RamView, December 30, 2012
From the Couch
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Game #16: Seahawks 20, Rams 13

The Rams don't finish 2012 in the win column, but coming up just a couple of plays short against the league's hottest team in Seattle, there's little doubt they've returned to respectability. For too rare a time in St. Louis, instead of saying this season couldn't end soon enough, next season can't start soon enough.

Position by position:
* QB: Sam Bradford (25-42-252, 74.7 PR) had a respectable game, though the Ram offense once again took a long time to get going. Bradford struck in the middle of the 2nd with a couple of slant passes. He and Chris Givens took advantage of an out-of-position corner for 37 on 3rd-and-5. The throw led Givens perfectly to help create the big play. That set up a 2-yard TD to Austin Pettis that somehow got to him through a Seahawk lineman's hands. Bradford had a lot of things working this week. He got very good protection. The Seattle secondary was down a starter. He worked checkdowns well throughout the game. Before halftime, after several nibbles, he hit Brandon Gibson for 21 to set up a (missed) FG attempt. The bootleg pass that confounds this offense even worked multiple times this week. Bradford made an excellent play to find Givens deep on the sideline for 17 while on the boot in the 3rd to set up a FG. After Seattle took a 13-10 lead, Bradford led the Rams right back. He hit Gibson for 12 on each sideline, hanging in forever while on the roll the second time. Quickly in the red zone, Bradford then made a perfect pre-snap read to hit Lance Kendricks over the middle for 10, down to the Seattle 5. Familiar story from there, though, as the Rams failed to punch it in. He had Kendricks open on 2nd-and-goal, but never looked there and tried to force one to Danny Amendola in a crowd instead. The Rams settled for a FG, which wouldn't be enough. Bradford tried to rally one last time down 20-13 with 1:30 left. He hit Kendricks with a marvelous sidearm throw for 15, and scrambled for 6 on 4th-and-5, to get inside the Seattle 30. That would be the closest he'd get, though, as he fired into traffic in the end zone again and got picked off by Ryan Braun, ER, Richard Sherman, to end the season. By all accounts, Sam Bradford had a good 2012. He set career bests for TDs and passer rating. He was one of the best QBs in the league under pass pressure and under game pressure, leading the team on several 4th-quarter comebacks. This week, he again was tough in the pocket and made many good throws and good decisions. Half of this year's playoff teams, though, will be led by QBs drafted since the Rams drafted Bradford to be their franchise QB. Sam Bradford's worked his way down the road. Next season, the Rams need him to finish the trip.

* RB: Despite only 11 carries, Steven Jackson (11-52) joined a very elite club in the 2nd when he became only the sixth back ever to run for 1,000 yards in eight straight seasons. He made the mark with a 14-yard run up the gut behind strong drive-blocking. Unfortunately, he needed much of the first half to get the 10 yards he needed to reach it. The line did not get much push for him or Daryl Richardson (2-0); they were more effective as receivers, especially Jackson (7-42) as Bradford's frequent safety valve. Jackson did seem to miss a couple of inviting cutback opportunities, especially when he danced and got stuffed by Chris Clemons on 2nd-10 late in the 1st. Over half Jackson's yards came on just two carries; he also got 15 through a gaping hole to get the Rams' FG drive started in the 3rd. In the 4th, Jackson, his usual defender-dragging self, surged down to the 2 on 3rd-and-goal from the 9. Perhaps surprisingly, he didn't get another shot down there. Jackson was solid in blitz pickup all game but missed a safety blitz during the final series that messed up a pass attempt. Isaiah Pead (5-21) got some 2nd half action and showed some of the elusiveness and outside running that D-Rich has been missing lately. Jackson didn't have a perfect game in a hard week to get a rhythm going, but he still looks to be head and shoulders the Rams' best backfield weapon.

* Receivers: Bradford really spread the ball around this week. Jackson had the most catches, with 7. Danny Amendola (4-27) led the WRs with 4. He came up probably a quarter-inch short on a diving 3rd-and-10 catch on the Rams' second possession and was the target for Bradford's game-ending INT. Amendola really hasn't been high-impact since returning from his foot injury. Chris Givens (2-54) had key catches on two of the Rams' scoring drives. He set up a TD with a 37-yard catch-and-run that turned Jeremy Lane inside out, and set up the first FG popping open late for a 17-yard sideline catch. Austin Pettis (3-24) showed excellent concentration and my-ball mentality adjusting to the TD pass, an intended quick slant that became more of a floater after getting tipped at the line. Pettis kept a FG alive with a diving play to convert a 3rd-and-7 but also had a bad drop. To this unit's credit, those are getting pretty unusual. (Mike McNeill also had one on what should have been a big sideline catch.) Lance Kendricks (3-33) made a nice catch of a sidearm pass to get the Rams across midfield late in the game and blocked well for the most part. Brandon Gibson (3-45) had a couple of catches to get the Rams in the red zone for their 4th-quarter TD, made an excellent diving catch for 21 to set up a FG attempt before halftime, and drew a 25-yard DPI to kick off the Rams' final drive. Is Brian Quick (0-0) ready to replace him? Bradford went deep for him before halftime but he was less open than I probably would have been. Just 11 catches for 156 for “the next T.O.” this year; the original T.O. was about 3x more productive his rookie year. The Rams have some deep speed from Givens, some short speed from Amendola, but need to add a lot more.

* Offensive line: Using a healthy amount of max-protect formations, the Rams technically kept Bradford from getting sacked for a second straight week. It wasn't a smooth road. Chris Clemons got a hit on Bradford the opening possession after faking Rodger Saffold to the ground. The line struggled to get push in the running game, but pass pro was strong for Bradford right before halftime, and they came out strong after halftime as well. Chris Williams and Shelley Smith split time at RG again, and this week, Williams looked like the one who should have played the whole game, despite a dumb personal foul in the 2nd. He and Scott Wells drive-blocked a big hole for Jackson's 1,000-yard-breaker, and Williams absolutely wiped out Alan Branch on Jackson's 15-yard run in the 3rd, with the best cut block I can remember by a Rams lineman. Just decleated him. A major breakdown midway through the 4th nearly cost the Rams big. Shelley Smith was beaten badly inside by Brandon Mebane and had to tackle him, drawing a flag. At the same time, Saffold, for whatever reason, completely quit blocking the relentless Clemons, who took that as an invitation to go drill Bradford for the hardest hit of the day. Luckily, Bradford got off the throw, once the officiating crew figured that out. (I'm sure it still felt like a sack to Sam.) Barry Richardson had some good run blocks, and the line didn't struggle with false starts in Seattle's din as badly as they could have, with just a couple by Rob Turner. The line met expectations this week, though those expectations were pretty low. Run-blocking wasn't great, but they didn't do a lot of running. Bradford didn't get sacked, but with the amount of max-protect the Rams played, he really shouldn't have. If the Rams want to open up the offense more next season, the line's going to have to get more done on its own.

* Defensive line: Roller-coaster game for the Ram defense. They finished the season tied for the league lead in sacks after sacking Russell Wilson six times, but let him get away too often. They made a number of great plays but also made enough frustrating, pull-your-hair-out mistakes to come up just a couple of plays short in the end. Like the whole defense biting on a fake option handoff and letting Golden Tate run free behind the defense for 30 on Seattle's second play. Or Eugene Sims, who was terrible, jumping offsides on 3rd-and-9. The Rams killed that drive with a pair of sacks, though. As they successfully trapped Wilson in the pocket, Chris Long ran around Breno Giacomini for one, while William Hayes beat a double-team in manly fashion for another, driving J.R. Sweezy into the ground. The Rams looked in trouble again later in the 1st. Marshawn Lynch (18-100) gained 11 while Seattle easily picked off Jo-Lonn Dunbar and James Laurinaitis. Kendall Langford blew a sack on 3rd-and-2, the first of too many times the Rams would make the 5'10”, 205-lb Wilson out to be Ben Roethlisberger. But Dunbar finished the drive with the Rams' third sack of the quarter. Seattle botched the snap, and Wilson wanted to scramble, but the Rams' contain rush closed in on him like a fist instead. After a terrible Rams punt in the 2nd, Lynch put Seattle right into FG position with a 24-yard run, with Laurinaitis getting picked off in the hole and Michael Brockers getting dominated 1-on-1 by Pat McQuistan. Robert Quinn held that drive to a FG by whipping Russell Okung with pure speed, getting the Rams' 4th sack on just a 3-man rush. Lynch responded to the Rams' TD with a 19-yard run through Rocky McIntosh and Quintin Mikell, but Langford got a sublime jump to blow up the backfield to give Lynch a 4-yard loss, and Cortland Finnegan blitzed and was all over a handoff to Robert Turbin for a 7-yard loss. Seattle got moving right before halftime with Sims jumping offside again and Wilson running an option for 12, but Long, who Seattle unwisely left unblocked, ended the threat with his 2nd sack. After one ferocious but uneven half, the Rams had five sacks and had given up just 3 points. Seattle unfortunately adjusted successfully at halftime. They started the 2nd half just like the 1st, getting all the Rams to bite on a fake option and getting TE Anthony McCoy behind the defense for 49. That set up a FG despite Long's THIRD sack, putting another whipping on Giacomini. The Rams extended the lead to 10-6 but immediately blew it, with Dunbar having an especially bad drive. He jumped offside. He didn't drop deep enough to defend a 32-yard completion to Tate. Then, near the goal line, he let Michael Robinson slip out of the backfield for an uncontested TD. Dunbar appeared to atone for that late in the game, blowing up a run deep in Seattle territory, with Lynch losing the ball. Naturally, the Rams not only failed to recover, but Seattle fell on it for a first down. Three plays later, on 3rd-and-4, it's Laurinaitis turning Wilson into Big Ben, miserably blowing a sack and allowing the rookie to hit Tate for 44. Wilson then scrambled for 15 inside the 5 after Sims terribly blew a tackle. Sims followed that by losing the edge on Wilson's game winning TD run around left end. It's a shame so much good play succumbed to too many mistakes, but the defense needed to clean that up. They committed too many penalties, missed too many tackles in the second half, and had too many major coverage breakdowns. Things to work on for next year.

* Secondary: The secondary's day echoed the rest of the defense's. There was a lot of good play. Cortland Finnegan was a blitzing menace and was strong against the run. Excellent downfield coverage had Wilson struggling to find open receivers while the Rams collapsed the pocket on him. But the bad plays tended to be killers and are unfortunately what stands out, especially the ongoing misadventures of future ex-Ram Craig Dahl. Twice in this game, Dahl would bite hard on the misdirection of a simple college play and let a Seahawk receiver get open deep behind him: Golden Tate for 30 in the 1st and Anthony McCoy for 49 in the 3rd. Seattle's first TD drive was littered with missed plays. Trumaine Johnson broke up a typical Wilson deep moonball in the end zone but should have intercepted the pass. Tate gained 32 on 3rd-and-6, about half because Dunbar didn't drop deep enough and half because Dahl, as usual, mangled a tackle attempt. Dunbar lost Robinson coming out of the backfield for the TD pass and again for 19 to start the next drive. Tate got behind TruJo for 44 on the game-losing drive after Laurinaitis' blown sack. Wilson's mobility puts extra stress on a secondary to cover receivers longer. The Rams broke down late too many times.

* Special teams: I guess both the Rams' rookie kickers are coming back next year, and I guess we as fans are going to need plenty of Tums to get through their growing pains. Greg Zuerlein hit two short FGs but missed a 50-yarder before halftime. It was a narrow miss, but going dead straight, it was a miss from the moment it left his foot. Zuerlein was drafted for his special ability to kick long FGs, and it seems to be evading him. Fortunately, he's been highly accurate sub-50, or we'd be talking busted draft pick. As it is, John Fassel and Jeff Fisher are going to have to cut back on the freak show kicks next year and make sure the kid can be reliable from 50-52. Fassel also needs to fix Johnny Hekker, who kills what would otherwise be an awesome punting average every week now with some kind of shank or awful mi**** that puts the Ram defense over a barrel. This week he flubbed a 33-yarder that must have traveled both higher and further sideways than it was long. Seattle turned the gift field position into a FG. This actually was a pretty poor special teams week all around. The Rams got fooled by an onside kick but Seattle goofed and touched the ball early. Mario Haggan ran into the punter for the second time this year. There's some real 10-year veteran savvy. Long and Wayne Hunter took personal fouls after kicking plays. Amendola muffed a punt out of bounds. The best unit was kickoff coverage. Justin Cole stuffed Leon Washington inside the 15 a couple of times. Darian Stewart prevented a big return by closing up a big gap in the 3rd. Special teams didn't seem to have the greatest focus for this week's game, but we'll trust it's regained next season.

* Strategery: Jeff Fisher's done an outstanding job with this team, and again this week, there were very good game plans on both sides of the ball. There was one situation I was surprised Fisher didn't handle differently: not going for it on 4th-and-goal from the 2 in the 4th. Doesn't a team with nothing to lose go for the TD there, even with a tying FG all but certain? Especially after running on 3rd-and-long? Why run there if you were never going for it on 4th down? And Jackson had just run for 7, and the Rams seemingly have a legion of successful 2-point conversion plays they could have drawn upon in that situation. Really surprising that Fisher settled for 3 there. Pete Carroll got the drop on Fisher with the attempted onside kick in the 3rd, but it backfired on him and set up a Rams FG. Still odd that the Rams weren't ready for that, because Fisher loves special teams trickery and is always on the lookout for it. You saw that when Seattle was punting on 4th-and-1 just before halftime; Fisher left the defense on the field to protect against the fake. Fisher may not be a Boy Scout, but “be prepared” is a fitting motto for him.

The Rams' defensive gameplan showed great discipline; too bad the players didn't always show the same. The Rams contain-rushed Wilson as well as I've ever seen them do; contain rushes were responsible for at least the first three sacks. That part of the Rams' approach was perfect. They also got to Wilson a couple of times by blitzing Finnegan. The pressure plan worked like a charm, especially with Seattle failing to give the injured Giacomini extra help against Long. There was a lot to like about Brian Schottenheimer's play-calling, too, from the early no-huddle to try to take the crowd out of the game to the use of max-protect to slow down Seattle's speed rushers to the number of times they attacked the rookie CB Lane. A lot of the apparent run-pass imbalance came at the end of each half, so I wouldn't say the gameplan was pass-wacky. The one play everyone's going to wish they had back was the delay of game on 3rd-and-goal at the 4-yard-line. I don't know how that even happens. Schottenheimer did a good job in 2012. He calls too many throws in the red zone, but he played to his players' strengths well and didn't lock Bradford in the fish bowl he was often stuck in his rookie year. It would be interesting to see what Schotty can do with some real weapons.

* Upon further review: Less good than bad and ugly, Jeff Triplette and crew earn their typical poor grade. Things looked good early when they caught the blatant pick on McCoy and repealed a long TD pass to Zach Miller. Triplette had to correct two calls via replay, a mis-spot of a late Lynch goal line run and the brutal call that Bradford had fumbled in the 4th when Clemons hit him. It was clear as day that Bradford's arm was in motion. This crew was especially poor at maintaining control of the game. There were all kinds of post-play shenanigans, though the Rams seemed to get all the calls against them. Hunter got 15 in the 3rd on the classic WWE-quality don't-catch-the-instigator call. That gave Seattle great FG position for their first TD drive, which ended with Long getting a 15-yard call, despite Seattle initiating contact again (I think by accident, though). Seattle got away with chippy post-play antics the entire game. And there were head-scratchers beyond that. Seattle got a very late challenge on Pettis' first-down sideline dive, which the crew got right. They called Amendola less than an inch short on his diving catch in the 1st and somehow magically confirmed that on replay. Let it stand, I'd have gotten. Confirmed means Triplette clearly saw that Amendola came up exactly that short. Really? The Ram defense got a penalty for 12 men in the 3rd before the ball was snapped. Don't they get a chance to run a man off the field? Sorry I can't turn over a new leaf for the New Year, but I expected little from Triplette, and got it. D-plus

* Cheers: Another superb broadcast by Chris Myers and Tim Ryan. Most broadcasts would have played the Rams up like just another victim, but Myers and Ryan gave them the respect of serious competitors, and by halftime, Ryan was gushing about how far the Rams had come along compared to this time last year under his admitted friend Steve Spagnuolo. After halftime, Ryan became the first analyst I saw all year brave enough to point out a defense making Wilson's lack of height work against him. Ryan's analysis of the Rams' early use of no-huddle was excellent, and he got all of the close calls right before either Triplette or Mike Pereira, who correctly predicted Triplette would re-spot the ball after the Pettis dive but was atypically way off on the Lynch goal line call, where there was clear evidence the ball hadn't broken the plane before Lynch was out of bounds. More Tim Ryan in 2013, please.

* What’s next?: Jeff Fisher and Les Snead have the latest Rams rebuild off to a strong start. Their first draft has been a bona fide success, with Brockers, Jenkins, Johnson and Givens forming a great platform for the future. If Zuerlein and Richardson regain their consistency, and Pead and Quick prove worthy of their 2nd-round status, 2012 could be a draft for the ages. Fisher and Snead also deserve credit for assembling an excellent free-agent class. Not only do their big splashes, Finnegan and Wells, appear to be paying off, but they got great value with sly pick-ups like Dunbar, Hayes, Langford and Turner. Fisher put together a superb staff to develop and maximize the team's talent. Mike Waufle did what he's done so many times, lead a defensive line to the top of the league in sacks. Chuck Cecil's getting quality play in the secondary and has some tantalizing young talent. John Fassel led special teams to one of its best seasons in years. And Paul Boudreau worked his usual spit-and-baling-wire magic with an o-line that had to shuffle personnel almost every week. The Fisher regime has come roaring out of the gate, showing it knows how to acquire talent, coach it up and make the most of it. The infrastructure's been created to build a thriving franchise.

Steven Jackson's an important part of that infrastructure, though, and it would be a big step backward on offense to lose him. Even in this brave new NFL world of running games by committee, the Rams still need Jackson's tough inside running, all-around receiving and blocking game, and intelligence and leadership. I'm not saying to sign him till 2017, but Jackson can help the Rams for a couple more years until the young RBs are ready. There's also the continuing dilemma at WR. You're going to have to trust Brian Quick a lot to not make a significant move to add a receiver who can separate downfield, and that assumes the Rams find a way to keep Amendola, a pending unrestricted free agent. Then again, how much do you pay a slot receiver who is hurt a lot? Whatever they do, the Rams cannot exit another training camp with Brandon Gibson as their “#1” receiver. (Which may not happen by default; he's also a free agent.) The offensive line gelled down the stretch , and will get Harvey Dahl back. They're welcome to upgrade at RT; Barry Richardson is a good run-blocker but way too much of a liability in pass protection. The Rams have the cap room, and the extra first-round pick in the draft, to make a lot happen on the offensive side.

The Rams can afford to focus on offense in the offseason because the defense looks to be in very good shape. Hayes is the most important defensive veteran for them to re-sign, if his 7-sack season didn't price him out of their range. A young, capable weakside linebacker would be a boon. And, glory be, Craig Dahl is finally a free agent, free to spend the rest of his days whiffing tackles for the Saints or somebody. The Rams have plenty of options there, including Darian Stewart and the draft. But most of this team's personnel issues on defense should be building or re-building depth.

Though it seems like he just got here yesterday, 2013 will already be Sam Bradford's fourth season in a Rams uniform. He's progressed steadily, but the challenge now will be to raise his play to the next level. Whether or not they retain Jackson, the '13 Rams need to be Sam Bradford's team. The Rams are in position to add the last pieces of the puzzle to give Bradford a quality offense to lead. Bradford needs to step up one more time in 2013 and make those moves pay off. Become the Rams' real franchise player. The St. Louis Rams are ready to take a major step forward, and Sam Bradford has to take that step with them.

-- Mike
Game stats from espn.com