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RamView – Week 3 – 9/27

RamView, September 27, 2009
From Row HH
(Report and opinions from the game.)

Game #3: Packers 36, Rams 17

Trying to give the Packers more than they expected today, the Rams bogged down in turnovers, penalties, and a defense yet to learn that bend-but-don’t-break doesn’t mean bend over backwards. And in the end, the Rams may have been the ones getting something they weren’t expecting. Like maybe a quarterback controversy?

The full report is after the jump!

* QB: Marc Bulger (3-4-23) had a painful day that came to a painful end. He wiped out modest early success with a fumble inside his own 20 late in the 1st quarter, as Aaron Kampman wheeled around right tackle and stripped him from behind. Bulger was just too unaware of that non-blind-side pressure and not protecting the ball well enough there. Luckily, that only cost the Rams three points. Bulger was also injured on that play, what’s currently being called a bruised shoulder. Kyle Boller (16-31-164) entered in the 2nd, and after opening with his best Rick Ankiel impression, settled down and sparked the Rams into turning a blowout into a competitive game. He kept a drive alive with 3rd-down passes to Laurent Robinson and Kenneth Darby before firing a perfect pass to Daniel Fells in the far right end zone for the Rams’ first TD. That drive also featured Boller insanely trying to lead-block for Jackson, throwing a big hit on a cutback. Boller answered again after Green Bay extended the lead to 23-7, taking the offense 84 yards in under 2:00, capped off by another perfect TD throw to Fells, this time in the far left end zone. Key plays to set that up: a 16-yard pass to Keenan Burton and a 13-yard scramble. Boller ran 4 times for 31 yards, which looks like a necessary release valve for the Rams’ stuttering offense, while also being a gear Bulger doesn’t really have. But after pulling within 23-14 at halftime, Boller couldn’t sustain momentum. The Rams settled for a FG when Boller scrambled and threw a pass well short of Donnie Avery inside the 10. Unfortunately he didn’t see Danny Amendola breaking open late for an easier first down. A deflection nearly intercepted by Johnny Jolly killed another drive, as did a Randy McMichael drop. Things gradually fell apart for Boller as the Packers consistently got good pressure on his rollouts. Down 12 again in the 4th, Boller could only produce a weak 3-and-out and then an interception by Charles Woodson, jumping a telegraphed pass over the middle for Amendola. Accuracy’s an issue for Boller that it isn’t for Bulger. Boller missed several open receivers on the sidelines, in a variety of ways, too; overthrows, one-hoppers, you name it. Despite the pretty TD passes, I haven’t known Boller to be a very accurate sideline thrower. That and the pick helped drop his passer rating to 75.2, or about where Bulger’s been all season, but while scoring double Bulger’s TD output for the season. I know, I know. The most popular player on a losing football team is the backup QB. There are clear weaknesses in Boller’s game. At the same time, he gave the Ram offense a jolt of energy today, and his running and pocket mobility seem to make him a more natural fit than Bulger for what the Rams want to do on offense. Who knows? Maybe Boller is the Rams’ version of Shaun Hill. Hill’s a terrible QB, but his team responds to him behind center, and they probably should be 3-0 right now. Either way, Steve Spagnuolo will be left an interesting decision when and if Marc Bulger is cleared to play again.

* RB: Before we consign Marc Bulger to the dustbin of Rams history, though, let’s note that Boller got a lot more help from Steven Jackson in the game plan than Bulger did either of the first two games. Jackson ran for 117 on 27 carries and led the team in receiving with 5 catches for 46. He ran well in every direction, especially up the middle, where he had three carries of 10 yards or more. His biggest run of the day came around left end, which Green Bay basically left vacant on that play, for 20. Jackson got to show off a lot of versatility, too, as a receiver out of the backfield, a downfield receiver, actually picking up the blitz effectively, even running the offense in Wildcat formation a couple of times. He looked to be pretty strictly sticking to running where the plays were designed to go. He followed Mike Karney in the two-back set, and passed up what actually looked like some wide-open opportunities to bounce plays outside and cut inside instead. One of those, unfortunately, was the play where he fumbled deep in Ram territory in the first. He barged around left tackle and was held up by several Packers before one finally stripped the ball. Jackson plays with laudable effort, but sometimes you’ve gotta know when to go down. He also helped Boller convert a 4th-down plunge with a “Bush Push”. Jackson didn’t really beat anybody with quickness today, though. You see those wide-open swaths of space and want him to bounce out there. You see him isolated on a DB downfield and want him to juke the guy and sprint off another 20 yards. Jackson doesn’t have that. This is the Ram offense – Jackson left, Jackson right, Jackson middle, Jackson early and often. That’s fine, and Jackson’s great, to a point. But you can see the need to mix in a quicker, more elusive back sometimes.

* WR: Well, at least it’ll be fun to watch fantasy football columns tout Daniel Fells (2-35) for a week. (“Start him! He’s receiving additional touches!”) Fells made nice catches of nice Boller throws, despite being blanketed by Brandon Chillar both times, for both Ram TDs in the 2nd to help keep things close. Randy McMichael’s (2-24) blocking was improved this week, but he cursed himself all the way back to the sideline after a drive-killing drop in the 3rd. The Rams’ WR situation devolved almost into a total joke with Laurent Robinson’s (2-26) ankle injury right before halftime. He was blocking on a run and Jackson rolled up on him. The offense sure couldn’t rely on Donnie Avery, an ineffectual 3-12 with a drop, no downfield looks and an early departure in the 4th due to a rib injury. Holy cats. Danny Amendola the kick returner’s on the Eggle practice squad one week; he’s the Rams’ #2 wideout the next. Keenan Burton (3-37), though, shows nice potential if he can stay healthy. He plays bigger than his size, and transitions from receiver to runner very well to get decent YAC. Hopefully he’ll get some help from whoever the Rams find in a van down by the river in the coming week and gets both some open space and an extended look.

* Offensive line: It’s hard to give the offensive line a good grade on a day where they let the starting QB get killed. RT continues to be a very weak link in the Ram offense. The Rams made many efforts to run behind Adam Goldberg without much happening, and Goldberg gave up the sack by Aaron Kampman that forced a Bulger fumble and likely put him out of the game. At the same time, they didn’t give up any other sacks, and Jackson averaged 4.3 a carry. Jason Brown and Richie Incognito moved Packers aside for an early 11-yard Jackson run up the middle. Jackson also followed fullback Mike Karney for a couple of nice runs. The line got good help from Jackson on blitz pickups and better-than-usual blocking from McMichael. Incognito didn’t get off to a fast start. Jackson lost 1 on the game’s first play because he couldn’t move Johnny Jolly, and Ryan Pickett made Richie look just bad in stuffing Jackson for -2 a few plays later. Boller got some heat from blitzes off the edges but was able to run away from it, thanks to the middle of the line giving him a pocket to step up into. The line didn’t seem to protect very well on rollouts, but there may have been screen action where they’re supposed to let defenders filter through. I imagine this was the o-line’s best performance so far this season, but results were decidedly mixed.

* Defensive line / LB: The Rams didn’t really get whipped in the trenches on either side of the ball. They played the run well. At least 25 of Ryan Grant’s 99 yards came after the game was well in hand. Will Witherspoon was very active and looked good stuffing the run. The Ram linemen held Grant to a bunch of short carries. LaJuan (WHO?) Ramsey stopped Grant for a loss to set the bend-but-don’t-break point on Green Bay’s opening drive. Gary Gibson had 5 tackles and a couple of stuffs for no gain. The worst play of the day for the run defense was actually a one-yard gain – a TD run by somebody named John Kuhn in the 2nd. The entire Ram defense got moved far too easily to the left for a goal-line situation. Bowie Kuhn could have scored that TD. A couple of young Rams looked like pretty limited factors today. James Laurinaitis landed only 3 tackles and I couldn’t find him in the flow of play much. At least I could find him. The amount of time Chris Long was off the field in pass rush situations caught me off guard. And Long wasn’t a strong run force, either, with some of Grant’s better gains run at him. Leonard Little was the star of the day on pass rush, the only one, unfortunately, with two sacks that helped save the Rams eight points by forcing FGs. He smoked Allen Barbre and sacked Aaron Rodgers to force a FG on Green Bay’s opening drive, and with good help from downfield coverage, scalped Barbre and got to Rodgers again for a big loss to force a FG after Bulger’s fumble in the 1st. But that leaves three quarters where the Rams weren’t getting a lot of pressure on the Packer QB, and for the second straight week, they got burned by QB scrambles (4-37). Two of those got the Packers inside the 10 to finish off touchdown drives. Terrible tactics, and Hollis Thomas getting handled at the goal line, helped Rodgers finish one of those drives with a run himself. Rodgers got the Ram pass rush to literally stop about a half-dozen times with highly-effective play fakes. He’d fake the handoff and go almost totally limp, and the Ram linemen would just quit coming after him. Pass rush continues to be the most disappointing aspect of the Rams this season. The Bengals had one guy sack Rodgers five times last week. I’m not sure the Rams even got to Rodgers that many times, including the times Little sacked him. He was free to step into long passes all day, and unconstrained from taking off downfield when he couldn’t find a receiver. Even with all the roster turnover, even with a head coach who cut his teeth on a defense with a dominating pass rush, the Rams’ pass rush continues to be an epic fail.

* Secondary: Last week, the secondary needed more help from the pass rush; this week, even the Fearsome Foursome couldn’t have done enough up front to cover for the backfield’s many breakdowns and letdowns. Ron Bartell’s day was highly disappointing (though I now understand he was playing with a thigh injury). All he did all day was trail Packer receivers who had beaten him downfield. Greg Jennings burned him for 50 right before the first half 2:00 warning to get Green Bay out of a 3rd-and-7 hole in their own end and set up a TD to put them up 23-7. Imagine what the game’s like if the Rams force a punt there instead of giving up a 50-yard bomb. Next play, Rodgers rolls left and the Rams cover his two closest options, but Jonathan Wade gets turned inside out by Donald Driver in the end zone to give Rodgers an even better option. Wade just can’t let that happen. Maybe negligent play like that is why Bradley Fletcher was in for Wade earlier in the game, to get burned by Driver for 46 on what would have been DPI if not for Driver’s brilliant one-handed catch. That bomb also set up a Packer TD. And that’s not the last time the Rams got bombed, as Jennings zinged Bartell again for 53 at the start of the 4th. And guess what, that bomb set up another Packer TD, and a 12-point lead that would prove insurmountable. The Packers topped it off with FULLBACK John Kuhn’s SECOND TD of the day, the same simple play-action pass to the fullback in the flat that’s been fooling the Rams since approximately forever, with David Vobora as the victim this time. The secondary didn’t get any help on the injury front, either, losing James Butler on their first play due to a sprained knee, though it looked like Craig Dahl filled in for him well. That’d be the secondary’s one bright spot today. But this game was highly, highly winnable had the secondary not suddenly picked this week to get lit up. Or should I say fondued?

* Special teams: Danny Amendola sparked some early excitement with a 42-yard kick return, but after that, didn’t look any different than any other Rams kick returner the last ten years who got taken down around the 20 without any blocking, except for his dangerous tendency to go airborne at the end of returns. If that doesn’t eventually result in an injury, or a turnover, I don’t know what will. Amendola did average 11 yards on 2 punt returns, taking them straight upfield, and showed nice burst, though he isn’t the only returner lately to show that, and won’t be the last. Team MVP and the league’s best punter, Donnie Jones, blasted for a 54-yard average, with two sixty-plus-yarders and three kicks downed or fielded inside the 10, including one downed by Quincy Butler at the 2. Josh Brown hit a 53-yard bomb and his miss wasn’t his fault, as Johnny Jolly blew right over Chris Massey and by Hollis Thomas to block an attempt at the end of the Rams’ opening drive. Jones shoved Will Blackmon out of bounds attempting to make an even bigger play on the return. May have saved 4 points. Like I said, team MVP.

* Coaching: Was that Rick Venturi calling the Ram defense today? The Rams blitzed early but gave up on it, despite the ripeness of Green Bay’s makeshift offensive line for an aggressive attack. That was disappointing, because the Rams sure didn’t make up for it in pass coverage. Why was Fletcher covering Driver early in the game instead of Wade? Wade’s play the first two weeks didn’t suggest to me that he should be losing reps to Fletcher. The Rams were way too fooled by Rodgers’ play-faking, something that adequate coaching should have had them prepared for. And somebody feel free to correct me on this one, because I want to be wrong. On second-and-goal at the Rams’ 4-yard-line in the 4th, tell me the Rams were not zone-blitzing. Tell me I did not see defensive tackle Gary Gibson madly back-pedaling into his own end zone while Rodgers basically just ran through the large space he vacated for a TD. Tell me something else was going on there, because I do not want to believe Ken Flajole just made the worst defensive play-call of all time. This is supposed to be an attacking defense, well, except that it doesn’t blitz most of a game and has its tackles bailing out at the snap, even backed up on their own goal line. Help me out here.

Pat Shurmur wisely increased Jackson’s role in the offense, approximately doubling it this week. That’s what the Rams are supposed to be doing offensively, isn’t it? And with two touchdown catches from the position, I certainly won’t complain about the TEs not being involved. (In fact, both TEs ran routes into the end zone on Fells’ TD catches. The TD plays were mirror images of one another.) It’s also kind of a tell that Shurmur prefers a more mobile QB when he’s immediately calling roll-outs for Boller when he gets into the game. But Shurmur has a tough chore ahead trying to pump up the Ram passing game. Most of today’s passing offense seemed constrained within ten yards of the line of scrimmage; more effort has to be made to stretch the field. How many long passes have the Rams thrown the last two weeks? One? On the other hand, I fully realize Shurmur may very well lack the talent, and now the health, at WR to adequately stretch the field without just throwing downs away.

Steve Spagnuolo no doubt sees that, while also seeing the offense coming closer to being what he said it was going to be. I would like to see him re-commit this week to making sure his defense continues to advance toward what he said it was going to be. This week was a large step in the wrong direction.

* Upon further review: Really? The Rams and Packers each had six penalties today? Sure didn’t feel that even at the beginning of the game, when it seemed like Walt Coleman and crew were calling the Rams for everything short of jaywalking and mail fraud. They missed a pretty clear block in the back by Green Bay on one punt. The official was looking right at it, which mystifies. I felt the Goldberg hold that retracted a 19-yard Jackson run was more a case of erstwhile victim Jolly embellishing the play by taking a dive. If Goldberg actually did something that play to knock a 330-pound man off his feet, he should quit football tomorrow and become a superhero. And they picked up a flag for a facemask committed against Jackson after saying he was actually grabbed by the shoulder. Then when the play came up on the Jumbotron, it sure looked like he was facemasked. I’ll give Coleman a B and leave it at that.

* Cheers: The Cheese-out feared for today didn’t really go as expected. I wouldn’t estimate a lot more than 15,000 Packers fans present. Don’t laugh – I thought it would be a lot worse. The cheesers weren’t loud when their team was on defense, just for big Packer plays. The Dome was much less hostile to the home team than had been concerned. And the home crowd did the Rams proud today (for 54 minutes, anyway), generating good decibels most of the game, well louder than any cheering Packers fans did. As for as the abrupt mass exodus after Boller’s INT, we’ll have to work on that. Deacon Jones’ jersey retirement went well. The Rams put together a good video package. George Allen’s son Bruce enthusiastically recapped Deacon’s achievements and called him the greatest defensive player of all time. No argument here. Or from Deacon, whose acceptance began, “everything he said… is right!”. The halftime show was a women’s pro football exhibition. Let’s just say I’m still working out my feelings about that.

* Who’s next?: For at least a decade, the NFC West has been won by teams where offense rules and defense drools. Sure, recent NFC West champs have had defensive playmakers, from London Fletcher to Aeneas Williams to Lofa Tatupu to Adrian Wilson, but the NFC West champions going back to The Greatest Show on Earth have almost always been teams that made their identities on offense. By building their team around a tough defense, though, San Francisco, much as I hate to say it, is poised to take charge of the division in 2009, and for a while.

It stands to reason that a team coached by Mike Singletary would be strong on defense, and that it would be led by a linebacker. Patrick Willis personifies the defense he leads: fast, strong, physical, always swarming to the ball, covering the field sideline to sideline. The two-time Pro Bowler has already intercepted Kurt Warner and broken one of Matt Hasselbeck’s ribs this season, so the Rams QB had better keep one eye on him at all times. With Nate Clements finally playing up to the value of his mega-contract, the Niner secondary is playing lockdown ball. All Seattle could do against them was check down, and it took Arizona a quarter and a half just to get a ball to Fitzgerald or Boldin. The Ram receivers will be little match the way the Niner secondary is playing right now.  The Rams will have to have to get the TE involved: 1, because they’re running out of receivers, and 2, it’ll help keep Manny Lawson honest on the edge of their 3-4. He and last year’s team sack leader Parys Haralson will be threats from the edges. And good luck attacking the 49er run D – they’re great at stringing out sweeps, and solid up the middle with NT Aubreyo Franklin. Conventional weapons, at least the ones in the Rams’ arsenal, won’t be enough to attack San Francisco next week. They’re going to have to really mix up the run game, maybe run on them in dime defense situations. They’d be well-advised to run some no-huddle; that was about the only offense Arizona or Seattle could move the ball well in the first two weeks. A breath of creativity for this offense could be a breath of life.

The Rams may catch a break, or actually a sprain, on defense as Frank Gore will be questionable at best next Sunday due to an injured ankle. The Rams could be seeing a lot of Michael Robinson instead. Gore’s 200-yard day against Seattle may raise concern, but that Seahawk D was very depleted up the middle, minus Tatupu and Brandon Mebane. Robinson would have had 200, too, given those absences and the hideous safety play by Jordan Babineaux on both of Gore’s long TD runs. Gore got nowhere against Arizona’s run blitzes week 1, so they ran a bunch of trap plays against Seattle. If the Rams remain strong up the middle against San Francisco’s improving offensive line and get good backing from safety, and can keep the Niner running game from turning the corner on them, they can play mostly eight in the box and make Shaun Hill beat them. Hill telegraphs his passes, looks like a shot-putter when he throws and is as underwhelming as any QB in the league, but at the same time, he moves their offense the best, so the job is his. Hmm. Though many of his throws would be challenged by a stiff wind, the 49ers will have Hill take a shot or two deep, but the most productive receiver stands to be his favorite checkdown, Vernon Davis. Uh-oh, a TE the Rams have to cover. Getting pressure in Hill’s face will be paramount, but it has been all season, and this defensive line has not rallied to the cause. Anybody interested in helping Leonard Little out?

Many argue that the Rams-49ers rivalry isn’t that big a deal any more, or that the Rams would be an easy and sensible team to re-align in the future because they don’t have any good rivalries in the NFC West. I think that’s the Rams’ recent failure in the division talking. Did baseball’s Dodgers and Giants lose their rivalry, even after moving clear across the country? Not at all. The Rams and 49ers have been going at it for over 50 years. This year’s Rams will meet them twice, just like Marshall Faulk’s Rams did, just like Chuck Knox’s did, just like Eric Dickerson’s did, just like Jackie Slater’s did. Just like Deacon Jones’ Rams did. Is it a great rivalry right now? Maybe not. But it is time-honored. It can’t hurt to get the team up for the sake of the rivalry and see what happens, can it?


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