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RamView, 12/13/2015: Rams 21, Lions 14 (Long)


  • RamView, 12/13/2015: Rams 21, Lions 14 (Long)

    RamView, December 13, 2015
    Game #13: Rams 21, Lions 14

    Some teams find ways to win; some teams find ways to lose. Some teams play hard this time of year; some teams mail it in. The Rams checked the positive boxes this week, the woeful Lions the negative ones, and the Rams rode Fisherball to victory.

    Position by position:
    * QB: Case Keenum (14-22-124, PR 59.7) stayed out of big trouble with his feet, and showed a lot of toughness getting passes off and avoiding sacks while taking several big hits, but his most important quality in this game was his brain. He ran the Rams' short, quick passing game competently, though not to any scores in the first half. At the end of the half, no one read the blind side safety blitz, and Keenum got drilled by Isa Abdul-Quddus as he threw and floated an INT to Darius Slay. His quick thinking, though, made a difference for the Rams in the 2nd half. He audibled to a ton of handoffs, including a 49-yard Todd Gurley run in the 3rd that keyed the Rams' first successful TD drive. Gurley scored the TD on a 5-yard pitch that Keenum also audibled to. More keen thinking by Case late in the 3rd. The Rams were backed up inside their 10, but when the Lions jumped offside, he hesitated for a split second and got off a deep lob down the sideline for Kenny Britt for 25. After getting the breathing room, Keenum hit Wes Welker for 11 and followed that with a 3rd-down slant to Britt for another 1st. Then he audibled to Gurley for another 10, setting up another TD run. This was not a very exciting game for Keenum, though I doubt Jeff Fisher would have it any other way. It was a classic game-manager performance. Keenum got the Rams into the right play a ton of times, made a play here and there and didn't commit any crushing mistakes. This game tape won't be going to the Hall of Fame, but Keenum played at a mental level Nick Foles just doesn't appear capable of, and finally gave the Rams some stability at QB after five very long weeks.

    * RB: The Rams did not seem to be in a big hurry to get Todd Gurley going (16-140, 2 TD), though they're surely happy they did. After about 12 yards his first 5 carries, his first impact play was another handoff, though by that I mean a Wildcat handoff from Todd to Tavon Austin (4-40). Austin swept around Greg Robinson's block and spun out of a tackle to get to midfield. Tre Mason (4-7) followed that with 6 on a sweep left, and cut a run back for another 5. Todd Who? Austin ended the 1st stutter-stepping through a big hole up the middle for 13 more. Todd Who? The Rams failed to score on that drive, though, and stayed pretty pass-happy until their second possession in the 3rd. Todd Who? As Abraham Lincoln once wondered of General McClellan, if you're not using Gurley, I should like to borrow him for a short while. Then, here comes the cavalry, Gurley exploding around left end for 49, using his classic hurdle move at the 35 to get down inside the 10. He scored the Rams' first offensive TD from the 5, getting a block from Cory Harkey and leaping at the pylon over Glover Quin. He ended the 3rd exploding off right tackle for another 25, ripped off 10 more to start the 4th and applied the coups de grace with a 15-yard TD run, popping through the middle, getting Quin off-balance with a Marshall Faulkian jump cut and outrunning him to the pylon again, and shut my mouth and listen, for they are chanting Gurley's name. He put out the Lions' dying embers with one last 20-yard burst through a poor tackle by Ziggy Ansah. The kid is just an outstanding combination of speed, agility, strength, smarts and effort. On one hand, the Rams might not have used him enough this week, but on the other, Todd Gurley's play is truly something to be savored.

    * Receivers: Pretty typical first half for the Rams receivers. Tavon Austin (3-19) couldn't convert an opening 3rd-and-3 running a 1-yard route. Kenny Britt (2-35) got drilled by Quandre Diggs on 3rd down the next series to send the Rams back to the sidelines. Neither one of them could get open on deep opportunities. Austin made a sweet cut and fought through a hold to make a stumbling catch across midfield in the 2:00 drive before halftime, but that ended in an INT, and at the break, it didn't look like the offense would do any scoring. Bradley Marquez (3-32), though, got a 3rd-quarter drive going with a 13-yard catch, and Jared Cook's (!) kickout block sprang Gurley's 49-yard run, setting up a TD that put the Rams up to stay. The next drive, the Rams got a free play and Keenum chucked deep for Britt, who got behind Darius Slay and made a tough 25-yard catch just in bounds to launch another scoring drive. Wes Welker followed that with an 11-yard quick slant, and Britt converted a 3rd-and-3 on another quick slant, before turning the drive over to Gurley to send the Rams out to a 2-TD lead. At their best, this was game-manager receiving to match their game-manager QB, but Rams receivers pulled through and got the job done.

    * Offensive line: Pass protection issues contributed to the Rams’ slow start. Early on, Greg Robinson got smoked by Devin Taylor to scare a weak throwaway out of Keenum. Josh Bynes split Tim Barnes and Cody Wichmann to induce another floater and send the Ram offense to the sideline. Ziggy Ansah sacked Keenum later in the 1st when Benny Cunningham got in Robinson’s way trying to help-block and ended up with a very unfavorable 1-on-1 matchup. Keenum had no escape lane, either, not with Haloti Ngata beating Garrett Reynolds inside. Wichmann blew a stunt pickup to let Taylor chase Keenum out of bounds later in the 2nd. In the 2:00 offense, Ansah whipped Robinson in a handfight and drilled Keenum to force an incomplete, then a safety blitz got by everybody as Keenum got hammered and picked off to end the half. Robinson kicked off the 2nd half with a chop block penalty. Keenum got some solid pockets, too, but it’s fair to say Ram pass protection had its usual challenges. The good news: run-blocking got back on track. The Rams ran well in every direction and got some of their momentum back with well-downblocked “wrap” plays. And every direction includes… LEFT. Austin’s end-around for 20 went left off a Robinson block; Mason followed that with a 6-yard run left. Barnes and Garrett Reynolds then cleared a big hole to get Austin another 13. Ansah’s sack ended that drive, but that was just a teaser for the Rams’ 2nd-half power game. A big, good sign for the running game this week was the involvement of the TEs. On Gurley’s 49-yard run, Lance Kendricks turned Darryl Tapp completely around and Cook (!) got a great kickout block. Cory Harkey got Gurley a block on his first TD run. The Rams grounded and pounded the Lions heading into the 4th. Rob Havenstein and Wichmann sealed a nice lane for a 25-yard run by Gurley, followed by a 10-yarder where Havenstein just rag-dolled Tapp. I thought Barnes had a career day. He pushed the pile all day to open up holes in the middle. On Gurley’s 2nd TD run, he turned Khyri Thornton (which is not easy), while Reynolds pancaked AND big-splashed a guy to crack things open. Barnes mauled Haloti Ngata (also not easy) to spring Benny for 10 on a draw in the 4th, and Gurley ran off mauling downblocks by Robinson and Reynolds on his 20-yarder to seal the deal at the end. After a month of some of the worst play we’ve seen from a Rams offensive line, they got some swagger back. The ground game gave them all a chance to do what a lot of them do best. Fingers crossed this is a turning point they can build off of for pass protection.

    * Defensive line/LB: The Ram defense fed off a great effort in the secondary, an offense that could actually move the ball a little bit for a change, and especially the ongoing heroics of the NFL's best defensive player, Aaron Donald. They got off to a great start. Will Hayes had one of his best games in a while and opened the action by setting a great edge to steer Ameer Abdullah (7-23) to Donald for no gain. Donald scored the Rams' first sack of Matthew Stafford (30-46-245) on 3rd down, benefiting from James Laurinaitis' middle blitz and excellent coverage. The Rams defended Detroit's screen game well until tackling got too leaky in the 2nd. Joique Bell (7-50) ran through Mo Alexander and Marcus Roberson's shoddy tackling for 13. Theo Riddick got 9 on a dumpoff after whiffs by Laurinaitis and Lamarcus Joyner. The next drive, Bell went for 17 on a screen after Mark Barron got taken out, and Alexander whiffed on a pass to Abdullah that got 8. Trumaine Johnson ended that progress emphatically, though, with a pick-six. Michael Brockers stopped the next drive by stunting and burying Stafford for the Rams' 2nd sack. The Rams came out firing after halftime. Hayes pressured Stafford into a poor dumpoff pass. On 3rd-and-4, the Rams blitzed a Lion screen, and Donald beat RT Michael Ola with a swim move so fast he couldn't even react. Yes, Aaron Donald just moved faster than someone can think, and he blasted Stafford to force another incomplete. But the Rams seemed to get too aggressive as Detroit drove for their first TD. Donald and Chris Long both overshot a handoff to Bell, and Akeem Ayers missed a diving tackle, to give up 18. Golden Tate got 15 on an end-around after Barron whiffed in the backfield and went on to catch a TD pass. Donald and Hayes kept the pressure on Stafford, though, and Donald got his 2nd sack early in the 4th, set up by Eugene Sims beating Riley Reiff to force the QB up in the pocket. The Rams seemed about to close things out up 21-7, but Riddick took ANOTHER screen for 16 as Barron got wiped out again. Barron and Alexander have to play screens better than they did this week. Relentless Donald appeared to put a stop to things with his THIRD sack, splitting the RG and center double-team and cleaning up Joyner's blown blitz sack. But then Aaron had to go to the sideline to get his arm re-wrapped, and all Detroit rejoiced. They screened and dumped and dinked their way to get within 7, recovered an onside kick, and the Tums factory started calling in the second shift. But Sims pressured Stafford into a wild throw on the run, and on 4th down, the Lions found another way to lose with a wild snap, and with Barron blitzing, Stafford was rushed into one last incomplete. This wasn't the defense's cleanest game. Too many missed tackles, too much damage from short passes to the RBs. Hayes stepped up, though, and ultimately, Detroit didn't have anything a well-designed scheme and Aaron Donald couldn't handle.

    * Secondary: The secondary's Christmas goose looked cooked with Janoris Jenkins unable to play due to concussion, but in one of the week’s biggest upsets, the best player on the field named Johnson was Trumaine, not Calvin (1-16). Much to my strategic surprise, TruJo spent most of the first half in Megatron’s grill, and Gregg Williams used fake blitzes and rotated coverages to bedevil the main element of the Detroit passing game. TruJo and Barron’s double-team on Mega in the 1st set up the Rams’ first sack. It took a brilliant play by TruJo in the 2nd to put either team on the board. It looked like the first time all day the Rams backed off of Megatron, and Stafford immediately went to him, which TruJo figured he would, jumping the route for the INT. He got all the way down to the 10 on the return thanks to Akeem Ayers’ block on Stafford, but then got bottled up, and who else panicked then that TruJo better score, because the offense sure wasn’t going to? But in FLIES Rodney McLeod to take out a Lion lineman and clear the rest of the way for TruJo to score the pick-six. As you can tell from that play, it was a team effort in the Ram backfield this week. Marcus Roberson looked far better than he did last week against Arizona, shutting down several quick screens to Golden Tate (still 9-60, 2 TD). On one play with the Rams up 14-7 in the 3rd, Roberson played a quick screen to Tate so well he nearly beat him to the pass, dropping him for a 4-yard loss. One thing Roberson and Lamarcus Joyner better figure out pretty quickly is pick routes near the goal line. Tate beat Roberson for both Detroit’s TDs on routes set up off of pick routes. There were also a lot of whiffed tackles in the backfield this week. But, with the game on the line in the final 2:00, TruJo nearly got his 2nd INT, Roberson broke up a pass and McLeod tripped up Eric Ebron (incidental contact) on 4th down to send everyone home. It was a team effort, but the signature play of the game came earlier. Stafford was just trying to force it to Megatron late in the game, and Mega tried a deep double-move, but when TruJo didn’t bite, Mega pretty much ran into TruJo’s arms and quit the route. Trumaine Johnson owned the Lions’ #1 offensive weapon this week, and along with Donald, richly earned a game ball.

    * Special teams: Can anyone be punting better than Johnny Hekker right now? He averaged 47.3 yards a kick and downed 4 of his 6 punts inside the 20, two of those inside the 5 (one thanks to a diving save by Christian Bryant). The Rams had a couple of near-misses on punt returns. Austin had an 85-yard TD return called back for not much of a hold by Benny Cunningham. And we saw the return of Mountaineer in the 2nd, and it fooled everyone again. The Lions all chased after Austin toward the Ram sideline. This gave Cody Davis a chance to emulate Stedman Bailey’s big play of last year, but he muffed the punt at the 12 instead and had to fall on it at the 17. Also, Austin gave nowhere near the sell job he did on last year’s play, making it easier for the Lions to re-direct when they had to. A potentially costlier mistake was Marquez misplaying the onside kick with about 2:00 left to give the Lions a chance to tie the game. Again, John Fassel, maybe more time in practice on fundamentals, less time on gadget plays, fun though they may be.

    * Strategery: The Rams made news during the week by firing OC Frank Cignetti, but the important coordinator here is Gregg Williams, and he more than pulled his weight this week in a tour de force of shutting down Detroit’s downfield passing game. His scheme against Megatron was brilliant. TruJo was in Calvin’s face a lot, especially in the first half, and Williams mixed up coverages diabolically. The Rams’ first sack may have been the best call of the year on D. TruJo pressing Megatron, with Barron showing blitz on that side. Stafford wants to throw there, but can’t when Barron drops back to double-team Calvin. Forced to hold the ball, Stafford allows time for Laurinaitis’ blitz on the other side to free up Donald, and he’s sacked. The pick-six was the result of Williams and TruJo running a brilliant long con. They laid off Calvin at the snap for the first time all day. Of course that’s where Stafford is going to go immediately! TruJo jumps the route, YOINK, pick six. Another sweet call in the 4th: with TruJo again backed off Calvin, Stafford is compelled to throw there but has to run instead when Joyner rotates in coverage and jumps Calvin’s route. Stafford doesn’t like to be blitzed and sure doesn’t like not being able to throw to Megatron. Gregg Williams (and TruJo) made him extremely uncomfortable this week, and it was brilliant.

    Rob Boras didn’t make anyone forget Cignetti when the Rams threw a 1-yard pass on the opening 3rd-and-3, but he made good adjustments that fixed some of what Cignetti had been doing wrong lately. Remembering Austin was one; next, to see if he can remember Austin two games in a row. One of Boras’ charges was to restore the running game, which he did by bringing back the forgotten “wrap” play. The Rams pushed the Lions around all day with that. Boras also answered years of pleas from this corner of cyberspace and Ran. To. The Left! He mixed things up, running in all directions, mixing in Wildcat for Austin’s 20-yard run, throwing quick slants (about time), taking shots downfield. There were more empty backfields than I expected (or liked), but the 1st-half quick-passing game probably helped set up the 2nd-half power game. I wouldn’t mind more throws to Gurley and to Welker. There wasn’t much hurry to the 1st-half 2:00 drive, which started with a handoff to Gurley and took 40 seconds and two timeouts to advance the ball 15 yards. But Boras got enough right the other 58:00 of the game to claim a successful debut.

    Cliched as it is to say it, Jeff Fisher deserves credit that the Rams are still playing hard. I saw a lot of quit in the other team this week; the Lions were a reminder how much worse things could be. The crowd wasn’t with Fisher. They booed him during intros and again when he punted in the 2nd instead of sending Greg Zuerlein, just back from injury, in for a 55-yard attempt. Fisher persevered, and so has his team. He could have bailed on this season as easily as anybody. But it doesn’t look like any of the Rams has.

    * Upon further review: Walt Anderson and crew did not have a very difficult job this week as I saw it, but still managed to butcher it. One of the game's key moments was an awful chop block call against Detroit that took away a long Tate catch inside the 10. I don't remember who Riddick was blocking, but he wasn't remotely engaged by another blocker, and I have no idea where Anderson got that ruling. Thanks, though. Also, proof that when you're truly blessed at it like Detroit, ways to lose find you. With the Rams near the goal line in the 3rd, though, Anderson called an illegal shift for Austin and Gurley both in motion at the snap when Gurley was clearly set. A guy not moving, a guy not being blocked by more than one blocker; how do you miss these fairly obvious observations? Austin lost a punt return TD on a holding call on Benny Cunningham that both Fox announcers immediately agreed was light (especially compared to what other teams have gotten away with against the Rams). And, there was the B.S. offsides call when Ethan Westbrooks jumped, got back, and a Lion lineman stood up at least a second later and pointed. This game was much, much easier to call than Anderson and crew made it. Grade: D-minus-minus

    * Cheers: I didn't get a good idea of the size of the crowd from TV, but they sounded great, making it very hard for the Lions to audible. That kind of performance at the end of as tough a season as this has been just shows what kind of gamers St. Louis puts in the stands. Chris Myers was winning the day on analysis for Fox, pointing out Austin had more touches in the 1st than he had all last week, criticizing the holding call that canceled an Austin punt return TD and hilariously begging the Lions to kneel out the end of the painful first half. When the inevitable subject of Los Angeles came up, though, Myers lost serious points claiming St. Louis fans had enjoyed “a lot” of successful seasons here. Um, try FIVE, Chris. Out of 21.

    * Who’s next?: Well, here's how much the NFL cares that the Rams' next game might be their last in St. Louis: they stuck it on a Thursday night, and as part of the lamentable Nike “Color Rush” campaign, will make the home team dress roughly like Minions, or possibly giant lemon drops. Bite me, Goodell. At least it will be a rematch of the biggest game ever played in the Dome, the 1999 NFC title game.

    The Rams have won three straight over Tampa Bay, who might be in the dumps a bit after a bad home loss to New Orleans knocked them down to 6-7 and probably out of the playoff race. Tampa still has to be happy with the development of first-overall draft pick Jameis Winston, who has 12 TDs vs. 4 INTs since a jittery start to his career in September. He doesn't panic in the pocket. He spreads the ball around and looks decisive. He's also not wasting his arm strength, because he'll uncork some beautiful deep and sideline throws to big WR Mike Evans. Winston and Evans could be the next Stafford/Megatron combo (prior to this week, that is); Winston has the confidence in him to fire 50/50 bullets and take advantage of Evans' ability to separate and ridiculous catching radius. Winston's also looked clutch in the red zone lately. Not only can he throw a perfect fade route down there, he's a big threat to take off and run. The Rams have to hope Evans has as bad a case of the drops as he had against Dallas, with FIVE. The Bucs have a top-ten offense, but that's because they're the #2 rushing offense, largely behind the #2 rusher in the league, comeback player of the year candidate Doug Martin. He's back at the top of his game: strong and physical enough to break tackles in the backfield but quick and quick-footed enough to make people miss, cut back runs or turn the corner. And they're blocking for him again, especially his TEs and Logan Mankins and Gosder Cherilus on the right side. And OC Dirk Koetter knows how to scheme a power running game; look for big fullback Jorvorskie Lane to maul James Laurinaitis out of plenty of plays out of I formation. Martin is averaging 5 yards a carry, and when they spell him with Charles Sims (4.7 ypc), not only do they not lose much, they improve their receiving, and Winston throws to his backs as often as he throws to Evans. The Rams' primary task has to be slowing Martin down, which does not bode well considering last year's Rams gave up 144 to, yes, Bobby Freaking Rainey (who has run for 18 yards this season). Aaron Donald wasn't starting yet then, so he may prove key to forcing Winston into more uncomfortable 3rd-and-long situations and marginalizing Tampa's play-action game. If they can't do that, it'll be a long night for the Highlighters or the Mustard Bottles or whatever the home team is supposed to be dressed as.

    If Tampa's to get into trouble Thursday night, it'll be due to injuries on defense. Lavonte David, an all-around terrific, ground-covering LB, is playing with an ankle injury. DT Gerald McCoy leads the Bucs in sacks as usual, with 7, but will be playing with his hand in a cast. Three days between games will not make it easy for the Bucs' two best players to answer the bell. Rookie LB Kwon Alexander will not; he's suspended till the end of the regular season for failing a PED test. That's a big blow, because he had been leading the Bucs in tackles and looked very good shutting down plays on the edge. DE Jacquies Smith has missed half the season with hamstring issues; he had been a huge factor for them off the edge, with 6 sacks and a bunch of big plays in limited action. One of their main edge rushers Thursday night could well be former Ram camper Kourtnei Brown. Tampa's pass rush has always been “inside out” anyway, keying off great middle penetration, and they can still get that against the Rams' interior with McCoy and cat-quick Clinton McDonald. Lovie Smith has rarely been a coach to rely on blitzing a lot but he wasn't afraid to blitz Austin Davis a ton last year, so the Rams better do their homework and be ready to counter it. Tampa's been a top-10 run defense this year, allowing under 100 yards a game, which has been the key to their overall defensive success. We'll have to see how their front seven shapes up in the injury department, though. The Buc secondary has names - Alterraun Verner, Mike Jenkins – but hasn't impressed this amateur scouting bureau in Lovie's soft and riddled-with-holes cover-2. Also, Chris Conte:Lovie Smith :: Craig Dahl:Steve Spagnuolo, apparently. Conte's one of the truly bad safeties I've seen in recent years. To hang in this one, the Rams need the Bucs to have bad injury luck and they need to play-action Tampa to death; Conte is terrible against it. They don't tackle great back there, either, which should be an invitation to the Rams' big receivers to bang out some YAC, if they can pull that off.

    There's not much on the line in this game, but the Rams have one very big thing to play for. If this is indeed their final game in St. Louis, they owe the fans who have poured their hearts (and wallets) into this team for two decades one last big-game type performance. For many people in the Dome Thursday night, it's going to be a high night of emotion that a Tampa team traveling on a short week won't be able to match if it translates to the field. If this is it for the Rams, they'd better make this one good.

    -- Mike
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