RamView, December 23, 2012
From the Couch
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Game #15: Rams 28, Buccaneers 13
In possibly their best effort of the season, the Rams turn Josh Freeman into Santa Claus and dominate the Bucs in Tampa. And they leave behind not a Christmas card, but a calling card to the rest of the league: these Rams are, and will be, a team to be reckoned with.
Position by position:
* QB: Sam Bradford (13-27-196, 81.7 PR) didn't pick the Bucs apart as hoped, but did enough to guide the offense to a win. The Rams started out in a hole after a Danny Amendola fumble and a crazy scrum, but Sam led them out of it with a 3rd-down conversion to Chris Givens, then by standing tall with a blitz coming and hitting Brandon Gibson for 20. The drive went foul, though, after Bradford made a poor decision and a poor throw, firing deep into the end zone for a well-covered Amendola. Poor throw because Bradford threw it inside Amendola instead of outside, giving Danny Gorrer an interception. (Ye gods.) Poor decision because Matthew Mulligan was all alone in the middle of the field inside the 20. Bradford did lead the Rams back to a TD before halftime, even after missing a wide-open Amendola badly on a bootleg. But he stood strong against another blitz, and even while getting hit, drilled a 3rd-and-10 pass to Gibson in a crowd for 13. Two plays later, he fired another 13-yard laser to Lance Kendricks at the 5 to set up the TD. After halftime, Bradford went from laser to lightning. He got the entire Tampa defense to bite on a play-fake to Steven Jackson and hit Kendricks all by his lonesome in the middle of the field for a Buc-breaking 80-yard TD. Bradford's play-action skills helped the Rams turn a turnover into another TD right after that. He got rookie safety Mark Barron biting harder than a bear trap and tossed a 5-yard TD to Austin Pettis to put the Rams up 28-6. Game, set, match. That drive got rolling with a play Bradford doesn't seem to see a lot, but this week, he caught the Bucs trying to cover Amendola with a LB and exploited the mismatch to convert on 3rd-and-2. Sam did well on a hard day to establish an offensive rhythm. In the first half, Tampa had long drives, and the Ram defense set the offense up on short fields or scored themselves. In the second half, after the Kendricks TD, the offense repeatedly got backed up near its goal line and struggled to get out of the blocks. Bradford ultimately prevailed with accurate passing, better protection, hanging really tough in the pocket and getting the ball downfield. He showed more growth throwing for 196 this week than last week throwing for nearly twice that. At QB and as a team, the Rams are moving in the right direction.
* RB: Steven Jackson (19-81) continued his march through the record books, ending this game within 10 yards of his eighth straight 1,000-yard season. Steven was instrumental to the Rams' TD right before halftime. He opened the drive with a 12-yard burst off the left side. On 3rd-10 at the Tampa 32, his blitz pickup gave Bradford justenough time to connect with Gibson inside the 20. Steven polished off the drive himself with a 5-yard TD run. Yeah, there were blockers around him, but like a lot of his career, Steven did most of the work himself. Mason Foster had him wrapped up around the ankles at about the 3, but he fought through that and dived to put the ball on the goal line and the Rams well out front. Used properly, just the threat of Steven Jackson as an offensive weapon is enough to turn a defense inside-out. We saw that on two second-half TD passes where play-fakes had the Tampa defense rushing forward like somebody had just pulled the fire alarm. In Jackson, the Rams have one of those elusive players who makes all his teammates better. He helps the whole offense as a play-action threat, a receiver and a blitz protector. Steven even helps special teams. Buried inside their 5 several times in the 2nd half, Jackson usually powered out enough yards to give the punting team decent operating room. Starting from his own 3 late in the 4th, Jackson went up the middle for 6, left for 19 (his longest run of the game) and right for 7. Daryl Richardson (5-9) and Isaiah Pead (1-0) didn't get the edge blocking they needed this week and have all but faded from the picture as change-of-pace RBs. The Rams need that workhorse RB who can get the tough yards up the middle and carry the team when he has to. They need to keep Steven Jackson in blue and gold another season.
* Receivers: Definitely a day for Lance Kendricks (4-119) to remember. The Rams' first play out of halftime was rather simple, play-action with Lance running a simple route down the middle, but with all the Tampa LBs and safeties biting on the fake handoff, Lance was suddenly all alone behind the secondary for what looked like an obvious TD. Lance is apparently not a sprinter, though; the Bucs started to track him down. Lance is also apparently not a long-distance runner; after about 50 yards, he was moving like he was carrying Warren Sapp on his back. There goes the TD. But, at the last second, enter Danny Amendola, who got enough of a piece of the closest defenders while being smart enough not to get a penalty, keeping Kendricks' jersey clean for an exhausting 80-yard score. Lance was up-and-down as a blocker but also had two key catches on the Rams' TD drive before halftime. Arguably a career game that'll make opponents learn they have to cover the TE. The block had to make Amendola (2-5) feel good, after he got clobbered by Leonard Johnson on the Rams' second offensive play and nearly gave up the ball inside the 5. He and Bradford don't seem to have regained their chemistry since he returned from his foot injury. Chris Givens (3-38) was also pretty quiet. Bradford only took one deep shot to him, though his 11-yard catch set up a 5-yard TD for Austin Pettis, who looks like that red-zone receiver many thought he'd be when the Rams drafted him last year. Then again, that was his only catch. Which beats Brian Quick (0-0), who obviously was due for a letdown after last week's huge 2-catch game. You know, the Eagles just ripped this same secondary for twice the yards the Rams could. The need for an upgrade in free agency looks pretty clear.
* Offensive line: Harvey Dahl has been the Rams' most valuable o-lineman in 2012; after losing him to a season-ending injury last week, the offensive line figured to struggle. But instead, pass protection was close to outstanding, and – a Christmas miracle! - Sam Bradford was not sacked, for the first time in 30 games. He had more plays with time to throw than we've seen all year. The line handled the Bucs' d-line speed well, picked up blitzes well and allowed only a handful of hits. Shelley Smith and Chris Williams both saw time at RG. Williams was in the last 2:00 of the first half, while the Rams would obviously be passing. The middle line run-blocking didn't appear to suffer without Dahl, either. One of their biggest plays wasn't a block, it was Robert Turner falling on top of Amendola's loose fumble inside the 5. Tampa could have had a 10-point lead before the Rams had run three plays. Turner and Kendricks popped a hole open for Jackson's 12-yard run to kick off the 2nd TD drive, and Bradford had great time in the pocket throughout the drive. Jackson had successful runs in the 4th to every part of the field. Scott Wells got him a hole up the middle for 6. Kendricks and Rodger Saffold executed a beautiful “X”-block to spring open an easy 19. Great downblocking, and Matthew Mulligan holding a fierce edge, freed him for 7behind RT. Imagine how dominant the Rams would have been if they'd ever blocked Lavonte David. The rookie LB was terrific, though, beating Turner and Kendricks on run blitzes to stuff Jackson and beating Wells to turn a screen to Jackson into a big loss. Blocking on the edge didn't go well. Saffold got beaten by Leonard Johnson on a blitz to get D-Rich stuffed near the goal line in the 3rd. Saffold fouled up a pitch play to D-Rich at the end of the 3rd by getting steamrolled five yards off the line by football immortal Daniel Te'o-Nesheim. 90 yards against the NFL's best run defense isn't half-bad, though, and with pass protection as dominant as we've had for three years around here, Paul Boudreau likely had some game balls to pass out for Christmas presents.
* Defensive line: Little surprise the Rams' best game of the season coincided with their best game up front on defense. Doug Martin ran hard and was very tough to bring down, but the Rams held him to a respectable 62 yards. Robert Quinn stuffed him on the opening possession, and Kendall Langford blew up the backfield that same drive to drop Martin for a big loss. The Bucs still put together an excellent nine-and-a-half minute drive, but Chris Long made them settle for a FG with a clutch red zone sack, blasting overmatched Demar Dotson back with a strong punch and running by him. Long and Quinn pressured Josh Freeman into a drive-ending dumpoff on 3rd down, and the theme for the day was established. The next drive, the Rams wouldn't bite on play-action anywhere near as hard as the Bucs would, and Long ran Freeman into Langford for another sack. He and Quinn then blew up a screen to force a 3rd-and-long that Janoris Jenkins turned into a TD. The Bucs capitalized on Ram penalties to draw within 7-6, but Quintin Mikell slowed that drive down with a blitz sack. Jo-Lonn Dunbar blitzed later on 3rd-and-3 and drilled Freeman as he threw a pass that Rocky McIntosh broke up. James Laurinaitis showed up on Freeman's Christmas list before halftime, dropping back into coverage and picking off an ill-advised pass Freeman tried to force into a crowd of 4 Rams around Vincent Jackson. That set the Rams up for a TD and a 14-6 halftime lead. The Rams quickly doubled up after halftime. Another blitz, another poor Freeman pass, another interception to set up another TD. Tampa would score once more, but never really get close, thanks to the defense's 4th-down heroics. Tampa got inside the 5 late in the 3rd, but Dunbar and McIntosh blitzed on 3rd-and-1 to force a throwaway. Freeman tried to rush to a sneak play on 4th-and-1, but Michael Brockers submarined the middle of the Buc line, and Laurinaitis met the big QB head-up for a big stuff. With the Rams playing a lot of prevent and Long consistently getting double-teamed after halftime, the rush died down for a while. But they still refused to let Tampa score from the 7 in the 4th, defending 3 end zone passes before jumping all over a 4th-and-goal dumpoff to Martin. Brockers took care of the next drive with a Rams rarity, getting his hands up to tip a pass at the line. Good things happen when you get your hands up, like this ball going straight up in the air and into Eugene Sims' hands for the Rams' FOURTH INT. William Hayes then put on another of his late-game shows, sacking Freeman off a double-stunt on 4th-and-5, and opening the final drive with the Rams' fifth sack, bullrushing his man into the QB. Dunbar broke up a pass to Dallas Clark to send the Rams into victory formation. As usual, I haven't really done a terrific defensive effort justice. Long was an animal in the first half; he spent as much time in the backfield as Freeman and Martin. By forcing Tampa to double-team him, he freed things up for blitzes and for the RDEs. Brockers and Langford came up big in the middle. All the LBs played well in coverage and came up with big plays when the D needed them. This is the kind of defense that can carry a team.
* Secondary: This week was also one of the better games by a Rams secondary in a while. The Rams were reeling a little in the 1st after Bradford's INT, but the D stepped up. Excellent coverage downfield got Freeman to try to force a back-shoulder sideline pass to Mike Williams, but when he slipped, Janoris Jenkins gladly pounced and cashed in a 35-yard pick-six, his FOURTH such play this season. At the risk of a major jinx, if Jenkins isn't the best defensive rookie of 2012, he's certainly the best rookie DB, and the Rams deserve full credit for taking the chance on him. He hasn't had any of the blatant screwups he had in the first half of the season; notably, since the week Jeff Fisher suspended him for missing curfew. He looks like he can blanket anyone man-to-man. A bright on-field future is right there as long as Jenkins stays smart off the field. The LBs chipped in before halftime, with McIntosh breaking up a pass and Laurinaitis picking Freeman off to end Buc drives. Soft coverage didn't prevent Trumaine Johnson from making plays in the 2nd half. He scored the 3rd Rams INT with a veteran-quality play, jumping a slant route for Mike Williams. TruJo later defended an end zone pass to Williams perfectly, and looks really to be coming on. They did give up a couple of big plays. They lost Vincent Jackson deep in the zone for 46 in the 4th. The worst play came in the 3rd. Williams ran a drag behind zone coverage, stopped and re-started, Dunbar didn't shift with him, and he took off with a little dumpoff for a 61-yard TD. Little surprise the turd in the punch bowl wore #43 again this week, as Craig Dahl's moronic whiff at Williams around the 20-yard line a) sealed the TD and b) was little surprise. But the rest of the big plays, and the sheer number of times Freeman had to sit in the pocket struggling to find an open receiver, attest to one of the Rams secondary's best games this season.
* Special teams: Excellent bounceback week for Johnny Hekker after some recent duds. Take out a pretty good pooch kick in the 4th and he averaged over 50 yards a punt. Kid was clutch, too, blasting three 50-plus-yards from deep in his own end in the 2nd half, including a 57-yard bomb from his goal line with Tampa bringing all 11 men at him. Punt coverage was every bit as good, with Darian Stewart and Bradley Fletcher making excellent stops on Roscoe Parrish. (Rodney McLeod gave the unit its only black mark with a 15-yard penalty for failing to get back in bounds.) Greg Zuerlein boomed his kickoffs deep to de-weaponize Parrish further. By the end of the game it looked like he'd given up on trying to return anything. Nice win for the Rams in all three phases of the game this week.
* Strategery: It's always a test of a team's coaching when they take the field at the end of the season with little chance of making the playoffs. Jeff Fisher passed that test this week with flying colors. You could not watch Steven Jackson breaking tackles, Chris Long playing like his hair was on fire, special teams coverage gobbling everything up, Bradford hanging tough in the pocket, Amendola throwing blocks 50 yards downfield, and think any Rams player was planning to coast into the New Year. Fisher has rarely failed to have his team up for a game this season. Admittedly, that was expected of him, but to his credit, he's delivered. I'll even sing the praises of soft pass coverage. Though it looks like it's tipping off blitzes, that's what got TruJo the INT in the 3rd, as the Rams blitzed and he anticipated Freeman throwing the hot route. Soft coverage will actually become a weapon as the Rams' young DBs improve. And though the Rams held a big lead the whole 2nd half, they still did some blitzing and didn't rely solely on prevent. The one call I do not get came early in the game. On 3rd-and-7, the Rams did not blitz AND had every DB 7 yards off the line of scrimmage. Easy completion to Vincent Jackson for 18. That scheme seemed stupid and pointless. The best defensive call of the year, otoh, came late in the game, a double stunt that got Long and Quinn to Freeman and flushed him to Hayes for the Rams' 4th sack. One of the prettiest defensive plays you'll see.
Brian Schottenheimer had a very solid gameplan. The Bucs invite a lot of passing, but the Rams remained balanced, and then killed the Bucs with play-action, which led directly to two of their TDs. The Rams really do need a lot of work on their screen game, though. They get way too fancy with some of them; the defense is already on top of Bradford by the time he makes a half-dozen play fakes. Just let him throw it. And they sure are bad at rollout dumpoff passes when it's a play they seemed to practice 200 million times in training camp. But Schottenheimer learned from last week and left Jackson in more for blitz pickup. He got Bradford solid protection and took advantage of Tampa's aggressiveness. Solid strategy and nice work.
* Upon further review: Scott Green's crew's supposedly one of the best the NFL has; I'll be inclined to think a lot more highly of them as soon as they figure out what a false start is. Chris Long “jumped offside” in the 3rd reacting to Freeman flinching in the shotgun like Robin Williams after his third pot of coffee. Green astutely called Long “offside” again in the 4th after Chris reacted to Dotson clearly lifting out of his stance early, and pointed that out. The crew also ignored Amendola getting blatantly held on a 3rd-down play in the 4th, and right after Long's 2nd “offside”, they ignored Dotson blatantly holding him. All that, and calling 9 Rams penalties to ONE Tampa penalty only serves to convince folks like me that home-field officiating only applies when the Rams are the road team. Right after that, though, Long got really lucky not to be called for roughing Freeman, driving him into the ground hard and well after he'd released a 3rd-down pass from the Rams 24. Hayes' first sack then returned the ball to St. Louis. Peace on earth, and goodwill even to NFL referees? OK, I guess so. C-minus
* Cheers:You know who probably liked this week's broadcast? Josh Freeman, because Mike Martz spent so much of the game feeling sorry for him and worrying about his fragility. Coach, he's 6'6”, 240; I drive under highway overpasses more fragile than Freeman on my way to work. Also, too bad we all had to wait for Martz to get into the broadcast booth to start worrying about protecting the QB, huh. I like that Martz keeps viewers clued in on the coverage matchups downfield (and offscreen); then again, I also like that he referred to Tampa's rookie MLB as “David Lavonte”. (Show prep!) While Martz tried to prop Freeman up, Ron Pitts weirdly kept propping Martz up with “Good observation” comments. Is this a football game, or a self-esteem seminar? And maybe I missed it whooping and hollering, but did Martz or Pitts even mention the play-action on the Kendricks or Pettis TDs? C'mon, guys, that's Color Analyst 101. The good news should be that the Rams will be good enough next year to draw Fox's #2 or #3 team more often than #6 or #7.
* Who’s next?: The good news: the Rams go into the final game of the season with a shot to finish above
.500 and undefeated in the division, and they're coming off their best game of the season. The bad news: their final opponent, the Seattle Seahawks, are the hottest team in the NFL, and we're talking the melting point of tungsten here. They've won their last three games by a combined score of 150 to 30, including a 42-13 national TV whipping of the *****. Seattle's chance of winning the NFC West doesn't look all too good because they will need the ***** to lose to the Big Dead, but they're 7-0* at home this season, CenturyLink Soccer Park is the toughest venue in the league for road teams, and the Rams have rarely come close there, let alone win, since they last did in the 2004 playoffs.
Besides a home crowd we'd all have to admit is the best in the league, Seattle's got a big home field advantage in rookie QB Russell Wilson, and the lucky horseshoe up his butt. At home this year, the kid has 16 TDs vs. only 2 INTs, and a passer rating close to 120. And I don't know how he does it. Wilson gets away with more jump ball moonballs, for big plays, than anybody I can remember. Defenses would do well to keep the 5'10” Wilson in the pocket and make him throw over the big paws of big d-linemen. However, NBC's side-by-side footage of Wilson and Fran TarkENton was eerily appropriate Sunday night, and the Rams didn't stop Wilson from scrambling at all in the first meeting. Let's hope they do no worse with Wilson than they did with Colin Kaepernick. Wilson has been deadly with run option plays. I know, is this the NFL or the NCAA, but he ran for 3 TDs against a Buffalo D that was clueless about needing to play contain against him. Wilson's scrambling ability forces defenses to play more zone coverage, otherwise the whole back of the defense turns their backs to him and away he goes. Doug Baldwin was Wilson's favorite receiver Sunday night, and the Rams have always had trouble with him, but Wilson's biggest help is obviously Marshawn Lynch, the best RB in the league not named Adrian. Defenses have to play to stop Lynch first. The Rams have slowed down a lot of power backs this year, and it has to help to practice against Steven Jackson every day. But Lynch is the toughest middle runner in the league and one of the very best after contact. Overpursuing him frees Wilson up for that deadly run option. If Paul Boudreau isn't NFL o-line coach of the year, then it's probably woman-beating Tom Cable, who has gotten excellent play out of kind of a no-name line. It has certainly helped Seattle to have Russell Okung healthy for once. Seattle pretty well overpowered the Rams in St. Louis, and look for them to run Lynch behind Okung and at Robert Quinn. They're definitely a team that attacks your weakest link. The ***** were hurt a lot Sunday night by not having Justin Smith. The Rams will be helped by having a more-seasoned Brockers to jam things up in front of Wilson and Lynch. The Rams will have to have one more slugout left in them for that to be enough.
With about six million drunken decibels coming their way, I trust the Rams will work this week on silent counts and NOT false starting, though I'd set the over/under at 4.5. The Rams protected Bradford well in the first game, allowing only two sacks and not letting DEs Chris Clemons or Bruce Irvin do much of anything. Clemons is a very quick and disruptive player who the Rams have to look out for every play. Seattle is a very good stunting team so I'd expect Shelley Smith to see a lot of that. The Rams had a big problem establishing any run game the first time. Brandon Mebane beat Robert Turner with regularity and they didn't block rookie sensation Bobby Wagner any more often than they did Lavonte David this week. That is a recipe for major failure if Bradford is forced into repeated predictable passing downs. But modern medicine may give the Rams some assistance; specifically, the ADHD drug Adderall, which has gotten starting Seahawk CB Brandon Browner suspended and could also take Pro Bowl CB Richard Sherman out of the lineup if his appeal fails. (And that hearing was held here in St. Louis. C'mon, home court!) That could let Bradford work on rookie Jeremy Lane and the bottom of Seattle's depth chart with quick passes to set up the run. The inexperience back there should give the Rams play-action and double-move options as well. Seattle consistently stacked 8 in the box to stop Frank Gore but may have to do that less to Jackson to protect their secondary. Seattle's a tough team playing great football, but there are ways to crack the code. It will be interesting to see the Rams' approach after they pulled out all the stops to win the first meeting.
There's potential for a lot of bad blood here. The Rams want a winning record and an undefeated NFC West record. Seattle wants the NFC West title, or at least momentum into the playoffs. Jeff Fisher really outclassed Pete Carroll in the first game, and no way Carroll's forgotten it. Seattle winning the coin toss, deferring, and kicking onside is not out of the question. I'd like to see the Rams treat this as their playoff game for 2012. It's a game that could prepare them for even more meaningful games in December 2013 and even January 2014. Rams, Seahawks, fans – buckle up tight. It's going to be a bumpy night.
Game stats from espn.com