RamView, September 15, 2013
From the Couch
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Game #2: Falcons 31, Rams 24
The Rams repeat a too-familiar pattern, digging themselves a hole with a frustrating, mistake-filled start much too bad for a decent 2nd-half rally to overcome. Put the shovels away, guys…
Position by position:
* QB: For Sam Bradford, the first half was the worst of times (12-21-124, INT, PR 54.5), the second was the best of times (20-34-228, 3 TD). Bradford did little besides dump off in the first half. That looked at least half by design. Brian Schottenheimer's intent appeared to be to run people deep to open things up underneath. You'd have to ask him. But it appeared to be half Bradford's choice, too. There was a play where he looked for Daryl Richardson three times before hitting him up the sideline for 18. Bradford got very good protection from his line again this week, and hasn't been sacked for four straight games now, but if anybody got close, that ball was coming out quick in the first half. Besides the insta-checkdowns all first half, Bradford had three passes knocked down at the line. He started the game throwing a 60-mph screen pass Lance Kendricks couldn't handle and D-Rich muffed another to Osi Umenyiora for a back-breaking 68-yard pick-six that gave Atlanta a 21-0 lead early in the 2nd. That just heaped on the frustration of the lack of downfield passing game. Bradford got it going later in the 2nd with a 47-yard bomb to Chris Givens, but that only set up a FG because a later pass to Givens wasn't very good. Throw that toward the pylon and Givens runs under it for a TD. The offense stalled until the Rams went no-huddle late in the 3rd and Bradford tried more to extend a play instead of instantly aborting it. He rolled right to hit Austin for the Rams' first TD, and scrambled for 23 to set up another to Austin Pettis, beating an all-out blitz. Bradford led the Rams to a TD for a third straight drive, finishing with a low sidearm fastball to Tavon Austin at the goal line. If not for one defensive lull in the 2nd half, that would have topped off another stirring late comeback for Bradford. But if not for the offense's struggles in the 1st half, the Rams wouldn't have needed it. Bradford's got the skill and leadership for the Ram offense to be more in sync than it was this week.
* RB: Falling behind 21-0 early sure doesn't help, but the running game was not a big part of the Ram offense this week, and Daryl Richardson contributed only 35 yards on only 10 carries, with a long of 10 on a cutback run in the 2nd. He wasn't much more effective as a receiver (5-45). He and Bradford were never really in tune on screen passes. They had a blitz beaten on the Rams' first play but the hang time on Bradford's pass allowed somebody called JOPLO BARTU to close and drop D-Rich for a loss. They had something going on a screen early in the 2nd but D-Rich hesitated and got only 4 out of another potentially big play. Benny Cunningham (2-0) then couldn't convert a 3rd-and-2, leaving D-Rich to barely convert 4th-and-inches. The next play, Richardson muffed another screen pass that bounced to Umenyiora, who sprinted 68 yards for Atlanta's third TD. That certainly re-opens questions about D-Rich as a receiver. He again carried almost the full running load. Isaiah Pead (1-1) returned from suspension but was limited to a couple of catches (2-18) in garbage time. Zac Stacy was inactive. The Rams' running game by committee so far this year, then, hasn't really been by committee at all, and hasn't been much of a running game at all, either.
* Receivers: Wow, was that ever a rapid trip for Jared Cook (1-10), from Pro Bowl to the side of milk cartons in just a week. Where did Cook go? At times he was a decoy to open up the Rams' vaunted dumpoff game. But other times, William Moore and apparent future Hall-of-Fame LB JOPLO BARTU had little trouble covering him one-on-one. Bradford threw one away in the 2nd where Cook couldn't even beat KROY BIERMANN deep. Wasn't Cook this inconsistent week-to-week in Tennessee? Look out next week, I hope. Attention to Cook and absence of running game helped Rams WRs have productive games. Chris Givens (5-105) set up the Rams' first score with a 47-yard bomb and took advantage of soft coverage in the 2nd half for nice gains on drag routes. Austin Pettis played like a big Danny Amendola, with a surprising number of catches (8-78). Lots of quick stuff, but several clutch plays: 2 catches on the first TD drive, a nice 18-yard play in the 4th where he broke a tackle and kicked off another TD drive, which saw him score on 3rd-and-goal with a dive into the end zone from the open right flat. Tavon Austin (6-47) dropped a couple but made up for it with two diving TD catches, a very nice sideline tightrope job at the pylon in the 3rd and a scoop on a low bullet at the goal line late in the game. The end-around still is not working, and there were times where the 4.38 Austin ran in February did nothing to get him downfield separation, but he'll evolve into a reliable target if he'll quit the drops. The numbers look good, but have to be tempered with the knowledge that Bradford struggled to find anybody open downfield in the 1st half. Givens has been shut down all season, Austin still has plenty of rookie moments and Pettis, for his lack of speed, continues to keep Brian Quick (1-15) and Stedman Bailey riding pine. The key to a consistent 60-minute effort is going to be better play from and better usage of Cook. Many more weeks like this one aren't going to cut it.
* Offensive line: Pass protection took a little bit to settle in, but Bradford hasn't been sacked for four games now and usually had time to throw. A stunt on Jake Long’s side pressured a 3rd down checkdown on the opening drive, and Long and Rodger Saffold were beaten to end the next drive with a throwaway. Kroy Biermann beat Saffold there but neither he nor Osi Umenyiora were big pass rush factors otherwise. Long came across and sealed off the right side of the pocket to let Bradford hit D-Rich for 18 in the 1st, and completely stuffed the end when Bradford hit Givens for 47 in the 2nd. Saffold was also strong there but had to leave the game later after taking a shot to his left knee. Replacement Joseph Barksdale started rough, having too much trouble with someone named Jonathan Massaquoi, but settled down after halftime. Protection should still grade out well, not that the passing game always took advantage. Bradford threw a pass away on 1st-and-10 at the ATL 16 in the 1st despite getting an absolute wall from Long and Chris Williams. Peria Jerry made a late crawl at Bradford’s feet, but with everyone else stonewalled, Bradford could have kept that play alive. Rams settled for a FG there. The line had some moments run-blocking. With a pocket collapsing in the 4th, Dahl got his man turned to give Bradford a lane for his 23-yard scramble. Long and Williams got D-Rich a nice hole for 8 in the 2nd, and Barksdale sealed off a blitz and got D-Rich a 10-yard cutback lane in the 2nd. The 2nd half did not start well. Dahl was beaten by apparent Pro Bowler Massaquoi to get D-Rich stuffed, then Williams whiffed on a blitzer and forced Bradford to unload quickly on 3rd-and-5. But most of the 2nd half, Bradford used the time it seemed he was getting already in the 1st half to extend plays, and the quick-tempo offense thrived. There are things to clean up, but the Rams are getting the kind of protection needed for a successful passing game.
* Defensive line: This game might have turned on a bad offsides call at the very start. Chris Long started by driving Lamar Holmes well up the line to meet old teammate Steven Jackson in the backfield for a loss, and a 3rd-down incomplete seemed to give the Rams early momentum, but Long got flagged instead for properly reacting to movement by Holmes, and the refereeing turnover sparked a TD drive. The 4-man rush got more pressure on Matt Ryan’s quick-passing attack than on Carson Palmer’s last week, but didn’t often disrupt Ryan (33-43-374), who had 237 passing yards by halftime, which led to the coaches calling a lot of blitzes that didn’t work. Robert Quinn was a step from a sack that might have shut down the first TD drive in the red zone. The Rams’ 4-DE rush, which really needs a cool nickname, collapsed the pocket on Ryan to shut down the next drive. The Falcons couldn't protect their big lead on the ground. Michael Brockers blew up the backfield to help shut down a 2nd-quarter drive. They held Atlanta to a FG before halftime, with Eugene Sims stuffing Jacquizz Rogers and Will Hayes batting down a pass. The D really turned it on after halftime. Long strung out a run to get Alec Ogletree a big tackle for loss. Quinn, helped by awesome bull rush by Long, dropped Ryan for the 3-and-out and his 4th sack of the season. Quinn stuffed Rogers to stall the Falcons’ next drive, and the Rams continued the 3rd-quarter blackout when Sims beat Justin Blalock from the inside on the 4-DE charge for the Rams’ 2nd sack. The offense finally started coming back after that sack, making it 24-10, then 24-17 after the defense ended the 3rd by blitzing Ryan into uncalled intentional grounding at the goal line. In the 4th, though, Atlanta unleashed big banger Jason Snelling and a myriad of quick screens on an 80-yard, expertly-blocked, game-clinching TD drive that left the Rams reeling. Snelling ran it in from 11 after Tony Gonzalez handled Long, Brockers got completely manhandled, and Kendall Langford overran the play by a mile. All that left linemen free to pick off the Ram LBs. The Rams’ last gasp didn’t go well, either. Quinn almost got to Ryan on 2nd down at the 2:00 warning, but not quite, and on 3rd-and-1, a blitz left Snelling all alone in the flat to send out the call for victory formation. The Rams got close on defense to turning this game around a few times. Close, but no victory cigar.
* LB: Alec Ogletree rallied after a tough start to lead the Rams with 8 tackles. Though his coverage wasn’t bad, Tony Gonzalez (just 4-33) beat him for 11 on a 2nd-chance 3rd-and-7 Atlanta never should have gotten on their opening drive, and a TD drive followed. Ogletree got caught looking into the backfield and broke late on a dumpoff to fullback Bradie Ewing (injured on the tackle) for 14. He didn’t play a screen to Jacquizz Rogers well that went for 16 down to the 14, then Steven Jackson (injured prior to the tackle) ran through him at the goal line to put the Falcons on top. In Alec’s defense, that is no easy solo tackle. Alec was effective at the line of scrimmage with a couple of run stuffs, dropping Rogers for a 4-yard loss to help shut Atlanta down in the 3rd. Will Witherspoon had several good plays in coverage, including a stuff of Rogers on a screen in the 4th. Jason Freaking Snelling turned out to be the back the Rams couldn’t account for, and at the worst time, in the 4th with the Rams down a TD. He started the Falcons’ clinching TD drive with a 11-yard play-action pass with Witherspoon missing a tackle, and finished it with a 11-yard draw with Ogletree and James Laurinaitis getting erased by linemen. Laurinaitis looked good in pass coverage, but the Rams blitzed him a ton without him ever making it into the backfield. Atlanta clinched the game on 3rd-and-1 after Laurinaitis bit on play action and lost Snelling in the flat, giving up 20 yards. The LBs were steady, but it looks more and more like Ogletree’s the only big-play source of the group.
* Secondary: Play the old “take one play away” game, and Janoris Jenkins held his own against Julio Jones (10-101). He broke up a couple of sideline passes and tackled Jones short of the marker on a crossing route before halftime to get the Rams a 3-and-out. Unfortunately, Jenkins also gave up an 81-yard TD to Jones, lifting his numbers to 11-182. Rodney McLeod reportedly made the wrong play and was never in position to help, but Jenkins chomped like a sharknado on a double move by Jones that simply wasn’t very good. McLeod closed excellently to hold Jones to short gains a couple of other times, and blanketed Harry Douglas to start that 3-and-out before halftime, but with the Rams desperately needing the ball back at the end of the game, Jones got him with a stop-and-go move and took down a 17-yard jump ball on 3rd-and-3. Though not a complete spaz this week, Cortland Finnegan still gave up 20 to Douglas on 3rd-and-8 of the opening TD drive by guessing Douglas' break wrong. He was out of position too often on screens, did little as a blitzer, and he and McLeod got run over by Snelling for the coup de grace TD in the 4th. The Rams need much better play from Finnegan. So far this season they’re writing him checks his game can’t cash.
* Special teams: Special teams specialized in penalties, repeatedly putting the offense in terrible field position. Holding on the first Atlanta kickoff, Rams start at the 8. Stedman Bailey illegal block on a punt return, Rams start at the 11. Bailey again, holding on a punt return, Rams start at the 13. Ray Ray Armstrong holding on a punt return, Rams start at the 5. The Ram return game has been a letdown even without the penalties. Austin was usually inundated, and when he had room, he'd waste it by immediately jumping backwards after fielding the punt or trying to make six moves on people in the first yard. Cunningham kept the kick return job over Pead and bungled his only return, hesitating deep in his own end zone and only making the 15. Return teams continue to consistently set a bad tone for the Ram offense.
* Strategery: Things are supposed to be different for the Ram offense under Brian Schottenheimer this season, but another trademark slow start this week raises early questions of his ability to maximize the Rams' talent. The Rams have their best offensive line in a decade, and Atlanta played two rookie corners this week, including one the Titans abused repeatedly in preseason, yet the Rams waited most of the first half to even attempt to stretch the field. And by the looks of things, play-calling drove the Rams to Checkdown City more than Sam Bradford did. I saw enough receivers running downfield routes without really looking for the ball, or Bradford really looking for them, to tell me Schottenheimer was putting out a lot of decoys, and the dumpoffs went into areas the deeper routes cleared out. Atlanta took Cook out of the game with bracket coverage, but Schottenheimer’s usage of him was still curious. Rewinding plays to see where the heck he went, you see him staying in to block, or you see he’s off the field in a 5-wide set. Um, the Rams don’t have five receivers better than Jared Cook. And they have better blockers. Schottenheimer did nice work at the goal line, with nice route combinations to set up Pettis’ TD and Austin’s 2nd. Run/pass balance wasn’t really a big issue. The Rams were 60/40 pass up until falling behind 21-0. Whether the passing game lacked ambition or took too long to suck the Falcons in, it still needs more than fine tuning.
Should have seen it coming, but it turns out the Ram defense was built to make the Atlanta offense look good. Typical soft Ram coverage encouraged Ryan to throw repeated quick hitters to Julio Jones and then let him run through arm tackles. Even with Jenkins on Jones, with Roddy White moving about as well as Joe Namath at the moment, Julio really ought to have been double-teamed. Another problem was the Ram blitz not really paying off. The main blitz returns were a pass batted by Ogletree and a false start and a grounding penalty neither of which got called. Meanwhile, Atlanta caught the Rams blitzing big on Jones’ 81-yard TD, and a blitz failed on the final 3rd-and-1 of the game, taking McDonald out of run defense and leaving Snelling alone in the flat. Blitzing was called for with Atlanta abandoning the run after Jackson’s injury, which also left them without a prime pass protector. Tim Walton just didn’t dial up much that worked. Neither side of the ball really showed a game plan this week that was going to beat the Falcons.
* Upon further review: Scott Green's crew was in the tank for Atlanta from the start, calling Chris Long offsides instead of calling Lamar Holmes for a false start, turning an opening 3-and-out into an opening TD drive. Think the game isn't different if the right call is made there? Right after, Green buried the Rams deep in their end by calling a hold on the kickoff on... nobody. The head linesman got wiped out on the sideline on a 1st-quarter run and gave Snelling 3 yards when he got only one. Way to help him out, rest of crew. A phantom illegal motion call took away a Richardson run down inside the 5 and made the Rams settle for a FG. Replay did not show motion, or a flag, though Jake Long may have lined up illegally. William Moore caught Mike McNeill in an Alabama Slam in the 2nd, an impressive pro wrestling move but usually a penalty in football. The umpire called Scott Wells for holding that couldn't be seen on the TV replay shown from the umpire’s angle. Deep in Atlanta's end in the 4th, Ryan chucks one way out of bounds from his own goal line without even attempting to leave the pocket, but Green ludicrously ruled a receiver in the area. Rams receivers on their sideline, maybe. Unseeable calls made against the Rams, blatant calls not made against the Falcons. I wish I was more astonished at this garbage than I am. Grade: F-minus
* Cheers: Tony “Goose” Siragusa was the only thing to like about this week's Fox broadcast. They'd shoot from useless angles between plays and then get to the TV angle right before the snap. Hey, who wants to see formations or motion or blitz looks anyway? Lead man Kenny Albert seemed to miss a lot of spots, but in his defense, Fox's line-of-scrimmage marker didn’t always look right, either. Darryl “Moose” Johnston annoyed by only seeming to want to catch penalties on the Rams, somehow never finding any on Atlanta. He'd call phantom holds on the Rams but ignore a ref blowing a spot by 2 yards in Atlanta's favor or ignore a 3rd-down play where BARTU “covered” Cook by blatantly holding him and attempting to trip him. That's just the game of football, said Moose. Suck it, Moose. Siragusa at least played it both ways, calling out missed calls on grounding and Gonzalez pass interference. Siragusa works broadcasts from behind the end zone, but he'd be a good commentator from the TV booth. If he could actually fit in one.
* Who’s next?: It’s nowhere near as big a rivalry as it was in the late 70s and early 80s, but the Rams and Cowboys are getting together more often again after an almost 15-year hiatus. They’ll play for the sixth time since 2006 when the Rams visit the Best Little Showhouse in Texas next week. The teams have traded wins and losses in the last five meetings. The good news: this year is the Rams’ turn. The bad news: that’s because DeMarco Murray ran absolutely wild over them the last time they met, gouging Steve Spagnuolo’s embarrassing run D for a Cowboys franchise record 253 yards in a 34-7 win in 2011.
Murray is not off to a fast start, and without Eli Manning gifting them the ball over and over, neither is the Cowboy offense. They look explosive on paper, but Kansas City just held them to 13, and the Giants were such a mess week one, while still nearly winning, they made Dallas hard to scout. New play-caller Bill Callahan’s philosophy seems very familiar. Tony Romo spent most of week 1 firing quick slants or dumping off to Murray. The Cowboys don’t seem to be leaning on the running game too much. Both Dallas tackles are good at sealing the edge, though, and Chris Long and Robert Quinn have to be wary not to get pinned inside, because Murray loves to bounce outside. Quinn vs. Tyron Smith may be the decisive matchup of the game. Smith is very athletic and has already shut down Jason Pierre-Paul this season. Dallas looks more vulnerable up the middle, with rookie Travis Frederick at center and 2nd-year UDFA Ronald Leary at LG. Dallas is looking to veteran Brian Waters to shore up RG, but the Rams should be able to do damage up the middle with the 4-DE attack. The Giants didn’t blitz Dallas much at all, preferring instead to double-team Dez Bryant, considered to be the best WR not nicknamed Megatron by many. Dallas will no doubt try to run Bryant on screens at Finnegan as often as they can. I hope Jeff Fisher will borrow a page from Tom Coughlin. 4-man rush and bend-but-don’t-break D kept the Giant defense in the game in Dallas. With Bryant double-teamed, Romo struggled to find receivers, and Laurinaitis can cover Jason Witten well enough for that to work for the Rams. If Finnegan holds up against Miles Austin in the slot, that puts pressure on rookie Terrance Williams, who naturally isn’t always on the same page as Romo yet.
The Rams may be traveling to Dallas, but they’ll face a Tampa defense; Monte Kiffin is back in the NFL and running the Cowboy attack. Dallas worked hard in the offseason to improve at forcing turnovers, and it took one week for it to pay off, with the Giants serving up SIX opening night. Job number one for the Rams is to play smart and take care of the ball. Kiffin’s M.O. has never been to blitz a lot, so the Rams need to win their 1-on-1’s up front. Dallas’ switch to the 4-3 defense has made a down lineman out of Demarcus Ware, who maintains his amazing quickness off the ball. In the past, you’d expect him to line up over Barksdale, but it looks like Jake Long will get him at LT. Either way, it will be smart for the Rams to run at Ware to take advantage of his aggressiveness. The other end will either be Anthony Spencer fresh off an injury or, believe it or not, George Selvie, who can get nice push as a pass rusher but washed out in St. Louis because teams ran at him. That’s a matchup the Rams have to win so they can devote extra help on Ware if needed. Tons of classic Tampa speed in the Dallas LB corps between Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. They haven’t faced a TE even approaching Jared Cook’s caliber yet; then again, I’d have ranked either one well ahead of JOPLU BARTU before this season. Lee has been especially good in coverage. Also look out in the back for safety Barry Church, an impressive run defender and ball hawk who plagued the Giants opening night. Dallas’ weak point seems to be, again, right up the middle. They’re hurting over center, with Jay Ratliff out due to a groin injury. The secondary gives up a lot of room over the middle on slants and crosses. Even with a very good receiving corps, the Giants picked their spots in Dallas, going at banged-up Morris Claiborne, who missed all of preseason, and not even throwing at Brandon Carr. If the Rams copy that strategy, but don’t commit six turnovers, they can beat Dallas, like the Giants probably should have.
This is the Rams’ first regular season game in the Dallas GaudyDome, but most of them played there last preseason and they shouldn't be awed by their surroundings. This is no time for stage fright. Focus will be critical, with a STUPID Thursday night brawl with the ***** right around the corner. It will be critical for Jeff Fisher and staff to have their players in the right place mentally, and, ahem, on the drawing board. The next ten days are a pivotal point of the Rams’ 2013 season; Fisher and staff must be prepared to steer through it well.