By mfranke Mon Sep 27, 2010 4:29 pm
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Game #3: Rams 30, Redskins 16
The Rams left Oakland in need of redemption, and found it today at home in a sparkling win over Washington. And to beat the Redskins, the Rams had to overcome just about every kind of adversity you could think up. Looks like our little team is growing up.
Position by position:
* QB: Sam Bradford (23-37-235, 78.1 passer rating) is on his way to becoming a force in the NFL. The young man is proving impossible to rattle. He tore up the Redskin blitz all day, kept a steady hand on the offensive wheel and didn’t freeze up when a searing spotlight hit him in the form of an injury that sidelined Steven Jackson for half the game. Bradford saved his best work for the second half, with that spotlight full on. The Redskins had just taken their first lead of the game and the pfffft of the air being let out of the Dome could be heard all over the Midwest. So Sam stepped up. He found Brandon Gibson over the middle for 16. On 2nd-and-15, he beat a blitz with a quick hitter to Danny Amendola for an 18-yard catch-and-run. That only led to a 3rd-and-10, but Bradford hit Daniel Fells up the seam perfectly for 12. That only led to a 3rd-and-7, but Bradford sent another perfect pass in the near flat for a not-very open Mardy Gilyard and the kids were all right for another first down, setting up Kenneth Darby’s TD run that put the Rams, strangely unfamiliar as this sounds, ahead to stay. Three clutch plays by Bradford that helped the Rams re-take the lead and established him as a player who can lead, and carry, the team. He made another clutch play to seal the game in the final 3:00, rolling right on 3rd-and-20 and gunning a throw to favorite target Mark Clayton for an improbable 1st down that set up a coups de grace FG. Third down conversion rate’s a fair measure of clutch play, isn’t it? Behind a rookie in his 3rd NFL game, the Rams converted 7-of-16. Behind a future Hall-of-Fame QB, the Redskins? Converted 1-of-10. For Bradford’s best play, though, go back to the first half, 2nd-and-goal from the Washington 3. Bradford rolls right but doesn’t have his primary, Clayton, coming along with him; he’d been knocked down. With nobody open, Bradford makes a move for the goal line, which pulls the cornerback off of Fells in the back of the end zone. Seeing that, Bradford finishes off a splendid fakeout by pulling up and tossing a TD to the now-lonely TE. Bradford completely made this play. Not only did he overcome the loss of his primary receiver right from the snap, he actually got his secondary receiver open. That’s a QB making his receivers better. A rookie did that? I thought only Peyton Manning could do that. Or make the 8-yard sideline throw that looked like a potential pick, but because Bradford put infinite mustard on it, was only catchable by Amendola for a 1st down in the 2nd. Bradford’s only blemish came when an INT cost the Rams a chance to go up 21-0. Though there was one bozo on local TV last night criticizing Bradford for it, I doubt it was even his fault. There was a blitz coming, and he found Fells single-covered; Fells pretty clearly didn’t run the route Bradford was expecting. At a minimum, that’s the kind of team error that’s going to happen less often as this team matures. As for Sam Bradford, he’s maturing quickly. The Rams are already becoming his team.
* RB: Steven Jackson (10-58) struck early. One play after running smack into a Laron Landry blitz that lost the Rams 4, he swept right around the edge set by Fells, cut back upfield, juked the safety, got a couple of great downfield blocks and forged in with a 42-yard TD to give the Rams a quick lead. Mike Karney (1-2) kept that drive alive earlier with his only carry of the day, converting a 4th-and-1. Midway through the 2nd, though, Jackson got worked over by Jim Haslett’s thug squad after a short gain and had to leave the game due to a groin injury. Oh great, the Rams don’t have anybody who can step in with Jackson down, do they? It especially looked so as Keith Toston (11-22) failed twice to get into the end zone from the Washington 1. Kenneth Darby (14-49) stepped up, though. He shot up the middle on a draw the Rams’ next possession for a 12-yard TD and the lead. He helped grind Washington down in the 4th with some nice runs off the right side, including a 4th-and-1 plunge. Give Darby a hole to hit, and he’ll hit it fast and hard, and keep his feet moving, for nice plays. Make him think, he’s going to get indecisive and get in trouble. His last seven touches accumulated 5 yards. Toston showed nice power running, when it wasn’t on the goal line with Washington stacked to stop him. The brief flash from Darby was enough to carry the Rams through today. He provided the team a boost when it badly needed one, and he’s deservedly one of the heroes of the game. The thought of a Jacksonless running game, though, looms over Rams Nation like a gathering storm.
* Receivers: Mark Clayton (5-85) just finds a way to make a couple of big plays every week. He set up two of the Rams’ three 4th-quarter FGs. He took a quick screen for 30 after DeAngelo Hall’s pratfall suddenly left him acres of running room, and his 25-yard catch-and-run on 3rd-and-20 late in the game essentially put it away. Clayton has a great nose for the first down, but he wasn’t alone today. Danny Amendola (6-56) made a huge, soft-handed catch of a Bradford sideline rocket to convert a 3rd-and-6 in the 2nd and had one of the key receptions on the 3rd-quarter TD drive. He also continues to fearlessly work the middle and bounce right back up from some of the harshest hits the NFL’s defenses have to offer. Brandon Gibson (3-33) finally got off the inactive list and already shows more to offer than Laurent Robinson (out injured). He got screamingly open a couple of times on what looked like simple comeback routes for key receptions. Gibson did miss some catchable balls, though, so his hands have some catching up to do with his on-field swagger. The TEs were important, too. Fells (3-22) had the TD catch and a key first down on the Darby TD drive. The Rams went to Fendi Onobun (2-15) twice on the long, failed goal-line sequence late in the first half, and he’s immediately a mismatch problem. He should have drawn two holding penalties. He showed soft hands on the catches he was allowed to make without being interfered with. In all, nine different receivers caught passes today, winning diversity and ability for the unit after it struggled so badly last week.
* Offensive line: The Ram o-line accomplished everything it meant to last week but didn’t. They got Jackson started with great execution on his 42-yard TD run. Fells sealed the end. Jason Smith made a great kickout block. And Jackson had a strong convoy ahead of him, with solid blocking from Jason Brown and Rodger Saffold, getting downfield and picking off a couple of Redskins to keep them off Steven’s back. Brown was key again on Darby’s TD run, clearing out a big hole. Darby got nice gains off blocks by Fells and Jacob Bell in the 2nd half. In fact, this had to be Fells’ best blocking day as a pro, as he also looked great blocking on a couple of smoke routes. The line really took it to the Redskins this week. They got a lot of good push in the running game and passed a couple of 4th-down gutchecks to boot. The running game was especially effective when mauler John Greco spelled Adam Goldberg in the 2nd half. Not sure why that substitution was made, because Goldberg returned, but Greco made it six-man dominance by the Ram run-blocking today, and pass blocking wasn’t far behind. It wasn’t all the best – the line had a frustrating amount of early trouble with former Rams washout Adam Carriker, Smith drew a couple of holding flags and Darby was much too late picking up Brian Orakpo on a stunt on a drive-ending sack in the 2nd. With Bradford getting the ball out quickly and Darby picking the blitz up well otherwise, though, that was the only sack of the game, the Rams preferring instead to give Bradford very solid pockets to stand tall in.
* Defensive line/LB: The defense didn’t get off to a smooth start, but they made big plays and harassed Donovan McNabb almost to death, and mostly with just a 4-man rush, reversing some of the failings of the first two weeks. Na’il Diggs helped the Rams widen their early lead by popping the ball loose on a Santana Moss reception. James Butler scooped the loose ball and returned it inside the 5. James Laurinaitis (7 tkl) was friggin’ everywhere in what well could have been his best game as a pro. His blitz in the 4th set up James Hall for the Rams’ only sack. But he wasn’t just a pass rusher. His beautiful breakup of a sideline pass for Keiland Williams sent the Redskins back to the sidelines on 3rd-and-3 in the 1st. But he wasn’t just a pass rusher and a pass defender. He stuffed four runs for losses, none more important than his stuff of Clinton Portis at the 3 on 3rd-and-goal at the Ram 2, saving the Rams four points. Any big play today, Laurinaitis seemed to be right in the middle of it; his play was a sight to behold. Fred Robbins tipped a McNabb pass on 3rd down to force a red zone FG in the 2nd. Pass rush was key today, even though the Rams collected only the one sack. Chris Long got in McNabb’s face so often, Donovan may see the wrong reflection when he looks in the mirror Monday morning. Long’s zero-sack total is not indicative of his effectiveness so far this season. Excellent four-man pressure throughout the game helped the Rams in coverage and forced McNabb to do a lot of checking down. Bryan Kehl’s blitz late in the game caused McNabb to rush a sideline pass that was intercepted. There’s little question the Ram defense did a lot right today. They struggled again against the run, though, and were mainly helped by Washington’s mysterious abandonment of it in the 2nd half. Clinton Portis gashed them for 27 on one run. Ryan Torain kicked off a 2nd-quarter drive with a 36-yard gambol. McNabb burned a blitz later that drive with a 26-yard scramble. George Selvie may have turned the tide by killing a Torain sweep in the 3rd; the trailing Redskins almost completely quit running after that. But the Rams continue to have that one weird sequence a game where they are completely helpless against an outside running game, and they have got to get that shored up. The defensive ends have got to quit getting caught up inside. The outside LBs have to start getting, well, outside, on some of these, too. Not like Diggs getting blocked out of the Portis run or David Vobora getting there way late on a couple of the other runs. A professional football team just shouldn’t be this prone to getting dominated by Student Body Right, especially not with a former Southern Cal coach coming here next week.
* Secondary: Injuries and inexperience are fair excuses, but watching the Ram secondary today was a real pull-your-hair-out experience. James Butler gave up a woefully bad TD for the THIRD STRAIGHT WEEK, getting turned inside out and burned by Santana Moss for Washington’s first TD. With Craig Dahl out due to concussion, though, and O.J. Atogwe missing much of the game due to a leg injury, possibly sustained on a dirty block by Moss, the Rams didn’t have a lot of choices available at safety. Moss burned rookie Darian Stewart for 56 right after halftime, but credit a well-designed play with an underneath route for Chris Cooley meant to make Ron Bartell peel off. And Laurinaitis’ animalistic play kept the damage down to 3 points anyway. Safeties weren’t alone with problems. Bradley Fletcher was highly disappointing in interfering with Fred Davis late in the 1st, a 39-yard penalty that set up a Redskin FG. Another example of poor awareness by the Ram secondary when the ball is in the air. And in a new twist on an old theme, this week it was Atogwe who failed to field a potential INT cleanly, near the Rams’ goal line early in the 2nd. One thing the secondary excelled at was limiting the yards after catch on short passes. For instance, Atogwe stopping Chris Cooley at the 6 to force a FG in the 2nd. Butler and Laurinaitis stopped Moss short on 3rd-and-long in the 4th. Fletcher got a measure of revenge late in the game, picking off a pass a blitz-pressured McNabb threw right to him on the far sideline. That certainly helped the secondary’s cause, as did Bartell and Atogwe blanketing Moss on an end zone bomb earlier in the game. This secondary can get it done if they can get some time to become more consistent and a lot better injury luck. And a lot less Butler on the field. Until then, better keep some Rogaine on hand.
* Special teams: Special teams have taken a disappointing step backwards this season and nearly lost this game. Mardy Gilyard put the Redskins right back in the game by fumbling the kickoff right after Washington made the game 14-3. Blocking on returns has looked pretty poor lately, but I’m especially going to need to see both of Gilyard’s hands on the ball if he’s going to try to take on three defenders by himself. The Rams inconceivably continue to have problems protecting on field goals, as Philip Daniels just walked right between Jason Brown and Chris Massey to give the Rams their second blocked FG attempt already this season. Just blocking the damn guy in front of you is difficult why? Fortunately, other parts of special teams made plays. Josh Brown nailed his three other attempts, and Dominique Curry completely faked out the up man to block a punt in the 1st. Sadly, he tore an ACL covering a punt later in the game, and the Rams, who always seem to get gashed by Seattle’s special teams, face them next week without their top two defenders. And Seattle returned two kicks for TDs today against San Diego. Sound the alarm.
* Strategery: After spending last week lost in the desert, Pat Shurmur bounced back today and did something even Mike Martz used to struggle to do: win a football chess match with Jim Haslett. I thought the Rams were measurably better this week at taking what the defense gave: running into seven-man fronts and passing against eight-in-the-box. The running game was diverse, actually trying to attack the edges some this week instead of trying to slam everything into the A gap. Jackson's TD run was an example of both, a run to the right edge on 2nd-and-long against a 7-man front. The call was great even before Jackson turned it into a score. Shurmur actually dared to spread the field with 3- and 4-WR formations, and even more daringly for him, ran out of those formations. (Rams Nation has only been asking for this for about a year now.) Perfect example: Darby's TD, essentially a draw out of a 4-WR, trips-left formation. Beautiful call. There weren't any deep shots in the passing game, but the effort was still there to get the ball downfield beyond the usual fishbowl perimeter. The Rams had the Redskins scouted well and exploited the middle of the field against blitzes with passes to Gibson and Amendola. Shurmur also remembered Sam Bradford throws and plays well while on the move, something I forgot to complain about him abandoning last week. Loved the goal-line throws to Onobun. For one thing, Shurmur wasn't afraid to go to the rookie; for another, he was again spreading the field nicely. Both throws were to the left corner of the end zone; the Rams have been really right-handed this year when they get in close. And Shurmur's staples were still in effect, and worked well against the blitz – crisply-executed draws, smoke routes and quick screens. For I believe the first time ever, the Shurmur offense didn't go into its familiar nosedive after halftime. I don't suspect any specific adjustment was made, or was even necessary – Shurmur was just on his game, spreading the field and spreading the ball around. And a team that's lacked killer instinct got it in spades from its offensive coordinator with about 2:45 left to play. 3rd-and-20 near midfield, most of section 414 is assuming another run to at least force Washington to use its last timeout. Not me. That's a nice, safe call I wouldn't have criticized, but the Rams didn't need a nice, safe call – they needed a kill shot. I confidently called Martz's old favorite, play-action pass to the TE. Which Shurmur didn't run. But he just as confidently had Bradford throw on the roll off play-action to Clayton, who turned a bold call into a giant first down against a Redskin secondary I do believe was caught a little off guard by the call. Give Pat Shurmur today's most-deserved game ball. Win or lose today, the Ram offensive coordinator put together an excellent game plan. Now we only ask he do the same thing next week for Seattle.
It’s so exciting to have a competently-called offensive game for a week that I’m going to shortchange the rest. I expected about a million more blitzes than I saw today, from both sides. And with the 4-man rush he was getting, Ken Flajole was smart not to do an excessive amount of gambling. The Rams’ blitzing was generally effective. McNabb beat it with a long scramble in the 2nd, but a LB blitz rushed him into throwing the INT to Fletcher in the 4th. Blitzing also defanged the deep passing game by pressuring the future Hall-of-Famer into plenty of checkdowns. And as well as the defense kept those plays in front of them most of the game, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that had been a point of emphasis during the week. The Rams were well-prepared on both sides of the ball this week.
The last thing I expected after Steve Spagnuolo got outcoached by Tom Cable last week was for him to turn around and beat Mike Shanahan the next week, but he did. Shanahan abandoned a very successful running game in the 2nd half, while the Rams stuck to the ground game despite losing Jackson. The Redskins settled for chippie FGs on 4th-and-2 and 4th-and-3 inside the 10. Spagnuolo went for it on 4th-and-1 at the Redskin 40 on the opening series of the game and again in similar field position in the 4th when he would have been forgiven for calling for a field-position-changing punt. And of course, there was the play-action rollout on 3rd-and-20 instead of the familiar line plunge. Fortune favors the bold, as they say, and it favored Spagnuolo today, as the Redskins were the unsuspecting victims of the Ram coaching staff finally finding its killer instinct.
* Upon further review: Big fat F for the Walt Anderson crew, for almost too many reasons to count. The Redskins took shots at Bradford below the knee. They purposely tried to injure Jackson, and succeeded, on a play the officials were far too slow to whistle dead, and then idiotically tried to call a fumble on Jackson when his knee was clearly down. Good challenge by coach Spagnuolo on that call. Unfortunately, he couldn’t challenge the blind lack of calls on the goal line at the end of the first half. Albert Haynesworth stuffed one run mainly because he jumped offsides. No call, even though there’s supposed to be an official on the line of scrimmage looking right at that. Onobun was obviously held up illegally on both of his end zone routes in that sequence; I cannot fathom how they could not call the second, I think on Landry, after calling the first. This crew was good about calling offensive line holding, and I’m probably the only one in Rams Nation to agree the late non-fumble call involving Chris Cooley was right. But they blew calls that looked obvious and were poor at arguably their most important task, protecting the players. Epic fail.
* Cheers: Not a sellout crowd, but every bit as big and loud as Opening Day's. The Dome factor may even be returning, as the Redskins had two or three false starts. The team wisely went back to doing offensive introductions as the players came out, with Bradford getting a predictably huge ovation. There was some booing for the ineffectiveness of the offense at the end of the half, but the crowd was well-behaved otherwise. It’s been way too long since I got to leave the stadium with 50,000 other happy people. The theme for pregame and halftime entertainment this year is apparently “as cheap as possible”. We got more youth football and a cheerleader routine at halftime. They were good about playing highlights from around the league, except they never did it with the sound on. Exchange of the day on radio came with the legendary Isaac Bruce in the booth as the Redskins muffed a punt out of bounds:
Steve Savard: Isaac just about jumped out of our booth going after that loose ball.
D’Marco Farr: Easy there, big guy, you know we’re three stories up?
Isaac Bruce, deadpan: I’d land on my feet.
I believe him.
* Who’s next?: The last time the St. Louis Rams defeated the Seattle Seahawks, Barack Obama was just an inexperienced junior Senator from Illinois. "Lost" hadn’t begun to get weird yet. Twitter hadn’t been invented. Reggie Bush was still the Heisman Trophy winner and Pete Carroll’s national championship at USC still counted. The Rams’ head coach was… Mike Martz. It’s been five long years, ten excruciating losses, the last four to a Seahawk team that only won nine games combined in 2008-09, since the Rams came out on top in this rivalry, the most undeservedly one-sided rivalry in sports right now. Will this finally be the week that brings an end to Rams Nation’s long national nightmare?
Naturally, it won’t be easy. People like me who predicted Seattle would be a big pile of suck this season forgot the key players they got back on defense. Marcus Trufant is patrolling the secondary again and has a pick-six this season, and Lofa Tatupu has returned as the defensive heart and soul of the Seahawks. Carroll’s defense is winning games the old-fashioned way: stopping the run and forcing turnovers. It’s how they dominated the apparently-awful ***** week 1. They’ve already forced nine turnovers this season, including five fumbles, and 2 INTs by first-round draft pick Earl Thomas. They’re fifth in the league in run defense behind a line that basically starts three defensive tackles and Chris Clemons at end, and no doubt gives Tatupu plenty of cover to make plays. The Ram offensive line faces a very physical battle on Sunday if they’re to make room for a possibly-gimpy Jackson or one of his understudies. Seattle’s 5 sacks puts them in the lower middle of the league, so the added run-stopping bulk’s slowing down their pass rush a little, but maybe not a lot. The pass D’s got serious issues, though; they’re allowing over 380 yards a game after three weeks. Kyle Orton hit them for 300 yards, and Philip Rivers got them for over 450 today. But Seattle still beat Rivers’ Chargers, thanks to creating five turnovers, and two kickoff return TDs by Leon Washington. Josh Brown had better be banging it deep off the tee this week, every player in blue and gold had better be concentrating on taking care of the ball, and the Rams coaching staff had better prepare to set up the run with the pass. Can Pat Shurmur repeat this week’s strategic success?
Before we make the Seahawks sound unbeatable, we do have to note they’re not, having lost in Denver. That game was all about turnovers, too, Seattle committing four, including three interceptions, and Denver none. The Rams are going to have to pressure Matt Hasselbeck into making mistakes, something they have failed at utterly in the past. They also typically fail to even remotely slow down a usually bottom-of-the-league Seahawk running game. And this is probably not a good week for the Rams to run into backs with excellent outside speed like Washington, Justin Forsett, or, hell, even Julius Jones. Watch the damn screen. This is going to be a long game if the Rams can’t get their outside run defense issues settled. They’d also better cover Hasselbeck’s leading receiver, TE John Carlson, a hell of a lot better than they did last year. Trojan refugee Mike Williams gives Seattle unprecedented size at WR and has shown himself capable of breaking big plays at this level. (Matt Millen certainly wishes he had done so a lot sooner.) The good news is that Seattle’ o-line is still as bad as it’s been for a while. Sean Locklear’s not only one of the NFL’s worst starting tackles, he’s banged up, and Chris Long ought to eat him alive. First-round draft pick Russell Okung has been out with a high ankle sprain. As tempting as this would make a blitz-happy attack, I’d sooner see the Rams get it done with a 4-man rush so they have the resources in coverage to keep Carlson in check and protect the outside running lanes. More like they did today, only better.
And that leads to the key question. Can the Rams repeat their success? That’s the next step in showing the franchise is making progress. Seattle comes here at a perfect time. Their attack has a lot in common with the Redskins. If the Rams repeat what they did today, they can stop the Seahawks on defense, move the ball on them on offense, show they’re making even further progress on the field, and end the most noxious current losing streak in sports. Seattle’s been a boulder on the Rams’ shoulder for a long time that they’ve lacked the strength to lift. They showed today they can lift that weight. Now, just don’t drop it on your toes.