RamView, August 29, 2013
From Row HH
(Report and opinions on and from the game.)
Preseason Game #4: Rams 24, Ravens 21

The Rams win a glorified scrimmage over the Ravens, and just when you think you've got all the answers about the roster, preseason changes the questions.

Position by position:
* QB: Kellen Clemens answered the QB2 question by locking up the position with easily his best game of the preseason (13-18-188-105.8), impressive numbers for one half of action. He looked poised and really worked the ball downfield well, throwing as accurately as we’ve seen him throw all year. Clemens read the field well and played well on the move, too. I’ve mocked his tendency to take off and run during practices, but I think that’s actually been a conscious effort to improve his game, or at least, compete with Austin Davis, which looks like it worked. One of Clemens’ best plays was a scramble and a dumpoff to a wide-open Mike McNeill for a big gain; another was a rope he threw to Brian Quick near the goal line, letting the big man go up and get it inside the 5 for a 26-yard gain to set up a TD. The Rams are still probably screwed if Sam Bradford (who, like almost every other starter, did not play this week) gets hurt, but if that happens, it will definitely help if this Clemens shows up. Davis’ numbers (6-14-50-96.2) and game weren’t as flashy. He did not throw as accurately as Clemens this week, couldn’t throw a receiver open the way Clemens did a couple of times, how top-flight QBs have to. Working with lesser talent certainly factors in, but Davis didn’t work the ball downfield as well as Clemens at all and had to settle for shorter stuff. At the same time, he did lead the Rams to two TDs, including a strong quick slant TD pass to Nick Johnson. A big question the Rams will answer over the weekend is how happy they are with Davis’ progress from his rookie season.

Cut by Rams: Austin Davis

* RB: Next question: will 2012 second-round pick Isaiah Pead even make the team? An ordinary-at-best game rushing (7-27) and a sloppy fumble on the opening kickoff again has local media raising that question. I’ll continue to say Pead has skills that make him salvageable. He has been the best blitz pickup back all preseason, including this week. A couple of Clemens’ best plays don’t come off at all without good blocks by Pead. A big run that got called back and a 1-yard swing pass he made a 10-yard gain by juking a DB out of his shoes showed what he can do in space. I need to see him never again returning a kickoff, but from row HH he looks like a very suitable third-down back. At the same time, Zac Stacy (11-37) and Benny Cunningham (8-76) have more than likely both passed Pead on the depth chart. Running a lot like Darryl Richardson, Cunningham was the offensive star of the game. He has good balance and sees the hole well as an inside runner. The first tackler doesn’t bring him down, and you’re not going to arm-tackle him. He turned the corner well a couple of times for big gains, including a 29-yard gain on his first carry, and he added 15 on a beautifully-set up draw play on 3rd-and-4 in the 4th. We saw the role Stacy’s going to have. He ran like a banger and barged in from the 1 for the Rams’ first TD. At the same time, though, he shows quick-enough feet and good-enough field vision to avoid initial trouble. Avoiding trouble’s been a particular problem for Pead. He may be fortunate to avoid the call of “the Turk” this weekend.

Cut by Rams: Eric Stevens; so far, so good for Pead

* Receivers: Does Brian Quick (5-60) have what it takes to be a starter? Maybe. He was pretty up and down this week. He couldn’t get his first catch put away and lost it for what was ruled an opening-drive fumble. A little later he failed to haul in a tough sideline pass that he did get both hands on. He got into a good rhythm in the 2nd, converting a 3rd-and-14 drag where he was open from the snap and getting the Rams in close a few plays later with a leaping catch over a defender inside the 5, the kind of big-receiver play the Rams drafted him to make. Austin Pettis had only one diving catch for 16; it seems like Quick will catch him before too long. Tavon Austin (3-26) had a promising-looking reception over the middle go bad instead, getting a ball he didn’t have tucked away stripped out from behind for the Rams’ THIRD fumble of the FIRST quarter. Mike McNeill (2-48) flashed a couple of times, getting a big gainer on a wide-open catch and embarrassing a defender with a juke on a 20-yard gain in the 2nd. Nick Johnson or Justin Veltung, flip a coin. Johnson has 2 TD catches in preseason but has never been involved in returns. Veltung has been the backup punt returner all camp and returned a kickoff this week but hasn’t been much factor in the passing game. Veltung originally got the call from RamView, then the coin landed on its edge.

Cut by Rams: Emory Blake, Nick Johnson, Philip Lutzenkirchen, Zach Potter, Justin Veltung

* Offensive line: Best week of the summer for the backup o-line; only two sacks, though both were on Joseph Barksdale. He blocked down instead of out on the first one and let a blitzer have a clean run at Clemens in the 2nd, and got beaten badly on the last play of the half and forced Clemens to step up and into Brandon Washington's man. Barksdale's pancake block did get Clemens extra time to scramble and hit Quick on the sideline to convert a 3rd-and-long, also in the 2nd. It wasn’t all backups; Rodger Saffold started but I doubt even broke a sweat before getting pulled. There was some excellent, mauling run-blocking. Brandon Washington gave Stacy room to score his TD. Tim Barnes plowed a Raven into next week to spring Cunningham's 4th-quarter draw. D.J. Young sealed the line nicely on Cunningham’s 29-yard run. Young committed three pre-snap penalties this week, though, and is a known liability in pass protection. Washington is ideally suited as a guard, where the Rams are already pretty crowded. He’s terrible on the edge; slow out of his stance, slow-footed, gets beaten a lot. I isolated on Barrett Jones at center for a stretch in the 2nd half, and his play appears to be improving. I don't like him a lot at the point of contact just yet but he looks steadier in pass protection. If Scott Wells goes down, I'd prefer to see Tim Barnes step in, and I wonder if the Rams don't see things the same way, at least for now. Jones has made pretty big steps already since the beginning of camp, so he's not a long way from reclaiming his draft day potential.

Cut by Rams: Ty Nsekhe, D.J. Young, plus an assumed move involving Sean Hooey. Rams keep ten linemen, including both Washington and Barnes.

* Defensive line: Even with just the backups taking the field, this was a pretty entertaining group, with the exception of the right-side defensive tackles. Jermelle Cudjo got his first live action of the preseason and looked very rusty, getting trucked both on an early 11-yard Bobby Rainey run and again on Rainey’s TD run to end that drive. The whole defensive front was an embarrassment on that TD run; Rainey bounced off Will Hayes, came back left while Cudjo and Matt Conrath got buried, then ran through Eugene Sims and a Janoris Jenkins ankle-biter tackle for the TD. Rainey scored a similar second-effort TD in the 2nd; this kind of thing is just inexcusable for a defensive line down on the goal line. Cudjo probably got in on enough tackles to save face and more importantly save stress this weekend. Garrett Goebel got pushed around, tackled poorly and was a penalty machine; that's how you make yourself an easy cut. Conrath showed off his trademark quickness off the ball when he knifed into the backfield and dropped Rainey for a 5-yard loss in the 1st, but gave it right back the next play by jumping offside. Eugene Sims got caught inside on Rainey's first long run but made a bunch of good run stops near the goal line. The guy to watch on the d-line this week, though, was Gerald Rivers, who performed too well for the Rams to take the risk of letting him go through waivers. He was too much for any single Raven lineman to handle and drew frequent double-teams. He looked ultra-quick off the ball, and though the Rams got only one sack, Rivers got it in impressive fashion, with a quick inside move and then just bull-rushing his man back into Ravens QB Caleb Hanie. We're seeing the birth of a quality pass rusher with Rivers, who also had a strong night against the run with 3 tackles for loss. The Ram defense was fairly dominant in this game, forcing seven three-and-outs, which we'll hope carries over into the regular season.

Cut by Rams: Mason Brodine, Garrett Goebel, R.J. Washington

* LB: Alec Ogletree didn't lose a lot of his momentum from last week's performance. He was one of the few defensive starters to play, and he played the whole first half, so I iso'ed on him a lot, and was pretty happy with what I saw. He had a key tackle to stop a receiver short and force 4th down near the goal line in the 1st. The Ravens didn't test him a lot in pass coverage or with play-action, but he had blanket coverage when they did. He didn't have the big week he did in Denver but was still very solid. I didn't see any blown assignments or bad plays. The Rams used a lot of nickel defense but did line Josh Hull up in the middle while resting James Laurinaitis. Hull appeared to have a good game and shot the gap really well to stop a Delone Carter run in the 2nd. Daren Bates continued to stand out on special teams and Jonathan Stewart finished a quietly good preseason with a couple of run stuffs, including one on the goal line. Not for the first time, Ray Ray Armstrong made a highlight-reel play, cutting Carter about in half with a clean form tackle to shut down a pass in the flat in the 3rd. There is a large amount of young talent in the Rams' LB corps, though you have to wonder if the group they're taking into the regular season isn't too young.

Cut by Rams: Sammy Brown, Josh Hull

* Secondary: Matt Daniels topped off his comeback from a torn ACL with a big night. He got an easy interception on the first possession when Caleb Hanie's receiver didn't run the correct route, and also flashed with a big hit to shut down a short pass in the 2nd during one of the defense's many 3-and-outs. Daniels has been all over the field, has tackled well, and more than likely had a job locked up last week already. Janoris Jenkins was one of the few starters to play, and got to make it an early night after perfectly blanketing and breaking up a long sideline pass for Marlon Brown. Darren Woodard made a couple of plays but also really got picked on by Caleb Hanie and the backup WRs. Andre Martin mainly stood out for getting scorched by Brown for a 50-yard TD in the 4th, a pretty-ordinary crossing route to let turn into a TD. Hanie wasn't accurate enough to take advantage of some other deep opportunities that he got with Ram safeties late to break on routes, which may have influenced a couple of Friday's cuts that I found surprising.

Cut by Rams: Cody Davis, Rashard Hall, Andre Martin, Drew Thomas, Darren Woodard

* Special teams: Kind of a disappointing night on special teams, actually. The Rams will enter the regular season with no established kick returner. I have little clue why Pead continues to get reps there when he won't be returning kicks opening day anyway. He has proven to be nothing but a liability on kick returns, including a fumble on the opening kick this week that Chase Reynolds recovered. Greg Zuerlein hit from 46 but missed from 53. Johnny Hekker, as he has too commonly done, spoiled an otherwise-excellent night with a flubbed 22-yard directional kick attempt. Without the flub, his average was a Pro Bowl-quality 48.5; instead he gets a pedestrian 44.7. Baltimore kicked away from Tavon Austin on early punts. It was intriguing to see Justin Veltung get an audition at returning a kickoff in the 2nd half, and he's looked good returning punts all preseason, but somehow not quite good enough. Kickoff coverage slid in quality, with Drew Thomas and Cody Davis having to make key open-field tackles to prevent big returns. Stedman Bailey surprised with one of the big hits of the night on a punt return, but with Arizona's dangerous return game up next and for real, Rams special teams could stand to tighten up a little.

* Strategery: Even being an all-bench game, you would have wanted a MUCH cleaner game than the Rams played. The three turnovers were made even worse since they were committed by players expected to be significant contributors. Quick seemed to get tough luck on his, but Pead and Austin were sloppy in ball security and simply can't allow that to happen, especially Pead in his second season. And just when you thought the penalty situation couldn't get worse, the Rams cranked it up to 17, for 123 yards. And sure, a bunch of those were committed by easy cuts like D.J. Young and Garrett Goebel, and sure, the Rams “only” committed six in the second half (which is still high) after Jeff Fisher “made it clear that penalties were unacceptable” at halftime. At least half the penalties, though, were committed by players who still made the main roster, and the longer this problem lasts into the regular season, the more Fisher should get criticized for it. Penalties are indeed unacceptable, certainly at the rate Fisher's Rams have committed them, and it's past time to get the situation cleaned up. The Rams did bring heavy blitzes on some 3rd downs, none of which worked, but other than that, the game plan was as vanilla as this week's lineups. I hope everyone's more than tired of the bland diet by now and ready for the Rams to pour on some flavor next Sunday.

* Upon further review: Jerome Boger’s crew is notoriously the most flag-happy crew in the NFL, and they did not disappoint. Most of the penalties were obvious and should have been called, though, so it’s unfair to blame Boger for that. Joseph Barksdale got a holding flag in the 2nd on what was actually a pretty classic pancake block. Marshall Faulk made a strong case on TV for calling Quick’s fumble an incomplete pass. The flag never should have been thrown on Armstrong’s big 4th-quarter hit, but at least they got it right and picked it up after conferencing. They needed too many of those, making the game really drag, but when that’s my biggest complaint about a Jerome Boger game, he’s having a helluva night. Grade: B

* Cheers: Media estimates of a half-filled Dome were a little generous; looked like less than 20,000 in attendance. Despite its size, though, the crowd put up a healthy amount of noise on third downs. With Steve Savard a late scratch, Randy Karraker did an admirable job in relief on radio play-by-play. Made three-yard runs sound a little too exciting, but that’s OK. Randy made an insightful call in the 4th lobbying for a roster spot for Reynolds, though by the end of things, he and D'Marco Farr made it sound like EVERYONE should make the final roster. Farr playing Ty Nsekhe up like some kind of uncuttable athletic monster was the biggest stretch. Hoping not to be able to hear next week's radio call, in a much fuller and rockin' Dome.

* Waiver bait: Due to stupid Thursday night games that give erstwhile recappers who have to work the next day no opportunity to stay caught up, the Rams already had their cutdown to 55 made before I was even half done with this. You’ll have to trust me when I say I would have gone 15-for-20. McNeill hadn’t shown me enough as a special-teamer or a blocker and I was keeping Zach Potter. I was keeping Josh Hull and was never going with 4 rookies, 3 of them undrafted, at LB. Veltung showed me more on special teams than Reynolds, cutting Cody Davis to keep Matt Giordano, who's been injured all training camp, doesn't make a lot of sense to me, and Austin Davis appears to have lost his spot so the Rams could keep a tenth offensive lineman, 7 of whom are interior linemen by trade or by skillset. Well, they do play in the most physical division in the league. Good luck to all whether or not I amateurishly guessed your NFL futures correctly.

* Who’s next?: Expectations raise now, not just for the Rams' regular-season opener, but for the 2013 season overall, a season the Rams will start at home next Sunday against their division rivals from Arizona. The Rams swept last year's meetings, a much-too-rare occurrence in the St. Louis-Arizona rivalry, dominating both games with defense. They sacked Kevin Kolb NINE times in a 17-3 win in St. Louis, and Janoris Jenkins cashed in two pick-sixes in a 31-17 Rams win in the desert.

The Big Dead made significant moves in the offseason to right their offense, the NFL's worst last year. Step #1 was to hire new head coach Bruce Arians, a very successful offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, which he pretty much led to the playoffs last season. A trade for Carson Palmer leaves them with much more certainty at QB than they had in the ill-advised Kolb era and should restore Larry Fitzgerald to his place among the league's best receivers. Defenses didn't have to worry about Fitzgerald last year because Arizona didn't have a QB who could get him the ball. Now they do, and the Rams have to be prepared to deal with Fitzgerald or he'll have one of the Godzilla games he's had against them many times in the past. In preseason, the Big Dead have flashed a deep passing game they haven't had in recent seasons, and a staple of Arians' offenses is the wide receiver screen. It remains to be seen if Michael Floyd will emerge as an effective alternative to Fitzgerald, and tight end Rob Housler looked mostly like garbage in preseason, but the Rams still have to be prepared for a much-more balanced passing attack than they've seen from Arizona recently. Health at RB has been an ongoing issue in Arizona. Their answer for 2013 is ex-Steeler Rashard Mendenhall, who had 324 carries for Arians in Pittsburgh in 2010, but has struggled with turnovers, injuries and attitude since. He missed almost all of last season due to a torn ACL and had a minor knee issue after their last game. Arizona has not run well up the middle in preseason, which has really hurt them in the red zone, where they're struggling. Mendenhall's shown some juice when he's gotten good edge blocking, though, and will be a big test for the Ram OLBs. And if the Ram defensive line is expecting to flip the switch and feast on the Arizona o-line like it did last year, they're in for trouble. RT Eric Winston and again healthy LT Levi Brown are no blocks of granite, but they're big upgrades over the overmatched rookies who held those roles last season. But Dallas blitzed Palmer successfully in preseason, and he's no great-under-pressure QB. He'll miss open receivers and make big mistakes, like the 50 INTs he's thrown the past three seasons. Pressuring Palmer will be key to this game, and Rams Nation will have to root for the defensive line to show far more than it did in three preseason games.

The Rams went 2-0 against Arizona in 2012 but will need to improve a lot offensively to duplicate that feat. That especially means Sam Bradford, who didn't even complete 40% of his passes against Arizona last season, and threw two end zone interceptions to boot. The Rams won those games largely because of defense and because they could dictate to the Arizona D by... pounding Steven Jackson. But don't panic just yet. Chris Givens vexed Arizona's secondary with his speed in both games. And though Arizona shut out Green Bay and Dallas through 7 quarters of preseason, their corners opposite Patrick Peterson got burned on deep passes. The Big Dead bite hard on play action and double moves and don't tackle that well in the back. Lance Kendricks got them for 2 TDs last year. All that before you add Tavon Austin matching up on a slow DB or big Jared Cook matching up on a slow LB or a little honey badger. Analysts tell us the main reason the Arizona defense (#12 overall, #5 pass, #28 run, #17 points against) had problems last season was because their awful offense kept them on the field so much. Fair enough, but at the same time, Bradford was sacked just three times by the Big Dead last year and is now behind an improved offensive line himself. The Rams also catch a break because Arizona's leading sacker and defensive catalyst Daryl Washington is suspended for the first four games. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who's almost interviewed to be the Rams head coach a couple of times, hopes not to miss him too much. The familiar fire zone blitz hasn't likely left the Big Dead's playbook, but they did plenty of edge blitzing in preseason, and figure to keep the pressure up until the untested Rams RBs prove they can deal with it. Bowles' system is also designed to turn loose two long-time Ram-killers, DEs Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell. They get to attack instead of having to hold their ground more the past couple of seasons. Look for blitzing over LT to get Dockett matched up on Chris Williams, and for Campbell vs. Rodger Saffold to be a key matchup. Bowles has preached forcing turnovers in training camp, and that message has clearly gotten through. Arizona forced FIVE turnovers in the first half against Dallas. Their defense really tackles with the turnover in mind, which in particular really gives them a chance to swing this game in their favor. As much as I hate to say it, with so much youth on offense, and no Steven Jackson or Marshall Faulk in the backfield, the Rams are as prone to fumbling as they've been since Tony Banks was behind center. The Rams' keys opening day are for Bradford and Saffold to play well, and for the rest of the offense to pick up the blitz and take care of the ball. Those are not automatic things for such a young team.

So, welcome to the most important game of the Jeff Fisher era so far. The Rams are favored to win the season opener and have a lot to lose here. It's a division game, I at least still consider Bidwill's Big Dead a bitter rival, and Arizona was 1-7 on the road last season. If the Rams stub their toe here, it'll have more of the effect of a punch in the face. Barring something completely freakish, a loss to a team the Rams beat twice in 2012 would have to be seen as a step backward. The two most important faces in the Rams organization, Fisher and Bradford, can't afford to start the season with a black eye, not with the schedule ahead making their road very steep, very quickly. It's the first week of the season, and it's already a must-win game for the Rams. Welcome to the National Football League.

-- Mike
Game stats and photos from espn.com