RamView, 8/21/2009: Falcons 20, Rams 13 (Long)
RamView, August 21, 2009
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Preseason Game #2: Falcons 20, Rams 13
Preseason is easy to overreact to; trust me, I'm an expert at it. The Rams definitely showed flaws, some painfully familiar, while getting overpowered by the Falcons tonight. But just as those weren't the 1999 Rams who won in New York last week, those weren't the 2007-08 Rams last night. While not ignoring the minuses, we'll be better off heeding the timeless words of Allen Iverson. We're talking about practice!
Position by position:
* QB: Now that I know Kyle Boller is dating former Miss California Carrie Prejean, who joins a list that includes Tara Reid and Petra Nemcova, all I can think now when I see him is, “Stoney Case”. If Boller (9-16-91) was as rusty in the singles scene as he was on the field tonight, he'd be dating Madeline Albright. Boller was about as accurate as a rookie weatherman at times. Most of his sideline passes were adventures. At least two of them should have been picked off. Laurent Robinson was open by a good couple of yards for what should have been a 40-yard TD in the 2nd, and Boller threw a bomb out of bounds that the WR couldn't even get to. He had Randy McMichael open by a mile on a dig route deep in Atlanta territory in the 2nd and threw the pass into the ground, short of him by yards. He had Keenan Burton open on one sideline pass, pumped, then had to roll out Burton's direction and throw him the pass on the comeback, that way he could get it out there. Yikes. I understand Boller's coming off shoulder surgery, and that he had men in his face on some of his throws, but everybody else understand that we're going to miss Marc Bulger if he stays hurt. A lot. I'll try to account for Boller's rust and that we've been spoiled by pinpoint-accurate throwers like Bulger and Kurt Warner for a decade. But Boller's numbers on the night were inches from being Ryan Leaf-quality. Speaking of Leaf, his protege Keith Null (6-9-56) had a pretty nice 4th quarter, though Null should look good in the 2:00 drill; that's basically his college offense. Null was accurate, threw the ball into some tight spots, showed a sweet play fake, and ran the offense and stood tall in the pocket with poise. He drove the Rams right down the field from their 35 toward the tying TD before Sean Walker got knocked off his route on a 4th-down blitz, and Null's spot pass for him was intercepted in the end zone. But it looks more and more like the kid's got “it”. That may be a bad thing for Brock Berlin (5-8-71), though he didn't have a bad 3rd quarter. His TD pass to Derek Stanley was a suh-weet throw. He couldn't keep the momentum going, though, taking a sack the next possession despite having plenty of time to throw and Jerome Johnson out in the flat lonelier than a pork chop at a vegan buffet. Thank you! I'll be here all week. So will Berlin, though thanks to Null's emergence, I'm not as sure about him the week after next.
* RB: Steven Jackson opened the game with a nine-yard run, but it was a long night for the RBs after that. As a group they managed only 60 yards, on 27 carries. Jackson got just three carries. Samkon Gado won promotion to second string with a strong effort last week, but he followed that with a very poor outing, netting only 5 yards on 12 rushes, with a dropped pass and a fumble. The dropped screen pass was probably best for everyone concerned, but the fumble was a backbreaker, killing a drive in the red zone near the end of the first half. Boller put the ball right where it was supposed to be; Gado never put it away. Antonio Pittman (5-15) was next and took a while to get going before having some success with his bread and butter, cutback runs. Kenneth Darby's (7-30) 21-yard draw in the last 2:00 was 1/3 of the RBs' rushing yardage on the night. He was 6-9, and Pittman was 4-3, taking away their longest runs. The Falcons might have been vulnerable to cutbacks or runs bounced outside, but that's not Gado's bread and butter, Darby was in the game in come-from-behind mode, and Pittman didn't play with his elusive style till he was almost out of the game. RB2 is back to a three-horse race. If there's any good news: the Rams worked all week on blitz pickup, and it showed. Can't blame either sack on a RB, and Gado picked up a couple of blitzes nicely. And let's go back to that very first rush. Mike Karney was in the backfield and threw a crushing block to give Jackson room. I hope we'll see a lot more of that, and much better offensive adjustment, than we did tonight.
* Receivers: Will Donnie Avery be the #1 WR when he gets back? Laurent Robinson (5-65) had another strong game. Robinson has good hands and uses his size well. He was inches away from a monster game; he got behind the Falcon secondary right before the 2:00 warning but stumbled and had to settle for a 25-yard gain, and Boller missed what should have been a 40-yard TD bomb to him in the 2nd. Robinson beat his defender soundly both times. If the former Atlanta WR wasn't just amped up to face his old team, Billy Devaney has a real find on his hands. With all the WR injuries right now, I was disappointed no one grabbed the brass ring tonight. Keenan Burton (2-12), the ostensible WR2, made a nice move to get a first down after the catch late in the 2nd, but hasn't stood out much. Derek Stanley (2-32) came close, with a TD catch and a nice 20-yard end around (called back), though Ron Curry (1-10) was actually the third wideout. Nate Jones (2-19) made a couple of easy catches in the 2:00 drill but hurt his cause with a drop. Stanley also had a drop. Sean Walker (1-6) didn't get much action. The game-ending INT looks to have been intended for him but he got knocked off his route. The Rams did damage with the TEs. Daniel Fells (2-21) broke a couple of tackles in the 3rd on a 17-yard catch. Joe Klopfenstein (1-5) made a nice diving catch in tight quarters late in the game. If any receiver popped tonight, it was Billy Bajema (3-42), who showed good hands and was difficult to bring down. I wouldn't mind seeing some more pop from this group, though.
* Offensive line: The Rams gave up just two sacks, and Berlin held the ball too long on one, but with the Rams gaining 2.6 yards a rush, it wasn't a successful night. The Falcons frequently put an extra man in the box and brought more guys than the Rams could block, but they missed a lot of blocks, too. Richie Incognito couldn't make it through the line and missed a block, which shut down one of Jackson's runs. I thought Adam Goldberg had a poor night at LT. He missed run blocks, and like last week, had a LB blitz right by him for a sack. The LG combo of Mark Setterstrom and John Greco could have been stronger. The Rams couldn't run to that side at all, and I know Greco missed at least one block. Setterstrom, who played at LG and center, also had a shotgun snap short of the QB that threw off a play. I watched Jason Smith on most of his plays. He started at RT and stayed there into the third quarter. There was a play where he nearly got bowled back into Boller, and Gado's best run of the night was called back because Jason was beaten right off the snap and had to hold his man. And he had a bad possession, I think in the 3rd, where Jamaal Anderson pwned him three straight plays for backfield pressures. But I also know I wished the Rams would have run behind Jason more because he was the one lineman really pushing guys around and driving them back into the pile. He had plenty of good pass protection plays, too, and often without extra help on his side. He recognizes stunts and makes the proper pickups there. I don't think it's a stretch to say Smith's progressed to the point of being solid bench depth, or that he's pretty much right on schedule.
* Defensive line/LB: The Rams starters got pushed around the game's opening possession and Atlanta ran the ball down their throats. Then on the second drive, Atlanta went no-huddle and waltzed downfield, with the Rams putting no pass pressure at all on QB Matt Ryan. Michael Turner exploded for over 40 yards on the game's SECOND play. Leonard Little overplayed it, the TE ran a pattern up the line of scrimmage and took Will Witherspoon away from the play, leaving Turner a huge hole. James Laurinaitis couldn't fill that; he got picked off by the RT Little wasn't occupying. James Butler diagnosed run, but I think Turner surprised him with his burst, and he ended up with a terrible angle. Cliff Ryan and Gary Gibson got pushed around the whole drive; tackling was bad throughout. Chris Draft and Butler missed tackles badly on a sideline pass to Roddy White. Laurinaitis and Little tackled poorly on a Turner run near the goal line. James Hall got walled off like he was inside a bank vault on Turner's TD run. Turner got such a big hole it didn't even matter that Matt Ryan fell making the handoff. Gotta give the Falcons credit – they have some really well-designed, well-run running plays. They fooled the Rams on one 2nd-half pitch left where the whole defense (except, luckily, David Vobora from the far side) keyed on the fullback slamming into the hole like it was a middle run. Lack of pass rush was the story of Atlanta's 2nd TD drive. Even when the Rams blitzed, no one could get to Ryan in time. I think some of the blitzers did it too tentatively, like they're afraid of screwing something up. I know Jonathan Wade should be getting to the QB a lot faster than he did, considering he was unblocked. Little had a very quiet night. Chris Long had a couple of run stops but I didn't see him as a factor pass rushing. Draft had an off night. I watched Laurinaitis on most of his plays, with the starters in the first half. He's a fine ball pursuer but wasn't as effective tonight as he was last week because the line wasn't tying up blockers as well. Laurinaitis looks pretty good in pass coverage. He was beaten once deep by a TE but the play came back. Otherwise, his drops and coverage were solid. He had a sure INT taken from him by Will Witherspoon, who dropped the ball, but later made a diving play on Justin King's pass breakup for an INT that set up a FG. From the bench, Larry Grant forced a fumble to set up a TD. Hollis Thomas, who pretty much engulfs everything, engulfed the ball Grant knocked loose on a blitz and sack of D.J. Shockley. Darell Scott had a great sequence with the Falcons inside the Ram 20 in the 3rd. He stuffed a run on first down and dived and tripped up Shockley on a scramble on 3rd down for a sack that forced a FG. That was it for sacks, though. The reserves got a little better pass pressure than the first string, where they're still searching for effective ways to get to the quarterback. Add in that the Falcons ran for 162 yards – 5.6 a rush – and we've got a defense tonight that skidded a step back toward last season.
* Secondary: Disappointing play by the starters tightened up the cornerback race some more. Tye Hill looked brutal on Atlanta's 2nd TD, which, in classic Fakhir Brown fashion, he never knew was coming, even though he was defending Tony Gonzalez near the end zone. And he broke in when Gonzalez broke out, making it even easier for Gonzalez to exploit his seven-inch height advantage. Ron Bartell looked outmatched early against Roddy White, getting beaten twice pretty easily on the same drive. Quincy Butler looks nowhere near as good in live action as he did in practice. Jonathan Wade and Justin King took steps forward. Wade made a couple of nice plays and supported the run well. King broke up a pass that became Laurinaitis' INT. James Butler delivered the hit of the night, clocking White on the sideline at the end of a catch-and-run. Todd Johnson picked off a deflection of a poor Shockley pass. Cincinnati is sure to test the Rams through the air next week. Time for the Rams' secondary prospects to take a big step up.
* Special teams: Gado showed a definite edge on the scoresheet over Darby, getting a couple of late kick returns across the 30 while Darby failed to cross the 20. That's really more a factor, though, of special teams taking all night to figure out the blocking for returning Atlanta's directional kicking. A lot of the night the Falcons got their outside man around to the returner untouched. Stanley had a nice punt return and a non-return. Coverage units were highly effective, even with David Roach committing a brutal facemask penalty on one kickoff. Donnie Jones landed a couple of punts inside the 10 but killed his average with his last punt, very high but way too short at just 25 yards.
* Coaching/discipline: The Falcons attacked the Rams' running game by bringing the safety up into the box almost constantly. The Rams, for their part, never adjusted for it, running on nearly every first down play. I know it's preseason and teams don't put out the fine china, so I'll stay confident they won't be so predictable in the regular season and will dial up more play-action passing against teams that deploy Atlanta's strategy tonight. The offensive call I hated most was the flatout stupid draw play to Darby on 3rd-and-5 with 1:00 left from the Atlanta 12. Why are you doing that when Null's throwing as well as he is? And are you really expecting that to work twice in four plays? I also hated, hated, hated the decision to kick a FG on 4th-and-2 from the 6-yard line earlier in the 4th. Josh Brown doesn't need the work! It's preseason, show a little gusto! The only advantage I can think of for a FG there is that it lessened the chance of a tie game, which nobody wants in preseason (and Coach Spagnuolo damn sure better have been going for 2 had they scored the late TD.) They also continue to insist on running zone blitzes with the opponent in the red zone. I think that's a terrible spot on the field for that, but we'll see. I don't consider tonight's loss any kind of blemish on the nascent Spagnuolo regime. Life will be a lot different with Jackson on the field more than three plays, Boller not starting, and regular-season game planning, in all three areas of the game. The defense still doesn't blitz much with the starters in. Scouting last week's Falcons game should have indicated their penchant for directional kickoffs, but the Rams played less than prepared for it. The regular season will be much different. For the second straight week, the Rams committed just 5 penalties and won the turnover battle. If they're really worse than they looked last week, they're also better than they looked this week.
* Waiver bait: David Roach had some good run stops, but ripping the returner's helmet off on the kickoff, with no one else around for several yards, accident or not, is about as dumb a penalty as I can imagine. Bajema's big night probably seals the deal for Klopfenstein and Eric Butler. Nate Jones and Sean Walker sure didn't get much time, even given the Rams' injury situation at WR. Quincy Butler needs to play like he practices, which I know I'm not saying for the first time. Chris Ogbannaya was curious by his absence.
* Upon further review: Mike Carey's brother Don refereed tonight's game, mostly without problems. Frankly, it should have been an easy game to officiate. There weren't many difficult calls to make. Atlanta had to burn a challenge on a play incorrectly called a fumble. After Quincy Butler got a questionable DPI in the 3rd, Atlanta LB Tony Gilbert mugged Bajema over the middle without a flag the next drive. That wasn't very popular with the fans, and replay showed we were right. I give Carey and crew a C.
* Extreme makeover, Dome edition: Maybe not extreme (I can't resist a mediocre pun), but the changes at the Dome are distinctly for the better. The star of the show is the massive new video screen behind the north end zone. It's huge, almost as wide as the end zone; it's crystal clear and it gives an extra wide angle for replays. I'm pretty sure God watches Sunday Ticket on a TV like that. OK, maybe a little bigger. The south end zone looks silly in comparison, though, with a much smaller video screen surrounded by what appears to be new luxury seating. Yes, Dancing Elvis has left the building. A major plus is that commercials have been cut way back, in favor of entertainment during breaks, ranging from player and cheerleader interviews to the infamous “Kiss-Cam” to apparently the crash highlight reel from America's Funniest Home Videos. The fans ate it up. The out-of-town scoreboard will show four games at a time now, and there's also a board for fantasy stats. That's where the game clock used to be; it's by itself on a lower level now, which will take some getting used to. My main dislikes: the stadium clock's gone, and the trivia question was not only ridiculously easy, it wasn't even about football! The new PA announcer's another plus. He keeps the crowd engaged without going over the top, gives the stadium good energy without sounding like an idiot. Good choice to tell the fans to get on their feet when the team is introduced. Sets a good tone. The halftime show, traditional for the first preseason game, was pee-wee football. White paint behind the upper levels seems to lighten the interior and give the Dome a little more of an open feel, dumb as that may sound. And – do you believe in miracles – I think they've even got the sound system straightened out (after just 14 years). It sounds like “Thunderstruck” is going to be the kickoff song, though they also played it for Atlanta once. FGs were followed by “Jump Around”, and the TD was followed by “Zombie Nation”. And that last one's gonna have to change, because I don't need to be reminded of the end of Super Bowl XXXVI whenever the Rams score. But even with that, the gameday experience at the Dome has taken a big step forward.
* Who’s next?: On to Cincinnati for game 3 of the preseason, traditionally and supposedly the most important game prior to opening day. The Bengals have scored 14 points in two weeks (actually winning Thursday night, though), and haven't signed first-round draft pick Andre Smith – this is not a team I need to see moving up and down the field like the Falcons did tonight. Felonious Chris Henry and supreme clown Chad JOHNSON are proving a potent pair. Henry has both Bengal TDs and close to 200 receiving yards in two games. JOHNSON, who I will never call by his ridiculous gimmick last name, though I will occasionally call him “Funfundachtzig”, is also putting up strong receiving numbers. Apparently never wanting to see an end to his self-aggrandizing clown show, Bengals HC Marvin Lewis had JOHNSON kicking extra points and kickoffs last week, with Shayne Graham injured. J.T. O'Sullivan's had a couple of effective outings for Cincy at QB, though I assume the Rams are going to get a heavy dose of Carson Palmer. Defensively, they're stopping the run pretty well, and they got to Patriot QBs 4 times Thursday night. They're benefiting from the return of Keith Rivers and the emergence of second-year tackle Pat Sims. Rey Maualuga wasn't on the stat sheet Week 1 but had three tackles in New England. The Bengals also aren't getting lit up via air, though I couldn't say the last time they had a secondary that garnered much respect. I wouldn't be against giving Boller almost all of this game to knock off his apparently considerable cobwebs, and let Berlin and Null duel it out against Kansas City.
Having seen a lot of vanilla D and non-adjusting O from the Rams for a couple of weeks, I'm eagerly awaiting a game that's treated much more like a regular-season game, and this should be the week. Let's see a game where the offense adjusts to what the defense is doing. Let's see the defense get after the QB aggressively like we're expecting them to in the regular season. How good or bad they look at pass rush, run defense, establishing the running game and red zone offense, should give us some idea of how far along Extreme Makeover: Rams Edition has come, and how much farther it has to go. Grab your hard hats, and enjoy the show.
Game stats from nfl.com
Re: RamView, 8/21/2009: Falcons 20, Rams 13 (Long)
Thanks a lot for the detailed analysis, Mike. It's an excellent post in its own right and a godsend for those of us unable to watch these pre-season encounters.
Sounds like a very mixed bag as far as the players go but it's early days and a lot of these guys aren't going to be starting in week one of the regular season. Worried about the OL's inability to clear the way for our running backs (I still don't know why Roy Schuening isn't getting more of a chance, unless he's injured) and about the secondary, but no doubt Spags will set about fine-tuning these units.