RamView, September 25, 2011
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Game #3: Ravens 37, Rams 7

The early returns are in on the Rams' 2011 season, and they are not good. A team expected to improve this season has declined instead, in almost all areas. In bowing to the Ravens by 30 today, the Rams looked as uncompetitive as they did two years ago. After three weeks, this team has far too many questions, far too few signs that it's moving in the right direction. The 2011 season is on the brink.

Position by position:
* QB: The Rams are going to have to re-think what they're doing with Sam Bradford, or they're going to get their franchise QB killed. Bradford had a terrible first half, 4-for-15, 17 yards and a passer rating of 11.8. He spent most plays either running for his life or getting splattered by Baltimore pass rushers. The Rams' goal today and this season has been to develop a more downfield passing game, but they don't have a lineman who can block long enough to let a receiver get open and keep Bradford upright. Bradford and the offense continue to struggle mightily with blitzing. Part of that is bad blocking, part of it is on Bradford to better recognize blitzes from the secondary and check to a different play. Bradford took a huge hit from Bernard Pollard right after the 1st half 2:00 warning on a play he needed to check out of. You could see the pressure getting to Bradford today, rushing some throws he didn't have to, putting up inaccurate passes before the Raven rush could close in. His one interception, though, wasn't his fault. From the Baltimore 25, with the Ravens blitzing, Bradford had a 1-on-1 matchup on Danario Alexander and correctly threw a go route to him toward the goal line. Alexander tripped, though, making the pass easy pickings for Lardarius Webb instead. Bradford's pocket presence was good and bad. He scrambled effectively early. But he also froze like a deer in the headlights before Terrell Suggs sacked him in the 2nd. A big part of the problem there was Brandon Gibson thinking the play was a run, not a pass, but Sam just froze, never looked for any other options. He took a big hit from Suggs in the 2nd half after holding the ball too long. Bradford strung together a few passes in the 3rd while the Ravens briefly turned off their blitzing. He threw effectively on the move, never more so than on his beautiful, high-arcing 34-yard bomb to Brandon Gibson in the back of the end zone for the Rams' only TD. That 3rd-quarter surge got Bradford's numbers out of Jamarcus Russell territory, and he finished 16-32-166, with a PR of 62.8. We certainly won't question Sam's toughness. He took a shot from Cory Redding in the 2nd half that easily could have wrecked his shoulder. And he took an ever-lovin' beating from the Ravens in the 4th quarter, culminating in a Ray Lewis sack/strip that Haloti Ngata turned into the Ravens' last score. But the facts are these. The Ram offense is averaging 12 points a game. They STILL don't have more TDs than the opposing defenses do. And Sam Bradford's taking a righteous beating in the process. For what? The Rams have the talent at QB to run Josh McDaniels' offense, and RB once Steven Jackson's healthy, but they have it nowhere else. If they are thinking about the future at all, they’ll go back to the short-passing-oriented game, to restore some of Bradford's confidence, but most importantly, to keep him in one piece, before they turn him into David Carr.

* RB: Steven Jackson (4-23) was active for the game, but didn't look very close to 100%, and was used mostly as a decoy anyway. He did make several nice blitz pickups, but just wasn't ready to go full-out. The load fell on also-dinged-up Cadillac Williams, who was surprisingly effective, with 18 carries for 75 yards. For some reason, the Rams decided the best place to run today was right into the teeth of the Raven defense, but Williams made it work. He got a nice counter run in early for 16 behind a good block by Lance Kendricks. Williams was more tank than Caddy on a run in the 2nd. He crashed into Ray Lewis, and got knocked back on his heels, but rallied and charged straight ahead for 6 anyway. He drove through Lewis for another 9 later in the 2nd. The hard-charging Cadillac made the most out of a lot of plays where he didn’t have any room to run. Jerious Norwood (0-0) was curiously absent from the running game, and the backs have been conspicuous by their absence as receivers. I suppose blitz protection could have something to do with both of those things. Jackson’s injury is the biggest wild card when you evaluate the Rams. We just don’t know how much better the offense would be with him healthy and on the field. But even with Jackson injured, running back is the best position on the team. The Rams’ problems don’t lie here.

* Receivers: Another low-impact game for the receiving corps. Looking downfield today when Bradford got stressed in the pocket, there wasn’t a whole lot happening there for him to go to. For all the excitement he created Monday night, Danario Alexander (2-28) has yet to put together back-to-back games in his young career. He dropped a pass today and created an interception for Baltimore when he stumbled during a red zone timing route in the 2nd. Brandon Gibson (5-55) was the top receiver, most of his damage coming on the Rams’ ONLY TD. Gibson outleaped the defender for a 34-yard rainbow from Bradford in the back of the end zone and did a fantastic job to tap his toes in bounds. Just short catches for Gibson otherwise, with no feel that he’s a #1 receiver or that he can take the top off a defense. Mike Sims-Walker had three catches for 36 in the second half, effective again this week with sideline comeback routes, but I have no idea where he was the first half. Lance Kendricks (2-25) and Michael Hoomanawanui (1-10) briefly got the defense moving in the 3rd, but I believe each also dropped a pass. Austin Pettis (2-8) made an outstanding sideline catch and may well have the best hands on the team, but the jury’s still out whether he can get open. Greg Salas was inactive, and with all the blitzing going on, it’s evident that Bradford really misses Danny Amendola on the field. And with Alexander doing little today, Bradford also misses the presence of a consistent downfield threat. The Rams receivers are who we thought they were, and not enough to sustain a quality passing game.

* Offensive line: The offensive line failed against the Eagles, could have gotten a failing grade against the Giants and failed badly today. It is the worst-performing and most disappointing unit on the team. They’ve turned Bradford into a crash-test dummy, getting him sacked five times and hit too many times to count. And Williams’ success rushing deserves to be considered an individual effort. The line wasn’t getting him a lot of room. Sure, Baltimore has a lot to do with that, but this line makes mental mistakes and shows ineptitude that would get Bradford pounded by almost any team. The line is a failure from one end to another. Rodger Saffold was a revelation last year, when he only had to block rushers for three counts. He can’t do it for seven so far this year. He couldn’t handle Terrell Suggs for any count today. Suggs beat Saffold and Billy Bajema on the sack where Bradford froze in the 2nd, and he applied pressure on Bradford most of the game. Saffold also missed his block when Suggs dropped Kendricks for a huge loss on an end around in the opening series. Jacob Bell was beaten badly twice just on the opening series, and he did his best to kill the Rams’ lone TD drive with a holding penalty and a chop block. Lots of blitzers seemed to go past Jason Brown, but you didn’t have to blitz to accomplish the feat. 340-pound Haloti Ngata went right by him and crushed Bradford to force an incomplete in the 2nd. Brown offered Cory Redding all the resistance of a shopping cart and let Sam get hammered on a play in the 3rd where the Rams were frankly lucky Bradford didn’t separate his shoulder. Brown and Bradford also blew a snap in the 2nd half, and though TV blamed Bradford, I’m willing to bet Brown didn’t know the snap count, something he does shockingly often, being the CENTER and all. Harvey Dahl barely got a hand on Pernell McPhee in giving up Baltimore’s first sack. Redding split Dahl and Jason Smith for a 4th-quarter sack on a play where every Ram lineman was beaten. Colossal draft bust Smith brought new meaning to brutal by the end of this game. He killed two drives with personal fouls. In the 4th, after his poor cut block (and Sam holding the ball too long ) let Suggs drill Bradford on a 3rd down, he got beat clean as a whistle by Jameel McClain for a sack on 4th down. Here’s a play that sums up the Ram offensive line’s season to date. With Ray Lewis blitzing, Brown gets pushed back into Bradford like he’s on wheels again. Lewis beats Bell with ease to strip the ball from Bradford, while scoring Baltimore’s fifth sack. Ngata beats the crap out of Adam Goldberg with an inside move, grabs the loose ball and returns it for a touchdown unopposed. Adam Goldberg, you ask? He’s in the game because massive draft bust Smith played so poorly the Rams finally had to bench him. Smith’s like having Richie Incognito and Alex Barron in one package, but paying five or six times as much to get it. I can spot a handful of times where Bradford holds the ball too long, or fails to identify a blitz at the line, but that’s out of close to 40 plays where this line was mostly awful. It’s the worst unit on the team, it’s the biggest reason the Rams are off to a terrible start, and given the high draft picks and veteran free agent acquisitions that make it up, it’s also the Rams’ most inexplicable problem. I couldn’t tell you when this line IS going to be any good. But sometime this year would be great.

* Defensive line/LB: Another disappointing unit performing inexplicably poorly. The Ravens had over 400 yards of offense IN THE FIRST HALF and were up 27-0 at the gun. They put little pressure on Joe Flacco while he completed one TD bomb after another to Torrey Smith. They turned the not-exactly-fleet Flacco into a scrambling QB, continually losing containment while the middle of the line did nothing in pass rush. He even scrambled for 6 on a 4th-and-1 after Robert Quinn crashed well too far inside. Quinn wasn’t the problem today, though. Did I mention the tackles were terrible? Twice, Flacco rushed a play on 3rd-and-short, and made the first downs with ease right up the gut, with the Rams unable to even get lined up (or thinking to fake an injury). Linebacker play was disappointing. James Laurinaitis had only four tackles and was repeatedly late getting over to cover receivers out of the backfield, including Ray Rice (8-79 rush, 5-83 recv) on a 4th-quarter 22-yard gain on 3rd-and-3. He also got stuffed in the hole when Rice gained 17 on 2nd-and-20 to close out the 1st. Brady Poppinga made a handful of plays in coverage in the 2nd half, but was invisible in the 1st. And Ben Leber was awful. Ricky Williams bust loose for 28 on a 2nd-and-1 after Vonta Leach crushed Leber in the hole. On Rice’s 50-yard run on 3rd-and-1 before halftime, the line did its job, but Leber overran the play badly, running right by the hole. Rice shot through and embarrassed the hell out of Darian Stewart and Justin King to set up a FG. 2nd-8 in the 3rd, Leber can’t break up a screen to Rice that goes for 16, while Darell Dorell Scott gets KILLED by a blindside block. By the time the Ravens were up 30-0, blitzes weren’t even getting to Flacco. The line managed a little damage in the 4th. Chris Long went through three different Ravens to drop Flacco for a coverage sack, then on the next play, Chris Chamberlain blitzed and executed a perfect sack, chopping the ball free for a fumble recovery for Quintin Mikell. Quinn made good use of his speed and hurried Flacco a few times. Despite those plays, this defense barely played scrimmage-quality football today. Age may be the biggest problem. It appears to have caught up with Fred Robbins and James Hall. The Rams are getting no push from Robbins, and little impact from Hall, who’s already seeing Quinn eat into his snaps. The defense plays with poor discipline, repeatedly out of position, letting ordinary runners at QB loose for scrambles, letting backs break free out of the backfield, continuing to fail against cutback runs. They’re still the worst run defense in the NFL. If you want to argue this is the most disappointing unit on the team, I won’t fight you too hard.

* Secondary: A depleted secondary has become nearly a complete basket case, as we were reminded today you can’t spell Justin King without stinking. I find it funny when the NFL Network experts describe a DB as covering with “trail technique”. Sounds like that’s a guy who’s been beaten from the snap to me. Well, Justin King certainly mastered “trail technique” against rookie Torrey Smith, who burned him for a 74-yard TD early in the 1st and beat him again for an 18-yard TD late in the 1st. King didn’t jam Smith or do anything to hold him up on any of his routes. He also got no help deep from Darian Stewart on the first TD, and Stewart was just laughable on Smith’s 2nd TD. Smith had gotten behind King and Stewart in the end zone but Flacco barely overthrew him. TWO PLAYS LATER, Smith runs exactly the same route, King correctly passes Smith off to Stewart, but Stewart doesn’t seem to realize it and slows to a jog like the play is ending. No, Darian, the rookie is beating you for a 41-yard TD. I asked for Stewart over Craig Dahl last week, and it was a terrible move. Dahl at least made a couple of plays in the second half. King was beaten deep a couple of other times but was spared by accurate throws by Flacco. Still, King’s play was so awful they had him laying ten yards off the line by the second half. Killed by a rookie for 152 yards, and 3 TDs on the first three catches of his career? Justin King just had the worst game by a corner in the St. Louis era. When he left the game with an injury in the 4th, I figured it had to be third-degree burns. (Shoulder, actually.) I don’t know why the Rams didn’t switch Bradley Fletcher over to Smith after the first TD, let alone the 2nd. And Al Harris was jamming Anquan Boldin and playing solid, physical coverage, why the hell isn’t he being used more? You’d think and hope it unlikely, but the Rams can hold open tryouts for street free agents at corner AND safety and improve the awful product they’re rolling out on the field, and by next week. Justin King shouldn’t be wearing an NFL uniform.

* Special teams: Special teams weren’t the disaster the rest of the team was, not that they were inspiring. Pettis at least didn’t fumble away any punt returns. Jerious Norwood didn’t do much on kickoffs. Meanwhile, Lardarius Webb had a 29-yard punt return for Baltimore, and LaQuan Williams nearly broke out for a TD on the 2nd-half kickoff. Donnie Jones cranked off three punts over 50 yards but continues to fail to pin opponents deep. Loved the punt from the 39 that splashed into the end zone. For that effort, the Rams might as well go for it from now on inside the opponents’ 40. Baltimore was also close to blocking just about every one of Jones’ eight attempts. Never mind, special teams sucked, too.

* Coaching: Yes, that was me calling for Shurmurball in the QB review. Josh McDaniels realized in preseason that the o-line and the receivers weren’t at the level needed to run his system, and ran a possession passing game early in preseason and against the Eagles opening week. Seeing his receivers not getting open and his tackles barely able to block for three-step drops, he needs to go back to that and decrease the opportunity for Bradford to get killed. He needed to do that in the second half today. But I’m actually confident in McDaniels to see the problem and dial the offense back a little. Maybe it’ll be different again after the bye week, with Jackson, Amendola and maybe even Mark Clayton all healthy. The offensive line is the crux of the problem. McDaniels can’t scheme around it, nobody can. He needs to be willing to take less risks on offense until the Rams get enough weapons back to overcome it.

Defensively, the four-man rush was again pretty awful, other than a dash here or there from Long or Quinn, and blitzing didn’t disrupt Flacco much until the 4th quarter. The Rams continue to have players caught out of position. The secondary’s ball awareness continues to be atrocious. Stewart’s bailing out on a play while the TD pass is coming in over his head. And it’s ridiculous that the Rams didn’t adjust coverage on Smith or roll the safety over to his side quicker than they did. Congress adjusts to problems more quickly.

And the Rams continue to look sloppy and inept, a direct reflection on Steve Spagnuolo’s leadership. This team didn’t look like it had even practiced this week, with the offense repeatedly blowing up on the launching pad and the Ravens cutting through the Ram defense like the game was actually a 7-on-7 no-contact drill. Dropped passes. Missed assignments on the offensive line and secondary. Players not knowing the plays. And a stomach-turning number of stupid, undisciplined penalties. I think the Rams committed six major penalties, from personal fouls to face-masks to roughing the kicker. This team does not play with good fundamentals, it does not play smart football, and to top it off, today was easily the flattest the team has come out for a game under Spagnuolo. 0-3 is not the surprise here. The team reverting back into one of the two or three worst teams in the league is. I hope Stan Kroenke had another good long talk with Spagnuolo after this game. He’s accountable, and on a hot seat getting rapidly hotter.

* Upon further review: The quality of NFL officiating this year is just scary. Is Roger Goodell going to get concerned about this? Scott Green’s crew is supposed to be one of the better ones in the league, but were brutal today. They picked up a flag in the 1st after deciding Anquan Boldin didn’t commit offensive pass interference, but how about him dragging Fletcher around by his jersey? The next play, they correctly flagged Dennis Pitta for a nasty block in the back, but then offset it with a B.S. call on Fletcher for hitting Leach out of bounds. It wasn’t an excessive hit, or even all that far out of bounds. Jason Smith earned his first personal foul for chippy play, but how was it not offset by the Ravens player retaliating and shoving Smith to the ground? Green did a poor job keeping control of the game, and ignored too many blatant Raven penalties, while calling the Rams for penalties on the same plays, to earn anything other than a big fat F today. Keep the streak alive, NFL zebras!

* Cheers: Here's the kind of day it was at the Dome: the geniuses behind the dubious “Rams Rules” video cranked up a video of the players urging the fans to get on their feet and get loud at the start of the fourth quarter, when the Rams had the ball, which is a violation of “Rams Rule” number ONE. I ask again, do your jobs right and let us do ours. Well, those of us who show up. Another of today's big disappointments was the number of empty seats for the “sold-out” game. Crowd had to be in the mid-40s at best. Those of us who did show aren't coming for the ambiance. We were bombarded by debris from the press box at one point, and the place wasn't clean in the first place. The floor of our aisle was sticky enough to pull the soles off your shoes. Maybe the Rams' receivers should pay our section a visit...

* Who’s next?: First, the good news: next week, the Rams catch the Washington Redskins on a short week, coming off an emotional rivalry game in Dallas, and playing their second straight road game. The bad news? The Redskin team that was supposed to be the “easiest” of the Rams' opponents in the early part of this year's schedule could be 3-0 when they get here. Yeah, the Rams aren't catching a whole lot of breaks so far this year.

I don't know which is the bigger surprise about the Redskins, Rex Grossman playing competently at QB or Jim Haslett actually coaching an effective defense. Haslett's getting excellent contributions from OLBs Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. Those two held Kevin Kolb under siege in Washington's week 2 win over Arizona. Each had a sack, and Orakpo also forced a fumble. Kerrigan has been a rookie revelation so far. He's not just a speed rusher; he bull-rushed the Big Dead RT off his feet on one play. He also set up an interception for London Fletcher by tipping a pass while dropping back into coverage. The Cards had to resort to double-teaming him by halftime. The 4-man rush Orakpo and Kerrigan grant Haslett make his blitzing all the more effective. The Rams' TEs and RBs better be up to the task; they will end up mismatched on one of the two OLBs when the Redskins blitz. The Rams will help themselves out with Kerrigan by running draws and rollouts to take advantage of his rookie exuberance to get upfield. Washington has had injuries in the secondary that the Rams may be able to exploit and which may temper Haslett's blitzing. The Redskins have struggled at covering tight ends, and the Cardinals ran well on them out of spread formation. The Rams definitely have options for attacking Washington that they're already comfortable with. The day will be a coaching failure, though, if ball security isn't emphasized with old friend Oshiomogho Atogwe roaming the Redskin secondary. You know he'll be looking to make a big play next week of all weeks.

Grossman has three 300-yard games in his last five starts, and got Arizona for 291. He's playing about as mistake-free as he can play. While you can blitz him into making bad throws, and the Cards certainly did, by the end of that game Rex diced up Arizona pressure with a barrage of quick passes to Santana Moss and Jabar Gaffney and Fred Davis in the flat. Blitzing will work, but blitz-crazy won't. The Redskin o-line's ok against the blitz. Grossman and Gaffney appear to have picked up where they left off at The Swamp in Gainesville back in the day. The WR screen is a favorite Redskin route. They also employ a lot of stack formations designed to free up Moss over the middle. Their most dangerous receiver, though, may be TE Davis, who's taken the job over from Chris Cooley. Arizona's downfall was trying to cover Davis with a linebacker, which you just can't do. And whoever covers him better be able to get a jam on him. Tim Hightower, who seems to have had most of his best games against the Rams, should be Washington's lead RB. Hightower reminds me of Cadillac Williams. Hit the hole and go, a decisive downhill runner but also a good receiver. The Rams need to take advantage of Hightower's past fumbling problems and that he's not a breakaway runner. That role's for rookie Roy Helu, who gashed the Cards for nearly 10 yards a touch via ground and air. The right side of the Rams' line looks especially vulnerable both to Helu's cutback ability and to Washington's preference to run behind LT Trent Williams. One last Redskin to mention is Brandon Banks, who at 5'7”, 155 wouldn't even stand out in a crowd at your local high school, but he's one of the most lethally fast returners in the NFL, both on kicks and punts.

The Redskins game has been looked at as a do-or-die game in Rams Nation since the schedule came out six months ago, and nothing has changed over that time. The banged-up Rams will be helped by the bye week that follows this game, but with the Packers, Saints and Cowboys following that, relief's going to be a fleeting thing. 2011 records aside, the Redskins are the first team on the schedule this year that the Rams were supposed to be better than coming into the season. There'll be no clearer indicator on where the Rams stand than their performance next Sunday. For the love of the season, let's hope that performance is a good one.

-- Mike
Game stats from nfl.com

Management note: next week’s recap may be delayed because I will be in day-long training classes. I’ll shoot to have it out Sunday night, but you know me. Monday night is likelier. --Mike