Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rams get sidetracked, but not derailed


The Rams didn’t extend their winning streak Sunday afternoon, but they continued their transformation.

They are becoming a much, much better football team. The Rams showed this by taking 3-0, 10-7 and 16-13 leads over the Patriots in New England.

Running back Steven Jackson sat out the game with his thigh injury. Defensive end Leonard Little and cornerback Ron Bartell departed with injuries.

But Jim Haslett kept his team on the attack. With a cleaner performance -– fewer penalties, better special teams play, more third-down conversions on offense -– this Rams team could have pulled the upset.

“We need to clean up some things, obviously,” Haslett told the Rams Radio Network after the game. “We can’t do some of the things we did today and win.

“The game boiled down to field position. The whole second half -– and some of the second quarter, too -– the offense had long fields and the defense had short fields.”

There were lots of positive signs, however:

• Rookie receiver Donnie Avery starred, catching six passes for 163 yards and a touchdown. His speed forced the Patriots defense to back off the line of scrimmage.

• Safety O.J. Atogwe and cornerback Fakhir Brown intercepted Matt Cassel passes.

• Rookie defensive end Chris Long delivered two fourth-quarter sacks, including one that snuffed out another Patriots possession.

• Defensive tackle Clifton Ryan broke through the line to make a huge fourth-and-one tackle, turning the ball back to the offense.

• Defensive end Eric Moore, filling in for Little as a pass rusher, delivered a big fourth-quarter sack.

• Fill-in running back Antonio Pittman performed well in Jackson’s absence, gained 105 yards rushing and receiving. This was his first game back since recovering from his broken leg.

Dante Hall, who had just seven catches all season, caught four passes for 47 yards. Suddenly he had a place in this offense.

Marc Bulger threw the longest TD pass of his career, 69 yards, to Avery and passed for 301 yards.

On the down side:

• Bulger suffered four sacks, struggled in third-down situations and threw the late interception that doomed this team.

• The Rams were flagged for nine penalties for 63 yards and had other penalties declined.

• Rams coverage teams allowed 151 return yards.

For the first time this season, this team ACTUALLY SCORED FIRST. They came out on the road, marched downfield and converted with a 20-yard Josh Brown field goal.

Faced with a fourth-and-one situation deep in their own zone, the Rams got the green light from Haslett. Pittman barged for a first down and the gamble paid off.

That aggressive coaching decision set the tone for a good fight Sunday afternoon. Later, Haslett signed off on a successful onside kick to start the second half.

The Rams did not come to New England to play a competitive game and keep the score close. They came to win.

“We felt we could come up here and win this game, to be honest with you,” Haslett said.

A month ago, that would not have been the case.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Rams Run Through Cowboys

Even on the road, the chorus of "Romo!, Romo!" from Dallas Cowboys' fans was
easily audible at the start of the second half.

But they were stuck with Brad Johnson.

The 40-year-old backup quarterback couldn't keep up with a suddenly potent, opportunistic Rams' offense, throwing three interceptions. Steven Jackson ran for 160 yards on 25 carries with three touchdowns and the Rams (2-4) looked like contenders instead of sad sacks for the second straight game under new coach Jim Haslett in a surprisingly easy 34-14 victory on Sunday.

The Rams won 19-17 at Washington last week in their first game since
replacing Scott Linehan, ending a run of 17 losses in 20 games and four blowout losses to start the season.

Their response to Haslett, beginning his second stint as a head coach, has exceeded expectations.

St. Louis' defense did its part, forcing four turnovers for the second
straight game.

Oshiomogho Atogwe, who had two interceptions, scored the lone touchdown against the Redskins last week on a fumble recovery.

Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware tied an NFL record with a sack in his 10th straight game and enjoyed his first multiple sack game of the season with three, giving him nine on the season.

Ware matched the mark set by Denver's Simon Fletcher from Nov. 15, 1992 to Sept. 20, 1993, although he remained one game shy of the franchise mark by Harvey Martin in 1976-77 -- which ended five years before the sack was officially recognized.

Marion Barber had 100 yards on 18 carries and the game's opening touchdown for Dallas.

There were not many more highlights for the Cowboys (4-3), who lost for the third time in four games.

Romo looked fine throwing in pre-game warmups with his hand wrapped, and dressed as the backup. But he ended up staying on the sideline with an injury the team originally believed would sideline him a month.

Johnson was 6-for-18 for 66 yards in the first half while the Cowboys fell behind 24-7. He finished 17-for-34 for 234 yards and throwing his only touchdown pass to Martellus Bennett inside the 2-minute warning.

The Rams' 21-point first quarter dwarfed their season output of just 10
points in the first five games. They asserted themselves after Barber accounted for 45 yards on the Cowboys' opening drive, quickly answering on Marc Bulger's first touchdown pass in two starts with a 42-yarder to wide open rookie Donnie Avery.

Jackson added runs of 8 and 1 yards, the Rams' first two touchdowns all
season from inside the 20, for a 21-7 lead. The first score capitalized on a short field after Johnson's fumble on a shotgun snap led to a punt from the end zone, and the second came four plays after Will Witherspoon's interception of a tipped pass at the Dallas 18.

Jackson's 56-yard sprint down the right sideline made it 31-7 midway through the third quarter and gave him three rushing scores for the first time since the 2006 finale. After that, Cowboys fans seemed to accept that there would be no Romo rescue.

Bulger had a perfect 158.3 passer rating in the first quarter, going 3-for-3 for 73 yards. He finished 14-for-19 for 173 yards and a touchdown.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Haslett takes huge first step away from Linehan Era


So THAT is why Rams owner Chip Rosenbloom finally made a coaching change.

Given some real leadership for a change, the previously winless Rams responded with a hard-fought 19-17 victory at Washington.

Interim coach Jim Haslett got the Rams to do things Scott Linehan could not. In a messy game marked by mishaps and mistakes, the Rams fought to the final gun.

And Josh Brown’s 49-yard field goal as time expired gave them the upset.

“They deserved to win,” Haslett told Rams Radio shortly after the game. “There was a little bit different atmosphere out there this week. They practiced hard . . . I know they worked their butts off this week. They deserved to win.

The Rams went into one of the most hostile environments in the NFL and faced one of the league’s toughest teams to this point of the season. They were huge underdogs.

But they responded with a startling effort. This were the same Rams which lost 17 of 20 games with a rotating cast of disinterested players.

They forged a 10-7 halftime lead with spirited defensive play. The Redskins hadn’t committed an offensive turnover all season, but the Rams forced three during the first half.

Rookie defensive end Chris Long pounced on a fumble. So did cornerback Jason Craft.

Safety O.J. Atogwe scooped up a fumble (which Pisa Tinoisamoa forced) and raced 75 yards for a touchdown.

These plays offset an early Steven Jackson fumble, which handed the Redskins their first TD of the game.

“We had a bunch of bad stuff happen to us,” Haslett said. “But I said, ‘Who cares, we’re winning.’ Our guys fought hard, played hard. I challenged them at halftime and they responded.”

Leonard Little forced another Redskins fumble, stripping quarterback Jason Campbell of the ball from the back side, but Washington got that one back.

That play forced the Redskins to punt from their own end zone, though, and it led to Brown’s third field goal of the game.

Washington fought back to take a late 17-16 lead, but, against all odds, the sputtering Rams offense responded in the final two minutes of the game.

Jackson set the tone by running hard. He pulled himself together nicely after his disastrous start.

Then rookie receiver Donnie Avery made a tremendous adjustment on Marc Bulger’s desperate 43-yard heave on the final possession. He came back for the ball and made a difficult catch, trapping the ball to his chest with one hand.

That is why the Rams made him the first receiver taken in the 2008 draft.

“Donnie is kind of a poised kid,” Haslett said. “Nothing bothers him. He has the ability to make big plays.”

That clutch play set up Brown’s winning field goal, although Richie Incognito made it interesting with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for swearing at the officials.

During the Linehan Era, that 15-yard loss would have cost the Rams the game. That is just way things went for the Not So Great Scott.

This time, though, a fired-up Brown nailed the kick to win the game and give Rams a reason to care about the rest of this season.