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RamView, 12/31/2006: Rams 41, Vikings 21 (Long)
RamView, December 31, 2006
From The Couch
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Game #16: Rams 41, Vikings 21
The Rams close the 2006 season in style in Minnesota. Steven Jackson shocks the league's best run defense and the Ram defense benefits from Viking rookie QB mistakes for a win nowhere near as close as even the blowout final score shows. St. Louis finishes the season 8-8 and with an eye toward a bright future.
Position by position:
* QB: Marc Bulger had an efficient game (19-30-248, 100.4) that would have been a dominant game if not for several brutal drops by his receivers early on. A good throw that Isaac Bruce stabbed for a 23-yard gain on 2nd-and-20 set up the Rams' opening drive FG. The offense stopped moving for a while after that, thanks to ugly drops by Torry Holt, Aaron Walker and Bruce. Bruce's 3rd-down drop made you wonder if the Rams were just going through the motions today, but after that play, all aspects of the Ram offense got clicking. Holt made a nice scoop for 13, and Marc hit him again with a beautifully-timed pass on the sideline for 18 more, to put the Rams at the Viking 6 and set up Steven Jackson's first TD. Later in the 2nd, facing a 3rd-and-9 up 17-7, Bulger fed Kevin Curtis perfectly for 31. From the Viking 21, he hit Holt for 12 on 3rd-and-10 before shoveling to Jackson for a 10-yard TD. After halftime, the Rams scored for the 3rd straight drive to make it a 27-7 game, and Bulger led them to a 4th straight score thanks to a juggling catch by Holt, Curtis' dive for the 1st down on 3rd-and-7, and a 26-yard shot upfield to Walker. Marc wasn't called on to throw deep, but he did everything else. These last two weeks, he's been as strong in the pocket as he's been all season, unloading the ball on time and very accurately, pretty close to unstoppable. Scott Linehan's been pretty good to Marc Bulger. He wasn't sacked today, and has been protected much better than he was under Mike Martz's kill-Bulger scheme. In turn, Bulger's been very good to Linehan, with his second Pro Bowl season: 4300 passing yards, 24 TDs, just 8 INTs. A great formula to follow again next year.
* RB: Steven Jackson hasn't just elevated his play this season, he's gone into orbit, to a place where not even one of the best single-season run defenses in NFL history can stop him. They allowed just 54.5 yards a game coming in, but the Viking defense was humbled today by Jackson, who rolled up 142 rushing yards and four TDs. Steven opened up with an 18-yard run, patiently waiting for a block, then popping it outside while breaking two DB tackles. That drive ended, though, with Steven getting stuffed running out of the fullback position on a 3rd-and-2. That would be about the last time Minnesota stopped Jackson at anything, though. He ran through three Vikings for a 4-yard TD that put the Rams up 17-7. He started up the next drive with a nice cutback left for 14. After picking up one of many Viking 3rd-down blitzes to give Bulger time to hit Holt for 12 and a 1st, Jackson took a shovel pass 10 yards for his 2nd TD, making it 24-7. After halftime, Steven continued to be the Rams' finisher, bowling through two Vikings for his 3rd TD, and not only was he still not done, he still had his best play of the season left. From his own 41, he took the handoff and came almost to a full stop patiently waiting for Richie Incognito's big block, then exploded into the hole, and by the time he was running up the sideline, he had much too big a head of steam for the Viking secondary to catch him. Jackson's 59-yard TD run was his fourth of the day; it put him over 1,500 yards rushing for the season and at 2,334 yards from scrimmage. The 2,334 is best in the league for 2006 and the fifth-best in NFL history, and all this from a third-year back! Steven Jackson does it all he runs, scores, catches, blocks, heck, he even recovered an onside kick today. He is clearly the next in the Rams' line of superstar RBs, and this team will be competitive as long as he is around.
* WR: It didn't look like the Ram receivers came to play today initially; at least, it looked like they left their hands at home. After Minnesota's first TD, a brutal drop by Torry Holt and a bad drop by Aaron Walker gave the Rams an ugly three-and-out. The next drive was little better on 3rd-and-2, Bulger hung in tough against a big blitz, and found Isaac Bruce (4-66), who. Dropped. The. Ball! Fortunately, Isaac had set up a FG earlier with a great full-extension grab to convert a 2nd-and-20, and when Minnesota didn't capitalize on the Rams' wheel-spinning, the receivers poured it on the rest of the game. Torry Holt (9-90) set up Steven Jackson's first TD with a nice 13-yard scoop and a perfect 18-yard sideline catch, "dotting the i" with his right foot with little room to spare. Torry's string of 1,300-yard seasons has come to an end, but 93 catches, 1178 yards and 10 TDs require no apologies, either. Kevin Curtis' two catches were superb and helped set up TDs. He caught a 25-yard throw from Bulger in the 2nd, took a wallop, and ran for five more yards. In the 3rd, he dove across the marker to convert a 3rd-and-7. That was followed by a 25-yard reception by Aaron Walker. But Bruce may have had the classic moment of the day, and I don't mean his wacky TD pass attempt in the 3rd, I mean a catch he made to set up a FG in the 2nd. In converting a key 3rd-and-8, Ike faked rookie CB Charles Gordon into thinking long route so badly that when he made his cut to the sideline, Gordon fell to the ground. Isaac's proved this season he's still got it. So does this whole receiving unit.
* Offensive line: The revamped Ram offensive line looked very promising against Oakland and Washington, but today's matchup against the Viking defense loomed as the test that would show whether or not these guys could actually play. They passed, nearly with flying colors. Bulger wasn't sacked all day, though Richie Incognito got beaten badly by Pat Williams and had to drag him down to save a sack on the opening drive. That was probably as close as anybody got to Marc, who had a pretty comfortable day in the pocket. The success of the Ram running game, though, was eye-opening. The Vikings stuffed Jackson a few times but were far from controlling the line of scrimmage. Jackson's first TD came behind a Todd Steussie pancake and a solid block from Joe Klopfenstein, who's come a long way as a blocker. Mark Setterstrom also had a block on that play, and the key block on Jackson's shovel-pass TD. Incognito's big block blew open Steven's 59-yard TD in the 4th. Alex Barron did register his 13th false start of the season to force a FG, and the line lost focus a little bit once the Rams pulled the starters. But the day was still a big success, as the Ram offensive line and their stud RB took it right to the league's best run defense and came out on top.
* Defensive line/LB: The Ram pass rush would have been abysmal against most other QBs, but by blitzing a ton, they were able to pressure rookie QB Tarvaris Jackson into poor throws, even though none of their blitzes resulted in sacks. After Dexter Coakley dropped Chester Taylor for a loss on Minnesota's 2nd drive, a 3rd down blitz forced Jackson, who'd already thrown an INT/TD, into a bad overthrow. The defense's main lapse while the game was still a contest came after the Rams went up 10-0. After about 40 yards worth of poor secondary tackling and coverage, the line gave Jackson forever to take off on a 7-yard scramble. That helped set up a 3rd-and-goal, where Leonard Little not only embarrassingly got manhandled by Jim Kleinsasser, he then got even more embarrassingly faked out by the rookie QB, who juked outside and then ran inside Leonard for Minnesota's first TD. With just a 10-7 lead and the offense spitting the bit late in the first, the Rams needed a big play out of somebody, and got it from Brandon Green, who blew up a Chester Taylor sweep to stall a Viking drive. In the 2nd, after Jimmy Kennedy HORRIBLY blew a backfield tackle and let Taylor get away for 15, Little put a big rush on the QB, and with Raonall Smith likely getting away with a helmet-to-head hit, Jackson chucked a pass up for grabs for Ron Bartell's 2nd INT of the day. That set up a TD, and the defense set up another one after Jason Fisk and Coakley slammed the door shut on Taylor on a 3rd-and-1 run. All that momentum eventually rolled into a 41-7 lead and a meaningless 2nd half. The referees screwed the Rams for one 2nd-half TD, while Mewelde Moore set up another with a 40-yard screen pass. The Rams did end up with three sacks, all in the 2nd half. Little forced a sack/fumble, Kennedy plowed in unblocked for one, and Will Witherspoon got a late Christmas gift from the statistician. The Rams more than made up for any pass rush flaws with solid run defense. All those good stops helped hold Taylor to 29 yards; Jackson was Minnesota's leading rusher, with 34. Pretty darn funny that with the NFL's best rushing defense on the other sideline, it's the 31st best Rams who hold the opposition to 82 running yards.
* Secondary: The Rams started the game in fine fashion thanks to Ron Bartell, who classically jumped a sideline route to intercept a brutally dumb throw from Jackson and return it for an easy 38-yard TD. Bartell, who has really come along the last quarter of the season, picked off another pass Jackson threw up for grabs in the 2nd, and right now, I'd consider him and Tye Hill next year's starting CBs. Fakhir Brown's certainly no shutdown corner the way he looked early on, unable to cover the likes of Travis Taylor or Martin Nance, who sounds more like a TV fisherman than an NFL WR. Hill's terrible tackle of Taylor gave the completely-ordinary-but-somehow-hard-to-stop-today WR 19 to help set up Minnesota's first TD, also helped when he was left WIDE OPEN over the middle for 14 on 3rd-and-7 at the Ram 19. A poor DPI call set up one of Minnesota's late TDs, and then Taylor struck again. OJ Atogwe, who covered Nance nicely on an earlier bomb, seemed to react to a Jackson rollout and uncovered Taylor in the end zone for a catch in a crowd. It's a young, mistake-prone secondary, fortunately, a match for the young, mistake-prone QB and subpar receiving corps they faced today. We'll have to hope their development stays on schedule.
* Special teams: Bob Ligashesky seems to just be guessing on covering kick returns anymore, like that guy on the FedEx commercial who can't find China on the wall map. He tried to trap Bethel Johnson with woefully-short directional kicks but generally couldn't keep him inside the 30. Then the Rams went with deep kickoffs, which had limited success until Johnson ran one back 65 yards in the 4th to set up a TD. The TV shot of Linehan muttering after that play was priceless unless you're someone who really wants to see Ligashesky back next year. Though to be fair, there were positives on STs as well. Jeff Wilkins hit a 53-yard bomb, his long for the season, and Matt Turk finished off an excellent season with three punts averaging 47 yards. The "hands team" can't get much work on onside kicks, but Corey Chavous made a nice play to cover one, and Steven Jackson recovered the other. Shaun McDonald has even started running forward just a little on punts before going sideways and getting stopped. To Ligashesky's credit, special teams improved a lot over last year's, but without some critical coverage breakdowns, the Rams are in the playoffs, and the return game continues to be a non-factor. "Teams" got a big personnel upgrade when Scott Linehan took over; the Rams will have to determine how much of the problem is still on, or off, the field.
* Coaching/discipline: Kudos to the Ram coaching staff after today's game, starting with Scott Linehan, who got his charges to end the season on a three-game winning streak, winning convincingly and playing well this week even though they already knew they were out of the playoff picture. Linehan's shown he can get the Rams playing with focus; let's hope that in future seasons, they keep that game-to-game focus better than they did at times this season.
Greg Olson did not have it going right away today. Incognito's holding penalty came on one of those bizarre Martz crossfield screen passes, and Richie's hold was probably the best potential result of the play. On 3rd-and-2 later that drive, Olson tried a twist on the fake flip-90 he's enjoyed success with lately, this time with Holt at tailback and Jackson at fullback, but either Minnesota had it scouted, or Jackson didn't have enough room to build enough power to get through the beef up front. Probably the latter. The play looked like a bad idea as run and forced the Rams to settle for a FG. With the Vikings consistently blitzing on every third down, I'd expected a little more in the way of draw plays and screens. What you have to love about Olson's game plan today, though, is that he didn't concede the run even though the Rams were up against a historically-tough run defense. Showing faith in the running game 35 runs vs. 31 passes keeps up Jackson's and the o-line's confidence, and though a running game plan seems deceptively simple, I think it was really good coaching on Olson's part.
Jim Haslett also chose the right plan today; the Ram defense held Minnesota to right around 300 total yards. He blitzed young Jackson almost constantly, and though it didn't result in any sacks, he got a lot of bad throws, and at least one of the turnovers, out of the strategy. Pass coverage was so soft, though, that it continues to be apparent that Haslett doesn't trust his secondary to cover much of anybody man-to-man, even Minnesota's motley crew. Haslett's going to have to get a lot more confidence in the DBs' man-to-man abilities if the Ram pass rush is to show improvement.
* Upon further review: Today's officiating wasn't too bad the Rams usually play well in games Peter Morelli's crew officiates but it wasn't great, either. The early taunting penalty against Bruce was NHL-quality; Ike got flagged for retaliating after getting shoved WELL out of bounds. Bad referees always catch the 2nd infraction, never the first. Minnesota seemed to get the worst of it from Morelli and crew, however. The umpire tripped Jermaine Wiggins in the end zone in the 1st. It looked like Steven Jackson had the ball stripped out before he got it across the goal line for his 2nd TD. We never saw who recovered the loose ball, so it may not have mattered, and maybe Morelli got a better replay look than we got on TV. The cut work being done on Tarvaris Jackson's chin after his 2nd INT, though, tells me Raonall Smith's hit wasn't a legal one. Even with all that, the worst call of the day was the bull**** DPI called on Coakley that set up a Viking TD in the 4th. Dexter had position to receive the pass, turned for the ball, played the ball, and the contact was initiated by the receiver, but Dexter gets the penalty? I don't care if it is 41-7; referees have to do better than make ludicrously bad calls like that one. Morelli did an OK job, but it'll be an indictment of the mediocrity of NFL officiating if we see him in a game more important than this the rest of the season.
* Cheers: Apparently, St. Louis isnt enough of a baseball town already, so now our baseball announcers do our football games. Fox gave us Cards TV announcer Dan McLaughlin along with former Jagwire OT Tony Boselli. (What, John Rooney and Jeff Lageman weren't available?) And you had Joe Buck providing updates from the studio. I was a couple of Frederick Roofing jingles away from wondering why LaRussa was giving Albert Pujols the day off. Even so, it was a pretty good broadcast, though too many sloppy transitions ran over the next play or kept us out of date on down/distance/yard line. Other negatives: nobody figured out who recovered the loose ball on Jackson's 2nd TD, and all the outdated "Greatest Show on Earth" talk in the first half. I realize the Rams scored a GSOE-like 41 points, but the Rams aren't the old GSOE any more than today's Vikings are the Purple People Eaters. Positives: Boselli pointing out the rubber dust Holt kicked up when he got his foot in on the challenged sideline catch in the 2nd, and the hilarious crowd shot of the grumpy Minnesota fan in his Viking helmet. That was priceless.
RamView's fearless Super Bowl prediction: in true conspiracy-theory tradition, I'm picking the Saints to win it all, because they're the team the NFL most wants to do it. They'll eliminate the Eggles on a late FG set up by a controversial tuck rule call. The Bears won't beat anybody, even Seattle, with their QBs throwing more INTs than completions, but the Hawks will stand no chance against the Saints' building momentum. The Chargers steamroll through the AFC, but look for the refs to call pass interference exactly opposite to the way they did in Super Bowl XVI. The Charger D will never stand a chance, which will also take LT out of the game on offense. Laissez les bons temps rouler! 38-28, Saints.
* Whos next?: As you might expect in a season that ended with an 8-8 record, the 2006 Rams had their ups and downs. The ups were mostly on offense. Scott Linehan's more conventional, conservative offensive approach kept Marc Bulger healthy for a full season for only the second time, and what do you know? Like his last healthy season, Marc made the Pro Bowl. He bought into Linehan's system and executed it well, throwing an astoundlingly-low 8 INTs. Steven Jackson emerged as one of the league's superstars and a guy who could well carry the team to greater glory. The WRs showed they've still got it, though given Holt and Bruce's increasing age, I doubt the Rams can afford to lose Curtis. TEs Walker and Klopfenstein proved good blockers, Klop's development has been notable while Dominique Byrd flashed potential as a receiving weapon. Despite a flood of injuries, the offensive line held up, and a young nucleus has suddenly sprung up in the middle, that, combined with a healthy Orlando Pace, could rank among the league's best in a couple of years. Linehan seemed to break the Ram offense early in the season, but the switch to Greg Olson as play-caller has generally been a success. Olson calls a balanced game plan. After the brutal shutout in Carolina, the Rams averaged 27.5 points a game. They averaged over 31 a game in December. At season's close, you can say the offense is set and doesn't need much going into next year. Their best moves would be to retain Curtis, and Jackson's mentor Stephen Davis.
The Ram defense, though, still seems to need a lot. Leonard Little is their only bona fide pass rusher. That has to improve. They really need to add a threat at DE who can return Brandon Green to spot roles, where he'd be best, while giving Victor Adeyanju time to develop. The Rams probably need to focus on improving the pass rush short-term, because Hill, Bartell, and Atogwe look like good DBs to develop long-term, and I wouldn't mind adding Laron Landry in the draft if they can pull it off. If that's the plan, the secondary is going to continue to be dependent on the defensive line until the youngsters settle in. The team's worst shortcoming, though, is its run defense, worse than even Larry Marmie's of last year, the worst Ram run defense since 1961. In run defense, like in baseball, you have to be strong up the middle, and the Rams aren't. They don't have a difference-making DT. With luck, Claude Wroten will fill one of the roles and the Rams can find an impact free agent for the other. LaRoi Glover isn't what he once was, and lighting a fire under Jimmy Kennedy's proven about as successful as those women trying to start fires during last season's Survivor finale. Prevailing opinion is that Will Witherspoon's too small for MLB, but Carolina didn't get run on the way the Rams do when Will played there; the Panthers had a top pair of defensive tackles. And London Fletcher was small, too. The building blocks on defense are in the middle of the line, and since that's where they need the most help the quickest, they'd best not rely on the draft to deliver an answer. Build up the line in free agency and use the draft to add secondary, linebacker and offensive depth. If the Rams find an effective way to improve on defense, they may not have to rely on three other teams to lose the last week to make the playoffs next season.
Game stats from nfl.com
Re: RamView, 12/31/2006: Rams 41, Vikings 21 (Long)
thanks mike, great read as always. I thought boselli was the best color guy i had seen all year. I thought that he was honest and made some excellent points. Fair, but also critical, something most guys are afraid of. He also looks like he lost about 150 pounds since he stopped playing.
I agree that the draft isnt the answer at defensive tackle, it takes too long for those guys to develop and the position is even more of a crapshoot than the draft in general. We have to hope wroten develops and we should look to sign some veteran help to assist kennedy. I dont see kennedy getting cut, but we need a better guy than fisk to play with him. The single biggest need has got to be help for leonard in the pass rush.
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Re: RamView, 12/31/2006: Rams 41, Vikings 21 (Long)
Thanx as always, Mike. Once again let me say that I have thoroughly enjoyed your post game articles this year as in the past, and am a bit saddened that we won't be reading anymore of your wit and wisdom until next season.
BTW did you find it odd that the Rams were throwing the ball to Walker and not to Klop? Seems to me I heard that Klop was drafted BECAUSE of his receiving and not his blocking skills. And Walker was added primarily for his blocking.
WHAT SAY YE?