RamView, December 15, 2013
From Row HH
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Game 14: Rams 27, Saints 16
Any. Given. Sunday! The Rams prove the time-honored saying right again, and prove to be the Saints' kryptonite again, with one of the more surprising results of the 2013 season.
* QB: After a couple of rough outings, Kellen Clemens (14-20-158, 2 TD, PR 126.7) looked like old Steady Hands at the wheel again. You know you're having a good day when you throw your second completion about a yard and it's turned into a TD by Cory Harkey, barreling through the Saint defense for a 31-yard TD. Clemens made his own luck his next time in, with a couple of clutch 3rd-down completions to Austin Pettis, a read option run where he got the Rams 23 yards counting the roughing penalty, and a 4-yard TD pass to Lance Kendricks. A couple of those throws were almost too high, the key word there being almost. They were thrown where only the receiver could get them. A 16-yard slant to Pettis, plus another personal foul, set up a FG to put the Rams up 17-0. In the 2nd, Clemens barely missed on a bomb tipped away from Brian Quick, but made another clutch play the next drive, beating a 3rd-and-4 blitz with a quick slant Chris Givens took for 31 to set up another TD. Most of the league knew coming into this game that it's a bad idea to blitz Drew Brees. Nobody said anything about Kellen Clemens, and he burned Rob Ryan blitzes all day. The Harkey TD beat a blitz. The first 3rd-down pass to Pettis beat a blitz. Clemens also caught the Saints off-guard on blitzes with audibles to handoffs to Zac Stacy. He played well on 3rd down in the 2nd half as well, but by then, the Rams took the air out of the ball to work the clock, forced the Saints to eat up a lot of time trying to catch up, and after an impressive first half, Clemens was allowed to coast home. Kellen Clemens made blitz a 4-letter word in New Orleans this week, and it was a key to winning the game.
* RB: Life is so much easier for the Rams when they run well, and make no mistake, Zac Stacy (28-133) ran well. What we saw Stacy do this week he hadn't the last couple of games was read the field well enough to take plays outside that could be taken outside, and it gained him about half his yards. He gained 16 yards his first 3 carries up the gut the old-fashioned way, left briefly for an injury, then came back like gangbusters. The big play of the Rams' 2nd TD drive was Stacy's 29-yard run, as he hurdled Joseph Barksdale's wipeout block and sprinted down the sideline, with Malcolm Jenkins taking him down well out of bounds to add an extra 15. Stacy put the Rams ahead 24-3 in the 2nd (!) with a 40-yard sprint off the left side behind great blocking by Barksdale and Rodger Saffold. Zac probably only averaged about 2 yards the rest of his carries, not unexpectedly, running into loaded boxes while grinding time off the clock in the 2nd half. And even then he showed some of his classic pile-moving power several times. If Stacy can continue to demonstrate an inside and outside running game, he'll not only diversify the Rams' rushing attack to where it needs to be, he'll have the sky as the limit for himself.
* Receivers: So, as with all great teams, the Rams were led to victory by their backup tight ends, and I don't think this is even the first time this year it's happened. But, 1st quarter, there's Cory Harkey (3-29) taking a little swing pass and rumbling down the sideline through comically bad Saint tackling for a 31-yard TD. Next time down, here's Lance Kendricks (2-13), sneaking into the back of the end zone behind Saint DBs playing bumper cars and making a nice grab of a high pass for a 4-yard TD. Austin Pettis (4-57) picked up the slack in the slot for Tavon Austin, out due to an ankle injury. Pettis had two huge 3rd-down catches on the Rams' 2nd TD drive, a quick hitch to beat a blitz for 10 on 3rd-and-6 deep in the Rams' end, and an excellent snag of a high throw to convert a 3rd-and-9 at the Saint 4 and set up Kendricks' TD. Chris Givens (1-31) didn't step up as much but had a big play to set up Stacy's TD run, a 31-yard catch-and-run off a quick slant to burn another blitz. Can't help but wonder if a healthy Austin would have turned that into a TD, but we'll take what we got. The receivers held on to the ball and made some big plays. Fourteen weeks into a tough season at the position isn't time to fight with what's working.
* Offensive line: Another lineup shuffle – Harvey Dahl inactive, Rodger Saffold back at RG – didn't faze the offensive line any, as they dominated up front against a very highly-ranked defense. It hurt not at all that Clemens seemed to know everything that was coming beforehand, but the Rams didn't give up a sack and Clemens wasn't bothered much in the pocket. It also hurt not at all that the Rams re-established their punishing, dominating run game. The cover photo of the Rams 2013 yearbook should probably be Saffold steaming down the line on a pull block, where he has been a force. Opening 3rd down of the game, Saffold pulls, Jake Long caves in his side of the line, easy 8 for Stacy. Stacy's 40 yard TD run came off dominating edge blocking from Saffold, a good seal by Kendricks and Long getting out well. In the 3rd, Saffold drives David Hawthorne back 5 yards to help get Stacy 5 on a pitch. Saffold's been an animal ever since they moved him inside. Long and Chris Williams split a blitz open to spring Stacy for 9 at the end of the 1st. Tim Barnes was solid at center against a tough Saints interior and praised on TV. He's come along so quickly, and with Barrett Jones in the mix, Scott Wells returning at center next season looks doubtful. Lineman of the week honors, though, go to Joseph Barksdale. He had the seal on Clemens' option run while Quick threw an excellent block out on the wing, and a couple of plays later, delivered a massive and long-awaited pancake block, a real car-wreck of a block burying a Saint LB, with Stacy jumping over the pileup and racing off for 29. The Rams ran for 144 yards, I doubt Clemens even got touched much, the Saints got nowhere blitzing and you hardly even heard the Saint linemen get their names called during the broadcast. Domination.
* Defensive line: Robert Quinn renewed his Pro Bowl push with one of the most dominating performances this season by any player, so dominating the Saints actually pulled their starting LT off the field to try someone else on him. It started from the opening play, where Quinn’s pressure up the middle forced Drew Brees (39-56-393, 1 TD, 2 INT, 80.4 PR) to badly underthrow Jimmy Graham for an interception. A questionable roughing flag on Eugene Sims and sloppy tackling by Janoris Jenkins helped the Saints to 1st-and-goal their next time out, but from there, the tackles closed the door on Brees trying to scramble for Matt Conrath’s (!) first sack of the season, and Brees threw another ill-advised pick the next play. The Saints beat a blitz for 28 to return to the red zone in the 2nd, but another blitz paid off on 3rd-and-1, getting Quinn head-up on Charles Brown, who he whipped around for his 14th sack of the season to force a FG. Up 17-3, the Rams next got a 3-and-out, with Kendall Langford pouncing on an inside handoff to Darren Sproles on 2nd down and the rush getting to Brees too quickly to solve good coverage on 3rd down. The fast-break Saints looked more like Dean Smith’s four corners offense before halftime. Sims blew up a screen pass. Chris Long stuffed a Sproles draw. Quinn drew a hold on Brown. Brees had to dink and dink forever, and finally threw a TD pass to Marques Colston with 0:15 left, but Quinn had drawn another penalty on Brown. On the do-over, Quinn’s pressure made Brees rush his throw incomplete, and forced a (blocked) FG. Quinn remained relentless after halftime. 3rd-and-long near midfield, though a chip by the LG put him on the ground, Quinn still scrambled on all fours after an indecisive Brees, leapt up and picked his pocket for his fifteenth sack of the season AND a turnover, simply an impressive play. At that point, New Orleans pulled Brown out of the game – good grief – for Zach Strief, who couldn’t even hang with Sims without holding him and false started almost as soon as he even saw Quinn across from him. Quinn continued to hound Brees until he was almost doing nothing but throwing backwards, by which point the Rams had amassed a stunning 27-3 lead. And New Orleans couldn’t get back into the game because the Rams made them take so long getting there when they did score. You’re not going to make a big comeback with 5:30 and 6:00 scoring drives. A stunt by Long flushed Brees into William Hayes for the Rams’ 4th sack in the 4th, and, trying to get one last score at the end of the game, Brees instead got a lot more of Quinn, who nearly sacked him on back-to-back plays inside the Rams 10 to force less-than-ideal throws and convince Sean Payton to settle for another FG attempt, blocked again. Everything was working for the Rams this week, especially Quinn, who blew up the game-plan of one of the best game-planners out there.
* LB: In an unusual twist this week, the Ram defense was dominant in the front and solid in the back, but a little shaky in the middle. James Laurinaitis blew his first tackle attempt to let Pierre Thomas loose for 13 on a middle dumpoff. Two plays later, Long and T.J. McDonald strung out a Sproles sweep to Alec Ogletree's lane, but he got wiped out by Jahri Evans, springing Sproles for 11. Brees bailed the Rams out with his 2nd bad INT. Ogletree did perfectly what the Rams drafted him to do next time out, getting out on the flank in a flash to blow up a screen pass to Sproles for a big loss, but Sims' tackle assist drew an incorrect penalty call. Thomas then burned blown tackles by Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Rodney McLeod for 10 off another dumpoff, and burned a blitz for 28 on a screen play that Laurinaitis was completely blocked out of. Quinn made the Saints settle for 3, though, and Laurinaitis polished off a 3-and-out right after by sticking nicely to Thomas on a 3rd-and-8 flare route, holding him to 6. After halftime, Ogletree and Langford blew tackles to turn another 1-yard pass into a big gain, this time 16 for Mark Ingram, but Ogletree stalled that drive doing what he was drafted, or maybe born, to do, jumping all over a screen to Thomas for a 5-yard loss, setting the stage for Quinn's strip-sack the next play. A 27-3 lead put the Rams into full-on prevent mode, but they didn't take it easy, forcing the Saints to eat up a lot of clock and to earn every yard. Laurinaitis about broke Lance Moore in half breaking up a high pass over the middle late in the 3rd. Ogletree was a heartbeat from a 95-yard pick-six right before New Orleans' first TD and was all over a Sproles draw at the goal line right before their 2nd TD. Disappointing tackling keeps the LBs from grading out as well as the rest of the defense, but this was not at all a letdown performance, either.
* Secondary: Hey, the Rams have a secondary. Who knew? And where the hell were these guys the past two weeks? The Saints had to settle for so many checkdowns and outlet passes I wondered how I'd missed the news they traded for Alex Smith. The revelation of the game was the Rams shutting down Jimmy Graham (2-25), and though TV didn’t offer the best perspective, apparently they did it primarily with single-coverage by T.J. McDonald. McDonald picked off a Brees underthrow on the Saints’ first play to kick off a breakout week. Next time down, Brees threw possibly the dumbest throw of his career, chucking one up toward triple coverage of Graham in the end zone for an easy Trumaine Johnson pickoff. McDonald and I believe Rodney McLeod were also in position and either one of them would have caught that ball before Graham ever could have. Perhaps Brees thought, hey, I’m playing the Rams, something good will happen. Not this week, buddy. Janoris Jenkins also showed up in a big way. No, Jenkins is never going to be on an instructional tape for tackling. But Brees wanted to throw at him a number of times and Jenkins wouldn’t let him. Starting a drive at his 26 in the 2nd, one of the rare times Brees had a lot of time to throw, he ends up wasting a sideline pass well short of Robert Meachem because Jenkins had his first option blanketed. Started a 3-and-out. Even when Brees completed a pass a Ram DB was usually right there. McLeod must have been within a fingernail of breaking up about a half-dozen passes. The Rams even looked good giving up the Saints’ last TD. Jenkins defended end zone timing routes to Marques Colston and Graham on back-to-back plays to perfection. McLeod nearly broke up the TD pass on 4th-and-goal. The Saints moved in close scary fast after recovering an onside kick, as a timeout to organize the defense never seems to occur to the Rams sideline ever, but what do you know, here comes Darian Stewart on 3rd-and-goal to break up a pass and get the Saints to settle for a (missed) FG. Just an outstanding performance – safeties hitting, corners blanketing, they erased the best TE in the league and were all over the Saints’ screen pass game. It doesn’t get much better. What’s frustrating is that the Rams could have done this to the ***** or the Cardinals, who don’t put much more speed on the field than the Saints do. But when you can give Drew Brees the trouble he had this week, you can do it to anyone. Kudos.
* Special teams: The Rams even dominated the Saints with their kickers. Greg Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker didn't give Sproles anything he could return. Zuerlein kicked off out the back of the end zone all game and nailed two FGs. It came back because of a penalty, but I cannot ignore the punt return where Sproles tried to sweep left and turn upfield, only to be denied the edge by a flying HEKKER, who I think just became the Punter and Gunner of the Week. The Rams finally got some special teams trickery to work with a surprise onside kick in the 1st up 14-0. Zuerlein hit it perfectly and Stedman Bailey hauled it in over the one Saint who figured out what was going on. How well did everything go for the Rams this week? They even blocked two (I think) FGs! Brockers got a hand up in the middle to send the Saints back to the locker room hungry before halftime, and if Langford didn't get his hand on Garrett Hartley's 26-yard attempt at the end of the game, it was the Worst Kick of All Time, basically flying sideways. The Rams return game unsurprisingly did little with Tavon Austin injured, and the Rams failed to recover an expected Saint onside kick at the end of the game, which is supposed to fail for the kickers 80-90% of the time. The Rams were still in charge here, though, as they were everywhere else.
* Strategery: It's becoming widely circulated that Jeff Fisher has gotten much more involved in defensive game-planning, and it seems little coincidence that the secondary just had possibly its best game of the season. Instead of allowing big, slow, old wide receivers to mosey wide open over the middle for four quarters, the Rams recognized an offense that doesn't stretch the field well and put the clamps on it. Holding them to 61 yards on the ground helped a ton there. Tackling wasn't great but players were in the right place almost every play. TV isn't the best way to tell, but it looked like they'd already started tightening coverage in the 2nd half last week, trusting man coverage more and keeping DBs at least in the same zip code when they laid off in zone. The Rams didn't have a good burn rate on blitzes, and it's a dumb idea to blitz Brees anyway, but Fisher also did not blitz very much. There were hardly even any penalties on the Rams, just 4, which they've accomplished on just one drive on defense already this year. So the questions now – why did it take nearly two full seasons to make these adjustments, if Fisher can fix the defense's most glaring issues in a couple of weeks? Why could Fisher do in a couple of weeks what Tim Walton couldn't do in 12 or 13? The previous two games would have been a lot different with any decent secondary play at all.
More good news, though: Brian Schottenheimer looks like a good play-caller again, making Rob Ryan look for the first time this year like his mediocre old self. Play action helped open up the field for Harkey's TD. Schotty had Clemens running read option for a play and got eight and a penalty out of it. An excellent route combo got Kendricks open in the back of the end zone for his TD; he ran to the corner while the right slot and wide right receivers slanted in, getting Saint DBs Keystone Kopping off one another. Schotty and Clemens burned Ryan blitzes all day, whether with inside handoffs or quick slants. The rollout pass to the TE even worked! (Kendricks for 9 in the 3rd) Sure, the box score says the Rams ran 63% of the time, but #1, you run on the Saints, #2, the Rams had a big lead to protect and #3, Schotty still mixed things up on offense as well as he has his two years here to date.
* Upon further review: Even though they were average at best, Mike Carey and crew were a welcome respite from some of the awful officiating the Rams have been subjected to this season. There were a couple of really bad vulnerable receiver calls. Eugene Sims got a late hit penalty for a completely legal move. Sure, he clobbered Sproles, but Sproles wasn’t down – he was on Ogletree - and no whistle had blown. The Rams benefited from a bad call later when Malcolm Jenkins got 15 though he barely hit Pettis and didn’t hit anywhere near his head. Very good calls, though, when Clemens was hit late after sliding in the 1st and Stacy was wiped out well out of bounds. Too much holding in the second half, but this crew should get a nice playoff run for showing they’re one of the few in the league that isn’t completely incompetent. Grade: B
* Cheers: It was too last-minute for me when the NFL moved the game back to 3:30 and due to schedule conflicts I had to settle for the TV broadcast. Maybe someday the NFL will show it cares about its season-ticket holders as much as its Sunday Ticket holders. TV made it look like there were about 100 fans in the Dome – I’ll generously guess 30,000 – but the folks made good noise and really got the bandwagon rolling as the Rams kept making plays. Good job. Looked like plenty of Saints fans came, but for a change, the broadcast stuck to crowd shots of the home fans, which I really wish they would do more often instead of making it look like Rams fans are actually outnumbered by visiting fans. Tim Ryan did a good job breaking down the Rams’ blocking and blitz-beating and Chris Myers funnily sounds like Robin Roberts when he calls a big play. Enjoyable game to watch.
* Who’s next? The Rams close out the 2013 home schedule with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a game that looked like cake a few weeks ago. The Bucs were 0-8 and it didn't look like head coach Greg Schiano would make it to Thanksgiving. The Bucs have turned their fortunes around, though, and have won four of their last six. One thing you can guess about this game: it's going to take a long time to play. The Bucs are the most-penalized team in the league, one of the few teams in the NFL that have outdone the Rams in that area.
The Rams handed the Bucs a 28-13 loss in Florida this time last year, but the Bucs are a much different team from that game. They've dumped Josh Freeman on the unsuspecting Vikings and gone to lanky rookie QB Mike Glennon, who's helped get them back on track. Glennon has a big arm and seems to throw deep as often as he throws short, but still came into this week with a very respectable 15:7 TD:INT ratio. If you get heat on him, Glennon's also proven very mobile. He buys himself time behind the line quite well and throws well on the move. You can also get him throwing a lot while back-pedaling, though, and like many rookie QBs before him, he'll force throws, especially to main target Vincent Jackson. There are times when the whole Tampa game plan appears to be to force-feed Jackson the ball; understandable, since he's by far their best big-play threat. It could be a smart game plan on defense to play Glennon a little like Wilson or Kaepernick – keep him in the pocket – and keep a double-team on Jackson all game. Offensive balance has been tough for the Bucs since they’re down to their 4th-string RB and TE because of injuries. Center Jeremy Zuttah gets good reviews for his work this season but the line hasn't gotten Bobby Rainey much running room lately. More golf ball than bowling ball, Rainey showed on an 80-yard TD run against Buffalo that you're not going to catch him from behind, but the 5'8” back doesn't break a lot of tackles or pop through many holes at the line. The Bucs don't have the fullbacks or blocking TE play to establish a take-charge running game (two words: Brian Leonard). The arrow’s pointing up for the Bucs as they get healthier and play together, but is a game the Rams can take over at the line of scrimmage.
The Tampa defense is the philosophical opposite of the Rams'. While the Rams hope to get to the QB quickly so their secondary doesn’t have to cover for long, the Bucs rely on their secondary to hold the fort while their somewhat sluggish pass rush gets to the QB. What a secondary it is. Acquisitions Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson joined with the young talent of Johnthan Banks, Mark Barron and Leonard Johnson have turned the Bucs from the worst pass defense in the NFL to the league leaders in interceptions. They’re more than capable of locking down the Rams’ receivers like they did Buffalo’s, which allowed them to sack E.J. Manuel seven times, most of which looked like coverage sacks. A QB’s first option is often gone against the Bucs, so Clemens will need to have another excellent week reading the defense and be smart about not forcing passes. The Rams’ biggest blocking challenge up front will be Gerald McCoy, whose middle rush sets the tone for their pass rush. Akeem Spence has been a rookie find as a space-eater. Their improved pass defense has not come at the expense of their run defense. I haven’t seen the Bucs blitz a lot, but it’s effective when they do, especially bringing Mason Foster up the middle. And the Rams have to do a far better job than last year with Lavonte David, who spent most of that game in the Ram backfield. David’s yet another of the great young LBs the Rams have faced this year, always around the ball, forcing turnovers, making plays sideline-to-sideline. The Rams should be able to run at the Tampa ends, and they didn’t give up a sack at the New Sombrero last year, so, though they may have to get the ball out quickly, they can hold their own in the trenches. I’m looking for a physical, low-scoring game that one of the lines will have to take over.
At first it looks like the 2013 Rams have had a split personality. You think they’re going to get killed by the Colts or the Saints or even the Texans, bang, the Rams are the ones dominating. Or, you think they’re going to be at least competitive against the ***** and Cardinals and they get humiliated off the field instead. It’s more fair, though, to compare the Rams to a roller coaster than to Sybil. This up-and-down season is the very signature of a very young but improving team. You wouldn’t want this inconsistency from a veteran team, COACH LINEHAN, and a roller coaster with no highs is just a kiddie train ride, which would really be lame, COACH SPAGNUOLO. But Coach Fisher’s shown us a team capable of scaling the heights and becoming a legitimate thrill ride. A game like next Sunday’s against a competitive Tampa team can tell us how ready the young Rams are to stay up there.