Tuesday, October 18, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

It was all so promising. Despite the myriad adversity that followed the Rams into Monday night’s game against the Colts, St. Louis came out like someone had set fire to their shoes.

Before any of the most blue-clad fans in the RCA Dome realized, the Rams held a 17-0 lead against the NFL’s only undefeated team. For a team that had been notorious for getting off to slow starts and playing from behind, this was the kind of thing that could send them on their way to a season-changing victory on the road.

“I think last night emotionally we came out of that tunnel smoking,” coach Joe Vitt said. “We got real good effort from our players. They practiced last week with the intent to win this game; they went in with great intensity. Early in the game I thought we gained control of the game. It was in our tempo. We played with a lot of passion.”

For those first 18 minutes, the Rams’ passion was evident as they seemed to do everything right. Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild was calling the plays perfectly, with an excellent balance of run and pass.

Running back Steven Jackson was running with toughness and purpose, rolling up yards at will and scoring a touchdown from 21 yards out. Quarterback Marc Bulger had a nice rhythm, hitting all of his receivers in stride, including a perfectly-executed 57-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Curtis.

The defense was also doing its part. Although it wasn’t exactly getting three and outs, the unit was able to force a punt to set up Curtis’ touchdown and come away with a Mike Vanderjagt missed field goal after the Rams took a 10-0 lead.

Even the special teams got involved in the action, as free safety Mike Furrey absolutely punished Dominic Rhodes to recover a fumbled kickoff return and set up Wilkins’ field goal.

“We knew we wanted to get out to a fast start on the road and we came out hot and special teams made a huge play and the defense was playing well,” left tackle Orlando Pace said.

But all of that momentum changed on one play. With the Rams seemingly headed toward another score and an expansion of their 17-0 lead, Bulger dropped back to pass with about 13 minutes to go in the second quarter.

Bulger searched down the field for a receiver in hopes of hitting another big play. But he didn’t see that linebacker Cato June had gotten his depth in the Colts’ Cover 2 defense and Bulger fired it toward Torry Holt.

June intercepted the pass and ran up field with only a few Rams between he and the end zone. Bulger did his best to get in the way or at least force June to the middle of the field where someone more capable could make the tackle.

“Marc’s trying to make a play,” Vitt said. “Marc’s trying to make a tackle.”

But Bulger was the one who ended up being tackled as Colts linebacker David Thornton spotted an opportunity to take a free shot at the quarterback without the threat of penalty.

Thornton blocked Bulger into the ground and rolled on top of him, causing a sprain of the AC joint in Bulger’s right shoulder that put him on the sidelines for the rest of the game.

Soon after Bulger’s exit, everything that had seemed to be going right was now going wrong. And everything that seemed to now be going wrong was, well, everything that possible could.

Most disturbing of the problems was a pair of trends that plagued the Rams for most of last season, namely turnover differential and run defense.

“We talked all week long that we had to protect the football and we did not,” Vitt said. “Anytime you are minus three in the National Football League on the road against a good football team you really diminish your chances of winning the football game.

“We talked about creating turnovers on defense, communicating, getting lined up and playing disciplined as a defense. We did not force turnovers on defense.”

The Rams finished tied last in the league in takeaways in 2004 with 15 and last in the league in turnover differential at minus-24. Things appeared to be better this season after a quick start in getting takeaways and limiting turnovers, but the Rams have reverted to that form in recent weeks.

St. Louis is now 31st in the league in turnover differential at minus-nine, better only than this week’s opponent, New Orleans. The Rams have forced eight turnovers, but given the ball up 17 times with many of those coming in the weeks following the first pair of games.

The turnover problem will always catch up to you when you play against an undefeated team like the Colts at Indianapolis and it certainly did last night. Aside from Furrey’s fumble recovery, the Rams had no other takeaways (though they should have been awarded one on Corey Ivy’s recovery in the second quarter). Meanwhile, Jamie Martin threw a pair of interceptions and Jackson had a fumble in addition to Bulger’s pick.

“We just let it get away from us with too many turnovers,” Jackson said. “When you are playing the number one rated defense, you can’t do that. You can’t shoot yourself in the foot and that’s exactly what we did.”

The takeaways have seemingly stopped in recent weeks after the Rams put up seven in the first three games. It’s no coincidence that the lack of takeaways has coincided with a three-game losing streak that has dropped the Rams to 2-4.

“You have to get more hats on the ball,” Vitt said. “You have to run to the ball, get hats on the ball and strip the ball. They don’t come by accident, they come by design. You have to work on it and practice, which we have been doing. It’s always been my experience that once you get one or get two, they come in bunches and we have to work hard to get the first one. That’s what happened to them last night, they came in bunches.”

Therein lies the other part of the problem, ball security. The Rams play it fast and loose on offense and that has made them susceptible to turnovers. That was fine when the defense was forcing turnovers in bunches itself, but without that cushion, the Rams have to find a way to hang on to the ball.

Many times, ball security is a product of making a simple decision instead of taking a risk.

“We have to protect the football No. 1,” Vitt said. “They are a Tampa 2 cover team and you have to be able hit the checkdowns. They are going to take away the down field throw. When we were hitting the checkdowns we were getting positive gains and moving the chains, getting first downs. The second half we tried to squeeze some balls in down the field when we should have taken the checkdown. Some of those can be disastrous.”

While there is no doubt that turnovers are often disastrous for the offense, it only compounds matters when the defense not only can’t get takeaways, but also can’t stop the opponent’s running game.

The Rams were one of the worst teams in the league last season against the run and added the likes of linebackers Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley to correct the problem.

Those additions seemed to pay off in the early parts of the season as the Rams were able to punish the likes of Kevan Barlow, Chris Brown and Marcel Shipp. After three weeks, St. Louis was third in the league in rushing yards allowed per game at 67.7.

When the stakes went up in week four with a three-game stretch of New York’s Tiki Barber, Seattle’s Shaun Alexander and Indianapolis’ Edgerrin James, the Rams production against the run dropped considerably.

Vitt says that start might have been some smoke in mirrors based on what kind of defensive packages the Rams were able to put in against the first trio of teams.

“What we did is we played good run defense in the first three games, but I think that was a little skewed,” Vitt said. “We were playing a lot of eight-man fronts. We started to get against some good passing attacks like the Giants, like Seattle, we have to come out of those eight man fronts and play some more Cover 2 or more designer coverages. Then you have to defend the run with seven men.”

Usually those seven men aren’t the Rams’ best run stoppers, further complicating matters. The Cover 2 or the quarter package are essentially invitations to run the ball and the defense has to be even more disciplined than usual in order to slow the running game.

That discipline hasn’t been there as there have been more noticeable lapses in gap control resulting in big gains on cutback runs reminiscent of last season. Most of the teams the Rams have played this season haven’t hesitated to attack that quarter package that the Rams run often.

In those situations the offense employs three receivers, forcing the Rams to play with an extra defensive back and just two linebackers. Because of the additional receiving targets, the two linebackers usually are Pisa Tinoisamoa and Brandon Chillar, a duo that is better in coverage than Claiborne and Coakley, but not as stout against the run.

That is one problem Vitt would like to find a solution to.

“We have to,” Vitt said. “You have to keep your best players on the field. People have been attacking us with that package all year long and it started with San Francisco. My only explanation is they probably want to try to keep Claiborne and Coakley off the field. This is something this week that we are going to have to adjust. How are we going to adjust to first and second down sub packages as opposed to third down sub packages?”

Claiborne has to be particularly frustrated by his inability to be on the field and stop the run. Vitt said Claiborne was in on just 12 plays against the Colts, plays that were mostly in the red zone and at the end of the game when Indianapolis was trying to run the ball and run out the clock.

With teams attacking the defense on the ground, the Rams have dropped to 19th in the league against the run, allowing 112.8 yards per game.

Vitt and the Rams staff will probably spend a lot of this week finding a way to get Claiborne and Coakley more involved in those packages. In fact, Coakley was in more than usual in those situations against the Colts and played well.

“There are some teams in the NFL that leave their three linebackers on in three receiver sets and limit their coverage and become real good at them to try to keep the best players on the field,” Vitt said.

While the problems of the past have reared their ugly head once again, the Rams are left searching for answers in the face of extreme adversity. It was bad enough losing coach Mike Martz to an acute bacterial infection, but the loss of Bulger for any period of time could be potentially be devastating.

The outcome of this season will probably depend on how the Rams respond to those many hardships.

“We have to address those bad things in our team meeting this week and how we adjust to adversity and what are we going to do about it,” Vitt said. “Maybe play some more situational football in practice and practice those situations. Because if we can overcome those situations on the road against good football teams you can become a pretty good football team."