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RamView, 12/17/2015: Rams 31, Bucs 23 (Long)


  • RamView, 12/17/2015: Rams 31, Bucs 23 (Long)

    RamView, December 17, 2015
    Game #14: Rams 31, Bucs 23

    If this was the Rams' last week in St. Louis, at least they made it a heck of a week. They won for the second time in five days Thursday night and made the Bucs look like the team that could not cut the mustard.

    Position by position:
    * QB: Case Keenum (14-17-234, 2 TD, PR 158.0) managed the heck out of this game. He led the Rams to an opening drive TD throwing little but screens and swing passes. But Case did not live on small ball alone, also throwing a perfect 60-yard TD bomb to Kenny Britt later in the 1st. The Ram passing game was in good rhythm much of the game, and Keenum distributed the ball well. On the Rams' TD drive in the 2nd, he hit Tavon Austin for 13, Lance Kendricks for 8, then converted 3rd-and-5 with a pretty sideline pass to Jared Cook for 17. Then he ran away from a blitzer and hit Todd Gurley for 12, a play that Nick Foles would not ever make. Cook brought down a 7-yard throw into heavy traffic at the goal line to set up a Gurley TD. Keenum and Cook were quite the connection; Case hit Cook down the seam for 25 and for 15 to set up an Austin TD run that put the game away in the 3rd. He even did some things we rarely see Rams QBs do. He hard-counted the Bucs offside in the 3rd, for instance. The rollout pass to the TE even had rare success. There were some blemishes, even in a game for which the NFL considers Keenum statistically near-perfect. He didn't get the Rams into good plays with anywhere near last week's success, and I think the Bucs knew to expect a run if he audibled. He had Bradley Marquez wide open to convert 3rd-and-5 in the 2nd but threw a ball that appeared to come out of his hand nose-down. He got away with forcing a couple of passes he shouldn't have. Both his sacks came on rollouts where he had opportunity to throw the ball away. But beyond those little dings, Keenum ran the Ram offense quite well and committed no turnovers or significant mistakes. For the second straight game he gave the Rams stability at QB they had missed for a long time.

    * RB: The Bucs didn't let the Rams establish the running game. Todd Gurley (21-48) was frequently greeted by an 8-man box and didn't get anywhere, even with the Tampa defense doing eleven Deion Sanders impressions as tacklers. He set up the Rams' first TD with a 18-yard catch, though, and scored the 3rd TD despite getting wrapped up at the 3. He kept churning and flung himself at the goal line for a score that also gained him his 1,000th yard of the season. Gurley missed out on another TD opportunity in the 4th despite getting 3 cracks from inside the 2. Two of Tavon Austin's (4-32) carries did not go very well, but the other two were big successes. He took an end-around right for 15 to kick off the Rams' 2nd TD drive and scored on a similar play to put the Rams up 28-6 in the 3rd. Austin increasingly looks like a rare runner in the NFL with consistent speed to beat people around the corner, which he did here and then ran through a couple of half-hearted arm tackles for a pretty easy 21-yard score. In the end, it's all about balance. Gurley's ability to draw the defense in opened things up for the passing game; Austin's speed kept the Buc defense honest.

    * Receivers: Of course, Austin (3-41) keeps defenses occupied as a receiver, too. He scored the opening TD on a 17-yard bubble screen behind solid blocking by Kenny Britt and Greg Robinson, with more bad defense by the Bucs, who tackled roughly like those tubular balloon guys you see outside used car lots or mattress stores. The Rams chewed up Lovie Smith's traditional soft coverage underneath the opening drive, then went over it the next, with Britt (2-71) beating a rookie DB down the far sideline with a double-move for a 60-yard TD bomb. Jared Cook (4-64) had the type of game we've been waiting for him to have ever since he got here. He kept a TD drive going in the 3rd with a clutch 3rd down catch, then, when Keenum forced a pass to him near the goal line, he went up between two defenders, claimed the pass for himself, and wrestled half the Tampa defense all the way to the far sideline trying to get in. All this season, that play's been a pass breakup at best, an INT at worst. Whatever Cook was thinking about this game, I hope he remembers it and makes it his happy place. Cook set up the Rams' last TD with two big catches down the seam. Austin got the Rams in closer on a quick slant where he turned on a dime, left 9 cents change and cut back for 11, before running it in the next play. With all the key parts of the Rams' receiving corps working at the same time for probably the first time all year, we got an idea, finally, of this unit's potential.

    * Offensive line: And look out now, but the Ram offensive line sort of knows what it's doing. Even with the running game shut down, they had one of their better games. Funny how well a lot of plays work when you actually pay attention to keeping the back side blocked. Edge play after edge play worked this week because the Rams kept a good portion of the Buc defense bottled up in the middle of the field. Plenty of right-side plays worked with Rob Havenstein, Cody Wichmann and Tim Barnes shoving the Bucs around and controlling them like riot police rounding up elderly nuns. Greg Robinson and Garrett Reynolds were strong at times 1-on-1 in the running game but had some inconsistency. Same for the TEs. Robinson kind of got in Gurley's way a couple of times in the 2nd. On one play, he accidentally blocked Orie Lemon right into him. On another, he went down while getting tangled up with William Gholston, with Gurley failing to hurdle them. Robinson drew 15 yards after the play, though, when Gholston kicked him. Protection by Robinson, Reynolds and Barnes was outstanding on Keenum's 60-yard TD to Britt, with Reynolds about pushing his man to the sideline. The line continued to thrive off Rob Boras' decision to dust the wrap play back off. Gurley gained 9 on one in the 3rd, behind a big block by Cory Harkey, with Havenstein depositing his man all the way over at left tackle. On the other hand, the Rams had 1st-and-goal at the 2 in the 4th and settled for a FG when neither side of the line could generate any push. They allowed two sacks, but both were plays where Keenum could have gotten rid of the ball. Jacquies Smith got one out of a naked rollout where Lance Kendricks fell down. The other will get charged to Robinson, who got another life lesson. He'd blocked well and driven Howard Jones down to one knee, but quit blocking him, I think in fear of drawing a sucker holding penalty. But Jones got back up and ran Keenum down, along with Henry Melton, who'd beaten Reynolds. They've still gone from getting pushed around up front to doing a lot of the pushing, and a young offensive line coming together at the end of the season is a natural reason for optimism next season.

    * Defensive line/LB: Even though they made tackling Doug Martin (18-91) look like trying to bring down the Incredible Hulk or Thing, and didn't record a sack, the Rams still controlled the game on defense via their pass rush. If Martin wasn't stiffarming Aaron Donald to the ground or carrying Michael Brockers 3 yards, his teammates were mauling Chris Long or Mark Barron to plow open running paths. I'm sure those last two have seen all of Jorvorskie Lane they want to see. But, on that opening drive, after Martin carried the Bucs (and Rams) well downfield, they made the fateful decision to start passing, whence Donald put a ridiculous rip move on Ali Marpet to pressure one of many bad throws by Jameis Winston (29-50-363). Akeem Ayers blitzed in untouched on 3rd-5 to force another one. Martin ran for 11 the next drive, with Long and Barron getting mauled again, and ran over Ethan Westbrooks for 4, but again, a Ram blitz on 3rd-and-6 helped rush a mistimed deep throw and Tampa settled for a FG. Next drive, Martin runs twice for 7, once again carrying Brockers, but, again, a 3rd down blitz got to Winston, with Mo Alexander wrapping up his ankles and getting him to commit illegal grounding. In the 2nd, Long, who is at least moving better now than he has all season, overran Martin, Barron got mauled some more, then Westbrooks and Donald overran Charles Sims (7-50) on a 13-yard run, and it was time to wonder if the Rams were going to play ANY run defense this week. But Donald stuffed Sims on a draw play blown up by a Barron run blitz and then punked a future Hall-of-Famer on 4th-and-1 to drive the Bucs off the field. Donald rocked Logan Mankins off the snap, threw him aside and lunged at Martin for a 2-yard loss. Donald and Mo Alexander were about all the Rams needed to stuff Tampa again before halftime. Alexander stuffed a Sims screen pass AND a Sims pitchout, and with Tampa foolishly thinking they could pull-block him, Donald beat Gosder Cherilus instead to drop Sims for another loss. The Bucs drove inside the 10 right out of halftime, but the Rams held them to 3 again, with Barron hammering Martin trying to bounce a run outside for a loss, and Hayes flushing Winston to force an incomplete. Doug Worthington fell out of the practice squad and onto a blown exchange between Winston and Martin to kill another Tampa drive, and up 28-6 by now, the Ram defense coasted home the rest of the night. Unfortunately, there was still a quarter to play. Tampa breezed 98 yards for a TD, then nearly 80 for another FG. Sims got 33 of those on a simple pitch, with the Rams caught blitzing, Barron taken out by TE Luke Stocker, Alexander committing far too soon and going to the ground, and Sims easily outrunning James Laurinaitis around the corner. The Bucs went 82 for another TD late, with the key play a 20-yard screen to Sims that Laurinaitis played poorly. But, since the Rams won, we can just throw out that 4th quarter, thanks to the Rams blitz for the first 45:00. Winston and the Buc offense just did not have, make that weren't allowed to have, much composure for three quarters when they had to throw.

    * Secondary: With Janoris Jenkins back, and shadowing and pressing Mike Evans into just 3 catches for 35 yards in the first half, the Rams looked on their way to shutting down an elite WR for the second straight game. The DBs didn't just quiet the passing game in the 1st half. When Winston tried to scramble on 3rd down in the 2nd, Trumaine Johnson stopped him short with a (perfectly legal) bell-ringing hit that flustered the rookie QB into a yelling and shoving match, forcing Tampa to burn a timeout, but most importantly, forcing 4th down. The Rams stuffed Martin there to make TruJo's play stand up. The Rams then decided to emulate Lovie Smith's leaky zones in the 2nd half. Jenkins committed a roughness penalty, Evans beat TruJo twice for 44 yards, and somebody named Adam Humphries (6-60) beat Lamarcus Joyner's lousy tackling for 14 to set up a FG. The secondary took the 4th quarter off. Tampa drove 98 yards for a TD, with Evans beating Rodney McLeod for 20, Jenkins for 30, and somebody called Donteea Dye getting behind the secondary for 44. Evans (9-157) feasted on soft zone coverage in the 2nd half. On 1st-and-goal, Luke Stocker fooled Mo Alexander into thinking he was staying in to block and slipped into the end zone with an easy TD catch. Humphries beat the Rams for two more catches to kick off a scoring drive Tampa's next time out, but good red zone coverage held that to a FG. Alexander had the TE blanketed this time on 1st-goal and nearly picked Winston off. TruJo didn't have a pick-six this week, but he did score a really easy pick in the 4th thanks to one of Winston's many sprayed throws. That proved big when Tampa beat up more soft coverage with underneath passes and screens to squeeze in one last TD drive, with Austin Seferian-Jenkins pushing off Alexander to get open in the end zone. Hard to find much good in that second half, but while they were really going after it, Jenkins and TruJo looked at the top of their games, and Alexander looks like he's coming alone, though still a little error-prone, at safety. The Rams have big decisions to make in the offseason in their secondary, but they appear to have plenty of good options.

    * Special teams: With the Bucs tackling like they didn't want to get any of that Ram uniform yellow on them, Benny Cunningham brought the opening kickoff out across the 40 and outdid himself in the 4th with a 102-yard return. He got good wedge blocks from Demetrius Rhaney and Eric (seriously?) Kush. Chase Reynolds shoved Mike Jenkins down the sideline for 10 yards. Benny cut to the middle of the field while two Bucs dived and missed. Cody Davis got him another block as he cut back to the far sideline. Bradley Marquez pancaked a guy, and a TD looked certain, but Jenkins caught up, and tripped Benny up inside the 5, which actually saved the Bucs 4 points. Yes, a 102-yard TD return, and leave it to the Rams not to get a TD out of it. Christian Bryant is killing it on special teams lately. He downed another punt inside the 5 this week, and along with Barron, laid some serious wood on kick returns. Johnny Hekker continued to make a strong Pro Bowl case with a second punt downed inside the 5 and a 44-yard average. Bryce Hager (!) had no trouble corralling the onside kick at the end of the game. Excellent week on special teams.

    * Strategery: Frank Cignetti and Rob Boras were the two coaches on staff considered for promotion to OC in the last offseason. Results so far say Jeff Fisher picked the wrong guy. Boras' screen attack was perfect for Lovie Smith's soft D, and he mixed up plays nicely on the opening scoring drive without really throwing a pass downfield. Boras remembered Austin for two games in a row, something Cignetti could not do. He continued to mix up plays well the second drive with an Austin end-around followed by the deep TD shot to Britt. Keenum's confidence and mobility advantages over Nick Foles have definitely shown their effect on the offense, but Boras is still doing a fine job of getting the ball to all his weapons and all parts of the field. The Rams didn't roll over Tampa in the running game, but Boras didn't abandon it, and he maintained success with the wrap play Cignetti must still be beating himself up for forgetting and running left. My one concern was the number of overloaded boxes the Rams still ran into. Keenum doesn't appear to check out of a run to a pass almost ever, but has every freedom to do the opposite. The Ram offense was creative and attacking and too much for the flatfooted, emotionally flat, very tired-looking Bucs.

    Gregg Williams' scheme was attacking, too, at least for a while. Blitzes worked in key situations. An Ayers blitz got the Bucs' first drive off the field on 3rd-5. Next time out, a 3rd-6 blitz affected the timing of an otherwise open deep throw. Trent Green pointed out how another blitz completely fooled Winston later. He slid protection toward a fake blitz, leaving Alexander unguarded on the other edge, from where he blitzed to force a grounding penalty. The Bucs ran over the Rams for a quarter and a half till Williams finally brought a run blitz to slow things down there. Then another blitz forced Winston to scramble on 3rd down, and after that came up short, the Rams stuffed Martin on 4th down. All these blitzes came on perfect blitzing downs, too. That and the continued smart strategy of having your best corner shadow the best WR held down the Buc passing game. But Williams didn't just call off the dogs at halftime, he replaced them with overweight cats. Tampa ripped soft coverage for a far-too-fast 98-yard TD drive. Then they had Williams off-balance the next drive, beating a blitz perfectly with a 33-yard run that set up a FG. They ended the game the way the Rams started it, pecking way-too-soft coverage to death underneath for another TD drive. The 2nd half defense was so uncompetitive I really don't even want to give Williams credit for at least running out the clock.

    Classic killer instinct by Jeff Fisher before halftime. The first play after the 2:00 warning, they stuff a run deep in the Tampa end and let the clock run 40 seconds instead of using a timeout. Gee, I wonder if the Rams could have used that time after starting their next possession across midfield. But, the Rams won the turnover battle, and both Buc turnovers were the product of uncomposed play. The Rams also have not committed many penalties in their past two wins. They're not beating themselves, while letting two teams known for that go ahead and do it. That's the kind of edge you expect from a veteran head coach.

    * Upon further review: Bigger than Eagles over Patriots, the biggest upset of the football season came this week in the form of a quite well-officiated game by... Jerome Boger?!?!? The usually flag-happy referee got the Rams only 5 times, Tampa 9. Tampa scored their last TD thanks to a healthy pushoff by the TE. Boger could have called more; several of Martin's big runs came courtesy of holds. Donteea Dye was down inside the 5 after catching a bomb in the 4th, and gave up the ball knowing it, but they made him look like an idiot voluntarily coughing up the ball when they should have called him down. But Boger made a good grounding call on Winston in the 1st, and when William Gholston kicked Robinson in the 2nd, and Robinson kicked back, I thought, here comes the idiot retaliation flag, but the crew flagged only Gholston. Best call of the game, except they also should have ejected him. I have to grade Boger on the curve here; it's a Christmas miracle that he doesn't botch a game he works, let alone do pretty well. Grade: A-minus

    * Cheers: So much going on here. First, the uniforms. I actually like the Rams' jersey, but the overall look of both teams' uniforms was hideous. The game looked like a giant version of an old, cheap electric football game. A lot of the players looked like they were running around in footie pajamas. They ruined the Rams' midfield logo by attempting to paint it yellow, turning it into a giant midfield nacho cheese Dorito chip. Ultimately, yes, this was the Condiment Bowl, mustard vs. ketchup. At least, when it wasn't the If-They-Return-To-St.Louis Bowl, a theme that CBS made wearisome pretty quickly. If Ian Eagle mentioned it once, he mentioned it a dozen times, while managing not to mention Los Angeles while promoing next week's Raiders-Chargers game. And he or Trent Green always approached from the angle of, what happens when St. Louis loses the Rams, not what has St. Louis done to keep the Rams. Rich Eisen pushed the annoyance needle to 11 with his halftime proclamation that the Rams were “going out in a blaze of mustard.” Thanks for taking so seriously that we could be losing football forever here. Last, the excellent St. Louis crowd (in quality, not quantity). Most of Winston's attempts to audible were botched plays. He and his teammates played like that crowd was in their heads. There were repeated “Keep The Rams” chants throughout the game, and brilliantly, at the end of the game, a clearly audible “Kroenke Sucks” chant on national TV that wins St. Louis' fans a game ball. Well played, people.

    * Who’s next?: What a difference a couple of months makes, huh? When the Rams knocked Seattle off in the Dome opening day, Nick Foles looked like a bona fide offensive leader, Frank Cignetti looked like he knew what he was doing at OC, the defense was about to dominate the league and the Rams had the NFL by the tail. The Seahawks started 2-4 and appeared to be on their way to a Super Bowl double-hangover.

    But while the Rams crashed back to earth, Seattle went on a 6-1 run that should get them into the playoffs. Fueled by otherworldly play by Russell Wilson, they’ve scored at least 29 points in five straight games. They’ve ascended to #5 in the league in total offense, and Wilson, with a ridiculous 16 TD passes in his last 4 games, is the #1 passer in the league, with a rating north of 110. With injuries costing the Seahawks Jimmy Graham, Marshawn Lynch and breakout rookie RB Thomas Rawls, Wilson has put the offense on his shoulders. League wisdom has always been to trap Wilson and make him throw from the pocket, but lately that’s where he’s doing all his damage. Doug Baldwin has gone nuts, with 8 TDs in his last 3 games, and is suddenly on track to be their first 1,000-yard receiver in years. Rookie Tyler Lockett is coming up big both in their quick passing game and as a deep threat. The Seahawks haven't run into a lot of quality corners on their current run, though, and Wilson didn’t even want to throw at Janoris Jenkins in September. Wilson credits his line for getting him enough time to make decisions, but Pittsburgh challenged the middle very successfully with blitzes, coming right up the gut a lot to get after Wilson quickly and trap him in the pocket. And that was without anyone up front dominating like Aaron Donald can. The Rams should be able to get some edge rush going, too. Garry Gilliam is average at best at RT, and Russell Okung looked dead-legged getting owned by 75-year-old James Harrison. The Rams have the strategy, personnel and experience to keep Wilson under plenty of pressure, even if they don’t sack him six times like they did opening week. And with Bryce Brown as the feature RB, the Rams should be able to focus on stopping Wilson. Russell is Russell, and is more than likely to pull some plays out of his, um, hat. But the Rams will disappoint if they don’t at least give the Seahawks a playoff-quality challenge.

    The Rams didn’t even have Todd Gurley on the field yet for that season-opening win, but, energized by the better-late-than-never return of Kam Chancellor, Seattle’s D is back to its dominant ways, #2 overall, #2 vs. the run, #6 vs. the pass. Seattle doesn't have to blitz a lot, but with a veritable Olympic track team at DE – Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Frank Clark, Bruce Irvin – it often looks like they are. Bennett’s speed was an Olympian problem for Greg Robinson in the first game. It’s so important to stop them early, though. They’ll adjust by lining their DEs up wider and wider, and that’s when you run at them. Trying to widen the offense like the Rams like to do is problematic with all that speed across the line. They absolutely bamboozled all-pro MLB Bobby Wagner with play-action in September, but it’s likelier this time out they’ll have to protect the edges early and run successfully up the middle. Good luck with that against career-long Ram-killer Brandon Mebane. Double-teaming him leaves somebody 1-on-1 with Ahtyba Rubin, not a household name, but he was terrifically disruptive against the Steelers, getting lots of penetration and even picking off Big Ben. The key to keeping Seattle’s pass rush off of Case Keenum is going to be throwing quickly. Richard Sherman will shut down Kenny Britt again, so the TEs have to step up and the Rams have to do damage with their slot WRs. Seattle STILL can’t cover the TE. Last time, Jared Cook killed them on play-action passes and Lance Kendricks burned them deep for a critical TD. They’re also susceptible to passes to backs out of the backfield, which Rob Boras really should work into the Ram passing game more. The Seahawks just got slot corner Jeremy Lane back, and have gotten solid play from 3rd-year CB DeShawn Shead, so the Rams are going to need a well-executed, attacking passing game to hang with the Seahawks. The offense also needs to take care of the ball; Seattle has thrived off turnovers lately. I’d also advise BOTH team’s punters not to be idiots like they were in September and kick directly to the opposing returner. Either team could easily get a game-turning play on special teams.

    The Rams haven’t won in Seattle since 2005, when Wilson was in high school, Gurley in grade school and St. Louisans still trusted Kroenke. Last year’s 20-6 flop was pretty typical of the Rams’ many dreary December defeats at Randomly-Named-Telcom Soccer Park. Seattle looks hot and playoff-bound, the Rams are playing out another string. This game’s a test of everyone’s mettle, though, because on paper, I see a lot of reason the Rams can compete next Sunday. But Jeff Fisher’s team will have to prove more than just paper tigers and be willing and able to put up a fight.

    -- Mike
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