RamView, September 26, 2004
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)
Game 3: Saints 28, Rams 25 (OT)
Mistake-filled play and coaching cast long shadows of doubt on the Rams' season after they turn a win over the Saints into an overtime loss.
Bright spots: The overshadowed Isaac Bruce has got to be the league's best WR so far this year.
Position by position:
* QB: When Marc Bulger bolted across the goal line with 28 seconds left on a 19-yard scramble where he looked like somebody'd dropped a firecracker down his pants, it looked like he had done it all today. He'd had a huge day statistically, 32-49 for 358. He marched the Rams smartly to a TD on their opening possession, almost all passing, topped off with a 32-yard toss to Torry Holt. He opened the second quarter with a promising drive that dropped passes by Marshall Faulk and Dane Looker defused into a FG. He hung tough in the pocket all day even though he got clocked five times for sacks. He brought the Rams from behind twice. The Rams went up 17-16 on the strength of Marc's arm, including a key third-down red zone completion to Isaac Bruce, and a 3-yard TD run by Faulk. That lead didn't last, so down 22-17 now, it was up to Bulger to rally the Rams again in the 4th. It took three tries, thanks to a sack on one drive and an awful pass for an open Bruce on the next, but Bulger made it his time with 1:48 left. He hit Looker for 11 on 3rd-and-10, and hit Bruce sharply for 18 on a 3rd-and-5. With 0:36 left, on 3rd-and-4 from the Saint 19, Bulger takes off with the pocket collapsing and nobody open and zips through a Saint secondary caught flatfooted for a TD. The kind of TD a team leader scores to top off the kind of drive and clutch play a team leader engineers. Too bad the Ram defense didn't follow Marc's example today. Did Marc make mistakes? Oh, yes. He tosses a lot of balls up there without the intended receiver even being close to open. And Marc can do a better job avoiding sacks, especially by running when it's there, like the TD run. He tried to take off under pressure in the first but committed a critical error in the red zone, fumbling after running into Orlando Pace. The Rams were up 7-0 and marching toward another score, and that is a key moment of the game. But Bulger's work, (and he shouldered the whole load today - the Rams passed ¾ of the time) still had his team up a FG with less than half a minute to play. That's an effort that should have been rewarded with a win.
* RB: Little going on in the running game again. The Rams ran just 15 times for 79 yards. Marshall Faulk had 90 total yards, with only 44 rushing on 12 attempts. He scored a 3-yard TD on a delayed inside handoff that Bulger sold beautifully with a fake, and hit a 9-yard run early, using his classic spin move about halfway through, but Marshall has just had trouble finding room to roam the last two weeks. The long runs were Bulger's scramble and a good 13-yard run by Steven Jackson off an inside handoff. Thought he was going to see the ball more often than twice a game, btw. Joey Goodspeed worked hard for a 13-yard catch in the 2nd to extend the Rams' first FG drive. But the running game, part from the inability to get Faulk going and part from Mike Martz's tendency to forget about it, continues to be a bane of the Ram offense.
* WR: Isaac Bruce's eye-popping season continued with his third straight 100-yard game: 8-134 today, with one clutch catch after another, like the 10-yarder on 3rd down from the Saint 13 to set up Faulk's TD run. With about 1:00 left, Ike snagged a Bulger pass on 3rd-and-5 and wheeled right away from a DB who had closed right on it, gaining 18 and setting up Bulger's TD run. Torry Holt (6-65) is just impossible to cover at times. He fooled a double-team on his 32-yard TD catch; neither defender had a clue where he was going. Dane Looker (5-69) made a clutch third-down sideline pass during the last TD drive. Shaun McDonald and Kevin Curtis each had catches, and youthful mistakes. McDonald somehow failed to keep his feet in bounds on a wide open bomb during the last TD drive, and Curtis ran out of first down yardage after an early catch.
* Offensive line: Mike Martz didn't even try to establish the run today, so there's little value in critiquing run blocking. One key problem was penalties, again, which stalled a couple of drives, including the drive in OT. These guys commit far too many false starts for a veteran offensive line. Another key problem was Grant Williams' complete inability to stop DE Charles Grant, who had three sacks and would have had four if not for a penalty. Orlando Pace looked solid, so I'm almost off his case. Chris Dishman left the game with an injured knee, but Scott Tercero filled in pretty ably. Bulger was sacked five times, but when they could control Grant, Bulger usually had a good pocket to work from. The offensive line appears to have bounced back some from last week's fiasco; we'll see what happens if they're ever asked to run-block again.
* Defensive line/LB: Bend-but-don't-break worked for a while, but the Ram "defense" eventually snapped like a dry twig and never recovered. They started with huge 4th-down stops on each of the Saints' first two drives. Ryan Pickett and Leonard Little stuffed a run to stop the first one, and Damione Lewis' pressure on Aaron Brooks forced a hasty throw out of bounds on the second one. But the Rams put very little pressure on Brooks, and the Saints crossed into Ram territory at will. The dam broke when Aaron Stecker broke off a draw play for a 42-yard TD to tie the game at 10. The Rams acted like they had never seen a draw before. There wasn't just a gap in the middle of the line; it was the whole middle of the field. The only guy around was Aeneas Williams, who got collapsed by a block, allowing Stecker to bolt past flatfooted safeties Rich Coady and Kwamie Lassiter, yet ANOTHER Big Dead safety reject brought here by the legendary Marmie pipeline. Bryce Fisher's stupid offsides penalty on 3rd-and-2 kept the next Saint drive alive for a FG to put them up 13-10. More and more, the Rams look like they really miss Grant Wistrom. Fisher hasn't been a credible threat to get teams to take their focus off of Little, who has only one sack in three games this year, and that one today was a gift. Tommy Polley had the other sack (also a gift) and made a couple of stiff run stops. There weren't near enough run stops, though, as Stecker, who hadn’t yet had a 50-yard game in his career, tore off 18 times for 106 yards. And there was certainly not enough pressure on Brooks. After the Rams had a 4th-quarter stop taken away by a special teams penalty, Brooks just played pitch-and-catch with his receivers to put the Saints up 22-17. Brooks rolled up 318 yards thanks largely to lack of pressure. Only ONCE all day could the Rams keep New Orleans on their side of the field. But the Rams retook the lead 25-22 late in the quarter, and now the defense just had to hold the Saints for TWENTY-EIGHT SECONDS; surely they could do that, couldn't they? Nope, no pressure on Brooks again, two completions for 38 yards, tying FG. At that point, you knew if the Rams lost the coin toss, or had to punt in OT, the game would be over, which is exactly what happened after the Rams' first OT drive stalled. Three more completions under absolutely no pressure, then the Rams get fooled by misdirection AGAIN on a Brooks naked bootleg to set up N.O.'s game-winning FG. Same old story. Defensive line gets blown away in the running game and gets little-to-no pressure on the QB. LBs (especially Brandon Chillar) not where they're supposed to be on cutbacks or reverses. The guys in the secondary who aren't flatfooted can't tackle. What a damn disaster.
* Secondary: Early in the 4th, it looked like Aeneas Williams had picked off Brooks in the end zone to preserve a 17-16 lead, but not only couldn't he finish off the catch, the ball bounced into Joe Horn's hands for a TD. Rich Coady made a nice play to deflect a pass away from Horn later in the 4th, which prevented them from extending their 22-17 lead and marked the only time all day the Saints didn't cross midfield. Playing very soft coverages, the secondary didn't stop much of anything the rest of the day, though. Combined with the weak pass rush, Brooks had open receivers all day long. It doesn't get much softer than the 2nd-and-19 from the Saint 8 in the 2nd quarter, when they allowed Donte Stallworth to muscle through them for 21 en route to a FG. Weak, just like their tackling. Coady is a weak tackler much more likely to get towed by a RB than take him down. Jerametrius Butler tackles like Dre Bly. All ricochet, no wrapup. I honestly don't know how much to blame the secondary for today's poor defense given the total lack of pass rush. But it sure looks like soft schemes have cost this whole defense its edge and its killer instinct.
* Special teams: Even with the miserable defense, the Rams still would have won this game if not for the special teams, which put on a worthless performance from the coaching staff on down, highlighted by the PIG IGNORANT squib kick call in the final minute after the Rams had taken a 25-22 lead. How many times have I called the squib kick the most idiotic play in sports? Well, Mike Stock or Mike Martz, IT STILL IS! The previous two kickoffs were into the end zone and not returned past the 20. This IDIOTIC squib kick is returned out past the 40, BY A DEFENSIVE LINEMAN. The ONLY time a squib kick ought to be used is the VERY LAST play of a half, and I even hate it then. Kick the damn thing in the end zone there, which they should have Wilkins doing every time anyway, and the Saints would not have had enough time left to get into FG range. Idiotic coaching turned a win into a loss. It doesn't stop there. The Rams punted DIRECTLY TO Michael Lewis, a very dangerous returner, ALL DAY LONG. They didn’t even make him move around! Lewis averaged 13.2 yards a return. I did the trig work and figured out the simple maneuver of kicking the ball out of bounds costs you seven net yards. So why not do that? If you can't find anyone who can coach your coverage teams to get the job done, if you're unwilling to devote the personnel or practice time to your coverage teams, why not take them out of the picture? Kick it out of bounds! Of course, even that doesn't prevent boneheaded play like Tony Hargrove's running-into-the-punter penalty, which turned a defensive 4th-quarter stop into a Saint TD drive. Sure, Mitch Berger took a dive on that play that might even have drawn a penalty in the NHL, but what the hell is Hargrove doing within 20 feet of him? Why are the Rams even trying to block this kick instead of set up a straight return, when they have the lead? Why hasn't Hargrove been coached well enough to avoid the punter completely there? (Remember, he didn't play any football last year, so it’s been up to the Rams' staff to "coach him up.") Rams Nation, today I ask for your vote for special teams coach (before) this November. You know the current administration's record. Under my watch, kickoffs will be into the end zone, punts will be out of bounds, we will avoid stupid roughing penalties because NO ONE will go after the punter when the team has the lead, and Justin Lucas (killed two kick returns with penalties) will be gone. Vote for me for special teams coach, and they will improve! Thank you for your support, and I approve this message.
* Coaching/discipline: I didn't complain about Mike Martz abandoning the run last week, because he at least tried. This week, though, I have big complaints. Martz didn't even try to establish the run today - my count is a ridiculous 55 pass plays vs. just 14 called runs - even though the Saints came in with an even worse run defense than the Rams. Today really has me wondering what many people suspect - if he just insists on winning games his way and doesn't care what the opponent's weaknesses are, or what's going on in the game right in front of him. Sure didn't work today, Mike. Something else that doesn't work: having everybody run 40-yard patterns on 3rd-and-7. A good percentage of the "coverage sacks" the Rams give up appear to come from Martz sending everybody deep and not even leaving Bulger a dumpoff receiver. One of the sacks Bulger took was just a lousy play call; Martz has him rolling right, and the only receiver I noted on that side of the field was Cam Cleeland, who was blanketed in the end zone. That smelled of trying to force a play to Cleeland to get under Jim Haslett's skin. Penalties – a hallmark of bad coaching – were ridiculous today. Try 12-for-85, vs. 5-for-25 by the Saints. There's no excuse for this. In many ways, the Rams are playing like they're still in training camp.
But Martz's biggest blunder this year was not looking outside his buddy list to replace Lovie Smith, because Larry Marmie has turned a stud of a defense into a gelding, especially in the turnover department. Lovie's legacy, and Dick Vermeil's before that, of forcing turnovers and winning the turnover battle looks completely lost with this staff, as the Ram defense and special teams STILL have not created a turnover this season. They haven't even forced a fumble! The aggression is completely gone out of this defense. The secondary lays back and waits for somebody to complete a pass in front of them. The front seven doesn't pursue anywhere near as well as it used to and is rendered helpless by misdirection every time it's tried. Marmie's blitzes are marginally effective at best, and the numbers show he doesn't blitz that much. There have been maybe two good hits by Ram defenders this season. A passive scheme, by a passive coach, with passive players who can't tackle. Marmie said in the offseason he wasn't going to change much about Lovie's defense. Well, except for ruining it, I guess he hasn't.
* Upon further review: In the form of Bill Vinovich and company, the Rams and Saints got one of the league's worst crews today, and it showed. The lack of holding and interference calls in the secondary was brutal, especially as the Rams played catchup in the 4th. Bruce and Looker got mugged during the last TD drive without calls. There was also a horrible spot on that drive after Looker had gotten a key first down by a yard. The spot put him short a yard. The MVP of the crew was the replay official, who had the good sense to challenge that call. And sure, Hargrove shouldn't have been even close to the punter, but the penalty on him was cheesy, and game-turning. Berger took a dive, and a crappy referee fell for it. Lousy work.
* Cheers: The Dome crowd didn't distinguish itself today. Too many Rams fans have yet to move past the days of The Greatest Show on Earth. They basically booed the team off the field at halftime for the sin of trailing 13-10. Thirty minutes left, folks. Dome fans cemented their status as faithless frontrunners by emptying the stadium about half out by the time Bulger had begun to engineer the late drive to retake the lead. Rams players should have turned around and booed the fans for that. Today slipped Rams fans well down the NFL's best fans list. I understand frustration with continued weak defense, lousy special teams and weird play calling. Hell, I even booed the long punt return and the stupid damn squib kick in the 4th. But you can't boo the offense just because they had the gall to come off the field without a TD. There's a time to boo, but the home crowd has really begun to overreact.
I gained respect for Joe Horn today. He crashed into a stadium usher behind the end zone during warm-ups (even though he did his best to avoid him), and spent several minutes with the man afterward, apologizing and making sure he was ok. Then he caught 7 balls for 91 yards and a TD despite limping noticeably with a bad knee (I think) from last week's game. Gutty performance. If Horn has decided to let his play speak for him instead of his mouth or his cell phone, he'll elevate himself a lot in people's eyes.
* Game balls: 1 – Aaron Brooks; 2 – Bulger; 3 – Ike and Horn have to split one.
* Who’s next?: 49er Week is here once again. The Whiners lost 34-0 in Seattle today, the first time the franchise has been shut out in 27 years. Why do I have the feeling that won't repeat next week? They made Kevan Barlow the center of their offense when they gutted the roster in the offseason, so expect a lot of him on Sunday night. He has a chance to dominate the game, given the Ram defense's complete disdain toward stopping the run. Go back and look at last year's 30-10 debacle by the Bay, and you'll see a game very much like today's. No pass rush, little run defense. True, Leonard Little was out that day, but he sure hasn't been a difference-maker this year. And no, Terrell Owens is no longer a Whiner, but they didn't really need him to decimate the Rams last year. Not that Ken Dorsey has an arm that can stretch defenses, but the defense still has to put pressure on him. The game really hinges, though, on whether or not the Ram defense can gather some testicular fortitude and stop the run. Yes? Win. No? Loss.
Isaac Bruce and Marshall Faulk have had big games against San Francisco in the past, and that'll be needed again Sunday, especially from Faulk. Bulger threw for 378 in Candlestick last year, but that was nowhere near enough, as he got his brains blitzed out, got sacked five times, and got no rushing help. Faulk was hurt for that game, and the Rams need him big-time not just Sunday, but the rest of this season, because they have proven they can't win if they can't run. Unfortunately, the Whiner run defense is good and will likely get Martz to bail on the run and re-create the losing conditions of last year's game and the losses of the last two weeks. Bulger and the Rams receivers have the Whiner secondary very much outmatched, and Holt had 200 yards against them in last year's loss. But if the Rams can't establish the running game as a credible alternative, that edge won't be enough to win, unless they can find some magic for stopping Julian Peterson. They didn't find any last year, as the Pro Bowler ran amok on a day when the Ram offensive line was porous. That can't happen again. Your keys, then: run-stopping (which they haven't done); blocking, blocking, blocking (which has been inconsistent at best); get a handle on Peterson (lotsa luck); and reincarnate the running game (Faulk or Jackson would count here).
This game is an absolute must-win for the Rams, and is the make-or-break game of the season. They are not going to beat a rested-up Seahawk team in Seattle in two weeks (thanks for that, by the way, NFL!). If they lose this game, they're 1-3, (looking at 1-4) and the division race is over, along with the easiest part of their schedule. Martz hasn't had this team ready out of training camp; they have to be ready now, or training camp was a waste of time anyway (which I guess would make Orlando Pace right). The chips are down, fellas. Show us what you've got.
Game stats from nfl.com