RamView, September 8, 2013
From Row HH
(Report and opinions on and from the game.)
Game #1: Rams 27, Arizona 24
The Rams pull a 27-24 win out of the fire against last year's NFC West bottom-feeders, but a softer-than-expected defensive performance makes it feel less like a victory than having dodged a bullet.
Position by position:
* QB: Hearing the Rams called Sam Bradford’s team now all offseason leads you to believe that if they’re to win, Sam has to be the one carrying them. But Bradford committed some critical mistakes and fell back into some familiar patterns. His emphasis was on getting the ball out quickly with Arizona blitzing every play. He didn’t work the ball downfield a lot and settled for some checkdowns with deeper receivers open. The prime example for me is an early 3rd-and-19 where he dumped off to Daryl Richardson with Tavon Austin all alone on the Rams logo at midfield. Throw that to Tavon in stride and it’s a first down. Bradford continues to have maddening issues getting passes tipped. The defense gifts Bradford the ball at the 4-yard line in the 3rd, and his first throw of an ugly 3-and-out gets swatted down by Lorenzo Alexander. Even worse at the Rams’ own goal line later in the quarter, Bradford threw a stupid off-balance pass into Matt Shaughnessy’s hands, with the tip going to defensive tackle Dan Williams for a disgusting two-yard pick-six. You’re six-foot-four! Throw it over the line! Bradford also botched a QB sneak in the 3rd to force a punt and help stake Arizona to a 24-13 lead. He nearly lost the game while backed up on his goal line again in the 4th. Indecisive about scrambling even almost getting sacked on 3rd-and-3, he took off, saw he couldn’t get the first down and chucked an unbelievably dumb lateral barely in Richardson’s general vicinity. D-Rich saved the game by diving on that mistake. Bradford played efficiently enough (27-38-299, 2 TD, 100.7 PR) to account for those errors. Quick, accurate throwing was critical to the success of a lot of plays, including the first TD pass to Jared Cook. Bradford usually showed good sense on the move. He kept the Rams’ first TD drive alive by bouncing outside to avoid a 3rd-and-6 blitz and hit Chris Givens. He scrambled in on a draw for 2 points to get the Rams within 24-21. Bradford didn’t quite take the game over in the 4th, but he came close. On that TD drive, he hit Cook on a cross for 36, then fired a low, well-placed bullet that only Austin could get to inside the 20, then rolled away from a blitz and hit hot read Brian Quick, who surged all the way down to the 1. Given a 24-24 game with 2:00 left, Bradford grabbed the wheel and steered the Rams to victory. He hard-counted the safety offside, then hit Cook for 26 on a pretty throw and catch. He got the Rams into winning FG range with a swing pass to Richardson while the pocket collapsed on him. Cook and Robert Quinn may have carried the Rams in this game more than Bradford did, but say this for the Rams’ QB: he shouldered a lot of the load, and he’s the one 50 teammates and 50,000 fans were looking to down 24-13 and again with the ball and a chance to win at the end of the game. And he delivered.
* RB: Daryl Richardson (20-63 rush, 5-33 recv) did almost all this week's running, almost all of it up the middle. Zac Stacy (1-4) only got in when D-Rich got his foot re-taped. Richardson had some nice runs, and there’s plenty to like about his play. He had an early 10-yarder off a drive block by Chris Williams, and a 9-yarder up the gut in the 3rd behind Scott Wells and Harvey Dahl. He showed he could keep the chains moving on short yardage with some grinding runs. The “intangibles” to D-Rich’s game were as valuable as his running. He did well in blitz pickup. His ball security was re-assuring after his fumbling problems of last year. He sold the play-action beautifully on Bradford’s short TD pass to Cook in the 4th. Richardson even saved the Rams’ bacon in the 4th by falling on a Bradford gaffe near the goal line. Something else to really like was that D-Rich had maybe only one run all day that went for a loss. That helped keep the Rams out of as many bad down-and-distance situations as they’ve gotten into in recent seasons. Richardson so far looks like a pretty well-rounded back making a positive contribution. So far, so good.
* Receivers: A strong performance by Jared Cook (7-141, 2 TD) held up despite one very depressing play in the 1st. Wide open down the middle behind a LB and on the verge of putting the Rams on top with a 47-yard TD, he let freaking Honey Badger catch him from behind and pop the ball loose for a fumble and touchback. As big a letdown as that play was, Cook atoned for it, bringing the Rams exactly what they hoped for when they signed him. Close to halftime, he beat a safety on a crossing route for a 13-yard TD, diving across the plane from the 4. He was wide open on another crossing route late in the 3rd and took that for 36, setting up his 2nd TD, a perfect play-action job from the 1. Cook also got the Rams’ game-winning FG drive going with a beautiful pick of a thigh-high pass, running with it for 26. That’s five big plays for Cook in one game, a season’s worth for most Rams tight ends of the St. Louis era. Cook really carried the Ram receiving corps. He’d take people downfield and get Lance Kendricks (3-25) open underneath. Tavon Austin’s (6-41) got the wheel-away move down, and his numbers leave out a 40-some yard DPI he got off Honey Badger, but he’s really getting keyed on so far and isn’t really getting the ball in a lot of space. Chris Givens (2-27) was mostly shut down by Patrick Peterson but made an excellent play to come back to a scrambling Bradford in the 2nd for a sideline catch to keep the first TD drive alive. Brian Quick's (1-16) lone catch was big; he took a dumpoff at the Arizona 18 and barreled through their back seven down inside the 1, nearly twisting in for the score. With Cook opening things up, Rams receivers should only get stronger.
* Offensive line: Solid but not spectacular worked, well, solidly for the offensive line. Bradford wasn’t sacked, and usually had time to throw. (Granted, by design, throws were usually quick.) The closest to a sack came on Bradford’s wacky lateral in the 4th, having to scramble after Chris Williams lost John Abraham on a stunt. The middle of the Ram line was very, well, solid, though. Williams did some nice drive blocking and had the key block on Bradford’s two-point run. Harvey Dahl was probably the lineman of the week. He and Scott Wells created some nice interior lanes for Richardson, and Dahl’s pass protection was critical to the Rams’ TD drive in the 4th, as he got Bradford enough time to find Cook on a crossing route for 36. Tackle play didn’t look as solid. Jake Long and Rodger Saffold killed the Rams’ opening drive with penalties. Long got knocked off his pins by Calais Campbell and had to hold; Saffold false-started. Saffold also gave up too many pressures on his side that forced Bradford to run. Long gives up a lot of ground in pass protection for a guy advertised as a perennial Pro Bowler. Both tackles were also dinged up during the game. Long got rolled up on before halftime but didn’t miss a play thanks to a timeout. He had a critical rush pickup on Cook’s first TD. Through player and coaching changes, the Rams are protecting Bradford better than any time in his career to date. That can only be a good thing.
* Defensive line: With the Rams wearing commemorative Deacon Jones emblems on their helmets this season, Robert Quinn did the late #75 proud by playing like the G.O.A.T. and keeping the rest of his linemates from looking like just goats. Quinn stopped Arizona's opening drive almost single-handedly, burning Levi Brown for a sack and strip of Carson Palmer, and ripping under and past Brown a few plays later for his second sack to end the drive. Add two tackles-for-loss by William Hayes, the 2nd one out in the flat with the Rams blitzing, saving a big play, and it looked like another day of the Rams dominating Arizona in the trenches. Quinn, though, was about the only Ram to supply any pass rush. It made for a frustrating day of watching Carson Palmer (26-40-327) playing pitch-and-catch and the Rams letting Arizona off the hook on 3rd downs (7-for-14), or deep in their own territory. In the 2nd, they let Arizona score a FG out of a drive they started at their 8. Before halftime, they let Arizona drive from their 20 into FG range in just 26 seconds. Luckily, Jay Feely missed from 50. The Rams got late pressure on Palmer when they blitzed, but that was the best they could do outside of Quinn. Kendall Langford got little push, and Chris Long seems to get off to a slow start every year. He wasn't a rush factor for a long time and got pinned inside on 9- and 10- yard Rashard Mendenhall runs. Long and Eugene Sims did each knock down a pass. Their coaches didn't help much by rushing only three at times or deploying wide splits that left the ends out in the parking lot. Long and Langford weren't even getting anywhere with Quinn drawing double-teams. Maybe they were saving the best for last. Quinn came up big again in the 4th, whipping Brown and collecting his THIRD sack and second forced fumble, this one recovered by Long to set up a tying FG. With three minutes to play, Langford finally made a play, tripping Mendenhall for a big loss. On 3rd down, good pressure from all four linemen rushed Palmer into missing Andre Ellington behind the secondary. In the final minute, Long beat RT Eric Winston for one of the few times all day and helped get Hayes free for a sack that bled out the rest of the clock. Using the 4-DE attack, the defensive line's performance in the clutch was a big positive. The big negative, though, was the lack of pass rush outside of Quinn.
* LB: James Laurinaitis didn't lead the Rams in tackles, and wasn’t really conspicuous, but the Rams did a good job against the Arizona running game; 86 yards on only 3.3 ypc. Rashard Mendenhall’s long run, for 11, came when Laurinaitis overpursued and got caught up inside. Alec Ogletree played the run well as far as being in the right place, but I’d sure like to see him finish tackles better. Arizona’s nondescript TE corps had a couple of early catches, but Ogletree didn’t seem far out of position. Will Witherspoon put a big hit on Alfonso Smith to stop a run cold in the 4th. The big play came with 5:30 to go, when Laurinaitis made a clutch deflection to prevent a long middle pass to Fitzgerald. Ogletree made a dive for the ricochet but just missed coming up with it. Keeping Arizona out of FG range that late in the game was still big.
* Secondary: The highest-paid player on the team didn’t earn his keep this week. Cortland Finnegan was burned twice for TDs, had two stupid penalties, tackled poorly and his best play all day was on a 20-yard throw, but that was him throwing Mendenhall’s shoe after a play. Finnegan gave up one big play after another. He let Michael Floyd post him up inside the 5 for a 44-yard jump ball that set up the first Arizona TD. Janoris Jenkins is the Rams’ best cover corner, and it isn’t even close, but he didn’t help Finnegan much by giving up the first TD to Godzilla Fitzgerald (8-80, 2 TD) on the same end zone fade Carson Palmer had tried to hit him with the previous play. WEEAK! When Finnegan kept a drive alive later in the 2nd with a stupid late hit, Jenkins did bail him out by breaking up a slant for Fitzgerald at the goal line to force a FG. Jenkins actually looked capable of defending Fitzgerald tight man-to-man; the coaches just never let him. Much preferable to leave your guys backed 7 yards off receivers on 3rd-and-2 and give up free first downs. In the 3rd, Finnegan got turned around like a rec-league flag-football player on a 3rd-and-1 quick out to Fitzgerald, and since looking like a fool during the play wasn’t bad enough, he also threw Fitzgerald down well out of bounds to give Arizona another 15. Later in the 3rd, Alfonso Smith ran over him for a 1st down. Later, after Jenkins had just broken up an end zone pass to Floyd, Fitzgerald beat Finnegan clean from the snap for a 24-yard TD. In his man cave somewhere, Justin King must have had a good laugh. Trumaine Johnson outperformed Finnegan, with a swiped-down screen pass and an interception he returned inside the 5 to set up (only) a FG in the 3rd. A rare victory for soft zone coverage there, as Palmer threw thinking Fitzgerald was breaking off a route, but only hit TruJo in his drop. I don’t know that the Rams’ youth at safety contributed to Finnegan’s woeful day. He was getting beaten on blitz plays where he wouldn’t have had help anyway. Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald delivered solid hits in run support. McLeod had a tackle for loss, and – get this, Cortland – covered Fitzgerald tightly on a 3rd-down drag route in the 3rd and brought him down short of the marker to force a rare 3-and-out. The safeties looked like young players still reaching their peaks. Finnegan looked like he peaked during training camp pie fights.
* Special teams: Excellent games by both Rams kickers were key to the win. Greg Zuerlein was a flawless 4-for-4, hitting from 36, 25, 38 and from 48 to win the game. He also consistently pinned Javier Arenas in the corner of the end zone on kickoffs to negate him as a return factor. Johnny Hekker averaged 49 yards a punt and saved his best kick for last. Punting from his own goal line late in the game, he blasted a high 55-yarder that Patrick Peterson could only return a yard before Ray Ray Armstrong flattened him. Everything was spot on about that clutch kick. Hekker got excellent hang time, didn't outkick coverage, and McLeod and others held their lanes perfectly to keep the dangerous Peterson contained. Daren Bates and Matt Giordano made good plays on kickoff coverage, with Giordano forcing a fumble on a return in the 4th. Benny Cunningham was decisive and secure with the ball on kick returns and should, no, better, keep the job over Isaiah Pead. Tavon Austin made a key play on a punt with 2:00 left, putting a block on the Honey Badger that prevented Arizona from downing the punt inside the 5. Little plays like that made all the difference at the end of the game. Give special teams a game ball.
* Strategery: Coaching likes: There should be a whole segment on NFL Network’s Playbook show this week on how well Brian Schottenheimer used Jared Cook. Crosses, deep routes, quick screens, lined up wide, in the slot, at tight end, Cook was everywhere. A quick out to Austin with 1:10 left to play was a perfect call against the blitz. Loved the end-around to Austin right after Quinn’s sack/turnover in the 4th, but Arizona was all over it. And they cutely set up a bomb for Austin in the 2nd, with Bradford play-faking out of pistol formation, then spinning and throwing deep. And, of course, the best play in football, play-action pass to the tight end near the goal line, which the Rams pulled off and sold as well as you’re ever going to see. Soft zone coverage actually worked on TruJo’s near-pick-six. Zone blitzing actually worked in the 4th, forcing Palmer to unload too quickly. And the Rams’ 4-DE rush line is still a sight to behold.
Coaching dislikes: FOUR personal fouls, all by veterans, among the Rams’ 7 penalties. Poor play-calling sequence by Schottenheimer after TruJo’s INT. Two overloaded formations Arizona covered easily and a delay handoff smack into a blitz. (The overload plays may have set up Cook’s play-action TD later, though.) Bradford's botched sneak was a questionable call anyway, with it being a lot closer to 3rd-and-2 than 3rd-and-1. The Rams settled for a FG in the 4th after countering an all-out blitz with a 2-yard screen to Pettis with Austin as his lead blocker. How about doing that the other way around? They worked to get the ball to Austin – he had one less catch than Cook – but never seemed to set up anything for him with much space to work with. And why can we see so many plays coming from the stands the Rams can’t? Fades to Fitzgerald. Out routes to Fitzgerald. Middle blitzes they run Richardson right into. And it’s a wonder this defense ever stops a third down, with its coaches’ devotion bordering on insanity for lining the corners 8 yards off the ball on short-yardage downs. And now these wider than wide alignments that put the ends practically out in the slot a mile from the QB. Is that the “Z” gap?
* Upon further review: Didn’t see much off with Clete Blakeman and crew. Quick’s almost-TD was a tough spot they got right. The spot on Bradford’s blown sneak wasn’t generous, but I doubt Sam made it, either. The call on Peterson for flinching to induce Givens to false start was exactly correct and gets missed way too often. The crowd got maddest at the refs for a non-call, when Pettis was slung down a mile out of bounds at the start of the Rams’ game-winning drive without a penalty, after Finnegan got a deserved flag for doing the same thing earlier. Good thing the Rams didn’t need the extra 15. Grade: A-minus
* Cheers: Fortunately the game proved worth the effort of getting there. Traffic delayed us half an hour, followed by terrible backups getting through security. Probably my anxiety talking, but most of the screeners were about as fast as Mountain Man, and they also had problems with batteries running out in their handheld scanners. Attendance was enough for a TV sellout, and probably hit the mid-50s, not bad with the Cardinals and Pirates playing for first place down the street. Crowd noise wasn’t historic, but I happily had to abandon the headphones pretty early. Cook’s fumble and the defense’s struggles killed the crowd for a while. And the home team got booed pretty hard for failing to cash in on turnovers and for not going for it on 4th-and-inches after Bradford’s botched sneak. Expectations here are definitely raised.
* Who’s next?: The NFL didn’t make the Rams wait long to reunite with their all-time leading rusher, Steven Jackson, as they travel to Atlanta next to face the Falcons, who were an NFC-best 13-3 last year. The complexion of this series has really turned; the Rams beat Atlanta seven straight times in the Greatest Show years, but have lost four of the last five and haven't won in the Georgia Dome since 2001.
The Rams are also 0-2 vs. Atlanta QB Matt Ryan, and beating him is getting harder and harder. Ryan essentially has three 1,000-yard receivers he can look to. Julio Jones is so fast and so big and strong you almost wish he were illegal. He has the occasional drop but is deadly effective at all three levels, almost indefensible at digs, crosses and quick slants. He’s one of the more effective WRs in the league after the catch and very capable of burning a defense deep. If Ryan gets into trouble, he's usually stepping up and looking over the middle for Hall-of-Fame TE Tony Gonzalez, one of the all-time clutch receivers. Roddy White was described as basically immobile week 1, playing with a high ankle sprain; that could expose Atlanta's poor receiving depth. But the Rams still have to deal with Jackson, who must feel like he's just stepped off a crowded elevator. Atlanta's 6th-ranked passing offense opens the field wide for him. No more constant 9- and 10-man boxes. Room to run that should at least allow him to keep defenses honest by setting up tons of play-action and grind them down to protect leads at the end of games. But watching the Falcons last year and in this preseason, Jackson's indistinguishable from Michael Turner except for the dreadlocks. Jackson's obviously a powerful and secure ball-carrier but just isn't a game-breaker. And the Falcons simply can't keep Jacquizz Rogers off the field. He's the ultimate change-of-pace back, small, fast and more slippery than a lamprey in a tub of baby oil. And while Jackson is one of the best around at blitz pick-up, reviewing about 4 games' worth of Atlanta footage, little Rogers is pretty brilliant at it himself. And the Falcons will mainly run this prolific, balanced offense in no-huddle, which the Rams haven't had a clue against for years, most recently in Denver last month. Fisher and Tim Walton are going to have to pick their spots adeptly. Fake blitzes could lure OC Dirk Koetter into calling more screens than he usually would. He screens pretty relentlessly when he thinks he's being blitzed. The Falcons have vulnerable points on their offensive line that can be attacked. Untested second-year RT Lamar Holmes is a major downgrade from Tyson Clabo. They have had trouble with stunts on that side and it's a matchup Chris Long and Will Hayes ought to win. LG Justin Blalock can be outquicked or overpowered and whiffs and ends up on the ground a lot. The Rams need to make him prove he can pick up a middle blitz, and it's the kind of matchup the Rams signed Kendall Langford to win. Time to show up.
The Rams are used to facing defenses with great safeties. Both of Atlanta's, Thomas DeCoud and William Moore, were Pro Bowlers last year. They and CB Assante Samuel combined for 15 of Atlanta's 20 interceptions. The Falcons were among the league leaders in INTs and passer rating against, led it by allowing just 14 passing TDs, and their secondary may still be underrated. Bradford will probably have to lean pretty heavily on Cook, who's probably the best option against an excellent red zone defense. And in the playoffs, Atlanta made Zach Miller and Vernon Davis look like superduperstars. It’s possible Bradford could pick on rookie corners Desmond Trufant or especially Robert Alford, who you’re definitely throwing at if he’s on the field. Again, they’re going to have to do a good job of picking their spots. Sean Weatherspoon’s an excellent sideline-to-sideline defender ; the LB to pick on is Steven Nicholas, a major pass-coverage liability. In the middle of the line, Jonathan Babineaux has been a league leader in tackles for loss, but with the middle of the Rams’ line off to a good start, they can go at Peria Jerry. In Atlanta’s preseason game at Tennessee, the Titans got a big hole any time they pulled the left guard and pinned overpursuing LDE Kroy Biermann with a tight end. That’s a play Lance Kendricks was born to run. Atlanta didn’t get to the QB much for a 13-3 team, just 29 times, and they let John Abraham go to Arizona in favor of the hope that Osi Umenyiora returns to his 2010 form, but he was reportedly invisible against the Saints week one, and will have to go up against Jake Long now. Bradford may have a harder time finding options downfield, but he should get time to do it, and that’s an edge the Rams have many ways to work with.
The Rams showed progress winning on the road last season, going 3-1-1 after an 0-3 road start. When Atlanta’s good, the Georgia Dome is one of the toughest places in the league to play. The Falcons don’t look like a team that has many holes and should be a solid favorite even at 0-1. But every team has its weaknesses, and with solid game plans on both sides of the ball, this isn’t an unwinnable game for the Rams. And there’s a lot more pressure on the Falcons to win this one than there is on the Rams. Jeff Fisher and the coaching staff can pull off the upset here if they’ll just get the sloppiness that’s been in the team’s play since the start of training camp cleaned up. Or they can let that same sloppiness get them beat.
Game stats and photos from espn.com