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RamView, 10/25/2015: Rams 24, Browns 6 (Long)

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  • RamView, 10/25/2015: Rams 24, Browns 6 (Long)

    RamView, October 25, 2015
    Game #6: Rams 24, Browns 6

    The game didn't start out that way, but the Rams came away with a dominating win over Cleveland, riding their defense, Todd Gurley and some way-overdue offensive adjustments. It's been a struggle, but after six weeks, I daresay the arrow is now pointing upward in Rams Nation.

    Position by position:
    * RB: The Rams had two games with a 100-yard rusher last season. In three weeks as a starter this year, Todd Gurley (19-128) is already up to three. He was the only good thing about the Ram offense in the 1st half, including a 14-yard toss left where he hurdled a diving tackler. He helped get the Rams in scoring position with a 15-yard run in the 2nd, and got them in what Jeff Fisher considers FG range at the end of the half by breaking an ankle tackle and powering for 12, then tearing off for 23 on a perfectly-set-up screen pass. Gurley got the Rams closer again in the 3rd on a run you’d never have seen coming at the snap. But he squeezed through a hole that wasn’t really there, slipped two tackles, broke into the open, and crossing left to right, used an insane block by Austin to go up the sideline for 48. Naturally, the Rams scored on NONE of those drives, so Gurley took on that job, too. His first career TD was a 1-yard breeze thanks to Cory Harkey’s big block. Cleveland hung within two scores late until Gurley slapped them down with his 2nd TD run to make it 24-6. From the 16, he cut back a sweep right, used good outside blocking, including another fine block by Austin, broke a tackle at the 5 and two more at the 2, forcing his way into the end zone with the home crowd chanting his name. If Gurley had been carrying a mic there, he could have dropped it. Todd Gurley has been every bit as good as advertised, the total package. Speed and power. Vision and football IQ. Agility and quickness. Running, and this week, receiving (4-35), making him an even more dangerous and more complete player. He even played without his knee brace this week, which is great for those of us who enjoy forcing symbolism into football recaps. Ain’t nothing holding Todd Gurley back now.

    * QB: Nick Foles (15-23-163, PR 86.0) avoided the awful turnovers this week and managed the Rams to victory despite a first half to forget. The Rams had THREE total yards of offense in the first quarter. Foles had 64 yards passing at halftime, with one downfield completion, and that was fumbled away by Jared Cook. Foles wasn't pressured as much as he was in Green Bay but seemed to have visions of Clay Matthews dancing in his head at times. There probably wouldn't have been an open receiver anyway, but several of Foles' dumpoffs or throwaways came out really quickly, before the rush was really on him. The Rams benefited from increasing the offensive tempo after halftime. They drove 70+ yards inside the Browns 10 and didn't score, but went 88 yards the next drive, most of it on Foles' arm, to finally score an offensive TD. He hit Tavon Austin on the sideline for 20, went deep for Kenny Britt, who drew a 26-yard DPI, and followed that with another bomb for Britt, for 41 down to the 1. That drive was really the game for Foles, whose strengths otherwise were throwing screen passes and handing off to Gurley. But Foles did his job this week. He ran the offense without any major screw-ups while also contributing a key play or two. This kind of game will never get Nick Foles to the Pro Bowl, but it'll get him an A grade from Jeff Fisher.

    * Receivers: Kenny Britt (1-41) dropped the opening pass of the game and disappeared, but defying recent Ram WR form, actually became relevant for an important sequence later in the game. Beating Pierre Desir on back-to-back plays in the 3rd, Britt drew a 26-yard penalty, then beat him by a step deep downfield on a go route down to the 1 to set up the Rams' first offensive TD. Brian Quick (0-0) made a brilliant catch of a sideline bomb in the 2nd, but, typical Brian Quick field awareness, it wouldn't have counted because he stepped out of bounds a couple of steps earlier. More classic Quick in the 4th, as he ran the wrong route and left Foles holding the bag to get creamed for a sack. I hope the Rams do a far better job drafting The Next Terrell Owens when they replace Quick after this season. Tavon Austin (4-43) was effective on screens and added a 21-yard end-around, but he was lethal as... a blocker? Yes, the diminutive Austin basically blocked two guys out of the play on Gurley's 48-yard run, and had another impressive block on Gurley's 2nd TD run. He had the only catch by a WR in the first half, so by no means did this group have a great game. But in the end, they found ways to make or contribute to big plays. That counts for something.

    * Tight ends: Jared Cook (2-19) is doing the Rams more harm than good at this point. They had something going in the 2nd, with Foles hitting Cook for 17 on a crossing route into the red zone. Typical clutch Cook, though, he had the ball in the wrong arm and fumbled after getting hit from behind by Donte Whitner. With Lance Kendricks (hand) inactive, it looked like a long day was coming at blocking TE when Gurley got stuffed on his first carry, with Justice Cunningham unable to budge Paul Kruger and Cory Harkey whiffing on the edge. Harkey was pretty reliable, though, leading some good runs and landing a massive block on the edge to make Gurley’s first TD run a walk in the park. Without those blocks, though, the TE group would have contributed nothing this week and are still a black hole in the Ram offense.

    * Offensive line: Blocking was a struggle again early, but the o-line fought out of it behind season-best performances by Greg Robinson and Tim Barnes. Robinson was excellent getting out on sweeps and screens and made several good blocks out there. He also looked solid in pass pro, though the price of two holds and a false start was a little steep. Robinson helped spring Gurley on a 15-yard run in the 2nd, but that was really made by Barnes’ outstanding pull block. Barnes excelled at the end of the half, springing Gurley for 12 and then throwing a great kickout block to spring a 23-yard screen, led out by Garrett Reynolds at LG. Which leads me to this week’s weak link, Jamon Brown, who was flipped to RG in the wake of Rodger Saffold’s season-ending shoulder injury (surprise!) even though he and Reynolds were fine in the Green Bay game at the other guard spots. On cue, Brown struggled at his new position with Randy Starks. Starks beat him with a spin move on the opening 3rd down to land a big hit on Foles. Next drive, Gurley loses 3 on a sweep with Starks running Brown over. Inside the 10 in the 3rd, Starks beat Brown badly on a pass rush with a pretty simple rip move, and Brown didn’t make things any better by inexplicably shoving Starks right on top of Foles for a big sack, and the Rams went from a realistic TD opportunity to a missed FG. Brown and Justice did have nice blocks on Gurley’s 2nd TD run, and despite the early blown-up runs and hits on Foles, the line did probably its best work of the season (admittedly a low hurdle to clear). Foles had solid pockets on the long balls to Britt. He wasn’t hit anything like he was in Green Bay, only sacked twice, and the second was Quick’s fault much more than the line’s. Even many of the running game breakdowns were on TEs as much as linemen. Gurley does a lot that makes a line look good, and Foles does some, too, but their performance this week gives hope that things are at least trending in the right direction up front.

    * Secondary: Leading from behind isn’t just American foreign policy these days; it’s how the Rams are winning games with defense. Janoris Jenkins got the party started very early, drilling Taylor Gabriel on a smoke route to blast loose a fumble that bounced perfectly to Rodney McLeod for a short scoop-and-score. Trumaine Johnson seemed to draw the most coverage of Travis Benjamin (4-47) and did not fare badly at all. TruJo was also terrific in run support and closing down short passes and McCown scrambles. Cleveland got off to a hot start out of halftime with two big gains, but TruJo slowed them down by tripping Robert Turbin up in the backfield, stalling them out to settle for a 2nd FG. Cleveland’s biggest gains came against soft zones, but McCown was frequently forced to hold the ball and/or scramble because of downfield coverage. Jenkins broke up a couple of passes. The safeties hit anything that moved. T.J. McDonald struggled on Cleveland’s first FG drive, getting deked badly on a McCown scramble and missing a couple of other tackles. He got sweet revenge in the 4th, though, about twisting Benjamin in half to force one of the four fumbles the Rams took away. Both the Rams’ sacks were really coverage sacks. Hayes had plenty of time to get to McCown for a sack/fumble in the 1st, and when Westbrooks mauled McCown in the 3rd, the QB had to eat the ball because the DBs had done great work to jump the planned screen pass. Preseason gave us high hopes of a big season in the secondary in 2015, and right now, they are delivering.

    * Defensive line: The Ram defense impressed this week by forcing four fumbles, impressed by sacking Josh McCown (26-32-270, 39.4 PR) four times and eventually driving him out of the game, impressed by giving up only 82 rushing yards and especially impressed with their depth. Will Hayes started off a long day for McCown by getting him from behind for a sack and fumble, recovered by Akeem Ayers. Cleveland drove inside the Ram 10 early in the 2nd, but not without McCown facing pressure from all angles, whether from Hayes, Ethan Westbrooks, or Robert Quinn, who trucked Joe Thomas on 3rd down to flush McCown out of bounds and force a FG. Eugene Sims nearly got a safety as the next drive 3-and-outed, and on the one after that, with the Cleveland line flinching like overcaffeinated cats in a room full of laser pointers, Hayes and Aaron Donald flushed McCown on 3rd-and-long for another 3-and-out. Vintage Donald closed out Cleveland's last drive of the half. He shot the gap before Alex Mack could even turn to block him, nearly beat Johnson to the handoff and dropped him for minus-5. The Rams were hard to block this week without committing penalties, which Cleveland found out the hard way in the 3rd. Donald drew a hold, and Quinn drew one from Thomas a few plays later to take away a long completion. Westbrooks played with plenty of fire and ended the 3rd by shedding the RT and sacking McCown for a big loss. Nick Fairley nearly spoiled the party in the 4th with a roughing-the-passer penalty, but the next play, the big man scrambled 20 yards downfield to scoop up a McDonald-forced fumble (humorously returning it 5 yards in the wrong direction.) Gregg Williams' use of 3-man lines has reduced Michael Brockers' snaps but seemingly made him more effective. He stuffed 3 runs and broke out a swim move and nearly sacked Johnny Manziel, who replaced a battered McCown at the end of the game. Everybody on defense made a play this week. (Just about everybody jumped offside this week, too, the Rams did it FIVE times.) They've sure reacted to losing Chris Long to injury a lot better than they did last year.

    * Linebackers: The Rams swarmed the Browns like hornets at times. After the McLeod TD, Akeem Ayers blew up a handoff that resulted in a 3-yard loss, and Mark Barron blew up a pitchback to Duke Johnson for another loss. Ayers blitzed over center the next play and wound up recovering a McCown fumble. Ayers was much more active against the run than I recall from previous weeks. Barron had a very physical 4th quarter. He helped McDonald twist Benjamin to force a fumble. He also really jacked McCown on a first-down throw after the Rams’ last TD. It looked clean and McCown eventually had to come out of the game. Gregg Williams must whistle happy tunes on his nightly drive home having hitters like Barron and McDonald around. I'm not sure why Barron's ever been considered a safety by the NFL, though. With 16 (!) tackles this week, he seems to be a born LB, while he's never really seemed born for pass coverage. Johnson (7-73) fooled him pretty badly on a 10-yard leakout in the 2nd, getting him to drop off a mile by faking an upfield pattern. 2nd-and-20 in the 3rd, Barron let Gary Barnidge (6-101) sneak behind him for 32 on a nifty self-tip catch. Those two should be pretty well-known weapons to opponents, and the Rams could have accounted for them better. James Laurinaitis seemed quiet, but he stopped several runs and made a key play to end the 3rd by closing on Johnson to stop him short on 3rd-and-13. Like the front four, the linebackers have stepped it up with a key player sidelined.

    * Special teams: At nearly 49 yards a kick, Johnny Hekker had a Pro Bowl-quality game. He pinned Cleveland inside the 10 twice (they pinned themselves another time with an illegal block), and the Rams consistently winning the field position battle was a hidden key to victory. It wasn’t always pretty. Hekker had one that flew maybe 30 yards, but rolled 20, and Bradley Marquez downed it at the 4. Other times, it was, like Hekker’s perfect and unreturnable 53-yarder at the sideline that denied Cleveland good field position after a Rams 3-and-out in the 4th. Greg Zuerlein’s got me on pins and needles again, though. His second crack at a 63-yard FG in two games started wide right and never had a chance. When he biffed a 35-yard attempt in the 3rd in similar fashion, it became hard not to wonder if the ridiculously long attempts are screwing up his technique on the kicks that should be automatic. The Rams nearly botched the opening kickoff. Benny Cunningham handed off to Stedman Bailey, who Cleveland had dead to rights at the 10, but they blew the tackle and Bailey got out across the 30. Never a dull day on special teams.

    * Strategery: With the Ram offense playing the first half impossibly even crappier than they did in Green Bay, it was natural to wonder if Frank Cignetti had spent the break watching Star Wars trailers instead of game-planning. The Force was with the Rams in the 2nd half, though. They immediately had their best two drives of the game after going to no-huddle. That could have been inspired by their 2:00 offense before halftime. Not that he should forget, but Cignetti remembered the Rams still had Austin and got him involved with screens, sweeps and decoys. Cignetti should also know by now that he’s going to have to scheme his receivers open for them to actually get open this season, which worked with trips formations in the 2nd half. Good move to get Gurley involved as a receiver, and Foles had checkdown options this week that he didn’t appear to have when he got into trouble at Lambeau. I don’t know why more of this wasn’t done in the first half while the Rams set offensive football back 100 years, or how much of it is still due to protection problems. Cignetti’s offense has been blowing up on the launch pad for 2-3 games now, but he’s been able to tweak it during games with some success. Next week, let’s try not blowing up first. Gregg Williams didn't break any new ground this week, but his blitzes paid off a lot more often than not. Blitzes produced Hayes' sack/fumble, forced a 3-and-out with the Browns backed up at their goal line in the 2nd, forced their 2nd FG attempt in the 3rd and forced McCown out of the game after Barron's big hit in the 4th. Williams also bedeviled McCown with secondary rotations, and the Rams looked well-prepared for Cleveland's screen game. Williams has been dialed in just about every game this season, and the Ram defense is reaping the benefits.

    * Upon further review: Cleveland fans probably disagree, but it looked from here like Pete Morelli called a decent game. They weren’t afraid to make game-changing calls, like the hold on Joe Thomas that canceled a completed bomb to Benjamin in the 3rd. Thomas ripped Quinn down by the collar, though, and it was just bad TV commentary that made the call look late. Earlier that drive, though, Barnidge got called for a hold of Westbrooks that was minute at best. I thought the big hit on McCown by Barron in the 4th was to the collarbone and the no-call was correct. It sure wasn’t a late hit; Foles has taken plenty this year a lot like it. McCown got facemasked, badly, after his fumble in the 4th, and not to pick on the lady ref, but Sarah Thomas’ defensive holding call that kept the Rams’ final TD drive alive was just terrible. Austin wasn’t grabbed and she never could have seen it had he been. Then again, Austin had an LB grabbing and leaning all over him on 3rd-and-3 before halftime without a call. I wasn’t a big fan of the stiffarm facemask call on Bailey, but most of the other million penalties called seemed good. Grade: B-minus

    * Cheers: The Dome looked far from full in the few crowd shots CBS took, but, still, excellent job, Rams fans. The crowd came through loud and clear on TV, and it's fair to credit them for several false starts. They let Cook have it after his fumble, too, deservedly. From the TV booth, Adam Archuleta was like I'd be in the stands; he'd mistake a play that was just a good pass rush as a blitz or say a rusher came in unblocked when he'd really beaten a block. He had good insight into coverage and downfield blocking. Brian Anderson claimed the holding flag that took back the bomb to Benjamin in the 3rd came late, when in fact, he just hadn't seen it when it came out. They weren't terrible but kind of showed why they're a “C” team. Kudos to McCown, btw, for probably getting himself injured dodging a Rams cheerleader in the 2nd. He missed her, but not the stadium wall. He banged into it with his right elbow and that appeared to bother him the rest of the game. I salute his gallantry, but for Cleveland fans, sadly, no good deed goes unpunished.

    * Who’s next?: This past offseason for the ***** has to rank among the most tumultuous in NFL history. Head coach Jim Harbaugh was dismissed. They lost or let go 12 Pro Bowls worth of leadership on defense (Justin Smith and Patrick Willis), their best pass rusher (Aldon Smith), a future Pro Bowl LB (Chris Borland), both starting CBs, franchise rushing record-holder Frank Gore, three starting offensive linemen, heck, even 3-time Pro Bowl punter Andy Lee. They've gone from the Super Bowl in February 2013 to utter rebuilding mode, and judging from their 2-5 start this season, the survivors are the unlucky ones.

    So the ***** have a lot of problems all coming to roost at once, the biggest being they just can't take over the LOS on either side of the ball like they're used to. They really have no business running any direction but left behind Joe Staley and Alex Boone. RT Erik Pears is a major weak link; Michael Bennett beat him repeatedly Thursday night. The previous game, the Giants were putting him on his butt in the running game. They had one play against Seattle where a lineman was pulling at Kam Chancellor with a full head of steam and Chancellor won the collision. Decisively. They're going with a practice squad guy at RG and C Marcus Martin needs seasoning and is routinely outmuscled. Every Ram TE, including Jared Cook, would be the *****' best blocking TE (as long as I can count bruiser Bruce Miller as a fullback). Their offense is still predicated on beating defenses up and they just can't do it. RB Carlos Hyde is physical and can bang out yards on his own, true, but he's also been battling a foot injury and has been putting balls on the ground lately. He can get outside, but usually because he gets impatient waiting for an inside run to develop. The 49er passing game lacks both tactical vision and decent receivers. They're trying to keep Colin Kaepernick from becoming another RGIII by making him mainly a pocket passer. He's been effective lined up under center, where they can at least pose the threat of play-action. But they also tend not to trust him to throw much besides screens or anything farther than ten yards downfield, and his accuracy isn't the greatest on those. (His five-INT, two-pick-six fiasco in Arizona had to create major lack of trust.) 95-year-old Anquan Boldin is still Kaepernick's main target, with twice the receptions of any of his teammates, and Seattle showed you can cover him with a linebacker. They signed Torrey Smith as a free agent and should be taking multiple deep shots a game with him to extend defenses. I saw none in the two games I watched. The best they can do to spread the field is screens to their slot-type receivers. It's Shurmurball, but actually without even the threat of play action, because Kaepernick usually ends up doing everything out of shotgun to attempt to make up for bad pass protection and receivers who can't get open. If the ***** don't do more to open things up – move Kaepernick in the pocket, take some deep shots, use play-action credibly – they're liable to come to St. Louis and look like what they are, the worst offense in the NFL. If the Rams stop Hyde on the ground early and can keep Kaepernick in the pocket without Alec Ogletree, San Francisco's likely to stay in their offensive cocoon and the Rams could be more than halfway home.

    With Aldon Smith having trainwrecked his way across the bay to Oakland, the *****' only real pass-rushing threat is 2nd-year OLB Aaron Lynch (5 sacks). Be sloppy in your balance and footwork like Seattle's RT was Thursday night, and Lynch will make you pay with his speed. Erik Flowers was much more technically sound the previous week, and Lynch didn't show the complementary power to his speed game needed to beat him. If Rob Havenstein's footwork is good and he can defend Lynch's deadly inside move, pass protection should be OK. The ***** don't get a lot of push up the middle. Their main mission against the Rams will be to stop the run anyway, which makes OLB Ahmad Brooks an x-factor. He has 3 sacks and is typically among the league's best run defenders, but he's been affected by injuries and off-field problems. The Niners may change their approach for the run-heavy, no deep-threat Rams, but even against Seattle they relied on soft zone coverages and double-deep safeties, basically inviting the run to guard against the deep play, and with their best DB Antoine Bethea (pectoral) now out for the season, that's another shell they seem likelier to stay in. They'll blitz a little, but it hasn't really been effective. ILB Michael Wilhoite collects a lot of tackles but doesn't look fast enough to be a big blitz factor. And we might as well include 2013 NaVorro Bowman on the list of players the ***** have lost. He's back but has lost at least a step from that devastating knee injury in the 2013 NFC Championship. The Rams are picking the right time to get their backs active as receivers. They can exploit the ***** there if not with their TEs.

    The whole 49er franchise has lost a step, and then some, over the past couple of seasons. They're as ripe for the picking as they have been since St. Louis got involved in this long-heated rivalry. The Rams are just 9-11 in St. Louis against the ***** and this could be their last shot at them here. In my eyes, it's a key game of this season and in the team's history here. May Jeff Fisher and company treat it as such.

    -- Mike
    Game stats from espn.com
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