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    RamView, 12/28/2008: Falcons 31, Rams 27 (Long)

    RamView, December 28, 2008
    From The Couch
    (Report and opinions on the game.)
    Game #16: Falcons 31, Rams 27

    The Rams could have been the playoff-bound Falcons’ punching bag for sixty minutes today, but to their credit, they traded punches in Atlanta for sixty minutes and nearly pulled off a big upset. Today’s effort made a major statement about this team’s heart. Unfortunately, it also made one about their run defense.

    Position by position:
    * QB: Nice, near-mistake-free game by Marc Bulger (19-30-230, 91.9 rating), though the passing game didn’t really get going until late in the 2nd quarter. Down 10-7, he and Torry Holt combined for a pretty throw-and-catch on the Atlanta sideline for 19, and a couple of plays later on 3rd-and-8, the same combination worked for 12 on the Rams’ sideline. After driving inside the 20, Bulger beat a blitz with a nice 17-yard TD pass to Donnie Avery to put the Rams on top. Down 24-14 in the 3rd, Steven Jackson worked a screen pass to set up a FG, and a drive later, Bulger hit Holt down the sideline with a perfect 33-yard pass at the 2. That set up a Jackson TD to tie the game at 24 in the 4th quarter, and when the Rams took a 27-24 lead, Rams Nation’s wildest expectations for today had been well exceeded. The lead didn’t hold, though, leaving the Rams looking to Bulger again to attempt a last-minute comeback. He opened the Rams’ last drive of the season with a pretty 29-yard pass to Joe Klopfenstein at midfield, and the Rams advanced to the final quadrant of the field before Bulger appeared to run out of open receivers. He took a sack on 2nd down after getting good time to throw, couldn’t force a 3rd-down pass to Dane Looker in triple coverage and overthrew Avery on 4th down to put a wrap on a frustrating season. Even with the failed comeback, Bulger mostly met expectations today. He threw behind receivers a couple of times but his accuracy was usually spot on. He was composed and decisive in the pocket no matter what amount of pressure was coming. He led the offense on four long scoring drives, and their 27-point output was their second-highest of the season. Bulger’s effort today wasn’t good enough to overcome atrocious run defense or some occasionally funky play-calling, but he’s looked good-but-not-spectacular enough here in December to think the Rams can gain at least a couple more W’s next year if he maintains his current level of play.

    * RB: Steven Jackson gave a tantalizing glimpse of the season he coulda, woulda, shoulda had, the kind he could easily have next year, assuming he shows up to camp on time, is in shape at the beginning of the season and plays 15 or 16 games. Today he was primed for a big game from the opening kickoff. On the Rams’ second drive, he broke a tackle in the backfield, accelerated inside a block from Avery, broke another tackle downfield and grooved up the sideline for 36. That set up his own highlight reel TD to put the Rams up 7-3. Behind an Orlando Pace block, Jackson was met around left end by two Falcons but he leg-pumped his way through both of them and dived for the goal line for the score. If Jackson hadn’t already given his teammates a charge, that should have done the trick. He got a late-first-half drive going with a 24-yard draw, but that bogged down after Antonio Pittman typically, annoyingly dropped a third-down screen pass. Jackson already had 107 yards rushing at halftime, but his rushing alone wasn’t the whole story. His blitz pickup gave Bulger time to find Avery for a TD and a 17-14 lead. He was 4-54 as a receiver, including a 36-yard screen in the 3rd that set up a FG. He bounced a goal line run outside to tie the game at 24 in the 4th. Jackson made like Superman the next drive by leaping over Eric Coleman on a 12-yard screen. After a Jonathan Wade INT, Jackson pounded the Rams down to the Falcon 11 before one of the game’s key plays, a 5-yard loss on which John Greco fell and let Kroy (Hey) Biermann through. The Rams had to settle for a FG there, but Jackson wasn’t settling for a loss the final drive, popping off 23 yards on a couple of draws before the Ram offense bogged down for the last time. That topped off a spectacular day for the Rams’ meal ticket, 161 yards rushing on 30 attempts, 215 total yards. More than enough to win today’s game had the Ram defense not allowed Atlanta to run even wilder. More than enough to be a promising and large foundation to launch the Ram offense from next season.

    * WR: Torry Holt (6-90) always seems to play Atlanta well, and if this was his last game in a Ram uniform, he went out on a high note. He made a sweet fingertip sideline catch for 19 to keep the Rams’ 2nd TD drive alive and set up their 3rd TD with a 33-yard catch inside the 3 (getting away with a push-off in the process). Holt and Donnie Avery (5-40) had the makings of a dynamic duo. Avery sped away for 16 with a quick hitch on the Rams’ first TD drive and beat Domonique Foxworth handily to score the Rams’ 2nd TD, also for 16 yards. Avery did have a critical drop of an underthrown Bulger bomb in the 2nd. Where the Rams are really having trouble is establishing the 3rd WR. Keenan Burton had just one catch, Dane Looker had none, and on behalf of the TEs, Joe Klopfenstein had a 29-yard catch during the Rams’ final drive. If this really was Holt’s last game as a Ram, the rest of the receivers have a long way to go and a short time to get there.

    * Offensive line: It looked like we were in for a long day, with the offensive line coming out flat for the first series. John Abraham whipped Orlando Pace to drop Jackson for a loss on the game’s opening play, then smoked Alex Barron on 3rd down to force Bulger up into Stephen (No Last Name) Nicolas for the game’s first sack. The line settled down after that, though, protecting Bulger well and getting Jackson plentiful running room, despite having neither starting guard in the lineup. John Greco replaced an injured Jacob Bell and Adam Goldberg subbed for an ill Richie Incognito. Pace mauled everybody as a run blocker. He caved in the Falcon line on Jackson’s first TD run. Goldberg run-blocked well. He opened a big hole on Jackson’s 24-yard draw in the 2nd, with Pace and Daniel Fells making great blocks at the second level. That drive failed, though, with Bulger getting sacked on 4th-and-3 when (Hey) Biermann beat the Schlitz out of Barron on the right side while Anthony Becht looked out of position to pick up the DB blitz on the left side. Greco showed a lot of mobility leading a 2nd-quarter Pittman end-around and getting well downfield to throw a block on Jackson’s 36-yard screen in the 3rd. There were some key breakdowns in scoring range, though. They settled for a FG early in the 2nd after Jason Jefferson burned Brett Romberg to drop Jackson for a loss. They settled for a FG after the Wade INT after Greco fell and (Hey) Biermann barreled into Jackson for a 5-yard loss. And with the Rams attempting their final comeback, Atlanta came up with their third sack, with Chauncey Davis eventually beating Becht, because I guess that’s who you want to have blocking the DE on a critical play. Those critical missteps knock some of the luster off an otherwise shining performance. Bulger was not running for his life. Jackson averaged over five yards a rush. As they have the last few weeks, the Ram offensive line held its own on the line of scrimmage, and line coach Steve Loney is probably due some belated praise for what this unit has accomplished down the home stretch.

    * Defensive line/LB: After several good weeks of run defense, and not even that bad of a start today, the Ram run defense completely imploded in this game and reverted to their old, bad ways. Reminiscent of the playoff game here in 2005, Atlanta plowed the Rams for over 260 yards on the ground, with Michael Turner alone responsible for just over 200 of it. They held a promising opening drive to a FG, good secondary play stopped a couple more drives, and James Hall stopped another by going right through Sam Baker to sack Matt Ryan. But a 41-yard catch by Michael Jenkins at the Ram 4 late in the 2nd proved to be the crack in the dam. Turner scored an easy TD from there after fullback Ovie Mughelli destroyed Victor Adeyanju and Ron Bartell missed a tackle. That made it 10-7. After the Rams struck back to go up 14-10, Atlanta struck right back for a 17-14 halftime lead. Jerious Norwood topped off a long kickoff return with an 8-yard TD out of “Wildcat” formation, enabled by Chris Long overrunning the play badly. The dam broke after halftime, with Atlanta needing only five plays to go 75 yards and up 24-14. Turner went up the middle for 17, through the hole in the Rams’ overshifted line and by an again-overcommitted Long, who also came downfield on the play to blow a tackle. Turner for 10 inside a blitz and 8 more right up the middle set up a Roddy White TD. Adam Carriker has a difficult job but couldn’t have gotten a good grade today, getting moved 4-5 yards repeatedly by double-teams. Long had one of his worst games of the season, getting caught in the backfield repeatedly on off-tackle runs or missing tackles back there. An Adeyanju stuff of Turner helped the Rams survive the 3rd quarter and get to a 24-24 game. But then, the dam exploded. Turner popped a 71-yard run against a blitz. Cliff Ryan got turned, Carriker was blown well off the line, Chris Draft missed the tackle in the hole, and Todd “White Chavous” Johnson lost the Falcon RB at a terrible angle. Only a miracle play by Bartell saved the Rams. The Rams even went up by a FG, but to no avail. The Falcons continued to steamroll Carriker as Turner plowed for 8 and 9 yards. And just across midfield, Norwood stuck a 46-yard dagger into the Rams with a TD run against another blitz. Carriker got moved again like an office chair, Le’Roi Glover and Pisa Tinoisamoa were locked down, Chris Draft got thumped, White Chavous blew the latest of his many blown tackles on the day, and Norwood, and the game, were gone. The Rams made their own bed here. Hall had the only sack and was about the only guy to pressure Matt Ryan, making a lot of blitzing necessary. Long struggled, Cliff Ryan and Carriker were basically blocking sleds, and there’s little evidence Leonard Little even played. When the Falcons beat blitzes on the ground, it left the Rams relying on White Chavous to bail them out with downfield tackles, and he clearly did not have it today. Neither did Pisa, who was invisible; neither did Draft. Neither did anybody.

    * Secondary: The secondary didn’t have a terrible day, other than Todd Johnson, who blew one tackle after another and took a geometry book full of bad angles. Rather than the last line of the Ram run defense, Johnson turned out to be the weakest link instead this week. Jonathan Wade had a decent game in place of an injured Fakhir Brown. Yes, he took a couple of DPI’s, but they were B.S. calls. Yes, he looked woeful getting torched by Jenkins for 41 to set up the Falcons’ first TD. But he also made a fine stop on Jenkins on 3rd-and-5 to halt Atlanta’s first drive. He nailed Harry Douglas to break up a short 3rd-down pass in the 3rd and stepped in front of Roddy White to pick off a Matt Ryan lollipop with the game tied in the 4th. I was pretty happy with the game Wade played overall. The DBs had a good ball-hawking day even without O.J. Atogwe contributing much. Jason Craft picked off a pass deflected by Douglas early in the 2nd. Ron Bartell made a heroic play in the 4th, chasing Turner down inside the 5 at the end of a 71-yard run and ripping the ball out of his grasp to force a fumble. White (3-48) didn’t go nuts on the Rams but he did beat Bartell pretty badly with a double move for a TD. Bartell also missed a tackle on Turner’s TD. Pass coverage was easily the best part of the Ram defense today, forcing young Ryan into a bunch of ugly-looking throws and forcing big turnovers. A couple more good plays and maybe the Rams don’t even lose the game.

    * Special teams: Congratulations to team MVP and punter Donnie Jones, who made NFL history today by finishing the season with a 50.0 average. That’s the second-best punting season EVER, after Sammy Baugh’s 51.4 in 1940. That obviously led the league for 2008 in punting yards, and he finished 3.6 inches behind Shane Lechler for best net average, 41.2 yards to 41.1. Jones’ reward for his historic season is to watch Jeff Feagles, who he outkicked by SIX yards a punt, represent the NFC in the Pro Bowl. It was an interesting day, to say the least, for the rest of special teams. They recovered an onside kick after the first TD but Larry Grant was offside. Travis Minor converted a 4th-and-4 off a fake punt. And after I’ve praised them the last half of the season, GAAAAH! special teams spit the bit after the Rams went up 14-10 late in the 2nd, allowing a 92-yard kick return by Norwood. The Falcon wedge eliminated Quinton Culberson and Grant (who had an otherwise good day with several special teams tackles). Corey Chavous was “blocked” in a manner that could have drawn four different flags but none was thrown. That gave Norwood a big lane. Josh Brown couldn’t seal it off, David Vobora missed a tackle, and away Norwood went. Give Craft a ton of credit – he tracked Norwood down from behind, diving and grabbing his ankle to trip him up inside the 10, probably running 125 yards on the play to temporarily save a TD. That return was a big momentum shift, the kind of thing you hate to see given up on special teams. But I’ll still credit Al Roberts that this kind of thing has been kept to a minimum this season. The Rams are going to miss out on a decent special teams coach (after all), assuming the next head coach brings in a crony next season.

    * Coaching/discipline: It was the best of Al Saunders, it was the worst of Al Saunders. Worst first. Late in the 1st, Jackson ran for 7, then Kenneth Darby ran for 8, but after that, Saunders’ playcalling went off the rails. The Falcons were all over the Annoying Smoke Route to Avery, and it lost three. 2nd-long, a slant to Burton that never would have gained more than 2 yards was incomplete anyway, and on 3rd-and-long? Let’s try another stupid screen pass! The run’s been working up till now, Bulger’s been getting the ball downfield well, but suddenly Saunders wants to do nothing but throw 2-yard passes! They also did nothing with Craft’s INT in the 2nd, with Saunders’ incredibly poor call of a shovel pass to Darby on 3rd-and-8 losing 2 and ending the drive. And after Pittman dropped the 3rd-down screen pass late in the first half, Rams Nation had to wonder: what the hell is Pittman doing in there in the first place?

    But Saunders really bounced back in the 2nd half. The big screen pass play to Jackson is a pretty play when it’s blocked well. They faked an end-around left, ran Darby down the right side to clear out a LB, and screened right to Jackson, who had acres of space. The drive that tied the game at 24 was probably Saunders’ best sequence of the season. Rollout pass to Burton. Quick screen to Jackson. Delay handoff to Jackson. Handoff to Darby out of fullback position. Bulger beats a blitz with a perfect 33-yard pass to Holt, and Jackson bounces the next play outside for a short TD. Saunders had the Falcons off-balance every single play that drive, NICE! We’ve been looking for that for 15½ weeks, though!

    Rick Venturi seems to have realized now that he needs to blitz to get any pressure on opposing QBs. As it happened, the Rams benefited from the blitz and got burned by it. Blitzes caused both of Ryan’s interceptions. Two LBs blitzed on the second one, which Ryan foolishly lobbed up for grabs, and the first INT was a poor, rushed throw. The Falcons burned blitzes for two of their huge runs, though, the Norwood 46-yard TD and the Turner 71-yard run. Both were on 1st-and-10. Atogwe was blitzing on the Turner run, while Norwood ran middle left, away from two Ram blitzers, for his long TD. I liked the down-and-distance situations they blitzed in. The Rams had to take chances because they weren’t getting it done up front otherwise. You could argue that getting burned big once on 1st-and-10 should have been enough, and it’s not like Atlanta’s a first-down passing team. Darned if I know what else Venturi could have done, though.

    There was a flat series at the beginning of each half, but there’s little question Jim Haslett had the team ready today. There’s little question he came to win, with the early onside kick, the fake punt and going for it on 4th down early. Haslett has not remotely lost the team, as proven by the infamous petition nearly all of the players signed to let ownership know they’d like Haslett to come back next year. Ownership and Billy Devaney in the GM’s office are all believed to like Haslett a lot. And if Haslett doesn’t get the head coach’s job, he should consider politics; his Page Ranking campaign for the job has been hard to miss, as he’s pointed out repeatedly in public that he’s not working with “his” players and coaches, that he didn’t get to put them through “his” training camp, that he inherited a mess, that he has a plan to turn the team around. He’s cultivated a big chunk of the press covering the team. Every Fox color man covering the Rams this year has said Haslett deserves the chance. At a woeful 2-10, he sure isn’t getting skewered the way Linehan was. Haslett’s run a good election campaign; has he won Devaney’s vote? After leading a poor defense for 2-plus years as coordinator and finishing this season with ten straight losses, does he deserve it?

    * Upon further review: Walt Anderson and crew were atrocious, and that doesn’t include the game’s biggest call, when Bartell stripped Turner at the end of a 70+ yard run in the 4th. I’m not sure why Fox’s Tim Ryan was so sure it was not a fumble. Bartell rips the ball first, then Turner’s knee/shin touch, then we see the ball clearly out of Turner’s hands. The rip had to have dislodged the ball before Turner would have been down. Atlanta fans naturally hated the call, but that may have been the one Anderson and crew got right all day. The two DPI calls on Wade were complete B.S. In the 1st, the pass was a mile over Roddy White’s head, may have been tipped by Craft, and Wade didn’t do anything to White anyway. That wasn’t as TERRIBLE as the call on Wade in the 3rd, as Wade never even TOUCHED White at any point of his route! That flag came from the blind side of the play by a lazy ref deciding something must have happened because Wade doesn’t have a great reputation. I HATE that. The refs didn’t excel on special teams, either. Dane Looker had a man right in his face on a 2nd-quarter punt, but there was no flag for interfering with the returner. One of the key “blocks” on Norwood’s 92-yard kick return involved Corey Chavous getting dragged to the ground while getting leg-whipped from behind. That could have been a flag for tripping, blocking in the back, or even a chop block. It certainly should have been called a hold. Seven flags stayed buried in seven pockets instead. Ryan CLEARLY false started on a QB sneak in the 2nd, but, no call, and Atlanta drives on for a TD. A 3rd-quarter false start on Klopfenstein was total B.S. How do you miss Grady Jackson jumping into the neutral zone - he weighs FOUR HUNDRED POUNDS! I pray none of these officials were allowed to drive themselves home after the game. Worst refereeing of the season.

    * Cheers: After Matt Vasgersian ripped St. Louis in a recent interview, let me just say what a pleasure it’s been to have a real professional calling the last couple of games in Sam Rosen. Rosen may miss a spot here and there but he’s 10 times more professional than Vasgersian, a joke of an announcer who treats football games like they’re a joke, and off the top of my head, isn’t even one of the top five POKER announcers. Tim Ryan has a terrific eye and breaks down plays as well as anyone on TV all season. As for my annual playoff mispredictions: the Falcons’ weakness against the run may not hurt them next week in Arizona, but they’re dead once they get to New York. I’m calling a Giants-Panthers NFC Championship, with the winner beating Tennessee in SB43, largely because I want to jinx the Giants and Panthers for ruining my fantasy league championship game. Four TDs by DeAngelo Williams? Seriously? Screw all of you guys!

    * What’s next?: The most certain thing now that this trainwreck of a 2-14 season is over in Rams Nation is uncertainty. We can feel more confident that a bonafide “football guy” like Billy Devaney is calling the shots now, but he has a lot of shots to call. Who’s the head coach going to be? Does Devaney dare to bypass the hot names out there and keep the 2-10 head coach, underperforming defensive coordinator Haslett? (Probably) What’s the chance the Rams can get their fan base to swallow that pick? (Not good; Haslett will have to come out of the chute winning in 2009) How much rein will Haslett get? Will he be permitted to fire assistants like Roberts, Loney and Art Valero, who seem to have performed well this year, so he can bring in his own guys? What if he can’t? Do we start the new year with new friction between GM and head coach? RamView favors a full coaching housecleaning, but we may have to hope that Devaney and Haslett already have a harmonious future plotted out.

    Who’ll be on the field for the Rams in 2009? Torry Holt? (Very doubtful) Leonard Little? (Doubtful) Orlando Pace? (I hope so) Alex Barron? Antonio Pittman? (I hope not) Richie Incognito? (Depends on the HC; Haslett will bring him back) Corey Chavous? Le’Roi Glover? Dante Hall? (Thank you for your service; good luck in retirement) Do the Rams break the bank for Atogwe? (I wouldn’t) Or Bartell? (Would make more sense) Will this year’s unhealthy players – Jackson, Pace, Will Witherspoon, Randy McMichael, Carriker, Jacob Bell – bounce back for productive, full seasons? Will the Rams’ young players continue to develop? (Long, Avery, Greco, Ryan, Adeyanju, Darby, Chamberlain, Fells: hopeful; Culberson, Vobora, Burton: maybe; Tye Hill, Brian Leonard: probable lost causes, Joe Klopfenstein: if so, not here) Who will the Rams draft with their second straight #2 pick overall? QB? (Please God no) OT? (Probably) Defense? (Would Malcolm Jenkins, Ray Maualuga, Aaron Curry or Brian Orakpo really hurt?) Will Drew Bennett catch more passes next year than Marc Bulger? (Not in a Ram uniform)

    That’s the one good thing about following a really bad football team: you have a LOT to talk about in the offseason. Enjoy yours, as we all eagerly look forward to the dawning of a new era in Rams Nation.

    -- Mike
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    Re: RamView, 12/28/2008: Falcons 31, Rams 27 (Long)

    Great write up Mike as usual.

    We should all give some praise to Donnie Jones on such a great year.

    Your paragraph on the officials and the missed calls is interesting. I don't always see the missed calls myself and it is good to listen to others that know more than me. I was upset that they kept calling Wade for non-existant interference. I guess a bad reputation can be a dangerous thing.

    Sorry about your fantasy team championship game. You would hope to win something in this terrible season.

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