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RamView: From The Couch

Erasing any doubt they are the NFL’s worst team, the epically inept Ram offense and bumbling special teams handed the 49ers THREE touchdowns today en route to a truly embarrassing loss, extending the franchise’s losing streaks to 14 overall, 12 in the NFC West. Even the SCLSU Mud Dogs never looked this bad.

* QB: That crashing sound you heard was the Kyle Boller bandwagon going into a ditch, after a Rams season-low 13-24-108 today for a 48.6 passer rating. It wasn’t for lack of a good start. He beat a blitz and hit Donnie Avery for 21, and later hit Daniel Fells for 18, to set up a FG attempt in the 1st. His best play of the day may have been a 3rd-and-5 throw to Randy McMichael late in the 1st half. Ray McDonald had jumped offside and was bearing down on him, but a very composed Boller hit the TE for 8 and the first down across midfield. Boller deserves credit for hanging in tough and taking quite a few shots. One thing that hurt his game today was that the 49ers shut down his scrambling lanes. And Boller suffered from plenty of what’s been sinking the Ram offense all season.

He got little help from his offensive line or the running game. Decent offensive gains were erased by penalties. There’s nothing Boller could do about special teams gaffes or crappy play-calling or lousy blitz pickups. And it’s doubtful he could have done anyfthing about Patrick Willis’ two perfectly-timed blitzes for sacks. Other downs saw him with sufficient time to throw, but lack of an open receiver led to a throwaway. Pressing to make a play despite these problems in the 3rd, Boller committed a grave error. Rolling right, he committed the cardinal sin of throwing back across his body and back to the middle of the field. Thinking he had Keenan Burton open, Boller hit Willis instead, for a 49er pick-six that broke open the dam, 21-0.

Possibly Burton should have done a better job coming to the ball, but that’s a throw a QB of Boller’s experience should be smarter than to try. Though Boller may have been the problem on that play, it’s hard to argue he was the main problem with the Ram offense today. He made most of the plays that were there for him to make. There just weren’t that many to make. It doesn’t matter much if it’s him, or Marc Bulger, or Keith Null, or Brock Berlin, or Norm van Brocklin, who takes snaps for this offense right now. It doesn’t look equipped or even designed to do anything other than blow up on the launching pad.

* RB: Ineffective day for Steven Jackson, 23-79 rushing, just 3-6 receiving, with a third of his rushing yards coming after the 49ers were already up 35-0. Jackson got some decent run blocking in the first half. Opening play of the game, Randy McMichael and Mike Karney give him a massive gap on the right side, but he can’t hit it and only gains a yard. A variety of Jackson’s skills got the Rams in FG position later in the first. Strong inside running, a nifty cutback run, bouncing a plugged-up run outside, taking a screen pass upfield. Jackson seemed to be right in the flow of the game.

But the next two possessions were 3-and-outs where Jackson only saw the ball for short runs on first down. His best run of the day came just before the 2:00 warning of the first half. On 2nd-and-20, he bounced a run outside for 15, driving Shawntae Spencer backward up the sideline for the last five yards. A first down followed. Then, playcalling kicked in, to Jackson’s detriment. A fake end-around meant to draw away OLB Parys Haralson didn’t, and Jackson was held to 2 yards. After an Alex Barron penalty, Jackson was the victim of a draw play call on 3rd-and-9.

He ran all over the field but was only able to net 2. Still, with 13 carries for 49 yards at halftime, it looked like Jackson was on his way to an effective day. But the 3rd quarter was a disaster, 5 carries for minus-2 and a dropped pass. They tried another draw play on 3rd-and-long. Nothing. Willis came untouched from the back side to stuff a pitchback run the next possession. Jackson didn’t even get the ball the next drive. Then Manny Lawson completely whipped McMichael and dropped Jackson for minus-6. Then Richie Incognito didn’t block Takeo Spikes and Jackson was stuffed for another no-gainer. No wonder on 3rd down that he dropped the (poorly-thrown) ball; everyone else on the offense was doing it figuratively.

Without the 49ers running away with a big lead, without the 3rd-quarter meltdown by the offensive line, with better play-calling, I’d like to have seen how Steven Jackson would have done today. As it was, he had to fight his own team too much to be successful, let alone the 49ers.

* WR: No receiver could break the 3-catch barrier this afternoon. Donnie Avery (3-47) made a nifty run after the catch for 22 to convert a 3rd-and-14 in the 1st, but that looked like the only time he was open downfield all day, not even 10 yards downfield at that. He also had 11- and 13- yard receptions off of quick screens. At least he got involved some. Keenan Burton (1-12) had one catch to convert a third down, but that was it. Daniel Fells (1-17) had a catch on the Rams’ second drive and was never heard from again. Randy McMichael (2-17) was a limited factor other than converting a couple of third downs. Boller missed each of the TEs wide open downfield once.

Ruvell Martin (0-0) thought he was open once; you could see him waving clear on the other side of the field from Boller on Willis’ INT TD. Sixty yards away, you’re not open, buddy. Danny Amendola (1-8) might as well have stayed home; his fumble on an end-around in the 4th led directly to San Francisco’s last TD. I don’t think Amendola’s got anyone to blame but himself there; it looked like Boller put the ball right where it was supposed to be. It’s gotten so bad with this receiving corps that the only way to get the ball in their hands reliably is with quick screens and handoffs, and even those are blowing up in the Rams’ faces.

* Offensive line: Boller was just lucky to survive the day behind “protection” that got him sacked five times and left him under constant pressure. Patrick Willis got to him twice with perfectly-timed blitzes and perfectly-bad blitz pickups by the backs. Jackson completely whiffed on him on a sack in the 1st, and Kenneth Darby fell over trying to pick him up on a sack late in the game. Willis was the first of TWO blitzers on that play to come right through a gap completely untouched and completely ignored by Jason Brown and Jacob Bell.

Takeo Spikes sacked Boller late in the 2nd; on that play, blitzers beat Jackson AND Mike Karney, with Alex Barron also getting beaten for good measure. After Barron’s illegal alignment ruined a scoring opportunity later in the 2nd, Steve Spagnuolo actually yanked him out of the game, curiously, in favor of John Greco, who I wasn’t aware had even practiced at LT in the NFL. A couple of other “sacks”, including another half-sack for Willis, were the product of Boller trying to scramble but with the 49ers doing a good job of closing down his running lanes. One of those resulted from both Greco and Adam Goldberg getting whipped and Boller having to run up his interior linemen’s backs. Greco at tackle is an interesting experiment, but he looked pretty lead-footed today compared to the fleet 49ers going up against him. There was some good run blocking in the first half.

Karney and McMichael gave Jackson the whole right side of the field on the first play of the game, but he didn’t get there until it closed up. Richie Incognito was, I must admit, the best of the Rams on the o-line. His strong drive block got Jackson 5 on an early drive, followed by a Jackson draw for 6 behind Brown’s solid block. Incognito WIPED OUT Nate Clements at the end of a screen pass in the first, and late in the half, Jackson got a nice 6-yard run behind, once again, Incognito and Brown. It all fell apart after halftime, though. Manny Lawson whipped McMichael and dropped Jackson for minus-6. Spikes stuffed Jackson for no gain after Incognito failed to block him at all.

Boller had to rush the 3rd-down throw, which Jackson dropped, after Incognito and Goldberg were BOTH beaten by rushing 49ers on a stunt. The Rams then got away from the run the rest of the quarter, not coming back to it until the game was well out of hand. If there’s a key to this game beyond the gross turnovers, it’s that the o-line let too much pressure get to Boller, and that the 49ers really beat them to the punch coming out of halftime. Hard to see things changing with the current group.

* Defensive line / LB: The blowout final score does no justice to the front seven’s performance, the only bright spot of the day. The 49er offense was responsible for just 14 points, and both of those TD drives started on the Rams’ half of midfield. The Rams sacked Shaun Hill four times and held Glen Coffee to a low-caf 74 yards and barely 3 yards a carry. They got plenty of hits on Hill and pressured him into throwing lots of checkdowns. Should have been more than enough to win, let alone lose by 5 TDs. Leonard Little blew up a Coffee run in the backfield to slow down San Francisco’s opening drive.

They held the Niners to a (missed) FG attempt in the 2nd thanks to long-awaited pass rush. Chris Long blew up Joe Staley to flush Hill into a blitzing Larry Grant for a 1st-down sack. C.J. Ah You followed that up with a terrific sack on 3rd down. He drove the guard blocking him into Hill before the QB could even finish a three-step drop, and got the takedown. Next drive, LaJuan (WHO?) Ramsey blew up a Coffee run and Little pressured an incomplete screen pass on 2nd down, with newcomer Paris Lenon doing a nice job to pick Coffee up in the flat. A huge rush by Ah You at the end of the half forced Hill into an intentional grounding call. James Hall came out of halftime on fire.

He sacked Hill (after Long flushed him again) to end the first drive after halftime. Hall stuffed the run and pressured and hit Hill throughout the half. The Rams got good play from the middle of the line. Cliff Ryan spilled Coffee for a 3rd-quarter loss. Ramsey and Gary Gibson and even Leger Douzable got to Hill for hits. Gibson really drilled Hill on the first play out of halftime. Little beat the Niner RT right off the snap to collect the Rams’ 4th sack of the day, but by then, they were behind 35-0. I don’t know what Steve Spagnuolo can say to his defense after it plays at an insanely high level while the team still gets smoked by 5 TDs. Every lineman had an effective game and the Rams controlled the line of scrimmage when the Niners had the ball. Hall was a wild man.

Little didn’t look like he’s slowed down any. Ah You made impressive plays. Long was disruptive in ways that won’t show on the score sheet. The LBs were strong against the run. What more could these guys have done? Play offense, too? “Starting at wide receiver… number 94… Victor Adeyanju!” (Hey, he’s gotta play sometime!)

* Secondary: Coverage breakdowns hurt the defense on the two TDs they did give up. Vernon Davis got a clean run off the line and just went straight upfield to beat James Laurinaitis and a too-late Anthony Smith for the 2nd Frisco TD, Smith in for Craig Dahl because Dahl was injured earlier. Josh Morgan’s TD in the 4th was a comedy of errors; neither Justin King nor O.J. Atogwe looked like they knew what they were doing on the 24-yard score. King trailed Morgan downfield by 5 yards, and Atogwe was well late getting over to help out, though it looked like there was little else brewing on his half of the field.

Atogwe and Bradley Fletcher looked asleep in the 3rd, letting Morgan inexplicably behind them for a 44-yard bomb the 49er receiver just as inexplicably dropped. Justin King looked good in coverage. He took away a slant route to force a Hill throwaway, forcing the missed FG attempt in the 1st. King looks like he needs to get a lot stronger, though.

He slid off Davis to allow a 21-yard pass on 3rd-and-13 in the 1st, and he whiffed miserably in the backfield on a Delanie Walker end-around that gained 16 on 2nd-and-11 in the 3rd. Though nothing ultimately came of them, the DBs drew a couple of painful third-down DPIs. Beyond the breakdowns, though, the Ram secondary did a good job of making it difficult for Hill to find open receivers. Considering Ron Bartell didn’t play due to injury, you’d have to say the very young Ram DBs held up pretty well.

* Special teams: The day appeared off to a great start when Amendola returned the opening kickoff 91 yards, inside the 49ers’ 5-yard line. He cut back off a Mike Karney block, got a big alley and was gone. Except he also apparently got a hold from Anthony Smith. Special teams settled into brutal dysfunction from there. Josh Brown missed a 51-yard FG to end one of the Rams’ rare decent drives. The kick was reportedly into a strong wind, and the snap was bad, but the highest-paid kicker in the NFL is still 1-for-4 this season. The wind also made Donnie Jones look just-human, averaging under 43 a boot.

After Barron’s penalty knocked the Rams from the red zone to being out of FG range late in the 1st half, Jones’ punt landing 5 yards deep in the end zone was particularly galling. And it wouldn’t be the Rams’ special teams if they didn’t hand the other team a TD. Or, in this case, foot, as Quincy Butler got too close to a poor, bouncing punt, wasn’t waved off by returner Amendola, and kicked it into the end zone, where the 49ers recovered. Butler had a chance to fall on the muffed punt in the end zone, which I’m pretty sure would have been a touchback, but he compounded the mistake by trying to run with it. Amendola was no factor the rest of the game and contributed a fumble returned for a TD on offense. Good thing the Rams got rid of Derek Stanley!

* Coaching: Wow, who thought that after four weeks, the Pat Shurmur offense would have Rams Nation pining for the return of Al Saunders? Draw plays on third-and-long have their place, if you’ve done anything to stretch out the field and spread the defense. Shurmur’s offense hasn’t. I don’t think they’ve tried a long downfield pass since Bulger’s desperation throw at the end of the Washington game. Like with Saunders last year, no one’s buying the fake end-arounds, like Parys Haralson didn’t in stuffing a Jackson run before halftime, because the Rams always fake it and never run a real one. Well, I take that back; they tried, of course, with the bizarre end-around left for Amendola piggybacked onto a fake end-around left for Avery. I think Shurmur just outsmarted himself there. If they had just handed off to Avery, it looked like he had a lane good for at least 10 yards. Simpler is better sometimes.

Or maybe have Amendola lead and give the ball to the guy who’s been here longer than a week? And I don’t know what was behind having SAMKON GADO as the tailback on 3rd-and-1 on the 49er 32 in the 1st quarter, with Jackson on the bench. There has to have been a blocking mistake on that play, too. Who would design a play to have Barron cut-block, Bell pulling right and a great big gap for the OLB to run right through and help himself to the ball-carrier? Again, simpler is better, even in the current Ram offense, which can hardly be described as risk-taking. And down 21-0 in the 3rd, Jackson doesn’t see the ball on a possession in favor of passes to Avery (1st down), Mike Karney (no gain), Daniel Fells and Ruvell Martin? Is he your bell cow, or your black sheep?

The defensive game plan, in contrast, was a lot more like it. The Rams weren’t afraid to blitz this week and did a fine job of keeping pressure in Hill’s face. The four-DE alignment paid off for at least two of the Rams’ four sacks; the blitz got another. Two big plays to Morgan, though, beat blitzes, including the TD pass to him in the 4th.

I hope Steve Spagnuolo will be asked some personnel questions this week, not just the Gado-for-Jackson swap in the 1st. How well did he expect John Greco to play at left tackle? How many screen plays has he run from LT to know not to get too far downfield? Why are we running trick plays with Danny Amendola near the goal line when he’s been here a week? How many handoffs do you suppose he’s taken from Boller? Has he fielded enough punts to know to call Butler off in the situation that occurred today?

Anthony Smith’s gotten enough turns on special teams to avoid that critical holding penalty? How much can you “churn” a roster before you run into communications problems on the field because some of the guys just met a couple of days ago? Ten penalties, ugly turnovers, an offense that can’t get out of its own way – the Rams looked truly like a poorly-coached team today. The coaching staff needs a bounceback week here as much as anybody.

* Upon further review: Though Tony Corrente is a California native, referees a curious number of Rams-at-49ers games, and called the Rams 10 times for 73 yards vs. 3-for-33 for the 49ers, he didn’t actually appear to mess much up. Anthony Smith’s holding penalty erased Amendola’s 91-yard kick return to start the game and probably cost the Rams a TD. Especially if that was far from the action like I think it was, you know what? Don’t do that. Barron cost the Rams a first down inside the 20 late in the half by lining up off the line of scrimmage.

Do linemen in the NFL get away with that all the time? Yes. But you know what? DON’T DO THAT. The Rams had 12 men in the huddle before one play. DON’T DO THAT. Much as I’d love to blame Corrente, it’s not his fault that Greco’s ineligible downfield on a screen pass, or LaJuan Ramsey goes to a 49er’s head, or that the Rams can’t get lined up properly for a spike play at the end of a half, or that Billy Bajema commits a block in the back on a kickoff that was only returned to the 14 anyway. The worst call of the day was the DPI where Hall hooked Hill’s arm, because Corrente never specified who the penalty was on. He’s a favorite officiating target, but don’t blame Corrente for today’s calls. Blame the Rams for giving him so much to call in the first place. He gets a B today. The Rams get an F.

* Cheers: Ron Pitts and John Lynch’s appearance in the broadcast booth was a welcome relief to those of us dreading the first Matt Vasgersian call of the season. Lynch might as well have been a hometown Rams broadcaster, given the generous way he played up the Rams’ future in the 4th. Lynch sounds convinced the Rams are on the right track.

Whether that’s defensive guys sticking together, or the kind of analysis that had many commentators saying last year that Jim Haslett should stay the Rams’ head coach, remains to be seen. The Rams are wearing throwback uniforms next week; in that spirit, they should throw back the stupid Good Humor man duds, in which they’re 0-2 this season and have been outscored 63-0. Those unis are ugly and cursed.

* Who’s next?: If they were playing anybody besides the Rams next week, the Minnesota Vikings would be walking right into a trap game. After a miracle win over San Francisco and a Monday night war with the Packers, they go on the road and have a short week to prepare. Classic trap scenario. Too bad for the Rams that they’re, well, the Rams. They won’t have the ability on special teams to exploit Minnesota’s historic weakness (9 TDs allowed since week 1 of 2008) there. Likelier we’ll see big plays by lethal Vikings returners Percy Harvin and (if healthy) Darius Reynaud.

The Ram defense may be able to slow Adrian Peterson down into having just a good day instead of a dominating day. They’ll need good pursuit down the line and make him wait as long as possible before getting turned upfield. A strong day in run support from the safeties will help. Plus, when Peterson does break into the second level, a safety will have to be on the spot to prevent 10-yard runs from becoming 50-yarders. In a lot of third down situations, the Vikings won’t even have Peterson on the field, which should help a lot. Then the Rams have to stop Brett Favre. Legend or not, the majority of passes he’ll throw will be five-yarders. He’s a manager of the offense just like the Rams QB is supposed to be, except he has an offensive line, a running game and receivers.

If the Rams line stays solid up the middle, they’ll at least prevent him from stepping up in the pocket and making his most dangerous plays. Stack the box on first and second down, get Favre running outside the pocket on passing downs and hope for some of the dumb off-balance throws that have helped make him the NFL’s all-time interceptions leader. Otherwise, he’ll make plays like the one at the end of their win over the 49ers that have helped make him a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Favre’s most dangerous targets are Harvin, for his breakaway speed, and Visanthe Shiancoe, because he’s a tight end playing against the Rams. If the Rams hold their own in the middle against second-year center John Sullivan and defend sideline-to-sideline, they’ll have a chance at respectability, anyway.

The Ram offense, meanwhile, is likely to score negative points against another of the league’s defensive juggernauts. Let’s face it. They’ve got nobody who’s going to be able to block sackmaster Jared Allen. Jason Brown would have his hands full with man-mountain Pat Williams on a good day. After missing most of 2008 with a foot injury, MLB E.J. Henderson is back on form and appears on his way to a career season. Antoine Winfield can surely shut down any Ram receiver that dares venture more than eight yards downfield. And their most disruptive player is Kevin Williams, who Richie Incognito will have to slow down in what could be the matchup of the day. Maybe try watching that instead of exposing your eyes to the toxic wretchedness that is the Ram offense.

Better yet, assuming there isn’t a sweep in the series, watch Game 4 of the Cardinals’ playoff series against the Dodgers. The Cardinals will probably outscore the Rams for the day, anyway. My kingdom for a bye week.

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