RamView, August 14, 2009
From The Couch
(Report and opinions on the game.)
Preseason Game #1: Rams 23, Jets 20
Last year's disastrous preseason opener led to a disaster of a season. With tonight's game, Rams fans can hope the team has put a lot of 2008 behind it. Compare the first preseason games. Winning 23-20 instead of losing 34-13? I'll take it. Giving up 102 yards on the ground instead of 343? I'll definitely take it. The offense that settles for too many field goals and still doesn't protect Marc Bulger adequately? We'll have to wait on that. But this year's Rams are starting off on the right foot, instead of shooting themselves in it.
Position by position:
* QB: Marc Bulger (4-4-77) played about a quarter and a half, and when his teammates protected him, he looked sharp and threw accurately, including as good a pass as he's thrown as a pro, a 50-yard bomb he dropped right into Laurent Robinson's breadbasket in the 2nd. Protection problems, though, got Bulger sacked a startling three times and forced the offense to settle for 3 FGs. Kyle Boller got about a quarter but was pressured into an underwhelming 3-9-25 performance, relying a lot on bootlegs and swing passes. Brock Berlin was 6-8-27 but had a short night, spraining a knee while getting dragged down at the end of a naked bootleg by Zach Potter. The most impressive QB off the bench may have been Keith Null (2-2-16). After Berlin's injury rushed him into play, the Rams got a composed and ultimately game-winning play from the rookie. Sean Walker lined up wrong with the Rams at the Jet 14, but instead of blowing a timeout, Null got Walker lined up correctly before the snap and wound up exploiting a mismatch with a LB and hitting Walker for the go-ahead TD. Berlin'd better be wary or he'll get Wally Pipped. Or is that Trent Greened?
* RB: Steven Jackson had just a couple of carries and was pulled from the game after a 13-yard gain late in the first. The competition for the spots behind Jackson got more heated when Samkon Gado (6-93) started the second half by exploding up the middle and running through the Jet secondary for a 77-yard TD. Antonio Pittman's (4-36) getting plenty of chances and still looks like the Rams' most elusive back. He bounced a run outside for 20 and forced a fumble on special teams to enhance his chances. Unfortunately, the biggest competition between the RBs tonight was to see who could pick up blitzes the worst. Jackson didn't get a block on the blitzing safety, helping LB David Harris score a sack to shut down the Rams' opening drive. Chris Ogbannaya (9-29) let Kenwin Cummings go right by him and drop Berlin for a huge loss in the 4th. The big winner(?), though, was Kenneth Darby (6-16), who looked far worse in blitz protection tonight than he ever did last season. He let a DB go right around him, creating pressure that led to Calvin Pace getting the Jets' second sack. The third came when two Jets blitzed in off right tackle, and Darby picked the wrong one to block. Adam Goldberg had the outside blitzer, and Darby's supposed to pick up the inside blitzer, but he mistakenly went outside and couldn't recover in time to prevent Donald Strickland from dropping Bulger. And now we know why the Ram defense can blitz so successfully in practice. None of the Ram backs, from Jackson on down, are worth a darn at picking it up. Still! And it just shouldn't be happening, not this badly. Blitz protection isn't something that goes into a slump, but it does count on the backs knowing what they're supposed to be doing. Unless everybody does their job, Bulger's going to get killed again in 2009, and it won't even be the offensive line's fault.
* Receivers: At least ten Rams had catches, but none had more than two. Laurent Robinson (2-52) set up a FG with a pretty 50-yard catch of a pretty Bulger throw. He shielded the cornerback with his body and hauled the pass in over his shoulder right at his belt buckle. Sean Walker (2-18) jumped over a LB in the end zone to make the game-winning TD catch. Randy McMichael (2-25) got the opening drive going with a 15-yard catch-and-run off a swing pass but helped kill said drive with a false start. Daniel Fells didn't have a catch but his block helped spring Gado's 77-yard TD run. I don't relish picking on Joe Klopfenstein, but he helped get Berlin hurt in the 4th by getting off to a poor start on that naked bootleg play and wasn't out there for Berlin when he should have been.
* Offensive line: Ram QBs were sacked four times – Bulger three of them – but most of it was the fault of poor blitz pickups by the RBs, not of the offensive line itself. The Jets' first blitz was well-disguised and tricked Adam Goldberg into blocking down instead of blocking out, and Harris ran right by him en route to the Jets' first sack. The game's big play, the Gado TD run, was made possible by a very good seal block by Mark Setterstrom, with Fells sealing off the back side to give Gado a crease. Jackson's 13-yard run was sprung by nice blocks from Goldberg and Richie Incognito. The Rams picked up a blitz to give Bulger time to hit Robinson for 50 in the 2nd; might have been Darby making that play. Jacob Bell apparently left the game early and created some shuffling of the line. Roy Schuening got some plays with the ones and I believe John Greco also did. Roger Allen worked into the mix with the twos. Schuening wasn't as stiff blocking the run as I'd hoped he'd be, and he gave up a pass deflection, but he fought mightily to give Pittman a lane for a 9-yard run in the last 2:00 of the first half. The key block there was a sweet pull block by first-round draft pick Jason Smith, who had a nice, if not dominating, night, working exclusively with the twos. Vernon Gholston wasn't really much of a challenge to Smith at all. Smith was steady in pass protection and started the third quarter by knocking Ty Steinkuhler on his butt. I'd give Jason at least a B-minus. Setterstrom's good outing was tempered somewhat by his tendency to sail his shotgun snaps, throwing off the timing of plays. Phil Trautwein held down LT for the second string. The Rams ran for 4.1 an attempt, and that's leaving out the Gado TD; and as a unit they didn't give up a sack or commit a penalty. Fine work for the first week of preseason.
* Defensive line/LB: Leonard Little got the Rams off to a rousing early start by racing around Wayne Hunter and jarring the ball out of Kellen Clemens' hand for a sack and fumble. James Hall pounced on the loose ball to set up a Rams FG. Unfortunately, that was the only sack until Eric Moore knocked the ball loose as Eric Ainge cocked to throw in the 4th. That ball ended up about 20 yards downfield after C.J. Ah You mysteriously took a big swat at the ball instead of trying to corral it. Well, at least he knocked the Jets well out of field-goal position. Pass rush wasn't strong, allowing Jet QBs plenty of time, especially when rookie Mark Sanchez was at the controls. Little didn't stay on the field long and I was a little disappointed with Chris Long, to be honest, though he did stuff a run. The Rams let a couple of long runs get loose but were very good overall at clogging up the middle and taking away running lanes. This defense has a noticeably more physical presence from its DTs and LBs than it's had in a long time. Cliff Ryan jammed up some runs and James Laurinaitis looked pretty good at MLB, getting action with the starters and some extra work with the twos. He at least broke even for the night. Sure, sometimes he'd get picked off by a guard or get knocked out of the hole by the fullback, but he also filled the lane or waded through trash nicely to stop a couple of runs. He won one heavy collision with the fullback to fill a hole and forced Thomas Jones into Chris Draft. Good stuff, though he did blow one pass coverage. Gary Gibson started and stuffed a couple of runs, but Antwon (Who?) Burton may have been the defensive star of the night. You know how the Rams have lacked a big run-stuffer like Hollis Thomas forever? Well, Burton gives them two. He, and Thomas, can stand their ground, occupy two blockers and give the runner nowhere to go unlike any recent Ram DT I can think of. Burton's even got good lateral mobility, getting outside quickly to stuff a Shonn Greene sweep in the 3rd. Thomas had a good game, too, but Burton's night was a real eye-opener. Ah You and Eric Moore were the next-best pass rushers after Little, in scrub time. Moore blew up a screen pass as well as forcing the aforementioned fumble. They gave up a couple of long runs, a well-blocked reverse to Brad Smith and a 35-yard Greene run where a lot went wrong. Burton overpenetrated and missed Greene in the backfield. Darell Scott, who had a quiet night, was turned aside. David Vobora ran up Victor Adeyanju's back, and Chris Chamberlain got out of position, to give Greene a lane and safety David Roach a wide-open stage to whiff on. Chamberlain ran the play down from behind, something he accomplished several times tonight. The Rams have to mount a better pass rush, but the run defense was the story of the night, allowing a very respectable 102 yards with 3.6 yards an attempt. Like I already said, I'll take that.
* Secondary: You'll forgive Dustin Keller if he felt like Tony Gonzalez tonight, as the Rams were generally unable to cover him. At all. He beat O.J. Atogwe for 12 in the 1st. On a later 2nd-and-7, Laurinaitis never moved over to cover him and left him wide open four yards downfield on a play where he'd gain 16. And Keller gained 21 yards, down to the 2, on a 3rd-and-7 in the 2nd to set up a TD, courtesy of David Roach's terrible tackling. Roach had a bad night, getting undressed by a Greene fake in the 3rd that turned what should have been an 8-yard run into a 35-yarder. Roach's play there was worthy of Corey Chavous, Mike Furrey, Rich Coady, and Jason Sehorn, i.e., not good. Tye Hill leaves the night still in charge of the #2 CB spot in my eyes. He made a heady play in the first to stop a third-down pass to Chansi Stuckey short of a first down, forcing a FG. Stuckey was left all alone in the flat on a play unwisely designed to have Chris Long covering him, but Hill flew in to prevent a brewing disaster with a fine open-field play. Jonathan Wade was up-and-down. He broke up a couple of passes but looked silly when converted college QB Brad Smith beat him handily on a jump ball in the 2nd. Wade also had a couple of special teams gaffes. Justin King appeared to have a bad night, though. David Clowney beat him for 48 on Mark Sanchez's first throw in the 1st. It wasn't very reassuring to see the Rams' coverage let a rookie QB drive 93 yards for a TD the first time he took the field. Nor was it reassuring to see Clowney catch 3 for 102 yards. That includes a 50-yard TD from Eric Ainge in the 2nd half where Todd Johnson bit on play-action like a rank rookie. Clowney ended up open downfield by 10 yards for the TD pass. King got beat a couple of other times and left a door open for Bradley Fletcher. Or is that Flecther, as spelled on his uniform? Either way, I'd like to see him doing better than fighting to a draw with the likes of Wallace Wright before making him a starter. The door didn't open for Quincy Butler, either, who I was really disappointed with tonight, never moreso than the last play of the game. What do you do with a Hail Mary pass heading your way? You knock it down! No, Butler tried to catch it and muffed it into the air, where Jets could have had a chance to play it. Fortunately, rookie free agent LB K.C. Asiodu had better sense and did knock the ricochet to the ground. Disappointing results tonight after the secondary had looked so good in camp. Steve Spagnuolo's got a lot more secondary coaching to do, and they have to find a way to stop leaving the tight end wide open all the time.
* Special teams: These new-look Rams actually made a lot of good special teams plays. Josh Brown hit 3 FGs, including a 48-yarder, and kicked everything deep. Donnie Jones averaged 46.7 a punt, 43 net, including one average-stunting attempt to pin the Jets deep. Brooks Foster recovered a muffed punt in the 4th to set up the Rams' winning TD. Pittman forced a fumble on an earlier return, but Wade blew the turnover when he failed to pick the ball up in his attempt to scoop it up and run it back for a TD. Wade also committed a special teams penalty. So did Quinton Culberson, erasing a nice weaving 27-yard return by Derek Stanley. Stanley looked shaky on punts otherwise, misjudging a couple. He lost five yards trying to backtrack after one bouncer and run away backwards with it. And Darby continues to be an adventure on kickoffs, muffing one in the end zone but recovering it. Gado can return kicks, but he comes up to top speed about as fast as your average semi from a dead start. Punt coverage chased the returner on one play instead of watching the ball, costing the Rams a chance to down a punt inside the 5. Don't get me wrong; solid but unspectacular special teams works, compared to the special teams fiascoes of the past, but I do wonder how and when they're going to establish a real threat on returns.
* Coaching/discipline: Scott Linehan and Jim Haslett ought to be ashamed of themselves if either got to watch how crisply the Rams played in many aspects of the game tonight. No turnovers, and I believe no dropped passes. They committed just 5 penalties, and one of those was an intentional delay-of-game taken by the punting unit. There weren't any “wasted” timeouts, and though Steve Spagnuolo's one challenge failed, it was a challenge worth trying. The defense stuffed the run and even forced a couple of turnovers. Special teams even looked competent, though returns weren't much to write home about. Spagnuolo had the Rams more prepared tonight than they were at least 14 weeks of last season. And I especially liked that he kept most of the starting offense on the field until they at least put together a drive of decent length.
The Rams blitzed very little except with the scrubs, so they may be saving any fancy stuff they want to do with the starters for the regular season. Little blitzing, though, still appears to mean little pass pressure right now for the blue and gold. And they nearly got burned in the 1st with a too-cute zone blitz that left Chris Long covering WR Chansi Stuckey on 3rd-and-6 at the Ram 20. That seems a terrible down and distance for that ploy, which took a very good play by Tye Hill to bail out. The offense expectedly didn't show much in the way of wrinkles, either. They held Mike Karney out and as a result did almost no running with a fullback in the backfield. I wonder what Pat Shurmur's thinking was on the early 3rd-and-6 that ended in Bulger's first sack. The Rams went four-wide there, a curious formation I thought they'd hardly be using this year, and one very susceptible to blitzes like the one the Jets threw at them.
Spagnuolo's decisions to go for FGs are worth at least talking about. I mean, it's not like Josh Brown needs the work; why not go for it a little bit? 4th and 13 from the Jet 16 is probably too ambitious, but why not go for it on 4th-and-2 from the Jet 21 at the end of the first half instead of just letting all the time run out? And I really hope Spagnuolo's not committed to punting on 4th-and-1 from the opposing 38 like he called for in the third quarter tonight. If he's got Karney and Jackson on the field, he should be going for that in the regular season every time it comes up.
* Waiver bait: It's early to worry about cuts yet, but some Rams are making themselves unwanted early candidates. Roach was the worst tackler on the field. Klopfenstein ran a play so poorly he actually managed to get his QB hurt, which takes some doing. Culberson only stood out for a special teams penalty, the worst kind of preseason publicity. There's still time to save their jobs, but these guys better get it turned around in a hurry.
* Upon further review: Pretty decent job by Terry McAulay and crew. The call on the Thomas Jones TD was right, much to my chagrin. The ball broke the plane before Larry Grant put his helmet on it and dislodged it. Can't blame Spagnuolo for challenging, though. Same thing on the play where Ah You stripped Ainge. Fine and correct initial call, but I couldn't fault Rex Ryan for challenging, either. What the refs did miss on that play was Ian Campbell getting blatantly pulled down by the jersey. I thought Darby was yanked down by a horse collar tackle in the 1st and that the refs didn't do much for QB safety the way they let Berlin get dragged down after the pass was away on his last play in the 4th. However, they didn't blow any big calls and didn't do much to draw attention to themselves – a pretty good night officiating.
* Cheers: Martin Kilcoyne and Trent Green did a good job with the local call of the game. Green sounded like a booth veteran, quickly making insightful points after many plays. Though it did often sound like nothing short of defensive perfection will ever be good enough in Green's eyes. He seemed to expect the DBs to knock down every pass and the LBs to stop every run for a loss. Just like players, Kilcoyne seems to be improving with repetition. He was on top of down, distance and gain of last play much more than usual, while offering some accurate on-the-fly analysis of his own. The two announcers worked quite well as a team. Their worst glitch was not letting us know anything about Jacob Bell at all until late in the game. The broadcast had some glitches of its own. We missed one play in the last 2:00 of the first because TV was way late coming back from replay. Don't usually have time for those in end-of-half situations. And one drive was shoved to the background in favor of a sideline interview with Kevin Demoff. Standard, but still annoying. All in all, though, this was to me one of the best preseason broadcasts we've had locally.
* Who’s next?: The Rams have a win and some wind in their sails, but have some important areas to fortify in order to build on that against Atlanta in v. 2.0 of the Dome next Friday night. The offense absolutely has to get its blitz protections straightened out, or Marc Bulger won't even make it to the regular season. There'll be plenty to watch on offense. Can Jason Smith build on tonight's acceptable outing? Will Laurent Robinson have an edge going up against his old team? How will the RB situation behind Jackson shake out?
The Rams don't figure to see a lot of Falcon offensive leaders Matt Ryan and Michael Turner, but they especially need to step up their pass rush if they're to prevent getting lit up by last year's NFC Cinderellas. The secondary needs to step up, too, and play a lot more like it practices. Lest we forget, the Falcons have the actual Tony Gonzalez now, and the way the Rams (didn't) covered the TE tonight, he may be in line for a 200-yard night.
It's funny. Last year the Falcons were the downtrodden team most of the league saw as an automatic win on the schedule entering the season. But they instituted wholesale changes and made an impressive run, from castoffs to the playoffs. Now the Rams are trying to emulate that run, with some of “their” people, like Robinson and GM Billy Devaney. We'll take another step Friday night finding out whether that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery or a subpar impression act.
Game stats from nfl.com