-for-2 won't improve that rating. The Rams kept the wrong kicker in training camp a couple of years ago. Steelers kicker Shane Suisham hit a 49-yard FG and plastered most of his kickoffs out the back of the end zone, feats Brown can't even manage indoors. Donnie Jones made a gallant attempt on a first-half fake, but the problem all year has been his punting. Another well-paid Rams kicker in the bottom-third of the NFL, in punting gross (22nd) and net (29th) coming into the game. 29-yard punts that “pin” the opposition at their 21, or 37-yard clunkers from deep in your end that set the opposition up at midfield for scoring drives aren't helping those averages. I don't know what the team's advertising slogan is going to be for 2012, but on special teams, the watchwords could be “young and cheap”.

* Strategery: Josh McDaniels made more good play calls this week than he has in a while. Handing off to Jackson on 3rd-and-long had better chance of working than most weeks because of Pittsburgh's heavy-blitzing personality. McDaniels did a good job taking advantage of that. Sending Jackson on the wheel route in the 3rd was a sweet call that should have worked for a TD. Not this year's Rams. Dumbest sequence came in the 2nd. The Rams got two shots at 3rd-and-1 from their own 29 and threw out of the shotgun both times.

I assume Steve Spagnuolo ordered the fake punt in the 2nd, a sweet play that Donnie Jones ran really well; Pittsburgh just defended it better. Jones made the right decision not to try to throw down the middle to David Nixon; a Steeler had him well-covered. Donnie took off and ran for the sideline and got terrific blocking from Brian Kehl. Antonio Brown simply came from out of nowhere – his return position some 45 yards away – to make an outstanding play. It was still a fine call, excellent risk-to-reward with the Steelers not gaining much ground, getting the ball at their 35. For once, Rams fans could appreciate that Spagnuolo was coaching a game like he was trying to win it.

Unfortunately, that was one brief flash in another day of tentative, fearful, low-risk, low-success football. Spagnuolo went for the fake punt on 4th-and-10 but earlier refused to go for a 4th-and-2. Down only 10-0 with 2:00 till halftime, the Rams as usual showed no urgency getting downfield, let the clock run, and with two timeouts in their pocket, didn't use either until 0:04 seconds remained to try a 52-yard FG. To be willing to settle for that was not only poor game management, it was poor scouting. It's bad enough trying to have Brown hit from 52 anywhere, and then Heinz Field is the worst field in the league for kickers. You can't settle for long kicks there. Brown was game, but he missed. That wasn't the only moment the Rams' scouting for the Steelers seemed defective. They had no answer for the Steelers running out of trips formation, which they love to do, and got caught off guard by WR screens, which they love even more. Professional football teams should not be getting surprised by trends I can notice enough to put in a preview. Maybe Spagnuolo should watch Playbook on the NFL Network on Friday nights.

The fourth quarter was even more maddening. 4th-and-7, you're inside the 20, you're down 13-0, YOU NEED A TOUCHDOWN. It's the FOURTH quarter! Going for it is the only responsible call. A chicken-hearted FG still leaves you two scores behind. You haven't scored all day. How much time do you think you have left for two more scoring drives? Brown missing the makeable FG Spags so undaringly settled for seemed to symbolically put the Rams head coach out of his misery, though we've got him here for one more week before it happens for sure.

* Upon further review: If I ever write the Great American Novel, I'm making sure to have a moonshiner named Clete Blakeman in it. A moonshiner with really bad eyesight. I swear the Steelers gained more yards after kicks than they did during. The opening punt was fair caught inside the 20 and spotted outside the 20. On one kick return, Norwood tripped on his own at the 20 and fell forward 2-3 more yards BEFORE being touched. They gave the Rams the ball at the 20. Antonio Brown was stopped inside the 25 on another punt; the ball was spotted outside the 25. Does the NFL screen its officials for dyslexia? The worst call of the day came on a 22-yard completion to Lloyd that Mike Tomlin challenged and Blakeman overturned seconds after Fox's rules expert Mike Pereira came on and said decisively there wasn't visual evidence to overturn the play. There wasn't. You want to bet the Steelers would have gotten screwed on an identical play? Hell no. If I had given a darn about this game, or it had been in St. Louis, I'd give Blakeman and crew a Boger grade, but instead, I'll give them a m-Dinus. They'll be able to figure that out.

* Cheers: We got Dick Stockton and John Lynch for a game that to Fox was essentially a Steelers game vs. some other team that was showing up. Not that it was an awful broadcast, but both announcers could have been better-used elsewhere. Stockton spotted the ball after plays better than the referees did. And how many times have we heard someone in the booth calling plays better than the coaching staff? On the Rams' best drive in the third, Lynch praised them for having the sense to keep feeding Jackson the ball, and now that they're in scoring range, they need to keep doing it... at the very moment Jackson was being pulled off the field, followed by Cadillac getting stuffed and Clemens getting sacked. I wonder if any announcers come to Rams games with coaching resumes in hand? Honestly, many this year would have been improvements.

* Who’s next?: The tone of next-week's long-awaited season finale, against the *****, likely depends on what the Saints do this Monday night. A Saint win means the ***** need to beat the Rams to lock up the #2 seed in the playoffs. A Saint loss, and we could be looking at a lot of Colin Kaepernick and Anthony Dixon. Then again, the way the first game went, we may see a lot of those two anyway; the Rams rarely as much as threatened the end zone in a 26-0 loss by the Bay. Jackson was held to 19 yards rushing, Lloyd to one catch. Assuming Patrick Willis remains out due to the hamstring injury he suffered in the first meeting, would it be too much to ask Josh McDaniels to find ways to go after Larry Grant early and often? Come on, we've seen him play here, if there has ever been a weak link in the history of football, Grant's the guy next week. Since the ***** don't blitz heavily, we could see a lot of Jackson in the passing game again. The ***** beat the Rams up front with such ease last time I think McDaniels has little choice but to try lots of screens, traps and draws. The Ram defense competed with San Francisco well enough, but the Ram offense has to do a far better job of staying on the field, or we're just going to get a re-run of week 12. The D does at least have to do a lot better in deep coverage than it did against Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and somebody called Kyle Williams than they did a month ago.

Beyond that, about all I can do is get all Grinchy on Christmas Day and note that Steve Spagnuolo's third season in St. Louis wraps up on New Year's Day, and there's no better time to start a clean slate than the new year. Spagnuolo could be a heck of a good defensive coordinator for somebody next season. Best wishes to him in his future endeavors, and Happy New Year to everyone.

-- Mike
Game stats from nfl.com