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RamView: Preseason Week 2 – The Best of the Rest

* Secondary: Back from injury, Ron Bartell stopped Cleveland’s opening drive with a nice pass breakup, and absolutely stuffed a 2nd-quarter smoke route to Josh Cribbs, before leaving the game with a neck stinger. A fine outing, but I thought the secondary’s star of the night was Craig Dahl. With Hillis “hulking up” for the home crowd and threatening to run through the Ram defense like he was Bronko Nagurski, the hard-nosed Dahl stuck said nose in there repeatedly to stop the Hillis Express, usually one-on-one. He slowed Hillis’ momentum with a stop right after the 9-yard run where he “hulked up”, and stopped Hillis COLD for a loss on 4th-and-2 the next possession, one of the game’s pivotal plays. Dahl has already made more plays against the run than James Butler did all of last season and should absolutely be the starting SS Opening Day. Good night for Quincy Butler as well. He blanketed Cameron Mitchell and picked off a deep sideline pass from Wallace and only gave up a TD to Cribbs because of incompetent officiating. Marquis Johnson didn’t even seem that terrible tonight, though Cribbs appeared able to get open on Antoine Thompson any time he wanted. In all, the secondary did a great job backing up the front seven tonight. They covered long enough to give the rush time to get good pressure and, led by Dahl, supported the run defense nicely.

* Special teams: The worry on special teams soon is going to be teams looking to steal coach Tom McMahon away, because he has turned a unit that was an embarrassment for almost a decade into a decided team strength. The injured Josh Brown was 4-for-4 on FGs, all short ones that he seemed to kick very gingerly. Kickoff coverage didn’t suffer from shorter kicks, though, as long as the referees were awake. Dahl stopped the lethal Cribbs nicely on the second kickoff, and Grant stripped him for a fumble on the first punt, with Chris Massey making the recovery to set up a FG. Dominique Curry was really hitting on teams, absolutely CLOCKING Cyndric Steptoe on a punt return in the 2nd. Carpenter was often the first guy down the field on kicks, though he was hit or miss as a tackler. Onobun made another good stop on punt coverage. Though he seemed to bobble just about every ball he caught, Mardy Gilyard was impressive returning punts and kicks. He brought just about every kickoff out across the 30(!) and had a 24-yard punt return in the first off a solid block by Darby. Gilyard looks bigger than I expected, gets upfield quickly, sees the field well, cuts quickly and runs through arm tackles. I need to see him a lot more secure catching the ball, but you have to really like his potential as a returner. If the Rams have any issue on special teams right now, it’s that they look pretty slow getting downfield on punts and are susceptible to longer returns.

The rest after the jump!

* Strategery: For all the dumpoffs and screens to Chris Ogbonnaya the Rams coaching staff is having Sam Bradford throw, they might as well have drafted Ndamukong Suh and let HIM play QB. 3rd-and-8 from the Cleveland 21 in the 1st, they have a Heisman Trophy winner throwing a 3-yard slant. First-and-10, same spot on the field the next possession, they line up trips right… and have EVERYBODY run a 6-yard comeback route. 3rd-and-10 two plays later, 3-yard pass to Donnie Avery. Maybe Sam’s giving up on his downfield options early and just checking down quickly. With this team’s wide receivers, that’s completely possible. But the Rams didn’t draft Sam Bradford and pay him $50 million just so he can dink and dunk his way downfield. They have A.J. Feeley for that. Hell, they have Keith Null for that. If Pat Shurmur doesn’t get this offense opened up for Bradford, he’s wasting Sam’s time, and ours, and should expect to spend his time elsewhere very, very soon. Another week of Sam Bradford playing patty-cake is not going to be acceptable. I can’t believe I’m arguing a coach needs to be more like Scott Linehan, but compared to what the Lions did with Matthew Stafford last preseason, or the Jets with Mark Sanchez, the Rams have Bradford in a damn straitjacket. Free Sam Bradford! I can’t believe that has to be said.

Vanilla pervades this team like an episode of Happy Days, though like that series, it was successful for a time. Most of the blitzing was done in the last 2:00 of the first half, which was a shame, because it worked. Long knocked down a pass that would have been a huge gainer for Hillis, and Laurinaitis put a hit on Delhomme the next play to kill the drive. A couple of blitzes did get beat, but tonight’s ROBI (return on blitz investment) seemed acceptable, and the 4-man rush was usually good enough to merit the take-it-slow approach for a change. More vanilla that worked was Steve Spagnuolo opting for the FG on 4th-and-goal from the 3 in the 4th down 17-13. It certainly set up the winning FG kick later, which you can’t argue with, but how much work does Josh Brown need kicking 20-yard FGs? I’d have thought it a bigger risk to have Brown slip on the wet turf and reinjure himself, vs. failing on 4th down and making Cleveland take over on their own goal line.

Maybe Spagnuolo should have sent Bradford in to throw a 3-yard pass on 4th-and-goal; it appears to be the only range at which he appears to trust him.

* Waiver bait: The good news for injured wideouts like Gibson and Brandon McRae is that no one is doing anything to pull away from them while they’re out. (No WR on this team can pull away from anybody, apparently.) I have no clue who’s shaking out at WR right now, though Burton’s night was discouraging. Curry did a nice job giving the coaches something to think about with his special teams play, though, and could be giving Kent a push. Chamberlain and Thompson still haven’t shown NFL-level coverage skills, even in the 2nd half of preseason games. And I’m not sure any running back on this team would even make another NFL roster. OK, probably that #39.

* Upon further review: Pathetic, atrocious, F-minus grade for the Walt Anderson crew tonight, which handed Cleveland 11 of their 17 points. The ball was still moving in Ben Watson’s hand when his knee touched out of bounds on the play they correctly called incomplete, only to have Anderson dumbfoundingly reverse to a TD after getting to see slow-motion evidence that He. DIDN’T. Catch. It. Josh Cribbs’ TD catch came off a generous shove off of Quincy Butler. No call. Joe Haden’s first kickoff return, a near-TD, was only that dangerous because of a blatant hold along the sideline and Titus Brown impressively taking out two Rams, but completely illegally, with an obvious shove in the back. Penalty flags seem to fly on 75% of kicking plays in preseason, but this crew couldn’t see any of that. And Gocong absolutely should have been called for roughing the passer on the play where Feeley was hurt. Sorry they don’t rain out football games, fellas, but you’ll have to do a LOT better than that.

* Cheers: First chance to hear Martin Kilcoyne and Aeneas Williams call a game this year, and they did a decent job. I like that Kilcoyne stuck to business and that even though this was a road game, he could sense the fan base would be frustrated with the lack of downfield offensive attack, and called the team out on it. He was probably frustrated with it himself. Williams is as good as anybody doing color for NFL games right now, though admittedly that’s a low hurdle. He was oddly obsessed with the Dog Pound, which I doubt plays a big role in preseason games, and often said something when nothing would have sufficed. Some of his play breakdowns weren’t explained well enough for me as a partially-educated fan, but I really appreciated his breakdown of the long completion to Stuckey at the end of the 2nd, because I was totally ready to blame the wrong guy, Marquis Johnson, for that. He also pointed out the missed roughing call committed on Feeley. If this is Aeneas’ only preseason in the booth like almost every other Rams color commentator before him, he’ll at least leave a positive impression.

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