RamView, 9/9/2012: Lions 27, Rams 23 (Long)
RamView, September 9, 2012
From the Couch
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Game #1: Lions 27, Rams 23
Losing sucks. Losing a game you had won sucks even more. But the St. Louis Rams, on the road, fighting a playoff team from last year to within an inch of their lives? That beats last year's sad sacks by a country mile. It didn't take this team long to create something to build on this season. The wins will follow.
Position by position:
* QB: Sam Bradford (17-25-198, passer rating 105.1) made about as many clutch plays as you could ask for out of a conservative offense. He drove the Rams to an opening score with a couple of 3rd-down completions to Danny Amendola, including a 16-yarder on 3rd-and-24 that put them (back) in FG range. Big miss his next time out, though – on 3rd-and-12, he had Chris Givens open by a mile across midfield for a likely TD, but underthrew him by so much that Drayton Florence was able to catch up and break up the pass. The Ram offense stalled for a long time in the 2nd half as the offensive line rapidly disintegrated and got Bradford hit and sacked, or as his receivers failed to make blitz adjustments. Going duck-and-cover with Ndamukong Suh charging in right after halftime wasn't a Bradford Kodak moment, and he got away with a fumble after a sack to start the 4th. Clutch mode kicked back in, though. 3rd-and-3 at the Detroit 39, he finds Steve Smith on a shallow route for a 16-yard gain, and follows that with a perfect lob pass to Brandon Gibson, beating a blitz and scoring a 23-yard TD to put the Rams ahead 20-13. Tied again with 7:20 left, Bradford stays clutch, converting 2nd-and-10, 2nd-and-9 and 3rd-and-5 – another bullet to Amendola, double-covered – to get the Rams across midfield. Two plays later, 2nd-and-11, Bradford lets a sideline pass to Gibson rip just as he's violently hit high and low by two Lions and about folded in half, a hit I'm rather impressed he got back up from. And he got another first down, putting the Rams in range for the leading FG with only 2:00 left in the game. I'm not saying let's send Bradford's cleats to the Hall of Fame; he made about one play with his feet, a late scramble around right end to salvage a blown screen pass on the last FG drive. But, save the bomb for Givens, he made about every clutch play he had a chance to make, and had his team out front with 2:00 left on the clock. This wasn't a bad start to what's hopefully a turnaround season.
* RB: Though the Rams ran more times than they passed, those hoping Steven Jackson (21-53) would dominate were probably disappointed. Jackson did chip in 4 catches for 31, and was excellent in pass protection; see the o-line writeup. Brit Miller got Jackson going for a couple of long runs early as his lead blocker, but he was about the only consistent help Steven got. He did break an Ndamukong Suh tackle for 5 yards in the 4th, but didn't break a lot of tackles or run over a lot of Lions for the game, as their “bigs” were able to get to him quickly and often. Daryl Richardson is the Rams' official #2 RB, btw, and had the Rams' longest run, an 11-yarder cutting back behind Rodger Saffold and running through Kyle Vanden Bosch for another 2-3 yards. With 2 carries for 20 yards, the Rams should feel freer to mix D-Rich in there a little more. The things he can do are the reason you have a change-of-pace back. He can open up the field for the whole offense, and that includes Jackson.
* Receivers: Not enough to write about here after Danny Amendola (5-70) and Brandon Gibson (4-51). It's certainly good to have Danny back; he was Bradford's go-to guy over the middle, converting a couple of third downs and making a big catch to set up the Rams' first FG. Gibson made even bigger catches, a pretty overhead catch of Bradford's perfect 23-yard sideline toss for a TD in the 4th, and a 12-yard sideline catch to set up the Rams' last FG. Of course, without his dumb personal foul during the first drive of the game, maybe the Rams don't settle for a FG. Not much noise after that. Tight ends were only targeted three times. #3 wideout Steve Smith had only 1 catch. Chris Givens got behind the Detroit secondary by YARDS in the 2nd, only to have Bradford underthrow him so badly the Lions recovered and broke up the play. Brian Quick (0-0) didn't even make it onto the field. Nice games by the top two, but the Rams are going to have to get a lot more out of their receiving depth than they got here.
* Offensive line: Roller-coaster game for the Rams up front. Bradford got very solid protection for most of the first half, Lions blitzes were picked up well by the backs, and screen passes were executed very well, really sucking the Lions in. Though not a lineman per se, the first guy who stood out was Brit Miller, who played like a Pro Bowler, plowing one hole for Jackson after another. He had a studly block leading Jackson for 7 on 3rd-and-1 on the first FG drive, and another on Jackson's 8-yard gain to open the 2nd FG drive. Rodger Saffold had a nice first half. He and Barry Richardson held up well enough at tackle with Bradford getting the ball out quickly, and even gave him solid pockets for long counts on longer throws. Saffold and Miller made great blocks outside on D-Rich's 10-yard run. Then again, I don't know who the Sam Hill Sammie Lee Hill is, but Robert Turner struggled with him repeatedly at LG, where he started. Hill beat Turner a couple of times to slow the Rams' first drive. Over at RG, I can only assume Harvey Dahl is still sick or hurt or something, because he stunk on toast. Ndamukong Suh just embarrassed Dahl in the 2nd, shrugging him off like Dahl wasn't there and dragging Jackson down with one arm for a loss. Late in the 2nd, the Rams' first red zone trip stalled because Dahl couldn't handle Hill on 1st down, and Scott Wells failed to slide protection on 3rd down, leading to a triple-team on Suh but a no-team on Nick Fairley, who drilled Bradford for a sack. Adversity really hit after halftime. The Rams gave up another sack in no time, after B-Rich lost Suh after a stunt. Then the apparently-brittle Wells left the game with a foot injury, moving Turner to center and Rok Watkins to LG. The rookie quickly drew a hold and missed a block on a shovel pass to Jackson that should have been a much bigger gain. Disappointing Dahl got Bradford hit again in the 3rd, but saved the Rams' bacon in the 4th by recovering a fumble created when Corey Williams whipped Watkins off the snap and drilled Bradford. That made it possible for the Rams to take the lead later on the Gibson TD, but not without the price of losing Saffold to a neck injury (a sprain per early reports). So now the Rams are tied 20-20, with a sub at center, a rookie at LG and Wayne Freaking Turner at LT. Strong blocking by B-Rich up top and an outstanding, massive chip block by Jackson helping Turner gave Bradford time to convert a 3rd-and-5 across midfield. Bradford took his worst hit last, getting brutally high-lowed by Lions who beat Dahl and Watkins. Jackson lost two after nobody blocked Justin Durant, and the Rams eventually settled for the lead FG. B-Rich got whipped and got Bradford clobbered for a sack to end the game. The line did a decent job considering what it was up against, but they've got even more work to do now than previously imagined.
* Defensive line/LB: The coaching staff gambled that the defensive line could get to Matthew Stafford with a lot of three-man rushes and not a lot of blitzing, a gamble that didn't pay off. Stafford usually got the ball out too quickly, or Chris Long got held too effectively, for the strategy to work. Detroit put together many long drives, and when they were stopped, it was by a play downfield, not anything up front. The Rams already miss Michael Brockers; Detroit was successful early running at Jermelle Cudjo, which may have inspired a lot of the 3-man rushes. On their first TD drive, Will Heller wiped out Robert Quinn to spring Titus Young for 11, then Kevin Smith took a draw for 19, as Cudjo got wiped out and Jo-Lonn Dunbar got caught up in traffic. For this game, Dunbar was not the answer at WLB the Rams have been looking for, struggling even worse in coverage except for a key interception in the 2nd. Cudjo's late pressure might have influenced the pick-six Stafford threw right before halftime, but mostly it was one play after another of the Rams failing to put any pressure on the Lion QB. He had FIVE SECONDS to hit Calvin Johnson for 57 to set up a FG to end the half. Quinn did sack Stafford to start the 3rd, but was nowhere near as effective against graybeard tackle Jeff Backus as hoped. I kept looking for a spin move, or a rip move, or something, but Quinn seemed mostly to try to outrun Backus, or occasionally bull-rush him. I think he needed to vary his moves more. Long needed the fake zebras to call holding, ever, but no luck. They had some good play to end the 3rd. Dunbar stuffed Smith for a big loss, coming through the gap like he'd been shot out of a cannon. Eugene Sims followed by deflecting a pass; Stafford caught it, but only got a small gain. Long made Stafford step up and throw poorly under pressure during a 3-and-out to start the 4th. But, possibly wearing down, the Rams had little answer for the Detroit attack in the 4th. The Lions got big gains off misdirection and play-action, with Dunbar biting inexplicably hard on run-fakes, given the game situation. 3-man, 4-man, pass rush was non-existent. Smith ran over Mario Haggan to tie the game at 20 on a 3-yard run where James Laurinaitis (9 tkl) got blocked into the end zone. It got even worse as the Lions drove for the game-winning TD. Long could only get close as Stafford hit Calvin Johnson for 20. No rush at all as Stafford hit Burleson for 20, little on a 10-yard sidearm to Smith, none on a 17-yard toss to Megatron. And now Detroit's on the 5, and Dunbar's biting on (possibly illegal) run action again, and here's Smith walking in for a TD on essentially the last play of the game. Pass rush isn't supposed to be a problem for this defense. The Rams will likely use similar schemes as today's against the Patriots and Packers. There will be many times where this line will have to be able to generate pass rush without much blitzing help. This week wasn't one of those times.
* Secondary: The Rams picked Matthew Stafford (32-48-355) off three times, and could have had five. Repeating a preseason theme, though, they had massive problems covering TEs. Immortals Tony Scheffler and Will Heller had big catches as the Lions marched down to the 3 on their first possession. But rookie Janoris Jenkins then pounced on a pass intended for Scheffler at the goal line for an INT that set up the Rams' first FG. The Lions were in the red zone quickly after a long punt return in the 2nd, but just as suddenly, with Stafford again looking for a TE, Jo-Lonn Dunbar sprung out of the weeds for the Rams' 2nd INT, also setting up a FG. Just a few seconds later, knowing where Stafford was throwing before Stafford did, Cortland Finnegan perfectly sloughed off his man, jumped a Calvin Johnson out route, and returned the pick 31 yards, fittingly enough, for a TD and a 13-7 lead. The Rams should have had a 4th pick before halftime; Bradley Fletcher had a pass go off both hands in the end zone, Lions kick FG the next play. Fletcher drew most of the (very loose) coverage of Calvin Johnson (6-111) and did a respectable job. Megatron's biggest catch was for 57 to set up the FG, beating Craig Dahl to an underthrown bomb, but the front four gave Stafford WAY too much time to throw there. Dahl blew an INT off a Brandon Pettigrew muff in the 4th, but the offense bailed him out and re-took the lead. That didn't last long, as Pettigrew (5-77)abused Dunbar 3 times for 64 yards as Detroit quickly re-tied it, beating him twice off play-action and once in soft zone. In the final 2:00, Johnson made two big catches in the middle of the Rams' zone, one at the 5-yard line, and Nate Burleson got inside Jenkins for 20, but those are less on the secondary than on the front for giving Stafford too much time to throw. The Rams still have a lot of work to do accounting for the tight end, but this secondary will be very effective behind a line getting better pressure on the QB.
* Special teams: The Rams could have won this game on the strength of their rookie kicker. Greg Zuerlein was nails, hitting from 48, 29 and 46, the last one to give the Rams the lead at the 2:00 warning, so he's clutch on top of everything else. Yes, I may have to re-think my “never draft a kicker” rule. Rams punt coverage was lucky not to hurt the team more than it did. Stefan Logan had a 20-yard return and a couple of 15-yarders to give the Lions a lot of good field position, but they only cashed a FG out of his efforts. Johnny Hekker averaged over 48 a boot, recovering nicely after dropping the ball on his first career attempt. Quinton Pointer made an excellent stop on Logan on Hekker's long punt of the game, a 58-yarder. He and Rodney McLeod also wiped Logan out at the 10 on one of the few kickoffs either team returned. Not a bad day for special teams, though they'll need improvement to help the Rams win the field position battle.
* Coaching/discipline: Shades of Jim Haslett vs. Mike Martz in New Orleans at the turn of the century, Jeff Fisher's major strategic decision was to mostly drop his defense back in coverage, often only rushing three. Thanks to excellent scouting and analysis of Stafford's tendencies, this worked for a long time, with the Rams often knowing where Stafford would throw before he did. All three interceptions were made when Rams defenders jumped routes Stafford falls back on when he's pressured, especially the out route intended for Megatron that Finnegan jumped for the pick-six. I'm not sure how well we should have expected bend-but-don't-break to continue working into the 4th quarter. Scott Linehan finally adjusted for it with some misdirection that really got the Rams off-balance downfield and broke the tight ends wide open. I will say that the Rams' most successful defensive plays of the 4th quarter came when they blitzed, and find myself wishing they had blitzed more. Surprisingly good battle of coaching wits considering Linehan was involved. One disappointment was the Rams' seeming unpreparedness for the number of end-arounds run by the Lions' receivers. Coaches must have picked up on that within 15 minutes of watching tape. (I know I did.)
I wasn't expecting this, and it's only been a week, but I'm finding myself liking Brian Schottenheimer's offensive plan. He runs in the right spots, passes in the right spots. No pass-wacky calls on 3rd-and-short, no see-what-a-genius-I-would-be-if-this-play-actually-worked handoffs on 3rd-and-long. Didn't just pay lip service to the running game. Got the ball out of Bradford's hand quickly. Really suckered the Lions on screen passes in the first half. Called an excellent clock-chewing drive for the Rams' final score with 2:00 left. Too bad there were so many almosts. Givens rips the top off the Lion secondary; Bradford almost gets it to him. Shovel pass to Jackson in the third is almost a big play, but Watkins misses a block. The Rams are going to need to go downfield more than they were willing to do against a poor secondary this week, but that's going to be on the o-line as much as on Schottenheimer. Right now, he looks like the right coach for the Rams at the right time.
The same seems true of Jeff Fisher, in spades. How many people thought the Rams could stay with the Lions this week? Not many. Did the Rams look like they thought they couldn't? No, they just played Jeff Fisher ball. Slugged it out with the opponent on the ground. Grounded an explosive offense for 50 minutes, gave up really only one big play, and won the turnover battle by three. The Lions had to earn everything they got. I've got more respect for this team, after a loss, than I've had since Marc Bulger led that epic comeback in Seattle. Jeff Fisher's the coach the Rams have needed for a long time.
* Upon further review: Initially, I did not think Donovan Briggins and crew did anything that really cost the Rams the game. After trying to dissect the game-winning drive, I don't know now. On Smith's game-winning TD, center Dominic Raiola is an ineligible man downfield by every definition I know. LOS is the 5; he's standing at the 3 when Stafford throws, and it's Raiola's movements that really sucker Dunbar into looking inside for Smith to be running. It's a convincing fake pull-block, to be sure. Legally executed? I'm not so sure. The refs were Detroit's home-field advantage anyway, throwing only 3 flags on the Lions vs. 7 for the Rams. A horse-collar tackle call on Craig Dahl was borderline, really only came after the Lions' bench got in the official's face begging for a call, and should have been offset by a facemask grab-and-pull on Logan. Saffold got called for a false start when all he was doing was making a hand signal. Didn't shift his weight or move his feet. A perfectly legal action. But the Rams go back five instead of getting the offsides call. And the Rams' o-line was called twice for holding, but the Lions' not at all, even as Chris Long got held much of the game, ridiculously at times. Refs get a C if I botched the ineligible man rule; F-minus-minus-to-infinity, though, if they did.
* Cheers: Good broadcast by Chris Myers and Tim Ryan, who were in midseason form. They were very quick to take the Rams as a serious threat. Ryan's analysis was entertaining and informative, with observations about Fisher being inside Stafford's head, and how Fisher's scheming was winning the game for the Rams. I would have liked more footage of what the Rams were doing to keep Megatron in check. The game's director made up for that with a shot of the replacement replacement official preparing to enter the game. From that, we at home knew an official was injured before Myers and Ryan did in the booth. Those cannot be easy details for a TV crew to pick up, so kudos to Fox on that.
* Who’s next?: Two teams with prominent roles in each other’s futures meet next Sunday when the Redskins visit St. Louis for the Rams’ home opener. The two teams pulled off the biggest trade of the offseason, with Washington giving the Rams three premium draft picks for the right to trade up to the second spot overall. The Rams acquired Janoris Jenkins with one of those picks and have two extra first-round picks with which to build a better future. Daniel Snyder, as addicted to the idea of the quick fix as too many others holding power in Washington, gave up that draft bounty to acquire Heisman Trophy-winning QB Robert Griffin III, around whom the Redskins will try to build a future better than their 5-11 mark in 2011.
Opening his career with a 300-yard game in New Orleans, Griffin (RG3) appears to be catching on quite quickly. He shows a strong, accurate arm sideline-to-sideline on shorter routes, and definitely the arm to extend a defense. He’s still dialing in his accuracy on the deeper throws, but he’s close. If Griffin’s showing any early weaknesses, it’s accuracy on medium-area passes, and, not surprisingly for a rookie, blitz recognition, not that any of it hurt him week 1. If trends hold, Griffin will look for free-agent WR acquisition Pierre Garcon a lot. Garcon is a receiver Cortland Finnegan should be VERY familiar with, though, and that should not be a bad matchup for the Rams. The secondary’s biggest chore will be accounting for Fred Davis, who has climbed into the league’s upper echelon at TE. RG3’s already a convention-defying player. When you hear “young, mobile quarterback,” you think of someone who’s going to flee the pocket at the drop of a hat, but Griffin hangs in quite strong, and so far has only run as a last resort, which will make him that much harder to defend. Chris Long and Robert Quinn have to keep outside containment, but they can’t wait all day, either. Quinn’s job will be especially tough against LT Trent Williams, whose road-grading blocking the Redskins love to run behind. Looks like Steven Jackson-lite rookie Alfred Morris will get the call at RB, but with Redskins HC Mike Shanahan, you can never be sure (and neither can he). Roy Helu has their best outside speed and was also nearly perfect last season as a pass protector (2 QB pressures allowed in 78 opportunities, says Sports Illustrated), but is coming off injuries to BOTH Achilles tendons, so look for a lot of power running at the Ram defense next week, which they’ll have to stop early if they intend to give RG3 any “Welcome to the NFL” moments.
The Rams could very similarly look to do a lot of power running, but the offensive line will have to play a whole lot better than the impostors who got Sam Bradford sacked SEVEN times, and hit TWENTY times, in last year's 17-10 loss to the Redskins. The Rams were helpless against the Redskins' quickness up front, and those guys haven't gotten any slower in the past year. And thanks to today's injuries, the Rams haven't gotten any more settled. Brian Orakpo destroyed Rodger Saffold in last year's game; what's he going to do to Wayne Hunter, even at less than 100%? Ryan Kerrigan vs. Barry Richardson is no barrel of laughs, either. London Fletcher is still quick and making plays at age 37. Whoever plays center will have to be able to handle Steven Bowen's quickness inside. If the Rams can dig in at the line of scrimmage, the Redskin secondary should be attackable. Brian Schottenheimer's offense is probably a better fit for attacking Jim Haslett's blitz-happy schemes than Josh McDaniels' was last year, given the personnel on hand. With Brandon Meriweather out due to a knee injury, Bradford could be able to attack the safeties, where there's a big dropoff in coverage, and where Tanard Jackson missed nearly 40% of his tackles last season, worst in the NFL (per SI). Establishing Steven Jackson and setting up play action would really help with that. None of it matters, though, if things don't change dramatically from last year at the line, which is where this game is going to be decided.
Last year's Redskins game was considered a must-win for the Rams, and when they lost it, it marked the point where the season really went into a tailspin. This year's Rams have already given hope that a repeat will be avoided in 2012. They just outplayed a playoff team for 3-and-a-half quarters; they can compete at home with a 5-11 team from last year with a rookie QB, fantastic though he may be. The Rams' line injuries may tip this one Washington's way in the end, but win or lose, the turnaround of this franchise is off to a good start.
Game stats from nfl.com
Re: RamView, 9/9/2012: Lions 27, Rams 23 (Long)
I'm glad you agree with me about Bradford, in that he didn't do anything too badly and made some good throws when he had the chance.
The throw to Givens, I think that's a case of it being the first game of the season and them not having played together much. I don't think Sam has had that kind of speed in his receivers in his time here in St Louis!
Re: RamView, 9/9/2012: Lions 27, Rams 23 (Long)
Good analysis. Having been at the game the only thing I did not notice was the missed call on the game winning TD.
The only thing I have to disagree with was Bradford making all his clutch throws. Being at the game I would say the biggest problem for the offense was Bradford missing some wide open WR's on 3rd down plays, including the last O play before they kicked their last FG. Amendola (I think) was running under neath sideline to sideline and had blown by his coverage and was open for what looked like a 1st down catch. Bradford whipped the ball way out in front of him.
Bradford missed a few of these open throws through the game and in my personal analysis, his inconsistency is the weakness right now. Its great to make some tough throws as he did, but the Rams should have been up by 3 TD's in the 4th not 7 points.