RamView, 8/24/2013: Broncos 27, Rams 26 (Long)
RamView, August 24, 2013
From the Couch
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Preseason Game #3: Broncos 27, Rams 26
The Rams starters cleaned up some of their miscues from the past two weeks, but still have some important work to do, and the backups were almost total slop, allowing the Broncos to come back for a win. The team looks more ready for the regular season, but it's hard to say they are ready just yet.
Position by position:
* QB: With Denver dominating time of possession, and his receivers not getting open as well as they have been, Sam Bradford's numbers (9-16-110, TD, passer rating 98.4) suffered a little bit, though he didn't look bad doing it. A TD on your first pass of the game isn't a bad start, as Bradford made a nice back-shoulder throw to Jared Cook for a 3-yard score. Bradford got Swiss Guard-quality protection from his line at times, and didn't squander it, finding Chris Givens for 17 and Cook for 21 during a 2nd-quarter FG drive. Also like how he found the inside receiver, Corey Harkey, for 10 on the rollout TE pass that usually blows up. Sam would have ended that drive with a TD had Tony Carter bit 1% harder on the pump fake on Austin Pettis' double-move route, or had the officials shown any clue about the pass interference rule the next play. Bradford went through a lull after that, with 5 straight incompletes, as Denver tightened up their coverage, and Givens blew a blitz adjustment, but he found Cook for 22 while on the move, and Austin Pettis for another 14, to set up a Greg Zuerlein FG bomb in the final 0:44 in the half. It was a bad week for Bradford to get much offensive rhythm, but he still came out of it looking like the Ram most ready for the regular season. The rest of the QBs, buh. Tim Jenkins was probably the best, and all he had was a 7-yard completion. Plagued by poor protection and dropped passes, Austin Davis' (5-9-40, PR 66.9) best play was a 13-yard sideline bullet to Stedman Bailey, thrown on the move. Typical of Davis' night, though, that came on 3rd-and-26. Kellen Clemens played less than 4 minutes and was just 2-5-18, but did throw a short TD pass to Zach Potter. The game-winning 2-point attempt to Brian Quick was well-covered, though, and incomplete despite Clemens making about as good a throw as could be made. The QB2 battle looks as 50/50 as it ever has. Davis and Clemens probably ought to alternate drives Thursday night.
* RB: With only 50 yards on the night, the Ram running game didn't get much of anywhere. The best-looking back, shockingly, was Isaiah Pead (5-22), who ran with the twos. When he got blocking, he looked better than he's looked as a Ram, with 6- and 15-yard sweeps where he showed excellent speed and acceleration around the corner. He also continued to do well in blitz protection. Not being named the starter almost seems to have freed him. That honor went to Daryl Richardson (5-10) earlier in the week, but he was used more as a decoy in the passing game than as a rusher, where he was usually rewarded with bad blocking in the middle. D-Rich also blew blitz protect on Denver's second sack of Bradford; looked like Wesley Woodyard lulled him to sleep while dropping off the line pre-snap. Zac Stacy (5-8) was more down than up. He made a good blitz pickup on Davis' 13-yard pass, but whiffed badly on a play that flushed Jenkins. He also dropped another dumpoff pass and got stuffed a lot up the middle behind suspect blocking. As fashionable as it's been to crap on the Steven Jackson “bell-cow” approach since he's left, his heirs at running back haven't exactly looked like prime beef, either. Let's hope they get Richardson into a groove.
* Receivers: The Rams weren't exactly vanilla with Jared Cook (4-50, TD) in this game. They went immediately to him the first time they got near the goal line, got him open for 21 on a crossing route out of the left slot, and got him open on the sideline on a play that leaked him and D-Rich out of max protect alignment. Those looked like regular-season plays to me. On the other hand, Tavon Austin (1-12, 1 target) was barely in the offensive plan. We'll hear from him later in this recap, though. Besides Cook, the other receiver the Rams really tried to force it to in the passing game was Austin Pettis (1-15), with mixed results. On back-to-back TD pass attempts, he didn't play a high pass from Bradford terribly well, and didn't seem to locate the next pass because he was getting held. There was also a silly attempt to try him on a deep route where his lack of deep speed was woefully evident. Linebackers can hang deep with Pettis. Brian Quick (2-24) doesn't seem to be getting a chance to steal Pettis' starting job, when maybe he should be. He got a chance to win the game with a two-point play. Quick was excellent for most of that play. Used his size well, plucked the ball, and stayed in bounds acrobatically with possession, getting a foot and a knee down. Unfortunately, the NFL requires you have to maintain possession all the way to the hot dog stand or something, and Quick lost it while landing well out of bounds. Very quiet night for the bottom of the receiving depth chart other than a dropped first down by Emory Blake (1-5). I couldn't tell if Nick Johnson, Andrew Helmick or Justin Veltung even got into the game. Seems like there's too much sorting out still left to do to let that happen.
* Offensive line: Even though he got sacked twice, pass protection this week was the best Bradford's gotten as a pro, and by a decent margin, too. He got beautiful protection on the completions to Givens and Cook on the first FG drive, and again on the last pass of the half to Pettis that set up Zuerlein's bomb at the gun. Rodger Saffold got the surprise start at RT. He got beaten a couple of times and tended to get blocking help, but he still did a solid job on Von Miller, pancaking him on the first big pass to Cook. Jake Long didn't get beaten, but he can do better, too. He gives up too many late pressures imo for a 4-time Pro Bowler. Jake also got called for one false start and got away with a couple others. Saffold also got a flag, for lining up wrong. Scott Wells has yet to win me over at center. He got bull-rushed by the immortal Mitch Unrein for Bradford's first sack and got him pressured later by failing to pick up Miller on a loop. (Fortunately, Sam stepped out and hit Cook for 22 anyway.) Wells and Corey Harkey both whiffed badly, and inexcusably, to get D-Rich stuffed for a big loss in the 2nd. The middle of the line had much too much trouble with one Kevin Vickerson; I checked, and no, he's not a Pro Bowler, either. The starters' biggest failure was their inability to control the LOS in the running game, with Saffold and Wells and Harvey Dahl getting pushed around too much. In poker terms, they seem to be leaving a lot of money on the table. Didn't help that Harkey had an atypically bad night blocking and left the game shaken up. Look out, too; Zach Potter did pretty well with the backups and had a TD catch. We'll have to hope that Shelley Smith and Joseph Barksdale are enough line depth for the regular season; they're the only help the starters have. Chris Williams continued to get whipped at RT and needs to be left at guard. Tim Barnes looked worse than he's ever looked as a Ram and got whipped for a sack at the end of the 3rd. Brandon Washington had a play from RT where he blew his pull block and then got blasted to the ground. No surprise Pead lost several on that one. And here's a classic play from the 4th. Barrett Jones gets whipped from the snap and has to commit a hold. Stacy flatout drops the dumpoff pass. And after the play, Ty Nsekhe gets a stupid personal foul for laying the wood to an already-downed lineman. Jones has pretty easily been the worst of the Rams' draft picks so far. Every week somebody, this week the future Hall-of-Famer Unrein, beats him for a pass deflection. How do you win so many major college awards and be so bad at finishing blocks and get whipped off the snap by third-stringers? Looks like a lost season for Jones while he battles back from that senior year Lisfranc injury. I believe the Rams can get more complete games out of this unit, but we're going to need to start seeing them soon.
* Defensive line: The starting defensive line has mainly been baffling this preseason. Sure, the Rams barely blitzed this week, but the starters' success in camp would sure make you think they don't have to blitz to pressure the passer, right? Instead, the Rams not only barely get within shouting distance of Peyton Manning a single time, they get gashed pretty good in the running game, too. There wasn't any pass rush at all as the Broncos strolled 80 yards to tie the game at 7. Chris Long was merely a rumor. Robert Quinn didn't contribute much outside one nice run stop. The best starter was Michael Brockers, who worked hard and had three tackles despite almost constant double-teaming. And while the starters got knocked off the ball consistently the whole first half, the worst starter was easily Kendall Langford, who got blasted out to the numbers on one play, later got turned and gave up an 11-yard Ronnie Hillman inside run, barely got out of his stance most of the time and got no penetration at all working against Zane Beadles, who at least is a Pro Bowler. If that ludicrous spectacle wasn't Langford having issues with the high altitude in Denver, the Rams have a more serious problem at DT than anyone's suspected. Langford and Quinn also maddeningly jumped offside on Manning hard counts that didn't even sound all that good on TV. COME ON, MAN! The backup ends looked better than the starters, with Eugene Sims stuffing Montee Ball for a big loss and Will Hayes batting down a pass. The heretofore nondescript R.J. Washington played like a madman, and if my guess is right, saved his job for another week. He stuffed two runs, blew up a screen, had a pass rush that should have drawn a holding penalty, and late in the 4th, fell on a blown snap to set the offense up for a tying TD. THAT is how you make yourself difficult to cut. Not sure why we got so little of Matt Conrath and so much of Al Lapuaho, whose main contribution was a stupid taunting penalty after an interception in the 4th. The Rams barely missed a FG after that turnover, in a game they lost by 1, so, nice work, Al. Mason Brodine has dropped way off of his early pace. He got whipped repeatedly by Chris Clark (not a Pro Bowler) and let several big runs go by him. Gerald Rivers had a nice run stop and a pass pressure but also overran an 8-yard Knowshown Moreno run by a good five yards. The flashes from the bench are nice, but the lack of impact from the starters this week is completely unacceptable. Whatever they're waiting for before they actually do something on the field, let's hope it gets here soon.
* LB: Linebacker play really saved the defensive line's butts. Unlike his teammates on the line, James Laurinaitis is already in regular-season form. He stuffed Hillman on the opening play and got enough blitz pressure on Manning to force an early throw to end Denver's opening drive. Laurinaitis tackled well in the open field and had a couple of clutch stuffs of stretch handoffs to Montee Ball in Rams territory at the end of the 1st that forced Denver to settle for a FG attempt, which was blocked. The star of the night, though, was rookie Alec Ogletree. Even with the master of play-action behind center for the Broncos, tight end coverage improved by light-years over last week. Ogletree blew up Julius Thomas at the line on one pass play in the 1st – now that is how you jam a receiver. He also helped stop Thomas short at the 7 to force 4th-and-2 at the end of Denver's 1st TD drive. Might have saved 4 points there in a regular season game. After whiffing on Montee Ball and giving up 15 on a simple dumpoff, Ogletree turned his night around with big plays. With Cortland Finnegan holding Hillman up at the Denver 16, Ogletree made a too-rare play for a Ram, stripping the ball out, collecting it and sprinting into the end zone to put the Rams up 17-7. He saved a TD by dropping back and breaking up a pass at the goal line in the 2nd, and made a similar play in the last minute of the half, tipping and intercepting a downfield pass Manning intended for Thomas. I don't think Peyton thought Alec could get there, but he did, and had an excellent game by any measure. Ray Ray Armstrong flew in unblocked for the Rams' ONLY sack in the 2nd half. Will Witherspoon covered TEs well, with one noticeable blown coverage, but had a lot tougher time with the running backs. Hillman got 16 up the gut in the 1st with all the LBs overshifting, and the one thing Witherspoon can't do there is get blocked, which he did, and Rodney McLeod didn't make the open-field tackle from safety. Will also left Ball wide open in the flat for 12 late in the first and also whiffed a tackle. He doesn't have the speed to make up for technical mistakes, or to be an effective blitzer, and I think the Rams are going to have to just hope they can ride out Jo-Lonn Dunbar's 4-week suspension. Laurinaitis and Ogletree keeping up this week's level of play would be big.
* Secondary: With Jeff Fisher apparently content to try to cover the Bronco receivers from Aurora, it wasn't a night for the Rams corners to look good. Janoris Jenkins exacerbated things in the 1st by nearly giving up an early TD bomb to Demaryius Thomas. Instead of paying attention to the no-huddle offense, Jenkins was futzing with his wristband or something and got damn lucky Peyton overthrew the receiver. Cortland Finnegan didn't shine in coverage, either, giving up a bunch of catches to Eric Decker and getting beaten by Demaryius for Denver's first TD. He did get to Manning on a blitz to mess up a 3rd-down throw and helped set Ogletree up for the fumble return TD, though. Trumaine Johnson looked much better. He blew up a screen to Demaryius before halftime, then on Brock Osweiler's first series, held Demaryius to 3 on 2nd-and-5 and blew up the slant pass on 3rd down. Darren Woodard picked Osweiler off in the 4th with a perfect read, running Trindon Holliday's route for him, and nicely broke up a pass in the 4th with a blitz leaving him on an island. At safety, T.J. McDonald's tackling looked a lot better, but Cody Davis' looked a lot worse, with a couple of egregious misses. Rodney McLeod started and made a nice defense on an end zone pass to Jacob Tamme, but I'm not sure he did enough to pass Darian Stewart on the depth chart, assuming he ever comes back. Which he may not. As shadow GM, I'm thinking Quintin Mikell's worth at least a phone call at this point.
* Special teams: The Rams haven't had a big-play threat on kick returns since 2001, but Tavon Austin is going to change that, opening the festivities with an 81-yard punt return that would have been a TD had Ogletree gotten out of his way. Austin swept left off a strong early block by Daren Bates, quickly cut upfield to exploit Denver's poor lane integrity and almost cruised the length of the play. He nearly broke another before halftime, returning it 23 yards, getting all kinds of room at the start because the Rams had basically suffocated Denver's gunners. Az Hakim would approve. Greg Zuerlein was 2-for-2, including a jaw-dropping 58-yarder at the halftime gun that would have been good from 65 at least. He also wisely put every kickoff through the back of the end zone to deny the dangerous Holliday any return opportunities. Unfortunately, Denver did the same to the much-less dangerous Pead. Are the Rams really going to go into the season with Pead as the kick returner? The only other realistic options appear to be Benny Cunningham or a veteran off the waiver wire. (Josh Cribbs?) The Rams have left themselves a little short here. Johnny Hekker hit three beautiful punts; his 53.0 average was also his net average. Brett Baer, though, soiled the bed. He missed a 43-yard FG, flubbed his first punt 33 yards, and got blocked at the end of the game, with Eric Stevens appearing to miss an assignment that let the punt blocker through. Dirty shame for Baer, who had an excellent college career. But credit John Fassel with getting a ton cleaned up on special teams. These guys look ready to do positive damage in the regular season.
* Strategery: The defense wasn't vanilla in this game as much as it was rancid, sour milk. The Rams barely blitzed, didn't appear to run anything special to get a lineman freed up, and were content leaving the DBs 8-10 yards off the receivers, at least in the first half. That's not just a recipe for failure; that's a recipe to leave Peyton Manning on the field for 30 plays IN THE FIRST QUARTER and to throw 34 times for 234 yards IN THE FIRST HALF. If the Rams come out with this kind of defense against Arizona, Jeff Fisher would need to have his head examined. And after struggling against it for two weeks now, the Rams need to quickly start showing some kind of capacity to handle a no-huddle offense. Otherwise, they're going to be seeing a lot of it.
The offense was at least French vanilla, maybe even with a couple of sprinkles. It was definitely pass-first, and they used several plays for Cook that figure to be bread-and-butter plays for him this season. I think they've even figured out a role for Pead. As a 3rd-down shotgun back, he seems trustworthy in blitz protection and could burn a defense from time to time with a sweep out of that formation. The puzzler this week, as I have to admit others have already noted, was the sparse use of Quick. Pettis hasn't exactly demonstrated a hammerlock on the other WR starting spot opposite Givens. Cook looked like the team's #1 receiver this week; not that it's a bad thing, but the Rams are going to need more out of their second wideout than they're currently getting, too. Brian Schottenheimer did look masterful in goal line situations. Perfectly set up TD pass to Cook and another to Potter that really fooled the defense, along with a bread-and-butter two-point conversion play that was a bobble from being a game-winner. The defense should consider adding a little flavor itself, and soon. Their preseason thus far has been pretty hard to stomach at times.
* Upon further review: Pretty poor job by Clete Blakeman and crew. Replay showed Bradford being hit late and driven into the ground, I think by Vickerson, on the first TD pass attempt to Pettis. No call. Next play, Pettis was pretty clearly held at the goal line by Duke Ihenacho. No call. Denver's first FG was set up by as brutal a pushoff as you're ever going to see. Andre Caldwell got open for a 23-yard catch by pushing Jenkins so hard as to send him reeling a good 10 feet. NO CALL. The refs also initially screwed up the call on Lance Ball's TD dive, which shouldn't have been that hard to get right the first time. And two officials looking right at Quick's attempt to land with the two-pointer called it good before getting overruled by an official from farther away. That is always going to look like a catch, but the NFL is consistent in how it rules that play, and by that standard, they got the call right. Eventually. Would have been nice to have seen the letter of the NFL law followed so closely on pass interference calls on both sides of the ball. D
* Cheers: Since he's a fellow St. Louisan, I thought I'd like Dan Dierdorf better than I actually did. On the Caldwell pushoff play, instead of noting the uncalled penalty, Dierdorf gushed about Peyton Manning somehow “teaching Janoris Jenkins a lesson”. Such as what, that NFL officiating sucks? And Dierdorf seemed to endorse cheap shots after the whistle when he complained the refs didn't allow Ty Nsekhe “to finish his play” on a well-deserved personal foul in the 3rd. As long as they're by offensive linemen, I guess. Both he and Greg Gumbel referred to a Ram LB named “Josh Hill” on one play. Dierdorf did well to point out how long Denver left most of their starters in, and the Rams' vanilla approach to the game compared to Denver's. I guess Dan did well on the reporting side – he's clearly been paying attention to Rams camp – but I wanted more from the analysis side. Also more of sideline reporter Allie LaForce. Lastly, a correction from last week: the Rams face only two 3-4 defenses the first 4 weeks – Arizona and San Francisco. Dallas is switching to 4-3 this season.
* Waiver bait: With 88 players currently on the roster, the Rams have to cut 13 by Tuesday's first roster limit deadline. Here's a stab at predicting those unlucky 13: 1 – Tim Jenkins; 2 – Eric Stevens; 3 – Demetrius Fields; 4 – Emory Blake; 5 – Colby Prince; 6 – Graham Pocic; 7 – Sean Hooey (possible IR); 8 – Garrett Goebel; 9 – Joseph LeBeau; 10 – Andre Martin; 11 - Drew Thomas; 12 – Brett Baer; 13 – Jorgen Hus. Sammy Brown and Jabara Williams, who have both been injured all of camp and have gotten passed on the depth chart by undrafted rookies, look like juicy targets for the Turk as well. Can't make the club in the tub!
* Who’s next?: The Rams' last chance for a preseason victory in 2013 may hinge on whether the Baltimore Ravens sit all their starters like they did when they played here last year. It's hard to suggest any real excitement about this game, because the Rams' goals for it should be to strengthen the unexciting parts of their game, rushing offense and defense. The only goal besides that should be to come out of the Dome with no significant injuries, unlike opening week opponent Arizona, who have lost #1 draft pick Jonathan Cooper for the season. Preseason can be a baffling, frustrating exercise. No one's really going to know if the Rams are ready for Arizona, or vice versa, until the teams actually line up against each other.
Game stats from nfl.com