RamView, December 3, 2006
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Game #12: Cardinals 34, Rams 20

Instead of building on last week's win, the Rams instead hit rock bottom, and hard. Appearing to switch bodies with their traditionally incompetent opponents from Arizona, the uninspired and undisciplined Rams played like garbage from the opening kickoff and lost decisively, at home, to a team that had lost its last seven road games. An unforgivable, inexcusable, stick-a-fork-in-the-season performance.

Position by position:
* QB: Marc Bulger (27-45-314, 68.2) deserved a lot better game than the one he ended up with today. It wasn’t his fault the Rams ran on 3rd-and-6 from the Arizona 13 on their first possession, a drive he kept alive with a 3rd-and-7 completion to Torry Holt. It wasn’t his fault the Rams missed an 83-yard TD in the 2nd, as his dead-perfect long ball shockingly bounced off of Holt’s hands. It wasn’t his fault he was swamped with Cardinal rushers all day. Today’s four sacks were all on the offensive line, not on Marc. Two of his INTs weren’t really his fault; Steven Jackson bobbled one away, and one came on a game-ending Hail Mary attempt. It wasn’t his fault a couple of his best passes of the game were called back by penalties. The main play that was Marc’s fault was the Adrian Wilson INT right at the first-half 2:00 warning, which set up an Arizona FG. I don’t know why Marc felt he had to rush the team to the line to beat the clock, when it has never been in much of a hurry even in the no-huddle offense before, but he got the play off, and it was a disaster, as Holt ran in while Marc threw out, right to Wilson. Down 17-3 at halftime, Bulger marched the Rams right downfield, hitting Holt for 21, then 15 and a TD. He had the Rams driving for a tying score until getting a 3rd-down pass deflected at the line. The Rams went with the safe punt; Arizona drove for a TD to restore their big lead. Not Marc’s fault his team’s defense is a sieve. The Rams could only answer that TD with a FG thanks to a sack, and sacks and turnovers kept the Rams out of it the rest of the way until a short meaningless late TD to Isaac Bruce. After this fiasco, a frustrated Bulger justifiably called out some of his teammates. He needed to. Today was plenty of evidence that Marc can’t do it all by himself.

* RB: Arizona seemed to be careful not to let Steven Jackson burn them as a receiver today, and they did a credible job of limiting him. He had 9 catches for 69, but two of those were in “garbage time”, and several of Steven’s other catches were limited to minimal gains. Jackson was a force running up the middle again, 21-96, and he is getting better and better at putting his shoulder into guys and driving them back. He got nice breathing room up the middle on an early 9-yard run, but didn’t see as much of it as last week, having to grind out a lot of yards on his own today. After kicking off the Rams’ first TD drive with 2 runs for 26 yards, Steven was gradually taken out of the game on the ground by Ram penalties and the ever-increasing scoreboard deficit. With the Rams driving in the 4th, a big play seemed to be developing with Steven sneaking downfield around a Cardinal blitz, but he and Bulger had a hard time seeing each other over the traffic, the pass Marc finally got off after triple-pumping was a little high, and, going for it one-handed, Steven tipped it to David Macklin for an INT and long return. Jackson’s day seemed a little quiet – he didn’t score, and most of his longer plays didn’t lead to scores – but 165 total yards and a lot of hard, punishing running say otherwise. The Rams wasted his efforts today.

* WR: Torry Holt had a big day, 7-115 and a TD, but by missing a golden opportunity to make it even bigger, he unfortunately provided one of the game’s turning points. Streaking past two Arizona defenders in the 2nd, Torry was wide open past midfield with several steps to spare, and Bulger uncorked one that perfectly hit him in stride for an 83-yard TD, but, instead… doink, off Torry’s hands, and there goes what should have been a 10-7 lead. Torry still had a good game, but that drop is extremely haunting. Isaac Bruce (5-75) added a TD catch, and reacted to and snagged a sideline pass in the 2nd so quickly I don’t think he saw the ball until it was in his hands. We in the crowd were willing to believe he heard the ball coming using funky Isaac Bruce ninja powers. Last but not least, let’s welcome Joe Klopfenstein to the passing game. Joe caught 4(!) for 31 today and proved a reliable outlet receiver.

* Offensive line: Missouri’s governor declared St. Louis a disaster area this week, and can amend that to include the Ram offensive line after today. Despite Arizona’s poor pass rush defense, Bulger was swarmed, swamped and swatted all day long. Alex Barron seemed to get run over, or past, by Chike Okeafor on every pass play. One of Okeafor’s 2.5 sacks was a case of Barron getting lazy and reaching instead of moving his feet, and Alex simply has to do better than that. That was a backup (Bertran Berry’s out for the season) you couldn’t handle today, Barron! And it wouldn’t be a Rams game without Barron’s weekly false start. You got any pride under that #70 jersey? There, I’ve called out Barron, like most of the world believes Bulger was doing after the game. Barron wasn’t alone in poor play. One of the Cardinal sacks was a jail break where Adam Timmerman got beat off the snap and both Barron and Todd Steussie got overwhelmed on either end of the line. Adam Goldberg played in Timmerman’s place a lot of the game, and, as much respect as I have for #62, I have to question the wisdom of keeping his consecutive games streak alive, at Bulger’s expense. I like what Richie Incognito’s been able to do at center, but have to repeat my Draft Day ’05 concern that he’s too much of a knucklehead, an impression he didn’t help with another personal foul today. There’s a line that Richie’d better find quickly, and stay behind. If only we could average out Incognito and Barron a little. It’d be a shame to see either flame out, because along with Orlando Pace and Mark Setterstrom, the Rams have tantalizing potential for a very gifted line. But not today.

* Defensive line/LB: If this were TMQ, I would have set up some AutoText by now, because it is the same crap week after week with this defense. Against one of the league’s worst offensive lines, there was embarrassingly little pass rush on rookie QB Matt Leinart. He was sacked just once, by LaRoi Glover, on a play where Leinart held the ball long enough for even simple antibiotics to cure anything he may have caught from Paris Hilton. Other than that play, Glover was good for little besides defensive holding penalties. Leonard Little got double-teamed all day, and got no help from the rest of the line, with neither Brandon Green nor Claude Wroten making an impact at RDE. I think I saw Jimmy Kennedy break into the Arizona backfield once. Of course, brilliant offensive coordinators like Mike Kruczek know they have little chance against Jim Haslett’s awesome pass defense, so Arizona was forced to unleash its vaunted 32nd-overall, 70-yards-a-game running attack on the Rams. And like everybody else, they dominated the line of scrimmage and succeeded wildly. With the Ram defense starting out as flat as usual, Arizona opened the game with a 90-yard, 7 1/2 minute TD march and never looked back. Edgerrin James got his FIRST 100-yard game of the season (115). Marcel Shipp ran for his FIRST THREE TDs of the season. The Cardinals ran for almost TWICE their season average (137). They ran 37 times! Tackling was bad on every level, though I can’t criticize the LBs much because I can never find them. James broke Little and Kennedy tackles on early runs, and almost never went down on first contact. The Rams did stop a 4th-down play near the goal line, mainly because Leinart tripped and fell pulling away from center. But Shipp went through 2 DBs on his last TD run like they were a French door. Fakhir Brown horribly blew a solo tackle on a dumpoff to the fullback to keep a TD drive alive; Leonard Pope lugged a DB (Atogwe?) for an embarrassingly long gain in the 2nd. You know, like Tye Hill trying to tackle Vernon Davis last week, it sure would be nice to see some GANG tackling on those plays, wouldn’t it? The first guy’s getting there, but wouldn’t it be good to get him some help taking down guys who outweigh him by 75-100 lbs? Maybe one of those guys who “back the line” could get there? Where are they? Where the hell is the ball pursuit in this defense? Little made a couple of run stops, Will Witherspoon made a couple and defended a TD pass attempt, and Hill stopped a James sweep in the 1st, but this defense, whether through poor talent, poor scheme, or both, continues to make far too few plays. Today’s domination by the Freaking Big Dead is the ultimate measure of the depths to which this defense has sunk.

* Secondary: Even as Jim Haslett’s great pass defense allowed Matt Leinart only 186 yards, the Ram secondary still looked completely overwhelmed most of the day, and I don’t know who besides Tye Hill would make any other team’s roster right now. Fakhir Brown had a lousy day. Arizona’s 2nd TD was set up by a Brown DPI, an iffy call that Brown drew by reacting poorly to Anquan Boldin slowing up for the ball. Leinart got away with hanging up several passes because Ram DBs reacted poorly, or could barely challenge the big WRs for jump balls, like OJ Atogwe vs. Larry Fitzgerald on Arizona’s first TD drive. Brown made Arizona’s 3rd TD possible with a pathetic whiff on a 3rd-and-7 dumpoff to Obafemi Ayanbadejo that went for 27. Then on 3rd-and-10 in Ram territory, Corey Chavous’ coverage of Boldin was as brutal as his 27-yard DPI, setting up a Marcel Shipp TD. Add Chavous to the list of bad Rams FA safety signings. Ron Bartell was beaten handily by a couple of corner patterns out of the slot, but appeared to make up for those with an endzone INT in the 4th, except it was erased by a Little offsides penalty. Will Witherspoon saved a TD by deflecting a pass, and the Rams got a coverage sack early in the 3rd, but those were about the only highlights of a long, long day on defense.

* Special teams: One decent player the Rams suited up today was kick returner Willie Ponder, who returned one kickoff out to the Ram 38 and averaged 31.5 a return. Ponder is more elusive than any Ram returner in a while, and could be an option to return punts as well. Ponder helped the Rams get away with a stupid call in the 4th. The hated punt return reverse was on, and Shaun McDonald stayed with it even after back-pedaling inside the 10 to retrieve a booming kick from Scott Player. Ponder made the crazy play work by fielding McDonald's tossback cleanly and snaking out across the 20. Matt Turk didn't hit anything remotely resembling that Player blast, and the Rams really could have used one, as often as Arizona got to set up near midfield. But special teams gets a rare pass on a day where the rest of the team failed miserably.

* Coaching/discipline: A major ice storm Thursday knocked out electric power across much of the St. Louis area, but apparently, the lights were out at Rams Park all week long. If this is the best this team is going to play, when it thinks it’s still in playoff range, when it's at home against the 2-9 Big Freaking Dead, the most moribund franchise in the history of the league, then we can only hope the Linehan Era will be short. The Rams looked as prepared today as FEMA was for Katrina, and as motivated as Kevin Federline is to find a real job. What exactly were Scott Linehan's qualifications again, over oh, say, Ron Rivera? You know, the guy whose defense, which'll be here next week, plays so hard, and well, his team can win without a functioning QB? And seeing as Linehan apparently couldn't motivate a supermodel to purge? Oh, that's right – Rivera might kill the Ram offense. Good thing we avoided that! You want peace in the Middle East? Put Scott Linehan in charge of al-Qaeda. Two weeks, tops, they'll be holding slumber parties and painting each other's toenails. The Rams routinely come out flat for games, and if this coaching staff can't get the team better prepared and motivated, somebody better motivate them.
And, in light of your press conference mini-rant last week, Jim Haslett, shut up. Just shut the hell up. What are we supposed to consider even remotely good about a defense that even the Arizona Freaking Cardinals respect so little, they run THIRTY-SEVEN times against it? Do you really think we're dumb enough not to know that your pass defense gives up fewer yards than most teams because your run defense is so pathetic? 34 points allowed to a team that averages 17? Nary a blitz that worked today, of the few you did run, even though you were up against a rookie QB behind one of the league's worst lines? Only one sack, and that only because the secondary managed to cover everyone for about 15 seconds? RBs running through the (porous) defensive line directly into the secondary time after time? You've been here how long, coach? Almost a year? What the heck are you doing with the linebackers? If they're screwing up, why still, after all this time? Why can nobody in the secondary tackle now? What happened to ball pursuit on this defense? Why do so many guys have to make plays 1-on-1? Where is Larry Marmie when we need him?
I assume Greg Olson called offensive plays again today; he made a colossal blunder on the Rams' opening drive, numbskulledly calling an inside run to Jackson on 3rd-and-6 from the Arizona 13. Four yards, and on comes Jeff Wilkins. But I saw a lot of positives in Olson's playcalling. He established Jackson and Holt offensively, and even got Klopfenstein involved. He dialed up an 83-yard TD to Holt, but Torry dropped it. He had a screen going to Jackson against a blitz in the 4th for a big play, but Steven lost it. He didn't abandon the run with the Rams trailing. They ran for 100, passed for 300, and scored on all 4 red zone trips, 2 TDs and 2 FGs. I think some of the sack problems come from trying to force the deep ball, i.e. plays with all deep routes and no outlet receiver, but on the whole, Olson didn't call a bad game.
Here is where a less crabby, more rational person would say, Cut Linehan some slack. Be patient. It's still his first year. Give Haslett some credit. He's trying to make chicken salad out of chicken crap. To which I reply: True. All true. But I also ask that nobody sue me for expecting this team, even as currently composed, to be able to win a home game over the freaking Big Dead, as opposed to getting blown off the field. Blowing modest short-term expectations this badly doesn't make the long term look rosy.

* Upon further review: With Ron Winter heading up the officiating crew, you can always expect a poorly-called game, and the Rams played the first half 11-on-18. Winter set up an Arizona TD with a roughing-the-passer penalty on Little in the 2nd for less contact than was made with Matt Turk on the punt the previous play, which Winter stared right at and ignored. The crew set up Arizona's 2nd TD with a 34-yard DPI call on Fakhir Brown, who didn't touch Boldin, who caught the ball out of bounds anyway. Both of those calls were critical to Arizona jumping out to an early lead. On one play, the entire Arizona o-line appeared to jump, and the crew nearly let them continue the play! before throwing the most delayed false start flag ever. And several Cardinals dry-humping the goal post after a TD is a textbook taunting penalty, also ignored by Winter. Bulger could have used this crew's hair trigger on roughing calls a couple of times this season - they called three on Arizona in the second half. But the way Antonio Smith clocked Bulger in the head, with a 3-TD lead late in the game, he should have been ejected. There'd better be a damn big fine headed his way.

* Cheers: Not much to say about, or for, today's crowd, which only filled half the Dome's seats. Attendance may have been down because of the area's major power outage; I know I would have preferred to spend the day in a cold, dark room instead of watching that crap. The lackluster matchup was also a likely factor, and the hardy few present were suitably lackluster, rarely managing any kind of volume outside of booing the referees. With their play, the Rams made sure to kill any enthusiasm the crowd did have right out of the gate and as often as they could. I was surprised the team wasn't booed a lot harder than it was; they certainly deserved it. Twelve games into the Linehan Era, the vibe from the crowd is they're fed up with the team to the point of apathy, and, yep, it's 1998 all over again in Rams Nation. The cheerleaders have switched to the alternate Christmas uniforms, and they led the junior cheerleaders for a Christmas show at halftime. But that's all the cheer we figure to see in the Dome the rest of this season.

* Who’s next?: This week's preview can be summed up quickly. Scott Linehan is not capable of coaching this team to a victory over the Chicago Bears. I'm not eating a hat or going streaking down Broadway if the Rams win next Monday night's matchup, but there is very little reason after today to believe they would.

Chicago's three losses this year are almost all the work of one guy: QB Rex Grossman, or for you Prison Break viewers, "Tweener". Arizona nearly beat Chicago in October because Tweener was pathetic, with four INTs and two fumbles. Joey Freaking Harrington led the Dolphins to a major upset in Soldier Field last month, despite just 132 passing yards and 2 picks, because Tweener was even worse, with a fumble and 3 INTs. Miami had TD drives that day of 6, 12, and 24 yards, plus an INT TD by Jason Taylor. Tweener similarly had four turnovers in a recent loss at New England. After a hot start, Rex Grossman is now as bad a QB any good team's ever had. But unless the Rams prove capable of slowing down Thomas Jones and the Bear running game, which they aren't, they can't take advantage of Tweener's sheer incompetence. Stacking 8 or 9 in the box is the Rams' only hope I can see; make Tweener beat you, but that relies on Fakhir Brown to be able to handle Ram-killer Muhsin Muhammed one-on-one and for Bernard Berrian to continue to have a quiet second half of the season. We’d never see that strategy anyway, as unwilling as Jim Haslett is to expose his DBs like that. Blitzing could also get to Grossman, and somehow, someway, you have to force him to make mistakes to beat Chicago. I don't see the Rams able to do it.

Besides, Chicago wins even with Grossman's worst efforts. Tweener was brutal against Minnesota today: 6-19, 34 yards, 3 INTs, passer rating of 1.3. Yet the Bears still won easily, because of their dominating defense and special teams. Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Hunter Hillenmeyer are likely the NFL's best linebacking corps, and they back up a potent defensive line, which will likely send DT Tommie Harris to the Pro Bowl (depending on his leg injury today), and where Alex Brown has found a home as a dominating pass rusher. And I lobbied for the Rams to draft Mark Anderson in April, starting in the 2nd round; guess who leads the Bears in sacks, with 8? Lovie Smith's D is everything the Rams' isn't. They're active, they're aggressive, they get after the ball, they can tackle and pressure the passer. Maybe the Rams can power run Jackson on them, who knows. But when they couldn't hold the line of scrimmage against the goddamn Cardinals today, why expect them to do it any time this year against the Bears? If Grossman forces the Rams to earn most of their points with long drives, forget about this one. The opportunistic Bears often don't even need scoring drives to score; they're great at returning turnovers for TDs, and Devin Hester proved himself again today as the league's most dangerous returner. The Rams are going to have to be more prepared than they've been all year, which ain't saying much, to keep up with these guys.

Realistically, the Rams are playing out the string now, and as it's traditionally said, the players will mainly be playing for their jobs these last four weeks. I've ripped Scott Linehan up one side and down the other, but he'll be back next season, and probably should be, in the name of stability if nothing else. I would like to see him put something besides a disinterested team on the field. But if he can't motivate these players, he needs to find new ones to motivate, and probably more new ones than we'd suspected back in September. Time to get good looks at the younger players and find out who should stay and who should go. Maybe some good moments down the stretch this year will lay solid ground for next year.

-- Mike
Game stats from nfl.com