RamView, 8/20/2011: Rams 17, Titans 16 (Long)
RamView, August 20, 2011
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Preseason Game #2: Rams 17, Titans 16
The Rams pull off another preseason win, but not with the good vibe that accompanied last week's. The Rams showed too many holes in run defense and pass protection to like how they shape up for the Eagles Opening Day. Good thing that's still three weeks away.
Position by position:
* QB: It looked like tonight was going to be a big ol' party for Sam Bradford (8-15-138, 79.3 passer rating); his first pass, the first play of the game, even, was an 83-yard TD bomb to Brandon Gibson. The Titan secondary bit on play-action and on Lance Kendricks' crossing pattern and left Gibson all alone behind them on a simple post route. The rest of the first half for Sam was far from that easy. He wouldn't lead the Rams to another score, or even that much sustained offense. A poor throw for Mike Sims-Walker the next drive got him several caroms and an interception for his troubles. Sims-Walker's pratfall the next drive denied Bradford a chance to move the chains. As the second quarter arrived, so did the Titan pass rush. Will Witherspoon came in essentially unblocked for a sack to kill a drive; Cortland Finnegan repeated that feat the next drive. By the time Finnegan flew in again and nearly blindsided Bradford into next week with a second hit, it had become clear that though he's getting the ball downfield more quickly than he was at the scrimmage, he still needs to get it out quicker against real competition. Pass pro was poor, but that final slobberknocker was more Bradford's fault, and too much more of that is going to make Josh McDaniels, if not Steve Spagnuolo, harness their inner Shurmur. Bradford knows, too, that he has to do better than one TD in one half of play. A.J. Feeley (5-9-44, 105.8 PR) played the third quarter-plus and has looked surprisingly sharp in games. He split the defenders with a perfect 19-yard TD to Donnie Avery. And it may be time to wonder if Thaddeus Lewis (8-10-74, 97.5 PR) isn't playing too well to make it through waivers and to the practice squad again this year. He led the Rams from their own 9 in 3:30 to set up Josh Brown's game-winning FG. Lewis showed good mobility, pocket awareness, field reading and throwing accuracy in taking the Rams 67 yards in 11 plays. The Ram passing game might have taken a step or two into the future tonight; they did show some ability to stretch the field. But when it came down to brass tacks, they won the game with Shurmurball. Whether that's the offense's future in 2011 remains to be seen, but Bradford and his offensive line can't continue getting him knocked around.
* RB: The Ram running game, distressingly, didn't get anywhere tonight, 44 yards on 21 carries, to the credit of the Titans and the discredit of the Rams' offensive line. In an all-too-familiar tune, Steven Jackson (6-10) got met in his own backfield a lot and didn't get any running room. The long run of the night was actually by Lewis, on a scramble. Cadillac Williams (6-23) got 9 on one run off the right side, one of the few well-blocked plays of the night, especially by center Jason Brown, who made nice hits at the first and second levels. Williams' total looks OK, but then you have to add the 6 he lost on a poorly-blocked screen pass. The RBs got some looks in the passing game, including Jackson, who was split out wide on one play and came back across the field on a shallow drag route. Jerious Norwood (4-minus 1) got open in space a couple of times but I still don't think he has that next gear to hit yet. No repeat of last week for Keith Toston (4-2). From the starters all the way down to the practice squad candidates, the Rams simply have to run-block better than they did tonight.
* Receivers: If there's any separation in the Rams' wide receiver competition, it's certainly not as much as Brandon Gibson (1-83) had on the first play of the game, thanks to Tennessee neglecting to cover him. Danny Amendola (2-18) had two catches for first downs but also a shocking drop in the 2nd. Mike Sims-Walker's (1-26) only catch registered a key first down, but he 3-and-outed a later drive by falling down making his cut. And he wasn't very open on the Bradford INT intended for him. Possibly he rushed back from injury a little too early? Donnie Avery (2-23) made a triumphant return from his ACL injury when he split the coverage for a TD catch in the 3rd. It looked like he played at full and top speed, but didn't go against Tennessee's ones. Mardy Gilyard (1-12) had just one catch, but it set up the winning FG and he ran well after the catch. As of tonight, he's got a safe roster spot because of his special teams play. Greg Salas (3-25) had a brutal drop in the 4th but bounced back with catches the next two plays to get the game-winning drive in motion. He showed very good hands even with the drop. Danario Alexander (1-15) is seemingly on the bubble. I didn't see him in the game until the 2nd half and he didn't get many targets. He was very strong after the catch on the chance he got, though, on a McDaniels favorite, the quick screen. Austin Pettis (1-6) was disappointingly low in the pecking order for a third-round pick, and wasn't anything special on special teams. The passing game concentrated on the wideouts and didn't leave much work for the tight ends. Tonight's returns showed that the Rams need to have the TEs involved like last week to be successful. I'd say Lance Kendricks (1-9) is the best receiver on the team and should get the ball accordingly in the regular season. He is proving uncoverable on underneath routes. Showing reliable hands is going to be critical to Fendi Onobun's (3-23) roster hopes. All three of his catches came on the game-winning drive but he also had a sloppy drop. Michael Hoomanawanui got in and out of a football game without going on injured reserve, a victory for now. I listed the WRs in what I think is their order of precedence. I'm guessing there'll be a trade before too long to help shake things out here.
* Offensive line: We wondered last week how the offensive line would fare when they had to pass-protect long enough to let routes develop downfield. Tonight's results were so rotten and disappointing that Josh McDaniels may have to ask Pat Shurmur where he left the fishbowl. And Steven Jackson couldn't have been heartened by the return of last year's run-blocking. A dreadful night all around, particularly at tackle. Neither starting tackle should grade out much better than poor. Jason Smith was eaten up on the very first handoff to give Jackson nowhere to go. His protection mistakes were even worse. He got beaten in the 2nd to force Bradford to step up into his first big hit. And a hit to Bradford's knee was made possible by Smith completely blowing his cut block, letting William Hayes through too fast for Harvey Dahl to react. And Smith wasn't even the worst tackle tonight, as Rodger Saffold struggled mightily. Tennessee blew up a screen to Jackson in the 1st by looping a LB, and Saffold couldn't get a block on him. Jackson was stuffed early in the 2nd when the RDE stood Saffold up. Will Witherspoon got the Titans' first sack by blitzing right by Saffold, who barely got any piece of him. It should be noted that Saffold's playing hurt, but that doesn't change his struggles against the blitz or at the point of attack. Adam Goldberg came in a little early to replace Saffold at LT and was predictably bad. He lost his man on his very first snap to give up a big hit on Bradford, and the same guy knocked down a pass at the line over Goldberg the next snap. Hank Fraley started at LG – note to self: buy Jacob Bell a get-well card. He got pushed into the backfield to blow up a Jackson run, and Titans poured in past him and Jason Brown to flush Bradford in the 2nd. By the time Cortland Finnegan started teeing off on Bradford for a sack and a huge blindside hit, unblocked both times, you just wanted to get Bradford the hell out of there as soon as possible. That is unfortunately not an option in the regular season; the o-line had better get their blitz pick-up and run-blocking issues cleared up by then.
* Defensive line/LB: Not to feel left out, the Ram defense, despite a couple of good individual performances, played as poorly against the run tonight as they did any time last season, making one Herb Donaldson (wasn't he on WKRP in Cincinnati?) look like the second coming of Quinton Ganther. After Matt Hasselbeck beat a zone blitz with a 24-yard screen to Jamie Harper, Donaldson gashed them for another 11, as Chris Long got shoved up inside and the fullback took out Bryan Kehl. Those plays set up a FG. On 3rd-and-1 at the Ram 14 after Bradford's INT, Long and Kehl tag-teamed to bite HARD on play-action and let Ahmard Hall leak out for a dumpoff pass he took inside the 1. Set up a TD. After James Laurinaitis beat the RG to sack Hasselbeck and get a 2nd-and-17, the Rams GAVE IT RIGHT BACK with a 46-yard Harper run. The entire d-line got shoved right, Long was shoved way inside, and Kehl again, along with Darian Stewart, got caught overpursuing. The second and third strings didn't fare any better. Harper tacked on a 14-yard run where Gary Gibson got tossed like a lightweight and Ben Leber inexplicably took himself right out of the gap Harper was running into. Stafon Johnson gashed the Rams for 68 yards in the 4th quarter, with the Rams' d-line offering about as much resistance as a line of tackling dummies. Fortunately, the Rams did manage to make some drive-holding plays that kept them in the game. Kehl cleaned up on great 3rd-and-1 penetration by Fred Robbins to hold Tennessee's first drive to a FG. After the long Harper run, Darian Stewart blew up a 3rd-down run to force a FG. Eugene Sims had an excellent sequence in the 3rd, stuffing a Donaldson run one play and then blowing up a Jake Locker rollout the next. But there were far too few plays like that. Rookie Robert Quinn didn't accomplish much. He beat the LT with a sweet spin move on one play but then immediately tripped and could only grab Locker by the foot. Locker got away. The Rams were probably about as poor against the scrambling of the Titan QBs as feared. Hasselbeck really killed them with moving pockets, and Locker escaped pressure a couple of times for gains. The Rams won tonight despite allowing 198 rushing yards, which they'd better not expect to get away with in the regular season. With their performance against the run and QBs on the move tonight, against a team without Chris Johnson, this defense isn't remotely ready right now for the likes of Michael Vick on Opening Day.
* Secondary: Secondary play was mostly a bright spot. Teams still think they can pick on Bradley Fletcher deep, and he's rapidly proving otherwise. He did appear to get beat deep by Lavelle Hawkins on a deep ball that just missed, but he defended another perfectly, and also perfectly defended an end zone fade for Damian Williams that made Tennessee settle for their third FG. The secondary also tackled well and supported the run well as I saw it. Quintin Mikell really is all that as a run defender. He stopped a number of runs that got past the second level, runs that would have been 20-yards-plus in recent seasons. Al Harris made a big stop on big Jared Cook in the flat on 3rd-and-4. Jake Locker, though, beat Ron Bartell and Mikell with a deep pass to Cook on his first throw of the game. Bartell ended up trailing the play badly, perhaps biting too much on the mobile Locker's rollout. The Rams showed off some surprising depth in this unit. Tim Atchison (!) stuffed a quick screen to Marc Mariani and made a terrific play from safety to save the game late. James Kirkendoll had beaten Dionte Dinkins deep at the goal line, but Atchison made up a ton of ground and got his helmet on the ball before the receiver could put it away. Darian Stewart's blitz in the 3rd pressured young Locker into overthrowing a pass right to James Butler for an INT. Justin King had an awful missed tackle out in the flat for the 2nd straight week but responded this week with a couple of solid run stops with solid tackles. For all that went wrong for the Rams tonight, this last line of defense held up well.
* Special teams: It looks like Mardy Gilyard's going to take the special teams route toward making the final roster. He mostly got buried on kickoffs, but most of those, returned from the back of the end zone, are going to be touchbacks in the regular season, and he almost broke one return. He also looks like a dangerously shifty punt returner. If he can show a little more breakaway ability there, he should win that job, which would save Amendola some wear and tear. Little Gilyard also made the night's biggest hit by smearing Marc Mariani after he refused to make a fair catch in the 2nd. Similarly, Chris Chamberlain's going to make himself awfully hard to cut; he makes a big special teams tackle every week, tracking down Mariani attempting to take a return wide for a big loss. Austin Pettis does not appear to have special teams in his future. He got drilled on one punt return, then fair-caught the next with no one within five yards of him. Kicking game was strong as usual. Donnie Jones shanked a punt that flew 48 yards, for crying out loud. Josh Brown's kicks were all deep, of course, and he hit the game winning FG TWICE from 42.
* Coaching/discipline: Though Jeff Fisher isn't on their sideline any more, playing the Titans in preseason is still a hell of a lot different than playing the Colts. Indy was downright passive on D last week; Tennessee blitzed aggressively tonight, and gave the Rams a needed wake-up call in the process. Tennessee's running game is also much more physical than Indy's, another wake-up call. Josh McDaniels opened up the downfield passing game as we'd hoped last week, but blitz pickup and overall pass protection made it ineffective. Ken Flajole really opened up the defensive playbook compared to last week, doing a lot of blitzing, especially zone blitzing. Blitzes paid off in a sack for Laurinaitis, and the Butler INT caused by Stewart's pressure. Hasselbeck made a perfect play against a zone blitz in the 1st, though. The long screen pass to Jamie Harper was thrown perfectly to the area where Kehl and C.J. Ah You had crossed paths, and were therefore both running away from.
The offense is a work in progress; a step backwards here and there is to be expected. If enough goes wrong, they've shown they can fall back on last year's scheme, though I don't think that will wear well in the regular season. What happened on defense last night, though, is hard to excuse. The Rams have signed five new players to the front seven, almost all in the name of run defense, and got gashed on the ground anyway. Too much overpursuit, too many bad fills, too many attacks into the wrong gaps, far too much vulnerability to simple cutback runs. Even if they're getting manhandled in the middle, which they were, correcting those other problems would have limited damage. And those problems are scheme discipline, which to me makes them problems that need to be fixable by Ken Flajole and the defensive line and linebacker coaches. Quickly, if possible.
* Waiver bait: I didn't see WRs Joe West or Greg Mathews enter the game, usually a bad sign by this point. Don't think RB Van Stumon got in, either. After tonight's performance, I'll stop scoffing at the idea the Rams could try to put their third-round pick Pettis on the practice squad. Pete Fleps, John Henderson and Kenneth Charles looked like defensive roadkill in end-of-the-game action.
* Upon further review: Walt Anderson and company didn't blow many calls but won't get a passing grade here, either. They got blatant holding calls right on special teams, which they'd better, when I can spot them with ease from the upper deck. Where Anderson himself was a dismal failure tonight was in protecting the quarterbacks. Both Bradford and Hasselbeck took shots below the knees from pass rushers. Bradford's hit should have been a penalty for sure. Anderson's flag stayed deep in his pocket both plays. We're talking the future of the Rams franchise and an accomplished veteran that Tennessee just shelled out a lot of money to. It doesn't have to be Tom Brady getting hit for that to be a penalty, Anderson. You may not give an F, but I will, and it's to you.
* Cheers: The crowd seemed a little bigger than last week's and was definitely louder, responding well on third downs and to canned calls from the scoreboard, especially the 4th-quarter movie montages, which I would argue are wasted on preseason games. The crowd was very vocal as Brown lined up the game-winner, and the allowance of Titans HC Mike Munchak's last-nanosecond timeout as Brown's first attempt flew true brought easily the biggest boo of the night. Maybe special teams coaches should instruct the holder not to call for the snap until the play clock hits 0, if they can see it, that is. Biggest cheer of the night was for a live shot of Marshall Faulk working in the TV broadcast booth. Silliest thing of the night was that they showed a feature on Chris Massey's General Lee Dodge Charger that blurred out the license plate number. Not like that car will exactly blend into traffic. Awesome, though, that Massey's wife was wearing Daisy Dukes in the video. Halftime was pee wee football again, of course. Pre-game, the kids lined up on the sidelines for the national anthem, and Gilyard high-fived every single one, which was pretty cool of him.
* Who’s next?: Besides inspiring the whitehot intensity one must compete with when a chalice as prestigious as the Governor's Cup is on the line, next week's the perfect week for the Rams to meet Kansas City in this year's dress rehearsal game for the regular season. The Chief defense can stop the run and get after your quarterback. Their Jamaal Charles-led offense will make you defend the run. If the Rams don't run better, stop the run better and protect Bradford better than they did tonight, Kansas City's going to mop the field with them, and the exuberance of early camp will be down for the count. Rams coaches and players alike have a lot of adjustments to make between here and Arrowhead. Let's see what they come up with.
Game stats from nfl.com