RamView, 9/25/2005: Rams 31, Titans 27 (Long)
RamView, September 25, 2005
From Row HH
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Game 3: Rams 31, Titans 27
The Rams survive a terrible first quarter and four turnovers to outlast the Titans in a home opener complete with flashbacks to Super Bowl XXXIV and the “Music City Miracle,” trumped by a River City rally.
Position by position:
* QB: It’s not how you start, and actually, for Marc Bulger (21-28-292, 3 TD) it's not how you finish, either. Marc and the offense got off to a hideous start, with just five total yards in the first quarter. The Ram offense nearly collapsed under the offensive line's inability to block and Marc's tendency to hold on to the ball for, oh, ten minutes. After a 123-kick to start the game, Bulger was sacked twice the second series and threw a very stupid interception into triple coverage of Brandon Manumaleuna the next. After Bulger was sacked for the 14th time in 9 quarters at the end of the 1st, the Ram offense looked officially DOA, but the Ram defense brought it back to life, with big turnovers helping tie the game at 10. Marc finally engineered a quick TD drive near the end of the half to put the Rams up 17-10, and followed after halftime by hitting wide open Torry Holt to beat a blitz for 32 yards and a TD. Turnovers kept Tennessee in the game, as they turned two straight Ram turnovers into TDs, one a fumble that Bulger coughed up during a sack. By holding the ball too long, and not getting much good blocking, Marc took a beating reminiscent of last year's Miami or Atlanta playoff game. But with new RT Alex Barron in the game late in the 3rd, Marc finally got a comfortable pocket and was afforded several chances to pick on Tennessee's young DBs with passes to Torry Holt. After three straight completions to Torry got the Rams to the Titan 10, Bulger opened the 4th with a classic seeing-eye pass between two defenders and to Kevin Curtis just beyond the goal line for the TD that turned out to be the game-winner. That was Bulger's toughest pass of the day – not just because it was a difficult pass, but Marc had a rusher bearing in on him who would drill him into next week, hitting him late enough to draw a personal foul. The Curtis TD put the Rams back up 31-24, but unfortunately, Bulger let the Titans back in the game a couple of times, once on a bizarre play that was ruled a backward pass, and once by fumbling on his only scramble of the day with just 3:00 left. The defense limited the damage after the backward pass, though, and Barron fell on the fumble, so all was well. Marc Bulger is definitely living large so far this season. Big plays, big numbers, but also big hits and big mistakes. His season isn’t going to last much longer, though, let alone be a big success, if he doesn’t get better protection.
* RB: It’s easy to forget Steven Jackson (12-48) is still a young player and is still going to make mistakes of inexperience. I’m referring to the disputed lateral pass call in the 4th quarter, which Steven assumed was incomplete and made no effort to cover up. Though he chased Peter Sirmon down and saved a TD, Steven should know better than to take any chance that the ball wouldn’t still be live. That’s Steven’s second major foul-up of a pass play in two weeks, so he needs some work as a receiver. Steven also re-raised the issue of his durability, this despite the Rams’ new turf, by missing much of the third quarter with bruised ribs. The good news is that gave Marshall Faulk (6-50) the chance to be a kid again. He’d already had a 13-yard TD in the 1st where Tennessee left him all alone in the flat, and in the 3rd, Marshall pranced for runs of 12, 7, and 14, and a catch for 11, to set up a Holt TD that put the Rams up 24-10. Marshall looked every bit like the shifty, speedy back who won a league MVP and took the team to a couple of Super Bowls, except for a fumble in the 3rd after a nice run that led to a crucial Tennessee TD. Steven looked like Marshall at times, too, popping one first-quarter run open with a classic spinaroonie move, and patiently working a run for 10 yards in the fourth behind three different blocks. Arlen Harris was in the game for one play, and made as important a play as anybody, dropping a corner blitzer to give Bulger time to hit Holt for his TD. That was a sweet play and says something good about Harris when Mike Martz will trust him in that situation.
* WR: When Isaac Bruce (1-11) left the game late in the first half with a turf toe injury, it seemed like life would get a lot harder for Torry Holt, but Holt took over the game instead, with 5 catches for 106 in the second half en route to a 9-163 game. Torry had two catches to set up the Faulk TD that put the Rams up 17-10, (Bruce was injured on the TD play) and he caught the TD that put the Rams up 24-10, turning a Titan DB absolutely inside out in the process. With the game tied at 24 late in the 3rd, Torry's 3 catches for 53 set up a 10-yard TD pass to Kevin Curtis (5-56), who made a nice catch heading out of bounds just inside the goal line. Torry's ability to dominate even with Bruce in street clothes was a key to the game. It became clear that he could beat his (Pac-)man at will, and the Rams exploited the mismatches he created.
* Offensive line: Words cannot describe how badly the offensive line played in the first quarter. None of the front five even looked awake. Jackson got no room whatsoever to run, and they let Bulger get more tattooed than Dennis Rodman. Bulger was sacked three times in the first quarter alone, due a lot to the inability of Blaine Saipaia, who I now have to agree is better off playing inside. Kyle van den Bosch, who is NOT the second coming of Deacon Jones, shoved Blaine to the ground for one easy sack. The second time Bulger was sacked, KVDB whipped Saipaia, and Bulger ran up into the guy Adam Timmerman didn't or couldn't block, but all five linemen got beat on the play. Pathetic! Mike Martz adjusted for his line's inability with quick passes off three- and even one-step drops. But in the 3rd, here comes KVDB again, whipping woeful Saipaia and forcing a Bulger fumble that Tennessee returned for a game-tying TD. Dreadful day for Saipaia – at least two sacks allowed, plus two penalties for 20 yards. Having seen enough, Martz called on Alex Barron to make his rookie debut at RT, with just over a quarter left in a tie game. And the kid played well. He kept KVDB in check and was especially able to force his speed rushes behind Bulger in the pocket, which Saipaia is simply not quick enough to do. The Rams drove to an immediate lead TD with Barron in at RT, and Alex delivered one of the game's key plays with 3:00 left, falling on a Bulger fumble near midfield, which kept the Titans from having a short distance to drive for the winning TD. Keep that game ball, Alex.
* Defensive line/LB: Tennessee’s 27 points makes it look otherwise, but the Ram defense turned in another solid outing and made a lot of important plays. An important sequence came early, as they made the Titans settle for a FG after Bulger was intercepted at the Ram 30. Chris Claiborne and Ryan Pickett made key run stops, and Tennessee would go up “only” 10-0. Pass rush was non-existent early but got going at an opportune time, as Adam Archuleta’s 85-yard INT return TD was probably the first play all day the Rams put any pressure on Steve McNair. And that was the jolt the team needed. They quickly forced another fumble to set up a FG and a 10-10 tie, and another interception set the Rams up for another TD and the halftime lead. Brandon Green (!) made sure of that with a sack, and Leonard Little made sure of it by defending a third-down pass to Ben Troupe in the last minute of the half. The DTs weren’t as dominating today, but Jimmy Kennedy stuffed a couple of runs, one by wriggling on his belly after he’d fallen down and grabbing Chris Brown’s foot, and Pickett was a menace to McNair much of the game. Tennessee had a big chance to tie the game at 31 in the 4th after a long return of a Ram lateral/turnover and driving to the Ram 15, but the defense held. Archuleta stuffed a run and Little made a big sack of McNair to force a FG. In the last 2:00, the defense did a decent, though not perfect, job of keeping the timeoutless Titans in bounds, and Tennessee stalled outside the Ram 20 in its last shot to win the game. The biggest thing to remember about this game is: if this were last year’s defense, the Rams would have gotten blown right out of the Dome. We saw again today that this year’s defense has turned around those losing ways.
* Secondary: With the Rams trailing 10-0 and Tennessee driving for another score, Adam Archuleta turned in the play of the game, intercepting an underthrown Steve McNair pass and returning it 85 yards for the Rams' first TD. Adam flew away with that ball; Drew Bennett gave up on even trying to chase him down. That wasn't Adam's only big play; he stuffed Chris Brown for no gain at the 15 in the 4th, and the Titans would eventually settle for a red zone FG to make it 31-27. Michael Hawthorne had a huge game. He recovered a fumble that Chris Johnson (!) forced with a stiff hit on Tyrone Calico early in the 2nd. That set up a FG. Later in the quarter, Hawthorne intercepted/fair-caught a pass that slipped out of Steve McNair's hand, a play that set up a TD drive. After Hawthorne left the game after a collision with Pisa Tinoisamoa, Mike Furrey stepped in and made an important play in the 4th, stopping Travis Henry's 3rd-down juggling act with a jarring hit and preserving a 7-point lead. DeJuan Groce added a couple of important run stops, and IMO has moved well ahead of disappointing Travis Fisher as the team’s best healthy CB.
* Special teams: It was a blissfully quiet game for special teams. Reggie Hodges hit four pretty decent punts, including a 46-yarder in the 4th that Furrey nearly downed inside the 5. Excellent kick there; just bad luck on the bounce. Jeff Wilkins’ kickoffs were excellent and deep. Coverage wasn’t dominant, but Tennessee didn’t return any across the 30. There were too many penalties on returns, but special teams have settled down significantly since the disaster in San Francisco two weeks ago, and solid-but-unspectacular play like today’s would certainly work the rest of the season if they can maintain it.
* Coaching/discipline: Larry Marmie had another solid game on the defensive side. Heck, after the first quarter, I was wishing Marmie would take over the offense. On a 3rd-and-3 late in the 2nd, a Marmie zone blitz worked to perfection. With extra rushers crashing on the right side, McNair looked for TE Ben Troupe on the left side, but the ball was batted down by Little. Marmie did some blitzing on Tennessee’s final drive instead of settling for the “prevent” defense, but on the last play of the game, the Rams show the big blitz they used to win the game last week, but this time they’re faking, and I’ll be darned if McNair’s end zone pass for Bennett didn’t look like one of those long throws you get rid of quickly because you think you’ve got a blitz coming. Marmie’s defense really bailed out Martz’s offense today and Marmie has earned a lot of credit for the amount of success the team has shown so far.
Bulger needs to have a long talk with Mike Martz and find out why the coach wants to kill him. After two cursory runs, Martz went pass-happy the rest of the first quarter from hell, and as usual, provided little blocking help for an overmatched RT, letting his star QB get folded, spindled and mutilated. After the Archuleta TD, Martz FINALLY went back to using Jackson on the 2nd-quarter FG drive, and then wisely went to an attack with a lot of short-drop passes which protected Bulger and put the Rams up 17-10. After halftime, the Ram offense actually got into a rhythm and had its best drive of the season, starting with Faulk runs and ending with three nice passes by Bulger. Then Martz went into the crapper again, getting much too pass-happy with the lead in the third quarter. After he got Bulger crushed again, this time for a sack, fumble and Titan TD, Martz FINALLY pulled the overwhelmed Saipaia in favor of Barron, which would prove to be one of the game’s key coaching moves. And while I can’t fault Martz for challenging the lateral play in the fourth quarter, I sure can fault him for once again getting too pass-happy with the lead. Jackson had just run for 10 to move the Rams into FG territory, why get cute with a swing pass there? Play some smash-mouth football! Burn some clock! Make the opponent burn timeouts! But Martz is so non-smashmouth, when he put Madison Hedgecock in the game in the second, he put him in motion and ran Jackson in the other direction with no lead blockers. Big surprise – the play goes nowhere and the Rams settle for a FG. I’ll have to say, though, that Martz made good adjustments today, especially exploiting the matchups with Holt in the 2nd half, and the offense was still very effective in the red zone. Good thing, too, because a loss would have put a heavy tilt to the love/hate relationship much of Rams Nation has for the head coach.
* Upon further review: I can't rip Tom White for the ruling on the lateral that Peter Sirmon returned in the 4th quarter because I saw the play the same way, both live at the stadium, and on TiVo at home. The replay on the JumboTron sure made it look like a forward pass, but that didn't show the yardlines. On slo-mo, it sure looks like the ball is at the 30 or even slightly in front of it when Bulger lets it go, and we all know it bounced behind the 30. The CBS announcers saw it that way, too. And Jackson's behind Bulger when Bulger throws it to him, though that shouldn't have any effect on the call. Jeff Fisher is full of crap to say the play was "clearly a lateral," though I guess we shouldn't expect less from the guy who benefited from the dubious and eerily similar "Music City Miracle". But it looked like it might have been a good call by White.
* Cheers: Ram fans had to wait longer than anybody else in the league for their team’s home opener, and when we got inside the Dome, there was no bunting. That took some of the festivity out of the occasion, but not like the Ram offense, which was harshly but deservingly booed off the field after the third sack of Bulger and a net of five yards in the 1st quarter. The crowd was enthusiastically supportive when the Ram defense was on the field; impressive noise led to two or three false starts and a couple of timeouts. Then the crowd really lost it after the lateral pass play was not overturned. Referee Tom White is probably still hearing booing in his sleep. Yet note (Big Dead fans) that despite a call that looked egregiously bad, and game-turning, there wasn’t any debris thrown on the field. So while we showed some bad form booing the home team early, the Dome crowd was strong and played an important role in the game.
* Who’s next?: If the Rams start off next week like they did this week, they risk getting buried deeper in Giants Stadium than Jimmy Hoffa. The Giants have all the pieces for an explosive offense. Eli Manning is quickly developing into a solid NFL QB. RB Tiki Barber gashed the Rams the last time the teams met. The Giants have a good mix of size and speed at WR with huge Plaxico Burress and Tim Carter. ESPN suggested all through Sunday night's game that the key to defending New York is to be aggressive and not sit back in soft coverage. That has me grimacing at the old crystal ball, since Larry Marmie loves soft coverage, and blitzes mean that the Ram safeties are going to have to handle TE Jeremy Shockey, who is Manning's favorite target and who seems to have returned to the gamebreaking play of his rookie season. The Big Dead can attest to the explosiveness of the Giant special teams, led by kick returner Willie Ponder. And the Giants have the momentum of starting the season with three of four games in their home stadium, while the Rams started the season with one home game in four weeks. Thanks, Tagliabue, you jackass.
The good news is that the Chargers made the Giant defense look pretty silly Sunday night while smoking them 45-23. Now, the Charger offensive line is much better than the Rams', and Steven Jackson isn't LaDainian Tomlinson by any stretch, but the Rams should have opportunities. The Giant DBs look like jokes right now; Bulger should have open receivers to find. The middle linebacker was trying to cover Keenan McCardell on both his TDs tonight; if the Giants keep that nonsense up, the Rams will find plenty of matchups to exploit. The Giant LBs bit badly on play-action, and the Chargers were very effective with misdirection plays. If the Rams can get Jackson going even a little bit early, the Rams can really open up the rest of the offense with the same kind of plays. It'll be hard to keep Bulger's jersey as clean as Drew Brees' was tonight. Alex Barron will make his first career start against future Hall-of-Famer Michael Strahan. Alex really stabilized the line today, but it's on his fellow linemen to do their jobs and keep Bulger upright for a change. The Rams have the players at the “skill” positions to keep the Giant defense off-balance all day, but they’ll need some fortitude from their front five and an offensive game plan designed to do something besides getting their own quarterback killed if they are to turn that advantage into an important road win.
Game stats from nfl.com
Re: RamView, 9/25/2005: Rams 31, Titans 27 (Long)
In his defense, he didn't even see the pass. He had his back turned. When he saw the ball, it was hitting the ground and bulger was 5 yards further in the backfield by then, so it wouldn't have been the first thought in his mind that the pass might have not been "forward". Still, no excuse, but I might give him a pass on this one.
RB: It’s easy to forget Steven Jackson (12-48) is still a young player and is still going to make mistakes of inexperience. I’m referring to the disputed lateral pass call in the 4th quarter, which Steven assumed was incomplete and made no effort to cover up. Though he chased Peter Sirmon down and saved a TD, Steven should know better than to take any chance that the ball wouldn’t still be live. That’s Steven’s second major foul-up of a pass play in two weeks, so he needs some work as a receiver.