Monday, December 17, 2007

Unlevel Playing Ffield: Field position, fan support help Packers


For nearly three quarters, the St. Louis game plan worked effectively and the Rams stuck with it. They established Steven Jackson and the running game early, and took their shots with Marc Bulger in the passing game.

Through three quarters, the Rams had a 2-to-1 edge in possession time and had outgained Brett Favre and the potent Green Bay offense by nearly 100 yards. Yet, when the Rams looked up at the scoreboard at the Edward Jones Dome — aka Lambeau Field South — they trailed by two touchdowns.

How did this happen?

Well, some gridiron historians refer to football as the "100-yard war." On Sunday, it became more like a "50-yard skirmish" for the Packers. Thanks in large part to lousy special teams play, the average starting point for the Packers' drives was their 48-yard line.

Of Green Bay's 12 offensive series, six started in St. Louis territory. Three others started at the Packers' 40, 44 and 48-yard lines.

"I just know when we're on offense and we hit the 50, it's kind of like you're going downhill," Bulger said.

The Packers were going downhill all afternoon, like a sled on the snow at Art Hill. Of the 53 offensive plays by Green Bay, 41 began in St. Louis territory.

"You're not going to beat a good football team like (Green Bay) doing that," coach Scott Linehan said.

Given such a lopsided edge in field position, it's almost surprising that the final score wasn't more lopsided than Green Bay 33, Rams 14.

"They have only two losses for a reason," Bulger said. "They're a good team. They made us play with that field position."

And made them pay because of that field position. Green Bay's victory coupled with Seattle's loss to Carolina clinched a first-round playoff bye for the Packers (12-2).

On a day when Favre eclipsed Dan Marino's NFL record for career passing yards, it seemed as if all of Green Bay was on hand. With Rams fans continuing to bail on their 3-11 team, thousands of "lower bowl" tickets belonging to Rams season-ticket holders ended up in the hands of Packers fans.

Green and gold were the colors of the day. Cheeseheads everywhere. Dozens of pro-Packers signs throughout the stadium. There was no way to know officially, but it looked as if there were more Packers fans than Rams fans in attendance.

"It was a joke," Jackson said. "It's as simple as that. The whole (lower) level was Green Bay Packers. We allowed them to put up signs. It's a joke."

"That was the worst, as far as the other team's fans," center Andy McCollum said. "There was way too much green in there if you ask me. But what are you going to do?

"If we win some more ballgames, it'd probably be a different story. So we've got to take control of that and make sure that kind of thing doesn't happen. It was almost like Lambeau."

The Rams may have felt like visitors, but they were playing well enough to make it a game and threaten an upset midway through the third quarter.

En route to a season-high 143 yards rushing, Jackson already had 103 yards by halftime, including a 46-yard touchdown run in which the Rams caught Green Bay in a blitz. All told, the Packers' ninth-ranked defense yielded a season-high 173 yards rushing.

Bulger, back in the lineup after missing the past two games with a concussion, threw a first-quarter touchdown pass to Torry Holt, who beat Packers cornerback Al Harris badly on the play.

It remained a one-score game as the third quarter wound down — even with the Rams' kickoff coverage unit and punting team springing major leaks. And even with wide receiver Drew Bennett letting what would have been a first-down pass from Bulger deep in Packers territory go right through his hands for an interception.

But the back breaker came with 6 minutes remaining in the third quarter. On third and 10 from the St. Louis 44, the Rams' defense went after Favre with an all-out blitz. There was just one problem: No one bothered to cover Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings. With the blitz bearing down on him, Favre lobbed a pop fly to Jennings. He was so open, he might have had time to run into the stands, grab a Cheesehead hat, come back on the field and still catch the football.

As it was, Jennings hauled in a 44-yard touchdown pass from Favre, giving Green Bay a 27-14 lead with 5 minutes, 58 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

"We were in 'zero' coverage, man coverage," Linehan said. "I think we had just a miscommunication between a couple of players, on who was taking the vertical and who had the underneath coverage. Obviously, you can't do that."

Cornerback Ron Bartell and Oshiomogho Atogwe both jumped the underneath route, a crossing pattern by Donald Driver. That left Jennings, running a "streak" route straight down the field, uncovered.

"It was just a mix-up in coverage," Atogwe said. "It was a bad decision on some of the guys' parts. It just happens like that. It's one of those plays you'd like to get back. But you just learn from it."

Welcome to Rams football, 2007.

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