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.

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