RamView, September 11, 2005
From The Couch
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Game 1: ***** 28, Rams 25

The Rams open the 2005 season in the most unimaginable, embarrassing way possible and stake an early claim as the NFL's most disappointing team. The Martz Era just took a massive uppercut to its glass jaw.

Position by position:
* QB: Marc Bulger has been a good closer in the past, but not today, which was a big blemish on a big statistical day (34-56-362, 2 TD). The Rams turned the red zone into the "dread zone", settling for four FGs in four trips before converting for a TD late in the game. Whenever the Rams reached the dread zone, the whole offense fell apart. After a Tim Rattay fumble in the 1st, Bulger couldn't get the Rams in from the 11, hitting Torry Holt for only 1 against one of San Fran's persistent blitzes and throwing a 3rd-down incompletion. Bulger could beat the blitz as long as he wasn't in the dread zone. The second drive, Marc hit Holt for 15 to beat a blitz, but once in the dread zone, it's sack, deflected pass, end zone pass for Kevin Curtis batted away, FG. Bulger responded poorly with the Rams down 7-6 – a poor near-INT and a sack. Down 21-6 near halftime, Bulger leads the Rams into the dread zone with a spectacular 44-yard bomb to Holt and a 14-yarder to Shaun McDonald. The finish, though, is 4 to Holt, sack, short dumpoff to McDonald, FG. Down 28-9 after halftime, the Rams bog down in the dread zone for the fourth straight time. Bulger and Torry miss open connections in the end zone, and Bulger is sacked AGAIN the next play to force another FG. Bulger and Bruce connected for a pretty 32-yard TD to make it 28-18 (note: outside the dread zone). But Bulger is bad the next drive, ending it with three incompletions, one a near INT-TD, one a 3rd down pass into triple coverage. But down the stretch in the 4th, Marc looked ready to work some comeback magic. He slips a third down blitz to hit McDonald for almost 9 and converts the 4th down on a sneak. 15 more to McDonald, and after ANOTHER sack makes it 4th-and-9, a lovely sideline connection with McDonald for 20 more. In the dread zone again, Isaac Bruce gamely dives at the 5-yard line for a first down, and though Bulger struggles mightily, he hooks up with Brandon Manumaleuna for an easy TE screen TD on 4th down to make it 28-25. In the final minute, the choking ***** hand the Rams the ball at the 33, and all Bulger has to do is not screw up, but ack, his first throw is way behind Isaac, who flails at it one-handed, as Mike Adams pulls it in for a game-sealing interception. Bulger wasn't himself today. He held the ball too long on several sacks and made a lot of poor throws. He floundered in the dread zone and had two bad series in the 4th with the game on the line. The Rams really can't afford any slippage in Marc's play right now.

* RB: Steven Jackson (19-60) got off to a strong start. 36 of his yards were on the Rams' first drive – an 8-yard run from the Ram 1 behind Manu's impressive block, a 9-yard tackle-breaking run, and an 11-yard sweep right, eluding the CB behind the line and exploiting Rex Tucker's one good block of the day. Martz forgot Jackson for a long time, especially in the red zone, and once he remembered him again, Derek Smith started flashing through untouched to stuff Steven for losses. Counting a missed 2-point attempt, Steven got stuffed 5 times for losses and several more for 0-1 yard. The ***** almost always brought an extra guy, and the Rams almost never had anybody lead-blocking to pick that guy up. Jackson did get 15 on the Rams' last TD drive cutting back behind a Tom Nutten block. Marshall Faulk, a 49er-killer in the past, got shockingly little work; 4 touches for 16 yards. Great – two star RBs Martz has no idea how to use. Manu converted a very tough 4th-and-1 in the third, a big play at the time. But the Ram running game continues to suffer from lack of commitment during games and, apparently, to developing effective run-blocking schemes for games.

* WR: Major, major disappointment that the Rams couldn't translate a big mismatch on paper to the field. A lot of the offense's sack trouble and dread zone trouble can be traced to Ram receivers failing to get open against a green 49er secondary. Isaac Bruce and Manu had TD catches, but Isaac (3-61) had a very disappointing game, with only one catch at halftime. The normal 49er-killer had a terrible time getting open today. Torry Holt (10-125) caught a spectacular 44 yarder, but had no TDs, and gained little YAC, which is supposed to be a staple of this receiving corps. Shaun McDonald (7-73) played super, and was very smart down the stretch about getting out of bounds. Kevin Curtis (7-63) caught several quick slants against blitzes and seemed to be the main end zone target when the Rams got in close, but like the rest of the Ram receivers, he put up numbers everywhere today except the scoreboard.

* Offensive line: The Rams struggled with the blitz the whole game, giving up a ridiculous seven sacks in their season debut. Pass protection was good early, but the ***** quickly began blitzing every play, and as happened too often last year, the Ram offensive line was rendered helpless. Mike Adams ended the first drive unchecked on a CB blitz. Faulk couldn't pick him up; he was on the opposite side. After the first drive, Rex Tucker made Grant Williams look like Jackie Slater. He helped force the Rams' first red zone FG with a false start. 500-year-old Bryant Young had two sacks off Tucker to kill Ram drives. There were plays where Tucker was literally spinning around like a top because he didn't know what to do. A third Young sack, matching his total from LAST SEASON, forced the Rams to settle for a 3rd FG before halftime. Julian Peterson chimed in with 2.5 2nd-half sacks. He got Bulger twice on the same drive in the 3rd. The Rams settled for a 4th FG after Peterson smoked Sucker and Andre Carter blew in from the left. That came off a 4-man rush, showing just how weak the offensive line was today. The Rams couldn't keep Jackson going; he averaged barely 3 yards a rush. Half the time there was a 49er LB in the backfield, the theme of the day run-blocking. I can't believe they looked so good a couple of weeks ago when it is clear today that the Ram blocking schemes need a ton of work to keep this season from becoming a complete disaster.

* Defensive line/LB: The Ram pass rush was good the first two plays, which was all it took to get their first turnover of the season. Leonard Little blew up a screen, sacked Tim Rattay and forced a fumble recovered by Anthony Hargrove. They stuffed the next drive 1-2-3, as the ***** held the ball just 2:30 of the 1st quarter. Little and Pisa Tinoisamoa made stops on Kevan Barlow, and Little blew up a direct snap to Arnaz Battle for minus-3 on 3rd down. Up 6-0, though, the pass rush took a coffee break. Barlow beat Little (wtf?) on a 12-yard pass, with Dexter Coakley blowing a tackle. Battle and Brandon Lloyd work a 20-yard WR option pass where the Rams put on absolutely no pressure at all, and there's no rush on the next play, a TD bomb to Lloyd. 7-6. Down 14-6, the defense came up strong after a successful 49er onside kick. Jimmy Kennedy stuffed Barlow, and Hargrove tipped a pass on 3rd down. The Rams were superb against the run today, 34 yards on 21 attempts. Little, Pisa and Chris Claiborne stuffed one run after another. Outstanding, but it didn't carry over to other defensive areas. The ***** went up 21-6 with the Rams putting on no red zone pass rush and Pisa letting Battle get behind him for the TD. After halftime, the Rams repeated an old act and came out completely flat, as San Fran walked downfield. Frank Gore got 19 on a pass where nobody covered him out of the backfield. The Rams were sloppy about covering RBs and staying onside all day, especially this drive. Barlow put the ***** up 28-9 with an 8-yard draw where the Rams got caught blitzing, Little got held and Claiborne got caught out of position. They made some big plays after that, too little, too late. Jerome Carter, Pisa and Little forced a Barlow fumble that let the Rams get within 28-18, and they sent the ***** 123-out three straight times in the 4th. Little sacked Rattay at the 12 with 1:58 left to give the Rams a fighting chance at the tying FG. Little had both Ram sacks, but they needed a lot more. The Rams just let Rattay get too comfortable in the pocket. The front seven have to get heat on the passer to help the subpar Ram secondary, but they didn't get enough today, and that was where the game was lost on defense.

* Secondary: The ***** threw for only 192 yards, and Tim Rattay threw some perfect passes, but that does not mean the secondary played well, far from it. They allowed too many big plays. It's going to be a long season for Travis Fisher if he can't even cover Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd beat him for 35 and the first Niner TD despite Travis' interference. And Michael Hawthorne was late getting over. Frisco's 2nd TD was set up by DeJuan Groce getting beat by Johnnie Morton for 30 down to the 8. The DBs were just brutal after halftime as the 9ers went up 28-9. Fisher, who was useless today, kept the drive alive on 3rd down by interfering with Lloyd. Arnaz Battle beat Corey Ivy for 21, Frank Gore beat, well, nobody for 19, and the Niners drove in from there. With a poor showing against one of the worst passing teams the Rams will face this season, one can only cringe hard thinking about October 17 and one Peyton Manning.

* Special teams: It took exactly one second for Rams special teams to foul up this season, and it went downhill from there. The Rams surprisingly and idiotically tabbed Chris Johnson to return kickoffs, and he stepped out of bounds at the ONE YARD LINE on his first attempt. The punting game behind rookie Reggie Hodges stunk, as any decent coach would have expected. He averaged a pathetic 33 yards a punt, and not even his one good punt went well, as the worthless, pathetic Ram special teams gave up what turns out to be the game-breaking TD, a 75-yard return in the 2nd by somebody called Otis Amey. Supposed special teams ace Mike Furrey completely blew a tackle at the start of the play, Hargrove tippy-toed around instead of wrapping the returner up, a Ram got blocked in the back to the ground with no call, and Hodges couldn't come up with a tackle. After that made it 14-6, the *****, who had lousy special teams themselves last year, caught the Rams with their pants down with an onside kick. The Rams avoided disaster from that until Hodges got to punt again, hitting a 25-yard piece of crap that set Frisco up for a short TD drive to go up 21-6. Jeff Wilkins continues to stroke FGs (4), but Shaun McDonald does not know how to return punts, veterans make stupid plays or commit penalties to back up the offense, players don't stay in their lanes, giving up long kickoff returns… nothing has changed for the Rams' worthless special teams.

* Coaching/discipline: There is plenty to be said about not basing a season on one game. But what happened today has happened TOO many times with Mike Martz, and it doesn't leave a lot of reason to keep up the big hopes the Rams' offseason generated. This was Martz's third straight loss to a rookie coach. Special teams were an even sadder, more pathetic joke than last year's, showing the risk in depending on rookies – Chris Johnson, Reggie Hodges, Bob Ligashesky. The Ram red zone offense was so inept you could basically predict it wouldn't score a TD. Blitzes are alien technology to the offensive line. Martz's offenses can't solve the simple 3-4 or the simpler Cover-2. The Rams continue to half-ass it at right tackle, which continues to sabotage the offense. The offense barely uses a fullback and they wonder why they can't run when they get near the goal line and why there are linebackers in their backfield all day. Martz blew a timeout on a challenge with the game only one second old. Why should I think any of this is going to get better this year, when it didn’t get better last year or any of the years before? This loss alone should be enough to have the Rams front office mobilize planning for the post-Martz era. And Martz better get his and his team's heads pulled out of their butts if he wants the post-Martz era to be very far off.
Focusing on today's game, the biggest flaw of the Martz gameplan, once again, was getting away from a successful running game. 63 pass plays vs. 26 runs was not just because the Rams fell far behind. After Jackson averaged over 5 a rush the first drive, the second drive was all passes. The Rams had 22 plays in the red zone and 17 of them were passes. If it's harder to pass when you get in close, why does Martz try it so much? What happened to that "commitment" to power running?
As much credit as I'd like to give Larry Marmie for the defense's strong performance against the run (1.7 ypc), he made bad calls today, too. Barlow's TD run was a draw play against a blitz; Marmie got fooled. After the Rams went up 6-0, Marmie got way too cute and San Fran drove right down the field for the lead. Niner RBs were wide open every time they ran a pass pattern. One of the big plays of the first 49er TD drive was a 12-yard pass to Barlow with Leonard Little dropped back in coverage instead of attacking the QB like the Lord meant for him to do. And though they certainly stopped the big run today, they didn't stop the big pass, and, like last year, put way too little pressure on the opposing QB.
As for Coach Ligashesky, I'll just say there hasn't been a debut this disappointing since they revealed "It" was the Segway Dorkmobile.

* Upon further review: The ***** committed just 6 penalties for 30 yards, thanks to the Bill Vinovich crew, which missed or ignored plenty of what went on. Holt was speared on the ground after his first catch. No call. Bulger was hit late by an LB, with his head down, on the 2nd completion to Curtis. No call. Shawntae Spencer hip-checked Bruce on an incomplete TD bomb during the Rams' third drive. No call. On Barlow's TD run, Little is held and pulled to the ground. No call. A Ram who could have held Amey's punt return TD to about 15 yards is blocked in the back. I couldn't see his number. Because he was blocked in the back. No call. There were poor spots on a couple of McDonald's 4th quarter catches. One favored the Rams; one didn't. Too bad the rest of the lousy officiating didn't even out like that today.

* Cheers: No cheers, just some bizarre factoids from the game: The Rams controlled the ball for nearly 40 minutes. And lost. The Rams held the ***** to 34 rushing yards and barely 200 total offensive yards. And lost. They had twice as many offensive plays, over twice as many first downs (26-12), nearly twice as many total yards, and won the turnover battle. And lost the game. Maybe I should start watching tennis.

* Who’s next?: Boy, does the plot ever thicken now, as the Rams have to beat the Arizona Cardinals to avoid an 0-2 start and a very unfriendly greeting at their home opener. And the Cardinals, of course, are now led by 2-time Ram MVP Kurt Warner. The Big Dead were one of a few teams that looked worse than the Rams today, getting drubbed 42-19 by the Giants, but Mike Martz has proven his teams are capable of losing to anybody at any time. Looks like Kurt had a decent game in New York – 264 yards, most of it to Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, only one turnover and two sacks. The Big Dead didn't run well at all; Warner was their leading rusher, with 11 yards. The Ram front seven must put a good pass rush on Warner, which we all know is the key to beating him these days. If the Rams don't pressure Kurt, I don't see Fisher and Groce standing a chance against the big Arizona wideouts. This is also the worst special teams matchup ever: the Big Dead gave up two return TDs to the Giants today.
Obviously the Rams have got to figure out what to do when they get inside the other team's 20. They have to run better in the red zone, which would be helped by actually calling running plays down there. Arizona's run defense doesn't yet look improved over last year's, and it would behoove Martz to pound Jackson, behind a fullback, on them. Passing-wise, the offensive line is going to have to handle the Arizona blitz, which they have failed badly at the team's last two trips to the desert. The whole Ram offense was awful there last year (without Bulger), and Marc had to overcome a lot of his own bad play there in an overtime win in '03. Coping with Bertran Berry over on Sucker's side will be one big problem, as will the Arizona heat. The Rams haven't had an early-season game in Arizona since they melted down there in 1996. Above all else this offense has got to finish drives with TDs. They can't finish off Arizona next week if they keep failing to finish off drives, and if they can't finish off Arizona, the Rams may be finished.

-- Mike
Game stats from nfl.com