RamView, September 10, 2006
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Game #1: Rams 18, Broncos 10

There's nothing like an immediate return on investment, which the Rams got today from their offseason moves. Will Witherspoon, Fakhir Brown, Tye Hill and coach Jim Haslett, among others, were all major contributors as a dominating effort on defense carried the Rams' lackluster red zone offense to an eye-opening win over the Broncos.

Position by position:
* Defensive line/LB: The biggest offseason investment paid off the biggest, as Will Witherspoon put together the kind of game the Rams haven't gotten from a LB since London Fletcher manned the middle. He led the team with eight tackles, forced a Tatum Bell fumble in the 1st that led to one of the Rams' many FGs, and made a beautiful play late in the game to deflect a pass that Fakhir Brown picked off to end Denver's last chance to tie the score. Where there's a Will, there's a play; the Rams' new MLB seemed to be everywhere today. Leonard Little was an unblockable force again, with two of the Rams' four sacks. He took Jake Plummer down by the ankle to kill Denver's opening drive. Later in the 1st, Leonard made an even bigger play, rag-dolling Mike Bell to the ground and sacking Plummer to force a fumble that was eventually recovered by Pisa Tinoisamoa inside the Bronco 5. Little missed out on a third sack when Plummer switched hands and tossed a lefty underhand pass. On that play, Leonard just drove George Foster backward into Jake and grabbed him. If Leonard can play like this consistently again, look out. The line's other sack went to Anthony Hargrove, who I believe stunted and surged up the middle at a helpless Plummer. LaRoi Glover might get half of that sack, though. Jimmy Kennedy broke his hand early in the game, so we saw a lot more of Jason Fisk than expected, and he looked good, holding his ground and tying up multiple blockers. Denver did break off several long runs in the second half, and also ran to Hargrove's side quite successfully in that half. They also successfully attacked the Rams' aggressive defensive scheme with screen passes and those runs. So there were a fair number of LB overpursuits and missed tackles in the 2nd half. But even then, it should be kept in mind that the Ram offense had a poor 2nd half and kept the defense on the field a lot. As much as anything, Denver wore the Rams down in the 2nd half. But to their credit, they continued to make big plays. Here's to this being the first of many big days for the Ram defense.

* Secondary: The Ram secondary was filled with stars today, and earns a game ball as a unit, and I can't remember the last time I got to say anything like that. Tye Hill had a memorable first game, taking advantage of a Travis Fisher blitz to make his first career interception in the 2nd. Tye's coverage was so good on that play he looked like the intended receiver. Fakhir Brown struggled a little against Plummer's constant series of lob passes against him, but more than made up for it with big plays. In the 2nd, he stormed in unblocked to sack Plummer to end a drive, and at the end of the game, he fielded Witherspoon's deflection for the Rams' FIFTH forced turnover of the game. Sloppy coverage left Todd Devoe wide open for a long floater from Plummer in the 4th, but Corey Chavous proved to be poison to that play by closing rapidly and skying to steal the pass and big play away. Last but certainly not least comes OJ Atogwe. He recovered Bell's fumble, but his sure tackling was his most valuable contribution. Yes, two of his tackles came at the end of 36- and 39-yard runs by Tatum and Mike Bell, but by making those tackles, Atogwe stopped plays that would have been TDs with the likes of Archuleta, Sehorn, Hawthorn, Coady or Furrey flailing around deep in the Ram secondary. No, he didn't get one of those glamorous INTs like his other secondary mates, but make no mistake, OJ Atogwe is performing a vital role in the Ram secondary, and doing it well.

* Special teams: What a switch from last season's opening game: the Ram special teams can hold their heads high. Jeff Wilkins did all the scoring, with a team-record six FGs: 26, 38, 29, 51, 48 and 24. Jeff would have had seven, but doinked a 47-yarder after Madison Hedgecock's holding penalty took a made 37-yarder off the board. Money was also solid on kickoffs, with three touchbacks. Matt Turk didn't have to punt in the first half, but the wily veteran turned in one of the game's most important plays. Punting from his own end zone with the Rams holding a precarious 15-10 lead early in the 4th, Turk was clearly run into, but his just-been-shot acting job influenced a 15-yard roughing penalty, and the Rams drove on for an important FG. A valuable offseason acquisition himself, Turk averaged 50.0 a punt. And kickoff coverage was terrific. Denver didn't return anything across the 21. Paul Smith was the leader there with two tackles, including one where he crashed into a blocker, they fell in a pile on a ground, and when returner Mike Bell arrived, Smith sprang up and took him down. That is football, and the Rams may just have some special teams now.

* QB: If you were at the game today, Marc Bulger pretty much stunk, (18-34-217, no TD), and the team won despite him, or at least without him. He misfired, or appeared to, all game long. He blew several open sideline opportunities for Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce and looked incapable of throwing a pass that would allow his receiver to keep his feet in bounds. He threw a poor pass for Steven Jackson in the second half that would have been a big play if he had not crossed Steven up. He only hit four different receivers and only two WRs. The topper came early in the 4th on 2nd-and-goal from the Denver 6. Bulger rolled right, and as the Denver defense rolled with him, Holt popped wide open in the back of the end zone. Marc spotted him, threw to him, and missed him badly. Now, upon hearing some of Dan Dierdorf's TV commentary and postgame interviews with Marc, I understand his play a little better, though I'm still not thrilled. Summed up, it's not Marc, it's the new offensive system. Coach Scott Linehan wants him to play conservatively, to throw the ball away when he's got nothing, (correctly) emphasizing that a punt is better than a turnover. Duly note that Marc committed no turnovers today. Is Marc Bulger a rare professional athlete who would buy into accepting much worse offensive numbers in the name of team wins? Oh, you bet. It's just hard to wrap my brain around the idea that Linehan, who had Randy Moss throwing option passes not that long ago, has decided the road to winning involves turning an all-pro QB into Trent Dilfer. What's that – Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl? OK, if Bulger's happy to be demoted from a playmaker to a caretaker, I'll try to roll with it. But for the moment, it's difficult to watch him have bad games like today's and this preseason's.

* RB: The job of carrying the Ram offense belongs to Steven Jackson, and he succeeded at it today with 121 yards on 22 carries. Steven got stuffed by Denver a number of times, but I'm seeing that his running style has improved. Several times today, he put his head down and got a two- or three-yard gain. On those plays last year, he'd dance and lose three yards instead. Though he had four straight rushes for loss at one point, to pull out an old Marshall Faulk measurement, he also had eight plays of over five yards. One of those was a 20-yard run that helped get the Rams a FG coming out of halftime. Steven hit a Red Sea-wide cutback lane to make that play but missed a couple of similar opportunities in the first half. All those losses in the 3rd quarter helped keep Denver in the game, but Tony Fisher started putting the Broncos away with a 49-yard screen pass in the 4th, and Jackson finished them off in the last two-minutes-plus, with an impressive 13-yard power run where he drug John Lynch and others for half that distance, and a 37-yarder two plays later to put the game away. Fisher was the #2 back; I only saw Stephen Davis on the field for one play. But Jackson leads the running game and the Ram offense, and today was the right man for the job.

* WR: Things that make you go Hmm: Torry Holt (7-80) and Isaac Bruce (5-64) were the only receivers to catch passes. Torry had a couple of completions across midfield to advance scoring drives. The missed opportunities stand out the most, through no fault of the receivers. Holt should have had a TD in the 4th but Bulger's throw was bad. Shaun McDonald had a shot at ending the Rams' first drive with a TD but Domonique Foxworth defended/interfered with the pass. Kevin Curtis had a long ball thrown his way earlier on a free play, but it was knocked away. Most mysteriously, an offense that seemed geared to throw much more to TEs this year threw to none of them at all, though Joe Klopfenstein had open opportunities. Hmm…

* Offensive line: The Rams had trouble getting the running game off early, and on the radio broadcast, Jim Hanifan attributed that to Joe Klopfenstein not making good enough blocks. But Klop's impressive pancake of Ebenezer Ekuban early in the 3rd made Jackson's 20-yard run possible. Jackson's 37-yard run late in the game came between Alex Barron's outstanding seal and a just-as-outstanding block by Paul Smith. The blocking of Tony Fisher's 49-yard screen pass, which led to the clinching FG, was also outstanding, from Alex Barron at the start of the play, to Larry Turner knocking Ekuban down (again), to Klop and even Kevin Curtis running interference downfield. Bulger was sacked three times, one a coverage sack. One was a blown-up screen pass where Richie Incognito didn't put a big-enough stick on Demetrin Veal, and on the third, Kenard Lang just ran right over Turner to take Bulger down. Turner's name is mentioned a lot because Andy McCollum left the game with what is feared to be a severe knee injury. I'll cut Turner some slack and say he did a credible job; he and Bulger didn't blow any exchanges, at least. But is the former 7th-round pick prepared to take over the position on a full-time basis? We may have to learn that answer the hard way.

* Coaching/discipline: The St. Louis media is not happy at all that Scott Linehan has limited access to practices, and seem to be taking it out on him by making DC Jim Haslett their golden boy. Haslett will get a ton of media adulation after this game, but don't let politics cloud things: Haslett may be the biggest reason the Rams won today, and deserves every bit of credit he gets. One of Denver's favorite things is rolling out the QB, and Haslett completely took that away from them today by calling cornerback blitzes at exactly the right times. The Brown blitz that drew a sack of Plummer in the 2nd may have been the best single defensive play call around here in four years. Not to mention that Hill's INT came with Travis Fisher blitzing. Not to play down the new player talent, but with today's gameplan, Haslett's given this defense aggression it has badly lacked.
Haslett's big day really puts Linehan behind the eight ball, because his offense was rotten. Where are the passes to tight ends? None were even tried today, even as the Rams struggled mightily in the red zone, even as Klopfenstein appeared to show ability to get open downfield. The only deep ball thrown was by Bulger's choice, on a play where Denver had jumped offsides. I can't believe Linehan actually thinks throwing NO deep balls a game is going to keep an opposing defense honest. Make them cover the whole field, Coach. Linehan's best call by far was the screen to Tony Fisher in the 4th. They caught the Broncos blitzing and executed the play perfectly. That play led to an insurance FG and appeared to be a play that took a lot of the wind out of Denver's sails. So give Coach Linehan credit for throwing the knockout punch and for winning his first career bout. All the rope-a-doping, though, has got to go. The Rams should have scored 30 points today given their turnover advantage, but have amazingly managed to get even worse in the red zone than they were last year.

* Upon further review: Bill Vinovich had today's call, which had its ups and downs. After Wilkins had a FG taken off the board by a holding penalty, the referees took an exceptionally long time to put the ball back into play, doing a better job of freezing the Ram kicker than any Bronco timeout could have done. The ensuing doink was a fait accompli. They credited Holt for a catch when he obviously didn't have both feet in, requiring a Denver challenge. The big call they got right was Plummer's fumble in the 1st, which Denver challenged hoping for a cheapie "tuck rule" override. Vinovich did well not to fall for that. Everybody hated the grounding call on Bulger, but that was consistent with how the NFL currently calls it. The crowd booed Vinovich hard for the taunting penalty after Chavous' INT; apparently I was the only person yelling at Corey and the other DBs for being so stupid as to commit a textbook example of what the referees have been instructed to call as taunting, as has been explained many, many times. Dumb play; correct call.

* Cheers: The game took until the last second to sell out, helped by Bronco fans rimming the top several rows of the Dome like salt on a margarita glass, but Rams fans once again answered their doubters by providing a raucous environment for the visiting team to try to run their offense in. Though Rams fans can be proud of their effort, Denver prepared well for the sound. I think they only committed a couple of false starts. Halftime was a not-exactly-cheerful 9/11 tribute. I'm sorry, but that would have been better if done before the game. Depressing the crowd at halftime with WTC images doesn't help the football atmosphere. It's a timely and worthwhile ceremony, but not at halftime. A welcome addition, though, is that the message boards now display fantasy football stats.
(Corrections from last week: Waiver Bait listed Dominic Raiola; that should have been Dominic's brother, Donovan. Also, nfl.com does include fumbles forced as an individual statistic, if you go to a specific player's page. But they're not included on the team statistics pages, nor can you use it as a criteria to rank the 32 teams on.)

* Who’s next?: One of the things I enjoyed the most about Mike Martz was that he took the Rams franchise's long-standing rivalry with the San Francisco ***** as seriously as he did (though there was little sign of urgency in last year's results). In this fan's opinion, a key litmus test of Scott Linehan and staff is that the Rams continue to treat the Rams-***** rivalry seriously. I don't want to hear "we'll prepare for this game like any other week"; I don't even want to hear "we'll prepare for this game seriously like we would for any game within the division". I want to hear that as of Monday morning, it's 49er Week at Rams Park, and we're preparing like we would for our worst enemy.

The NFL has inexcusably slated the Rams as the *****' home opener opponent for the second straight year, so San Francisco should be extra nice-and-fired-up in their eagerness to re-enact last Opening Day's debacle, or the Christmas Eve debacle in St. Louis. Those disasters had some things in common, the first and foremost being the pathetic play of the Ram offensive line. Bulger was sacked seven times in the first meeting. Jackson rarely had room to run against the ***** last year, totaling only 88 yards in two games. Run blocking was so poor the 49er LBs should have been introduced as starters in the Rams' backfield. The ***** had the league's worst defense last year, and don't figure to be much better this year, but as we saw last year, none of that matters if you can't control the line of scrimmage. Neither will any offensive strategy Scott Linehan draws up. What game plan works without blocking? It is critical to victory next Sunday that the Ram offensive line does its job. The Ram receivers also need to deliver some clutch plays next week. They had too much trouble getting open at critical moments of both of last year's contests, which was simply inexcusable then, and would be again this year against a secondary that still hasn't shown it can cover anybody. Rams Nation knows it can count on big numbers from Torry Holt against the *****; this year, we need them on third downs.

The ***** didn't look bad at all offensively in Arizona today. Though they lost, Frank Gore scored two TDs and Alex Smith threw for 288 yards. The inconvenient truth about Gore is that he's emerged as a dangerous two-way weapon, cracking 80 yards each rushing and receiving today. Smith's favorite receiver is Antonio Bryant, and the Ram secondary and Brandon Chillar not only have to be concerned with Bryant, and Gore out of the backfield, they have to keep an eye on 49er rookie TE Vernon Davis. You would think young Smith would be overmatched by the number of defensive looks and blitzes Jim Haslett will throw at him next week, but he survived defensive mad scientist Clancy Pendergast today. Since Smith was only sacked once by the Big Dead, it will be paramount that the Rams make him uncomfortable. And Gore committed a costly fumble, something the Rams would do well to force a repeat of next Sunday. It's still a very young offense at the key positions, and now is the time to force it to make youthful mistakes. Much like today's game, making impact plays on defense looms as the key to victory next week.

Road victories are not easy to come by in the NFL, and winning on the road tends to separate the league's men from its boys. So do beating division opponents and beating teams in the league's lower echelons, which also apply to next week's game. Though the Linehan regime appears to be growing up in a hurry, it enters the 49er rivalry at a disadvantage, since a loss next week would be a third straight to the Rams' worst enemy, and a team that, though they looked game today, are considered still a year or more away from being a serious NFL competitor. Even on the West Coast, a win over the ***** is not a high hurdle to ask a team to cross. So, will the Rams have another growth spurt and jump that hurdle, or will their growth be stunted by another gut-gnawing defeat? If they approach this game with the intensity that (dare I say?) Martz used to, they'll answer that question the way Rams Nation wants them to.

-- Mike
Game stats from nfl.com