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    RamView, 9/24/2007: Bucs 24, Rams 3 (Long)

    RamView, September 23, 2007
    From The Couch
    (Report and opinions on the game.)
    Game #3: Buccaneers 24, Rams 3

    The Rams' season-long epidemic of offensive line injuries and lame offensive play-calling raged on today, and just in case that wasn't enough, some Ram veterans who have been reliable for many years picked today to have inexplicably bad games in a 24-3 fiasco in Tampa. This season sure wasn't fun while it didn't last.

    Position by position:
    * QB: What happened to Marc Bulger? This performance was hardly befitting an all-pro QB, both in statistics (17-26 for a pathetic 116 yards) and in game-changing bad plays (3 INTs, 2 bad ones). We only saw firefly-like flashes of Bulger on top of his game today. There was the perfectly-placed sideline pass Isaac Bruce leaned for on the sideline to convert an early first down. There was the play in the 2nd where he stepped up from a blitz and hit Torry Holt for 15. But those are desperate attempts to find highlights on a day where Marc's longest pass was 18 yards (Holt) and the Ram offense failed repeatedly. A huge reason for Marc's ineffectiveness was game-planning: a heavy, comprehensible emphasis on running the ball and a heavy, incomprehensible emphasis on 1-yard quick hitches. But Marc bears some of the blame. Just outside FG range in the 2nd, he threw a short sideline pass on third-and-3 that Jermaine Phillips read all the way and picked off with an acrobatic play. That ball was never going to get to the intended receiver, Bruce; Bulger's view of Phillips may have been blocked by a LB. The Rams next got down to the Tampa 25 before the drive stalled on two long incompletions. After Tampa took a 10-0 lead in the 3rd, the Rams fought right back to first-and-goal at the 10 before a disastrous play. Bulger had audibled for a pass to Drew Bennett matched up man-to-man, but what's usually an arcing fade pass down there was instead thrown on (fittingly) a flat line, and it was picked off easily by Philip Buchanon. The Rams never recovered from that critical mistake. They settled for a FG the next time they had the ball in the 4th, and their last two drives were a 3-and-out and Bulger's third INT, thrown right to Barrett Ruud after Brian Leonard turned the wrong way. Marc Bulger's play is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma right now. What's going on? Is he still feeling last week's beating? Is he pressing because of the team's poor start? Has the decline and fall of the offensive line gotten into his head? Was the offensive game plan so putrid he couldn't get into a good rhythm, or keep his head in the game well enough? Probably all four. But whatever the game plan, whatever the offensive line, the Rams can't turn around this wretched start with the unsteady play they got from Marc Bulger today.

    * RB: Steven Jackson got what he likes: the offense was put on his shoulders and he got a lot of carries (30). Steven improved over the last two weeks, dancing less and punishing the Buc defense with yards after contact. It took him almost a quarter to get going. He got stopped on 3rd-and-4 of the opening drive, unable to bounce a run outside. Late in the 1st, he bolted for 13 behind good blocks by FB Richard Owens and Claude Terrell, then dragged Bucs for 6 more the next play. Bulger followed with an INT, though. Brian Leonard (4-21) changed the pace with a 9-yard run behind Milford Brown and Randy McMichael in the 2nd, and converted a 4th-and-inches from fullback, setting up a FG attempt, which failed. Jackson seemed to ignite a comeback effort in the 3rd. After seeing a 3rd-and-4 fumble luckily fly right to Torry Holt for a 1st down, he rolled for 14 behind a Terrell pancake. But that was his last touch on a drive that ended in another Bulger INT. Taking over near midfield the next drive, Jackson gained 9 behind McMichael and 6 behind Brett Romberg, then took a swing pass 10 to the Tampa 25, with a lot of unnecessary wiggling and juking in wide open space. That only impedes his progress. Cicero, er, Cato, June, next really impeded Steven's progress by dropping him for -4 on a blitz. That and a Travis Minor dropped pass forced another FG attempt, which failed. The Rams got into the red zone one more time in the 4th, but Jackson only gained two a couple of times before the Rams tried a FG again. (And made it!) Jackson was the workhorse today, but he wasn't dominant. 115 yards isn't a lot for 30 carries, and he was held to two yards or less 12 different times. The Rams committed to run today, but they didn't establish it, or often, stick with it, in scoring territory. They ran successfully, but not well enough to win the game on the ground alone.

    * WR: I've said over and over the Rams go how Torry Holt goes, and at 5-63, that wasn't really far. Worse, no other Ram receiver even topped as much as 20 yards. Jackson caught 4 for 18. Isaac Bruce caught just 3 for 14, even if one was a pretty sideline catch in the 1st where he toppled over like falling timber, barely kept his feet in and snagged a pass for a 1st down. The Rams didn't go over the middle much today despite their raging success at it last week, though in the 2nd, Isaac got clobbered over the middle by Phillips and was sidelined till the 2nd half. (Ike fumbled on the play, and it was returned for a TD, but all was nullified by Kevin Carter's offside penalty.) Randy McMichael (2-13) was targeted neither in the first half nor in the red zone. Drew Bennett (1-0) was thrown to in the end zone three times, with the Bucs all over it each time. Meanwhile, he wasn't thrown to on the other 75% of the field. And by my count, the Rams tried six of those ignorant quick hitch patterns, to five different receivers, and got 13 yards out of it total, 8 by Holt on the first play of the game. Greg Olson ought to be ashamed he's getting this little out of this receiving corps.

    * Offensive line: The Ram offensive line suffered yet another crippling blow when Mark Setterstrom blew an ACL blocking on the one FG the Rams did make today. That came in the 4th, and the line allowed the only sack of Bulger after that, with Greg Spires whipping Adam Goldberg, forcing Bulger to step up into Greg Peterson, who knocked Claude Terrell backwards after the snap. Claude looked stunned on that play. But Bulger's jersey was clean the rest of the day. Tampa didn't blitz much, and quick passing didn't give them time to get to Bulger otherwise. The Rams proved willing to slug it out on the ground, though they didn't control the LOS. Jackson's run on the opening 3rd-and-4 was supposed to go behind Setterstrom, who had carved out a big lane, but Brett Romberg got eaten up and HE filled the hole before Steven could get there. Steven then had to dance around a stalemated Alex Barron, whose man got the tackle. Tampa ran right around linemen blocking down a couple of times, which makes me wonder if an assignment was blown. A 1st-quarter swing pass to Leonard blew up when Gaines Adams stormed in right past Goldberg, blocking down. June's big tackle-for-loss on Jackson in the 3rd saw him come in untouched behind Barron, blocking down. The best run blockers were McMichael and Terrell, each of whom Jackson ran behind for big gains. Richard Owens looked good at fullback. Joe Klopfenstein, otoh, has regressed at just about everything. Jackson's longest run of the day came behind a pancake block by Terrell, who got to the second level and picked off a LB on another of Jackson's long runs. Jackson got stuffed plenty of times, though, and "anemic" is too robust an adjective to describe the running game inside the Buc 25: 4 rushes for 1 yard. The Rams got a few good plays from what offensive linemen they do have, but what they've got is not a lot.

    * Defensive line/LB: What has happened to Leonard Little? His non-performance the first three weeks of the season is as vexing and headline-worthy as Kevin Carter's on-field disappearance in 2000. One-half sack in three games against RTs who aren't going to the Pro Bowl unless they buy tickets. Tampa ran at Leonard all day. When he wasn't being dominated by second-year tackle Jeremy Trueblood, he was routinely getting taken out of run plays by a tight end or a wide receiver. Hell, JEFF GARCIA even blocked Little out of a play where the Rams should have pinned Cadillac Williams for a big loss. That was on Tampa's opening drive, which also saw Little blow a sack before OJ Atogwe stuffed Cadillac to force a FG attempt (missed). The defense had its act together in the first half. Pass pressure was good and they held Tampa to 38 rushing yards. Chris Draft clocked Garcia at the end of a scramble, sending his helmet flying, to keep the Bucs pinned near their goal line in the 2nd. They shut Tampa down again after Bulger’s first INT, with Draft blowing up a reverse to Michael Clayton and James Hall sabotaging a shovel pass. The Ram defense and ball-control offense kept the Bucs off the board until, naturally, the final 2:00 of the half. They forced a 3rd-and-10 early in the drive, and appeared to correctly anticipate the play Garcia checked off to at the line, but Little and LeRoi Glover BOTH blew chances to sack the veteran QB, and he hit Ike Hilliard for 15. You’d have to be trying not to get a sack to be as bad at it as Little was today. Garcia escaped another near sack on a 2nd-and-10 before hitting Clayton for 12. Clayton fumbled, but TE Alex Smith recovered, and the Bucs got into position for a 26-yard FG at the halftime gun. The D faltered after halftime, letting Cadillac bounce runs outside. He cruised for 14 down to the 6 after Will Witherspoon missed a tackle and WALKED in the next play, another run at the ineffectual Little. Down 10-0, the defense kept the Rams in the game for a while. After Bulger’s 2nd INT, Trevor Johnson stopped the Bucs cold with a sack, coming untouched off the line and jumping over a cut block attempt to get Garcia. Little shared the sack but Trevor did the work. OJ Atogwe stripped Cadillac the next time the Rams defended. But when the offense turned that into a mere FG, the Ram defense appeared to give up. Tampa walked down the field 80 yards for a TD to go up 17-3, capped off by 21- and 8-yard runs by Earnest “Mr. August” Graham. The few Rams who weren’t blocked out of those plays missed tackles or made lame strip attempts on Graham while he almost literally walked through the Ram secondary. Game and season over, though Tampa wasn’t done scoring. Graham stuck in a 28-yard TD against a defense playing with little heart. Game-long non-factor Adam Carriker missed him at the line, Draft overran him, and as on almost every play today, I’m not sure where Will Witherspoon was. The guys who should be leaders on this defense, Witherspoon and Little, are not getting the job done. Neither has delivered a big, game-changing play this season. Witherspoon misses too many tackles and is missing on too many plays, but Little’s is the face that belongs on milk cartons in Ram Nation right now.

    * Secondary: Pass coverage wasn’t the Rams’ problem; Garcia threw for only 151 and Joey Galloway caught a harmless 4 for 52. Galloway turned Jonathan Wade around early for a 14-yard slant, but the Rams indeed got physical with him and took him out of the game in the 2nd half with a big hit over the middle. Joey and I both missed the number of the truck that hit him. OJ Atogwe made a couple of big stops on Cadillac, stuffing him for a loss on the opening series, and stripping him and recovering the ball at the start of the 4th to set up the Rams’ ONLY score. Thanks to the front seven’s inability to sack Garcia, Tampa successfully attacked the zone in the last 2:00 of the first half. Tight ends popped up wide open now and then; Michael Pittman came out of the backfield unmolested on patterns a couple of times, but those appear to be blown LB assignments. The worst the Ram secondary got burned today was when Clayton was WIDE OPEN in the middle of the field just before halftime, but he dropped the ball. They’re every bit as depleted, and green, as the offensive line, but the Ram secondary is meeting modest expectations.

    * Special teams: What happened to Jeff Wilkins? The most cringeworthy moments today came when Wilkins blew an 8-minute drive in the 2nd by leaving a 42-yard FG wide left, and again at the end of the 3rd when he DOINKed a 43-yard attempt off the upright. When you think this team can't be any more demoralized, Wilkins starts whiffing makeable kicks. Is he back to having problems kicking off grass? Kickoff returns have become unwatchable. The only kick Dante Hall returned across the 20 today was Matt Bryant's 54-yard FG in the 1st that came up short. They tried the cutesy Devin Hester stroll out of the end zone, and got out to the 33. And had the Rams left the ball lying harmlessly on the ground, they would have gotten the ball back at the 44! None of Hall’s other returns even made it to the 20, and while he’s getting no blocking, part of the reason he was brought here was his ability to make plays on his own, which he’s shown maybe once this season. So far he’s just been a shorter Willie Ponder. Donnie Jones plonked a pin attempt in the end zone but got another to hang a right at the one-yard line. In the 4th, he outkicked coverage by a good 20 yards, and Tampa’s 35-yard return wasn’t a big surprise. Kick coverage also had a poor game. Tampa nearly had their first kickoff return TD EVER right after halftime, but, yep, Wilkins made a play that probably saved a TD. You know, I thought for years that a high school coach could do better than April, Stock, Ligashesky et al. But now that the Rams have actually tried this idea with Al Roberts, I have to admit I was wrong. They don’t know what they’re doing blocking returns, coverage has regressed, Jones doesn’t punt consistently, Hall doesn’t make plays, and they outsmart themselves with cutesy plays when the straightforward way would have worked better. Any good Pop Warner special teams coaches out there?

    * Coaching/discipline: The Ram coaching staff apparently took the Carolina game tapes and slid them under the legs of tables in the team cafeteria to keep them from wobbling. They can’t actually have watched those tapes, because they tried the same awful crap passing game plan again today, and guess what? It was awful crap. What was so great about the STUPID F@CKING QUICK HITCH against the Panthers that Greg Olson tried it at least SIX TIMES today? Is it not possible to get Steven Jackson the ball and stretch the field? Put another way, can’t Olson walk and chew gum at the same time? We probably got that answer in the form of the Rams “offense” in the “reddish” (25 and in) zone, which I’ve had to invent because the Rams got inside the Buc 20 only twice. The idea was to let Jackson carry the load, right? Yet they get to the Buc 25 in the 2nd, and Jackson runs once and Bulger fires twice into the end zone! In the reddish zone in the 3rd, STUPID F@CKING QUICK HITCH to Bennett for zilch, STUPID F@CKING QUICK HITCH to Hall for 2, gift penalty, end zone pass to Bennett intercepted! What happened to Jackson? Oh, and a note for Olson: EVERY TEAM IN THE NFL KNOWS NOW YOU’RE GOING TO THROW TO DREW BENNETT IN CLOSE. COME UP WITH SOMETHING ELSE. In the reddish zone late in the 3rd, a Buc blitz stuffed Jackson at the 28 and forced the Rams to pass, but what is Olson’s call? STUPID F@CKING QUICK HITCH to Travis Minor! Then on 3rd-and-13, how about a SCREEN PASS to Jackson? Finally, from the Buc 11 in the 4th, a couple of runs for Jackson followed by an obvious pass for Bennett, who the Bucs have covered. The depths to which Greg Olson has drug this offense in just three weeks are remarkable. Hey, numb nuts! Try throwing to one of the nine tight ends on the roster! Try throwing to Bennett somewhere besides the red zone! Try throwing down the middle of the field! Worked last week! But like Homer Simpson repeatedly sticking his finger in a live electrical socket, Olson called over and over for plays that didn’t, and don’t, work. And don’t give me the offensive line as his excuse. Four of the linemen who started today started down the stretch last year when the offense averaged 30+ a game. Richie Incognito’s out, and he’s a solid player, but he ain’t the league MVP. Olson’s game plan today was brutal, unnecessarily conservative, and if that’s the best he’s got, the Rams need somebody else.

    Future Ram head coach Jim Haslett’s defensive game plan was acceptable. Wade was a surprise to match up against Galloway, but Haslett went with speed over experience, and they fared well with the matchup, especially by getting physical with Galloway later on. Pass pressure was usually good; Haslett can’t go sack the QB for these guys. Blitzing likely was kept to a minimum in respect for Garcia’s mobility and to avoid one-on-one matchups for Galloway, but the defense got it done other ways. There were too many coverage breakdowns, and coverage was probably too soft right before halftime, but Haslett’s defense is easily the least of the Rams’ problems right now, and he’s slowly becoming the golden boy the St. Louis media was making him out to be last season. I would like to see him light a fire under Little and Witherspoon, though.

    The only fires to light regarding Scott Linehan these days involve effigies. He and Olson have “crafted” an offense that makes Jerry Rhome look like Mouse Davis. And I think he’s in serious danger of losing the team. A sequence in the 4th was telling. Setterstrom was getting carted off, and Linehan was working the sidelines hard, trying to rally the team. How did the Ram defense respond? Tampa walked down the field 80 yards for a TD. Message? Not received. Linehan had this team poorly prepared for the regular season, and though there are the offensive line injuries, overreaction to them has dug the team a bigger ditch than they’re already in. Head coaching in the NFL can be very rewarding, and very brutal. Scott Linehan has got a real sh!tstorm heading his way. I like the guy. I hope he pulls through it. But I don’t see it happening.

    * Upon further review: Fairly solid job by the Bill Carollo crew, usually considered among the league’s best. Tampa probably got the worst of the calls, though Bennett should have drawn an illegal contact call on Brian Kelly in the end zone in the 4th. Kelly clearly impeded Bennett’s path to the ball. The taunting call on Ronde Barber seemed super-strict. And while Cadillac’s knee wasn’t down when Atogwe stripped him, Tampa sure could argue his forward progress had stopped on the play. That’s not reviewable, of course, but referees seem to be ignoring forward progress being stopped any more until the guy’s on the ground.

    * Cheers: The Rams wore the white pants, I guess as a concession to the Florida heat, but all they succeeded at was looking like the San Diego Chargers prior to this year. It’s going to be hard to ever again proclaim a uniform jinx after seeing the god-awful unis Philadelphia won in today, though. It would be a lone bright spot of the season if the Rams would don the throwback blue-and-white or blue-and-yellow uniforms and show everybody how it’s done. Sam Rosen and Tim Ryan were inoffensive on the Fox broadcast. Some of Ryan’s analysis was off the mark but he was spot on analyzing the referee’s calls and broke down plays in the second half especially well.

    * Who’s next?: In each of their games this season, the Dallas Cowboys have scored more points (45, 37, 34) than the Rams have ALL season (32). Two of those games were against two of the NFL's most respected defenses: Miami and Chicago, both games on the road to boot. What the hell are the 3-0 Cowboys going to hang on the 0-3 Rams when the two teams meet next week in Texas Stadium? 60? 70? 120? The Rams couldn't handle the mobility of Jeff Garcia this week; how the hell do they contain Tony Romo, the league's most mobile QB after Vince Young? How is the undersized Ram defense going to be anything other than roadkill for the massive Cowboy o-line and the RB combo of Marion Barber and Julius Jones? What if they miraculously force Dallas to pass? Can Lenny Walls even hold T.O. to his average of 100 yds receiving and a TD per game this season? Won't one or both of Dallas' quality tight ends be open every play? What will keep Dallas under 40 points next week? A hurricane? Lack of interest?

    About the only way for the Rams to even keep this game close is going to be by mounting time-consuming scoring drives. Nice try; the Cowboys are #8 in run defense, allowing under 87 yards a game. And though they’ve given up a lot of passing yards thus far, they’re third in the NFL in opposing QB rating, and lead in INTs with 8. The acquisition of Ken Hamlin has turned Roy Williams loose to be a menace against the run again. Dallas’ main defensive look is 3-4, which always gives the Rams fits. OLBs Demarcus Ware and rookie Anthony Spencer loom as the main sack threats. Terence Newman has been slowed with a foot injury, but Anthony Henry has more than stepped up; he already has four picks this season. It’s possible, though, if Bulger avoids INTs, that the downfield passing game will be open and productive for the Rams.

    Aw, who am I trying to kid? The Rams don’t want to throw downfield! They’ll stick with lots of handoffs up the middle to Jackson, lots of one-yard screens and get beaten by 28 like they deserve to. The Cowboys are practically everything the Rams aren’t right now, and it figures to show through with depressing ease in Dallas next Sunday. Unless the Ram defense stands on its head and forces an obscene number of turnovers, Scott Linehan will take another step closer to his next job.

    -- Mike
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    Re: RamView, 9/24/2007: Bucs 24, Rams 3 (Long)

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