Friday, August 28, 2009

Boller leads Rams over Bengals 24-21

CINCINNATI (AP)—The last thing that the St. Louis Rams wanted to see was Kyle Boller’s helmet tumbling across the field.

Boller played better Thursday night in his second game filling in for Marc Bulger, completing a flurry of short passes during a 24-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. He also had one moment of bravado that made the Rams shudder.

He refused to duck.

Boller got his helmet knocked off on a hit by linebacker Keith Rivers at the end of an 8-yard scramble, waiting too long to start his slide. Unfazed, Boller got to his feet, found his helmet and completed his next two passes, including a 3-yard shovel pass to running back Samkon Gado for a touchdown.

“I could have slid a little earlier,” said Boller, who was 14 of 20 for 96 yards. “It is what it is. My chin strap hit just above my eyes. It was a good scramble, but maybe if I can get down a little sooner, the coaches would like that.”

No kidding.

“I was just trying to get to the ball,” said Rivers, who had his jaw broken on a hit from Pittsburgh’s Hines Ward last season. “It wasn’t anything intentional.”

The Rams lost Bulger to a broken pinkie finger on his passing hand before the last game and couldn’t afford another quarterback setback. Bulger is hoping to be ready for the season opener Sept. 13 at Seattle. Boller struggled as his replacement last week in a 20-13 loss to the Falcons, but seemed much more comfortable against the Bengals.

“He moved the team,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “He drove us down there after the bad start. When you score on a drive, the quarterback deserves the credit.”

Both teams were missing their starting quarterbacks, turning the game into a preview of how it might be if their injuries linger. The Bengals were reminded that they really need Carson Palmer back for their opener against Denver.

J.T. O’Sullivan was sacked three times, lost a fumble and had two passes batted away at the line. His best moment was an improvised underhand pass to running back Brian Leonard that went for 25 yards and set up a touchdown. O’Sullivan was 7 of 13 for 94 yards while playing into the third quarter.

With Palmer sidelined the last two games by a sprained left ankle, the offense has moved the ball in spurts but failed to get many points because of penalties and mistakes. O’Sullivan’s fumble at the Cincinnati 20-yard line set up the Rams’ second touchdown.

“We’ve just got to find a way to eliminate it,” O’Sullivan said. “It puts you in such a disadvantage any time you turn the ball over. That’s one of the things that has to change immediately.”

Running back Bernard Scott, a sixth-round draft pick from Abilene Christian, had a fumble that safety James Butler returned 73 yards for a touchdown. Butler also intercepted one of Jordan Palmer’s passes in the third quarter and returned it 68 yards before the third-string quarterback tackled him.

The Bengals have lost five fumbles and thrown three interceptions in three preseason games.

“When you turn the football over, you have a difficult time winning, whether you’re playing in the regular season, the preseason, junior high, sixth grade, whatever it is,” coach Marvin Lewis said.

Quan Cosby, an undrafted receiver from Texas, returned the Rams’ first punt 49 yards for a touchdown, breaking through the front line of defenders into the clear. He ran past punter Donnie Jones to get to the end zone.

Jones also had a punt returned 44 yards by Tom Nelson in the third quarter.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Spags On Loss to the Falcons


Coach Steve Spagnuolo blamed himself for the St. Louis Rams' ugly first quarter Friday night, saying he was guilty of not having his team ready to play.

The Rams (1-1) fell behind 14-0 and could never make up the lost ground as they fell 20-13 to the Atlanta Falcons at the Edward Jones Dome.

"I think it's all on the head coach with the first quarter," Spagnuolo said. "I don't think I had the team ready to play in the first quarter. I'm going to take the onus on that. We need to start the game better, especially against a good football team."

Asked how he was going to make sure the Rams were ready when they travel to Cincinnati to play the Bengals on Thursday, Spagnuolo said he didn't know.

"I'm going to be evaluating myself all the time," Spagnuolo said, "I'll sit back this week, and if I think there's something we can do differently in practice, we'll do it.

"If I think there's something we can say or approach differently the day before the game, we'll do that. But, right now if the team is not ready early like that, it's on the head coach. So we'll figure out a way."

The Falcons (1-1) first-string offense marched down the field with surgical-like precision on their first two drives against the Rams' first-string defense.

Spagnuolo said he couldn't tell in the locker room before the game that his team wasn't prepared.

"Are they ready? Are they not ready?" Spagnuolo said. "Sometimes you'll walk in there and say, 'This team is not ready to play,' and they go out beat a team by 30 points. So that's hard to assess."

The Rams allowed 162 rushing yards. Their starting defense got bludgeoned for 65 yards on seven carries by running back Michael Turner on the opening drive.

The Rams were plagued by poor tackling even though they had live tackling in practice during the first two weeks of training camp.

Spagnuolo said he wasn't going to second guess his decision to scale back on the live tackling during the last week.

"I'm not going to do that to myself," Spagnuolo said. "At some point, we all know in this league you stop doing live tackling in practice because you've got to have guys healthy. I think we will bounce back on that. It wasn't real good last night, but we'll get better at it."

The Rams' first-string produced only three points in the first half.

For the Rams' offense to struggle was more understandable since they were playing without quarterback Marc Bulger (broken pinkie finger), left tackle Alex Barron (swelling on the knee), left guard Jacob Bell (concussion) and wide receiver Donnie Avery (broken foot).

Still, the Rams were 0-for-3 in their red-zone opportunities.

"We talk about it all the time," Spagnuolo said. "When you get in that area of the field, everybody has to remind each other in the huddle that we have to focus and finish. I'm not sure why we didn't finish. I'm not going to blame it on focus. They probably made some good plays, too."

The Rams had a chance to pull out a win after rookie quarterback Keith Null and the third-string offense moved the ball to Atlanta 17 with 1:27 left to play.

But Null had a pass go through the hands of tight end Joe Klopfenstein in the end zone on second down.

"It probably would have been a tough catch, but it was a decent throw, I think," Spagnuolo said. "Keith would tell you that if he had to do it all over again. He would have went somewhere else with it. There was a possibility to make a play there, but it wasn't an easy catch."

Null was intercepted in the end zone by Atlanta safety Eric Brock on fourth down.

Spagnuolo said wide receiver Nate Jones was open on underneath route, but Null tried to throw the ball to tight end Eric Butler.

"They had brought a blitz, which is a good call by them," Spagnuolo said. "(Keith) got it out in time, so the blitz part of it wasn't an issue. It just didn't happen."

Spagnuolo said he didn't know if he would have gone for the win and attempted a two-point conversion instead of kicking the game-tying extra point if the Rams had scored.

"We would have had to talk about that," Spagnuolo said. "I would have liked to have a chance to make that decision."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Rams Pull Out Win in New York

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Many of the faces are new both in uniform and among the coaches wearing the headsets. And maybe it was only the first preseason game.

But in the first contest of the Steve Spagnuolo era, the formula for winning remained the same. Run the ball; defend the run, play sound special teams and win the turnover battle and more often than not, you’re going to come away with a victory.

With contributions up and down the roster, the Rams did just that on Friday night as they went on to grab a 23-20 victory against the Jets.

“I saw a lot of guys competing,” Spagnuolo said. “We talked about that two days ago. Anytime you line up and play again it doesn’t matter whether it’s pick-up basketball or backgammon, you compete to win. I thought the guys did that.”

Regardless of what group they were with, nearly every Ram answered that call from Spagnuolo. Perhaps none more so than rookie quarterback Keith Null.

With the Rams trailing 20-16 and 8:51 to play, rookie receiver Brooks Foster recovered a muffed punt at the Jets’ 24. After an 11-yard run by rookie running back Chris Ogbonnaya, Null worked his magic.

Entering the game earlier than planned because of an injury to third quarterback Brock Berlin, Null had thrown just one pass in his infant NFL career. But on second-and-10 from New York’s 13, Null dropped and fired a pass to undrafted rookie Sean Walker’s back shoulder.

It was the type of throw you’d expect from a grizzled veteran, not a small school rookie with little experience. No matter, though, as Walker leaped and made a nice catch in his own right for the winning touchdown.

“I thought he was very poised,” Spagnuolo said. “He made a nice throw from one rookie to another rookie and Sean (Walker) made a nice catch. That was very encouraging. It pumped that football team up. That was the gist of what we were talking about. We didn’t know who was going to be in the game at certain times. Obviously, guys that are down don’t play but we were going to try to compete right until the end and those guys did that.”

The inexperienced Null didn’t even know how to react but veteran Marc Bulger looked out for him, asking a member of the equipment staff to retrieve the ball and give it to Null whether it was a preseason touchdown or not.

“It’s still your first touchdown pass in the NFL,’” Bulger said. “That pass looked like a 10-year veteran. He saw the match-up, and he’s been studying and working hard, and it paid off.”
That wasn’t the only big play provided by a more unheralded member of the Rams. In fact, the biggest play of the night came from one of the forgotten men in the battle for the backup running back job.

Coming out of the locker room trailing 10-9, Samkon Gado returned the opening kickoff 25 yards to New York’s 23. Two plays later, Gado would cover the rest of the distance as he took a handoff to the left side, burst through a hole, dropped a deke on an unsuspecting safety and turned on the speed to rumble 77 yards for a touchdown and a 16-10 lead.

In addition to his kick returning and running Gado also played fullback, proving just how versatile he can be. He finished with six carries for 93 yards with the score.

“About 10-15 yards and I was thinking that’s about as good as its going to be,” Gado said. “Then I saw the safety and was just going to give him a little move and not try to concede or compromise the ball. I guess the move worked. I’m not really known for my moves and after that it was just kind of me and the end zone. I’m pretty confident that once I’m in the open field I knew it was going to be a touchdown.”

As for the rest of the offense, there were plenty of other bright spots. Backup running backs Antonio Pittman and Ogbonnaya did a solid job filling in late after starter Steven Jackson got a couple of carries for 15 yards in a short night of work.

Pittman finished with four carries for 36 yards and the entire group left a mostly positive impression on Spagnuolo.

“I thought all of those guys did a nice job,” Spagnuolo said. “You saw the real long run by Sam. I thought Ogbonnaya did a nice job at the end holding on to the football. For a young guy at the end there when you had to run it out, he was covering up that ball and doing a good job so I give those guys a lot of credit. Antonio ran real well. We’ll watch the film and see how it all leads up but that was encouraging.”

As for the rest of the offense, the first unit aside from Jackson ended up playing more than first quarter after it only got a limited number of snaps in the first quarter.

Bulger played though that and completed all four of his opportunities for 77 yards but was sacked three times. On his final drive of the night, Bulger connected with receiver Laurent Robinson on a gorgeous 50-yard strike down the sideline.

It was just the type of play Spagnuolo had hoped to see when he sent the offense back on to the field in the second quarter.

“The number of plays just weren’t quite enough and we wanted to get a little bit of rhythm,” Spagnuolo said. “And we’re kind of glad we did that.”

On the other side of the ball, the Rams appeared to make some strides in making plays at important times.

Defensive end Leonard Little continued his dominant preseason with a sack and forced fumble on the opening drive to set up a field goal. Later, defensive end Eric Moore did the same to help stall out a potential game winning or tying drive by the Jets.

Perhaps most impressive was the Rams’ holding the Jets to 102 yards on 28 carries, an average of just 3.6 per attempt. And 62 of those yards came on two plays.

Jackson, for one, was happy to see the Rams perform the way they did in the first contest under Spagnuolo.

“It’s good to see the young guys play in the first preseason game,” Jackson said. “They were able to create turnovers, protect the ball on offense, and come out with the win. That’s what you want to see.”

The Rams will have Saturday off but Spagnuolo wanted to pass along the message that there is still plenty that needs to be done between now and the season opener for the team to get where he wants it to go.

“It’s good to win a football game,” Spagnuolo said. “It’s good to win anything when you’re competing so we’re happy with that. We’ve certainly got a lot of work to do. I said it to the team in there. I said last night that this is only the beginning, no matter what happens, so we’re not going to think that we’ve arrived. We’ve still got a lot of work to do and we’ll get right back at it. They’ll have the day off tomorrow and get right back at it on Sunday.”

For Spagnuolo and the Rams, the hope is that process becomes business as usual.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Atogwe Sets the Tone

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

During the offseason, Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe participated in the league’s offseason going back to school program that allows players to take business courses at various prestigious schools around the country.

But by the end of the summer, Atogwe might as well have been teaching a class of his own. Call it “How to handle being given the franchise tag 101.”

In an era where many players who are slapped with the tag are quick to opt for a holdout or demand a trade or both, Atogwe opted for choice D, none of the above.

If you didn’t know any better, one would think Atogwe was never even tagged at all. Instead of going the usual route, he simply kept his head down, kept showing up at the Russell Training Center for the offseason program and provided a glowing example of what it takes to be a teammate under new coach Steve Spagnuolo.

“I have told him a number of times how classy I think he’s handled everything,” Spagnuolo said. “That’s a quality person right there, forget about the football talent. In that sense that when I met him the first time when I got here I visited with him in my office and you could see that right away.”

Atogwe was the Rams’ Most Valuable Player in 2008, bolstering his reputation as a ball hawk by coming up with five interceptions, eight forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

By all accounts, Atogwe is the very definition of an “ascending player,” the term used by General Manager Billy Devaney to describe the type of players the team wants to build around in the future.

So it was that Atogwe would have been one of the most coveted players on the free agent market had the Rams not moved to put the franchise tag on him.

The franchise tag designation often comes with the stigma that the team is not allowing the player to explore his right to free agency. With it comes a one-year offer which is equivalent to the average of the five highest-paid players at the position.

Atogwe didn’t see things the way most franchise players do, though.

“I believe as I have been taught that having a reputation and good character is more than your wealth and your riches and chasing after money,” Atogwe said. “I feel like if I was going to be a part of this team this year, it was important and imperative that I was here through the offseason just to show my teammates I am committed to them and I am committed to what we have going on regardless of my contract situation. That’s personal. I am committed to what the team is doing and what Coach Spags has us building.”
From the start of the offseason conditioning program to organized team activities to the team’s minicamps, Atogwe missed nary a day. It would have been easy for him to grant himself some down time or time off.

Instead, Atogwe kept his head down and participated in everything. When the Rams lifted weights, Atogwe lifted weights. When they ran gassers, Atogwe ran gassers. When they gathered to discuss the new defensive scheme, Atogwe was right up front with questions at the ready.

There wasn’t anything special about it to Atogwe, who says he was simply doing what he was supposed to be doing. At the time, Atogwe even went so far as to call being given the franchise tag an honor because he was being considered among the top five players at his position.

Of course, it didn’t hurt the cause that Atogwe was hoping to buy in to what Spagnuolo was preaching as far as putting team goals ahead of any individual ones.

“Being a guy who has been here with the Rams now going on five years,” Atogwe said. “Some of the younger guys and some of the vets need to see loyalty and faithfulness from the guys that have already been here and that’s going to carry over throughout the locker room so you just build a team that is really focused on one goal and one purpose and being one and letting coach Spags lead us.”

That commitment to the team and leadership has been readily apparent in the opening week of training camp. Anyone who has paid a visit to a Rams practice has been able to see – and more easily – hear Atogwe’s presence on the field.

Whether it’s a team drill in which the first team defense is on the field or if it’s the guys at the bottom of the roster, Atogwe can regularly be heard shouting out defensive calls or giving simple words of encouragement. And don’t let him catch you loafing from one drill or one play to the next.

“One thing about playing defense is a lot of it has to do with your attitude and demeanor and how you approach the game,” Atogwe said. “I think jogging in and out of the huddle, getting lined up quickly, it sets a tempo and tone within yourself before the ball is even snapped, even before you play a down that gives you a sense of urgency like let’s get after somebody. I think we are developing that right now and I feel pretty good about it.”

Atogwe is one of, if not the, biggest part of that developing process. Following the departure of longtime leader Corey Chavous, the Rams secondary and defense has been in need of a new leader.

While Spagnuolo wants to wait and see what he has before declaring anyone a leader, there’s little doubt that Atogwe will be one of the first names mentioned among teammates and the coaching staff when that time comes.

It’s a process that started back when he was given the franchise tag and continued when he quietly came to Russell Training Center to sign his one-year tender offer with little to no fanfare.

For as boisterous and loud as Atogwe can be, he works every bit as hard at making himself a better player. He regularly spends extra time catching balls from the JUGS machine after practice and he continues to be a pest to ball carriers who get within striking distance.

“I believe leaders lead by example first and that means being a professional and knowing your job and doing your job and from there other guys will raise their level of play to do exactly what you’re doing so I think we have a bunch of leaders on our team who are in that position and do stuff like that,” Atogwe said. “I think anyone of us can be a leader at any given point in time and it’s something we have got to take a hold of.”

Atogwe said recently that he spent the entire offseason working out all day every day, opting not to sleep even a wink.

One would reasonably conclude that Atogwe was joking but considering his non-stop motor, he might not have been telling too much of a fib.

“What does tired have to do with it?” Atogwe said, a broad smile creeping across his face. “Plays have to be made.”

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Rams Get Physical Early

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

The tone has been set.

It took all of one full-squad, padded practice for anyone wondering what attitude the new-look Rams are going to adopt in 2009 to become crystal clear.

The high-flying, finesse-oriented Rams are a thing of the past. If nothing else, these new Rams are going to be physical and battle tested when the season starts.

In Saturday morning’s practice session, new coach Steve Spagnuolo sent that message loud and clear by going “live” for a good portion of practice.

“You better have some attitude,” cornerback Ron Bartell said. “I don’t think we have carried the attitude the past couple of years we should have had. We paid for it on the field. They are coming in and instilling new attitudes, new philosophies, everything.”

Taking a page from what he learned in his years in Philadelphia and small samples from New York, Spagnuolo made it known to his team well in advance of Saturday’s morning practice that he intended to have his team dive into the deep end without so much as dipping its toes in the water first.

“Usually you don’t go live that first day of pads but it’s good,” linebacker Will Witherspoon said. “You really want to get the feel of hitting again, striking guys again. That was kind of the key point of it and getting the feel of hitting through a guy. It was great. I think it was good for everybody to come out here and just get moving and get in the momentum of the game.”

Not many teams go live in training camp at all aside from the occasional scrimmage. In St. Louis, the practice was a serious departure from what the Rams have done in recent seasons.

Aside from the days of Dick Vermeil, practices haven’t been terribly difficult or physical. The idea was to keep players fresh until preseason games and then let them get that contact work in when the exhibition schedule starts.

Instead of slowly accelerating, though, Spagnuolo wants to hit the gas pedal early and then dial it back by pumping the brakes as camp goes on.

“One thing I have learned over the years is that it’s a lot easier to be hard on guys and then kind of back off than it is to be light and try to get hard on guys again,” Bartell said. “I think he knows what he’s doing. He knows when to let up. Right now, it’s day two so I think we’ll be fine.”

To Spagnuolo’s way of thinking, that is just one of the reasons for jumping into live action right away.

After he was hired in January, Spagnuolo and his staff had limited opportunities to get a look at the players on the roster aside from watching game tape from 2008.

Even when the team stepped on the field for Organized Team Activities and the minicamps, Spagnuolo and the staff really had no chance to get a feel for what they have.

And because the game is played hard, fast and physical with pads on, the only way to truly get a handle on what is already in place is to put the pads on and begin hitting.

So, why not just get it going right away?

“We need to find out quickly – you’ve got to remember again it’s a whole new staff and a lot of unknowns – really the only way to find out is to put them in those kind of situations,” Spagnuolo said. “As we go along here every day we will decide how many of those periods will be live. It was really two periods and about 30 plays of live.”

It certainly seemed like much more than that to observers of the team and some of the players on the field. While so far Mother Nature has blessed the Rams with overcast skies and temperatures in the 70s, things won’t get much easier from here on out.

The live portion of practice had plenty of highlights for those who came to watch. Rookie tackle Jason Smith had a good moment getting to the second level and throwing a knockdown block on linebacker Chris Chamberlain as just one of the many collisions that came with a thud during the workout.

While it’s still awfully early in practice and it’s a common occurrence, it was pretty clear the defense was a few steps ahead of the offense, particularly in terms of the running game.

Aside from the quarterbacks, nobody was off limits, including star running back Steve Jackson. Jackson said Friday he wanted to get some hits early in camp and found them in abundance Saturday.

Although Bartell says the defense knows not to go low on Jackson, he is still fair game when it comes to hitting. On more than one occasion, Jackson found himself on the bottom of a pile before bouncing right back up and getting to work.

“He’s got to get hit, everybody else has got to get hit,” linebacker Chris Draft said. “We have got to get ready too. Right now, that’s what we have. We have our chance to get out here, run to the ball and be able to tackle the ball. It doesn’t matter who has it.”

In recent camps, the Rams haven’t gone live until a scheduled scrimmage about a week and a half into camp. The team’s scrimmage this year is scheduled for Aug. 7 but clearly it isn’t waiting around to hit until that day.

Spagnuolo told his team he wanted to get going right away and be physical from day one. The Rams backed off into shells for the afternoon session but there’s no doubt that at least initially the physical tone set Saturday morning is going to carry on into the coming days with padded practices scheduled for most of the morning sessions.

“You have to create that mentality as early as possible,” Witherspoon said. “If you kind of work your way into it or you are weaned into it, it’s a little different and you can maybe be a few days behind where you really could be. You can kind of look at the mistakes you have when you are actually going full speed and looking at how things look a little different. That’s where the key is.”