Time to find answers about Rams

Sunday, November 28, 2010

DENVER Not a week goes by when we don't gather some new and revealing clue about Steve Spagnuolo's Rams. Like gathering valuable bits of string, we're starting to string together the important hints of what this team is made of. We've learned that despite their many apparent shortcomings, the Rams are determined to make this a surprisingly entertaining football season. We've learned that after years of producing so much abysmal garbage, at last this revamped franchise seems to be heading in the right direction.

Yet here we are 10 games deep into this up-and-down season, and the most important thing we can say we've discovered about the 4-6 Rams is that we still have far more questions than answers.

They've been good enough to tease us with their potential, bad enough to frustrate us with their mistakes and confusing enough to make it difficult to recognize their proper status on the NFL's pecking order. "Are they on the upper level of mediocre teams or are they on the lower end of being a good team?" Rams radio analyst DeMarco Farr said earlier this week.

Doesn't that sum up the Rams perfectly so far?

We've clearly recognized the progress that has been made, but now that the progress has come a bit quicker than any of us expected, the expectations for this season are being adjusted on the fly. Spagnuolo's visible anger after last week's very competitive, but frustrating loss to Super Bowl contender Atlanta put an added emphasis on the nebulous nature of these Rams and just how high he is raising the bar inside the locker room.

What I saw last week was the Rams were just good enough and just flawed enough to lose to one of the best teams in the NFL. What Spagnuolo saw was something entirely different. He saw a team that should be beyond giving away games like that no matter how stiff the competition.

What I've seen so far is a young team and coaching staff that is still stumbling around a bit too much, still searching for whatever that final missing ingredient is that will push them over the hump in tight games on the road and tough games at home against the likes of a championship contender like the Falcons.

What Spags sees is a team that ought to be beyond this. So pay very close attention Sunday to see whether or not the Rams are ready to start proving Spagnuolo's hunches are correct, as the Rams face a very vulnerable Denver Broncos team (3-7) at Invesco Field.

The Broncos are the right opponent at the perfect time for the Rams because they are struggling mightily to figure out what they are too. A year ago in Josh McDaniels' rookie year as a head coach, the Broncos got off to an electric start (6-0), but have since lost 15 of their last 20 games. If the Rams are looking for the perfect team to rid them of their road woes, the Broncos are that team.

Denver has lost five of its last six games and seven of its last 10 home games dating back to last season. Over the last six games, Denver's defense has been particularly gawdawful in its feeble attempts to stop the run. Four different opposing running backs gained over 100 yards on the ground in those games (Ray Rice, Darren McFadden, Frank Gore and Mike Tolbert) and the Baltimore Ravens piled up a staggering 233 yards and three TDs rushing. In all five loses, the Broncos surrendered 10 rushing TDs.

And that brings me back to the original question. What kind of team are the the Rams?

Are they a team reliant on the young arm of rookie quarterback Sam Bradford or the strong legs of veteran Pro Bowl tailback Steven Jackson? Can they rediscover that perfect balance of run and pass that seems to have been lost in recent weeks against a team that seems so completely vulnerable to a strong running attack?

Lately Spagnuolo has not particularly liked the questions about the diminished role of the run in the offensive play calling. Last Sunday he was a bit prickly about it and as the week went on, while he had less of an edge to his voice, the message nonetheless was the same.

"Yeah. I think you always want to try to (give Jackson his carries)," Spagnuolo said on Friday. "(But) sometimes the game dictates differently, the defense dictates differently. But Steven's got to have the ball in his hands."

Here in Denver, the Broncos are not likely to be surprised by a Jackson-focused offensive attack. Broncos defensive coordinator Don Martindale has made it quite clear to his defense that Job One this Sunday is to make sure that Jackson does not do them in. "That's a big man, that's a big man," Martindale said. "I told the defense you can relate him to a semi coming downhill with no brakes."

Jackson may have 811 rushing yards, but he hasn't had a 100-yard rushing game in three weeks. But when you're facing a Broncos defense that is allowing an average of 143 yards a game, it would make sense to find a creative way to get Jackson his carries.

I don't know if there is a magic number of touches Jackson needs, but 11 (last week's number of carries) surely can't be a formula for success for any Rams offensive game plan. Don't take my word for it. Listen to what Champ Bailey, the Broncos future Hall of Fame cornerback said about the prospect of a steady diet of Steven Jackson.

"I definitely don't want to see him come my way," Bailey told Denver reporters a few days ago. "If I have to get him, I'll get him. But it's not one of those things you have good dreams about."