Rams concerned about hits on Bradford

Friday, September 30, 2011

Three games into his second NFL season, Sam Bradford has been equal parts quarterback and piñata. He's on pace to be sacked 59 times, which would be a Rams record. That's a recipe for disaster, not to mention the injury list.

Bradford was sacked a career-high five times Sunday against Baltimore, and hit several other times. So it was not surprising that coach Steve Spagnuolo was blunt, almost biting off his words, when asked at the start of the week about his team's pass protection.

Is he concerned about the number of hits Bradford has been taking?

"Yeah, very concerned," Spagnuolo said. "That's a focus."

Does he expect the pass protection to get better?

"That would be my expectation," Spagnuolo said.

However, this might not be the optimum week to shore up that area — not with the Washington Redskins coming to town. For starters, Washington has a young but talented tandem of pass-rushing outside linebackers in third-year pro Brian Orakpo and rookie Ryan Kerrigan. For the most part Kerrigan will line up over right tackle Jason Smith, with Orakpo over left tackle Rodger Saffold.

"Kerrigan's more of like a power guy," Saffold said. "He doesn't have Orakpo's speed. But Orakpo's very athletic. He can beat you a few different ways. His outside speed rush is pretty good. He really likes to attack the outside arm and get around the edge, and it worked a few times against Dallas."

Washington's front is just one thing to contend with because Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett — the former Rams coordinator and interim head coach — has an affinity for blitzing.

"Some games yes; some games no," Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "I know when they decide to come with everybody, it's a lot of 'everybodies.' The other night you saw I think at the end of the Dallas game, it looked like a punt rush. They had everybody at the line of scrimmage and they brought them all. We've got to do a good job of handling pressure on Sunday."

In two of three games this year, Rams protection has been well below acceptable. Against Philadelphia, between Bradford and A.J. Feeley, Rams QBs were sacked five times, hit nine other times, and hurried on a couple of other occasions. The pass blocking was much improved in Week 2 against the New York Giants. Sure, Bradford was hit on several other occasions against the Giants, but was sacked only twice on 51 called pass plays. But then came the Baltimore beat down.

Several factors are at play in dissecting what's gone wrong with the pass-blocking:

• It's not just the offensive line. Tight end Billy Bajema has had some pass-blocking snafus, with missed blocks contributing to at least two sacks. Running back Cadillac Williams has had some hiccups with blitz pickup.

"Pass protection is everybody," Spagnuolo said. "And throw the receivers in there, too. Anybody that understands football knows that in those situations it's not always just the o-line. It's not always just one guy. It's usually a number of things, so we're trying to get them all ironed out and play better football in that regard."

• Playing from behind. In 180 minutes of clock time in three games, the Rams have led for a meager 6 minutes 28 seconds. And when you get down big and are forced to pass more often, the sacks can come in droves. They were down 24-10 with 5:41 to play in the third quarter against Philadelphia; three of the Eagles' five sacks came from that point on.

Against the Giants, they trailed 21-6 at halftime, and both sacks came in the second half. Against Baltimore, the Rams trailed 21-0 after one quarter, and four of Baltimore's five sacks came after that point.

• A new offense. Last season, in Pat Shurmur's West Coast scheme, there were a lot of three-step drops and quick short passes. Under the McDaniels scheme, there is more of an emphasis on deeper throws. Deeper throws take longer to develop, which in turn requires blockers to maintain their blocks longer. And if the receivers can't get separation in 1-on-1 coverage, Bradford is left holding the ball.

The Rams have had a few "empty" backfields under McDaniels, but it's not like they're coming out in four-wide receiver sets and just flinging it with few people staying in to block. In the Philadelphia game, for example, by unofficial count the Rams used only one four-wide receiver set. They used two tight end-sets on 37 plays, and that's not including eight short-yardage or goal-line area sets in which they used some combination of two or three tight ends and/or a fullback.

• Bradford's play. His toughness isn't a question. But his pocket presence needs to improve, whether that means checking down to a back or tight end when the deep stuff isn't there. Or sensing pressure and getting the ball out, even it means throwing the ball away to avoid a sack or interception.

"I've got to do a better job of finding those check-downs and getting the ball out of my hand," Bradford said.

But at the end of the day, it begins and ends with the offensive line, and it's clear that unit has to play better. Tackles Saffold and Smith have had some rough moments, with Smith benched during the fourth quarter against Baltimore. Bradford refuses to play the blame game with the o-line.

"I'm not sure if I would single those guys out as a group," Bradford said. "I expect more out of myself. I expect more out of our wide receivers. I expect more out of everyone. I think if you look at our production on offense, it's definitely been way lower than what it should be. So I think it's on all of us to elevate our levels of play and get this offense rolling."