Monday, November 29, 2010

Rams took us on a wild ride this trip

by Bryan Burwell

DENVER • Just in case you thought you were the only one who spent most of Sunday afternoon slaloming along on this wild emotional ride between the peaks of hilarity and the depths of football depression, just in case you figured you were the only one staring at the television wondering if you were witnessing a fascinating thrill ride or a potentially devastating train wreck, allow me to take you inside the visitors' locker room of Invesco Field at Mile High.
Over there on the far wall of this bustling winner's locker room, Sam Bradford, still in uniform, shoes untied, jersey on the floor, slumped in a chair in front of his locker stall, indulging in the spoils of victory.
"Man, that was crazy," the quarterback said as he munched on a biscuit out of his postgame lunch box. "Up one minute, down the next and back up again. Crazy, man, crazy. Wow."
And then the kid flashed a big old smile from beneath that scraggly beard, took one more big bite on that biscuit and finished talking.
"But tell me again, what was the final score?"
Rams 36, Denver Broncos 33.
"Well, then, isn't that all that matters? We won, right?"
Exactly, Sam. The Rams won a road game, people. Can I get an amen?
It wasn't perfect. In fact, it was downright ulcer-inducing. But when you are a franchise that has for far too long treated life on the road like one endless misguided adventure, when you've spent the past four seasons compiling one bad road disaster after another (55 weeks without a road victory, two victories away from home since 2008 and a staggering 4-24 road record since the start of the 2007 season), who are we to quibble about style points?
This is a Rams team that is taking all the small steps in the right direction, even if they still tend to stumble occasionally at the worst possible times. But here they were at one of the NFL's great road venues — a place that used to shiver, shake, rattle and roll when the Broncos were winning AFC titles and Super Bowl trophies — and the youngsters found a way to win a game when they had to.
It was the perfect game for a team that is still trying to find its way and discover its stature in the NFL. We don't know what they are quite yet, but we do know that their season still has meaning with this important road win. The Rams are 5-6, which doesn't sound like much if you live in places like New England or New York, Chicago or New Orleans. But for a team that was 1-15 only a year ago, it's enormous. Then throw in the insane bonus that the Rams are now officially back in first place in the NFC West with five games to play, and you might as well be living on a cloud.
Now think about this, too: In a few days it will be December, and the Rams will be on top of their division standings, and they're built to stay that way when you realize their division is cluttered with deeply flawed and rapidly declining competition.
But it was also a game that provided plenty of perspective, because it wasn't remotely a complete game. Let's just say it was a fun three quarters.
Let's begin with young Mr. Bradford, who is no longer a rookie, and it's becoming difficult to remember the last time he actually did look like one. The Broncos' defensive game plan was to make sure that Steven Jackson didn't beat them (Jackson gained some of the most brutal 72 yards you'll ever see against eight and nine men in the box all day long), and they dared the kid to do it with his arm.
And guess what?
He did.
He had his first 300-yard game, completed 22 of 37 passes for three touchdowns and an eye-popping 113.3 pass efficiency rating. He threw the ball deep to all his receivers and he challenged the Broncos up the sidelines and — gasp and swoon! — up the middle of the field. Danario Alexander came off the inactive list and averaged only 23.8 yards a catch. Laurent Robinson is starting to look like a receiver who can get deep, too (14.5 yards a catch), and Danny Amendola just keeps on doing everything right (he caught four balls for 41 yards and killed the Broncos with three end-arounds for 48 yards). And Bradford used his tight ends brilliantly, too (two TD catches by Billy Bajema and one by Mike Hoomanawanui).
Then the fourth quarter started and the Rams' coaches went all fair and balanced on us, which is to say they got incredibly conservative.
Ah, yes, shall we discuss the fourth quarter? You know those final 15 minutes where Rams fan swallowed their hearts, and the Rams' coaches apparently lost all their nerve?
There was so much to like about this game until the fourth quarter. The Rams bounced back from a 10-0 deficit with the stadium beginning to feel very much like it used to when John Elway was thrilling the home folks. With all that foot stomping going on in the upper deck, I swear the press box was vibrating like we were in an earthquake. But then the offense started clicking, outscoring the Broncos 30-3, and the Rams went into the fourth quarter with a 33-13 lead. It was a thing of beauty going into the fourth quarter, and you could see the stands emptying out as disgruntled Broncos fans stopped booing and headed for the parking lot.
But then it started to happen.
It was that very familiar, queasy feeling we've felt before in Tampa and in Oakland and in San Francisco. That creeping sense that no lead is safe when the Rams are away from the Edward Jones Dome. They didn't attack. They retreated. They played it safe, just like they have done so many other times when the Rams could have put away victories in Tampa, Oakland and San Francisco.
After the game, coach Steve Spagnuolo admitted that even while basking in the thrill of victory, he couldn't understand why this team continues to struggle with its ability to be cold-blooded killers. He was smiling this time, but it was the nervous laughter of a man who knew he'd just narrowly escaped a piano falling on his head.
"I just know this," Spagnuolo said. "Going forward, if you are going to win consistently in this league, your defense has to find a way to close out football games, especially when you are up by two scores. You have to find a way to do that."
But as time goes by, it's becoming more apparent that the struggles on the road are not always a simple matter of execution by the players. Sometimes, it's also a matter of style and approach, and that is all on the coaches. Sometimes you have to stick with what got you here. Earlier in the year, it was an understandable approach because you were protecting a rookie quarterback. But Bradford isn't a rookie anymore and this team is ready to win games without racing the last few laps under the ever-present caution flag.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Rams Can’t Quite Keep Up with Falcons

Posted by nickwagoner on November 22, 2010 – 12:58 AM 

- The Rams came into Sunday’s game looking to bounce back from a tough loss to San Francisco last week. But the task was tall with a talented Atlanta team coming in and ultimately it was too much for them to overcome in a 34-17 loss at the Edward Jones Dome.

- The Falcons are the best team the Rams have played this season. They’re extremely balanced offensively and they play stout, solid defense that doesn’t allow much in the way of big plays. With the win, Atlanta moves to 8-2 on the season. The Rams fall to 4-6 with the loss but the rest of the NFC West teams also lost Sunday, which means the Rams didn’t lose any ground in the divisional race.

- On the injury front, the Rams had nothing too serious. Tackle Rodger Saffold tweaked his shoulder and will have an MRI but that was the only ailment of concern for coach Steve Spagnuolo after the game. S Oshiomogho Atogwe, CB Ron Bartell and CB Justin King missed time during the game with cramps but they all returned.

- As for the game, the final score is certainly misleading. With 3:31 to play, the Rams had the ball at Atlanta’s 2 trailing by nine. A touchdown there and they had all timeouts remaining with a chance to get the ball back. Atlanta finished the game with a late 39-yard touchdown run by Michael Turner for the final margin.

- For most of the game, Atlanta controlled the ball and the clock with its balanced offense. QB Matt Ryan is a heck of a player. Not many quarterbacks in the league are better against the blitz than he is. He dissected the Rams on the blitz and was able to keep his team on the field time and again.

- A few things that really hurt the Rams: time of possession and field position. The Falcons had the ball for 35:55 to the Rams’ 24:05. And the Falcons took full advantage of good field position, particularly in the first half. A big kick return was the impetus for that.

- The Rams went sackless against Ryan and the Falcons, a disappointing showing for a group that has been the best in the league at getting to the quarterback.

- QB Sam Bradford set a rookie record for consecutive attempts without an interception with 169. That streak ended on a bizarre, fluky interception at the goal line on a late shovel pass. That was the play that killed the Rams’ drive at the goal line and ended the Rams’ chances.

- TE Michael Hoomanawanui collided with G Adam Goldberg on the play, throwing off the timing as the ball ended up in the hands of Atlanta S William Moore.

- Hoomanawanui had a solid performance, catching four passes for 46 yards with a touchdown. His 18-yard grab down the sideline was a thing of beauty.

- Nice effort, Brandon Gibson. He had five catches for 42 yards and his touchdown grab on a fade to the left corner of the end zone was outstanding as well.

- Steven Jackson finished with 54 yards on just 11 carries but Atlanta made it obvious it wanted to take him away. And the Rams weren’t on the field enough to continue feeding him. Congrats to Jackson for reaching 10,000 career yards from scrimmage, though.

- In the locker room after, the Rams were quick to give credit where its due. Atlanta is an excellent team and probably the top contender in the NFC right now. That’s the type of team the Rams are striving to become.

- It doesn’t get any easier from here. The Rams now go on the road for three straight, starting next weekend in Denver. In order to stay in the race, they’ll need to find a way to get that elusive first road victory.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Rams Lose in OT


SAN FRANCISCO • The Rams pushed and pushed, and pushed some more. If that elusive first road victory was a boulder, they had it at the top of the hill and could almost see the other side — the down hill side.

But once again, they slipped and got flattened by it. It's difficult to imagine any road loss being more wrenching than the 18-17 loss at Tampa Bay three weeks ago. But this was it, a 23-20 overtime defeat to San Francisco on Sunday at Candlestick Park.

"When you have a team, third-and-forever, fourth-and-forever, for them to convert it and come back and get a touchdown — that can't happen," cornerback Ron Bartell said.

It happened. The Rams led 17-13 in the closing minutes of regulation, but San Francisco wiggled out of third-and-32 and fourth-and-18 holes leading to a go-ahead touchdown catch by wide receiver Michael Crabtree with 2 minutes, 10 seconds to play.

Undaunted, the Rams drove 70 yards on their next possession, tying the score as time expired on Josh Brown's 33-yard field goal. Just four plays earlier Steven Jackson, who had 148 yards rushing and receiving, put the Rams in position to win the game in regulation managing to stay inbounds on a 25-yard catch with linebacker Takeo Spikes draped all over him.

But a couple of plays later, on a second-down play from the 49ers 15, tight end Daniel Fells dropped a pass at the Niners' 7 on a play he might have scored on. "I've got to come up with that catch," Fells said. "I take everything personal. I go out there and I bust my butt every single down, every single play, and I expect to make those plays so I can help my team win."
But it was one of those games where there were several plays like that, good and bad. And lots of questions.

Why, for example, did Kevin Dockery start ahead of Bradley Fletcher at cornerback? According to STATS LLC, only 49 percent of the passes directed at Fletcher had been completions this season.

"We've got a lot of competition in a lot of spots, to be honest," coach Steve Spagnuolo said, when asked about starting Dockery. "You know I'm of the thinking, the philosophy, that there should be competition all the way through. I think it makes guys play harder and better. So 'Dock' got his shot and we'll see where it goes for this coming week."

Dockery, biting on a play fake, was beaten by Vernon Davis for a 32-yard gain on the 49ers' first play from scrimmage. He was then beaten by Josh Morgan for a 65-yard gain on the first play of San Francisco's second series, which led to the game's first touchdown.

Dockery was replaced on the next series by Fletcher in the Rams' base defense, although he stayed in the game in other packages.

And more pertinent to the ending of the game, why did referee Ed Hochuli's crew call pass interference on safety Oshiomogho Atogwe in overtime, on a play that clearly looked like an uncatchable ball?

The Rams seemingly had San Francisco stopped on third-and-2 from the St. Louis 45. Defensive end Chris Long, who spent most of the day in the 49ers' backfield, was in the process of bringing down quarterback Troy Smith on the play.

Smith got the ball off, but it was a wobbly duck, destined to fall incomplete in the middle of the field, nowhere near a 49ers receiver. But as tight end Delanie Walker stopped and turned back to make an attempt for the ball, he collided with Atogwe, who was trailing in close coverage.

Out came the flag. Instead of punting from the 45 on fourth down, the Niners had a first down at St. Louis 23, already in field goal range. Two Frank Gore runs later, Joe Nedney kicked a 29-yard field goal with 9:39 to go in overtime for the victory, which boosted San Francisco's record to 3-6 after an 0-5 start.

Spagnuolo said he tried to get an explanation from the officiating crew on the call. "I asked, but it's noisy and I was screaming to ask," he said. "It was called."

Did he agree with the call?

"I'm not going to comment on that," Spagnuolo said. "You have to play the next down based on the way they officiate it, and that's what we did."

Attempts by the Post-Dispatch for a pool report on the call were unsuccessful.

Atogwe had left the locker room. But when Bartell was asked if he thought the pass was uncatchable, he replied, "Yeah, yeah. I thought a couple of the pass interference calls were questionable. At the end of the day you have to play above officiating. We still had opportunities to make plays and we didn't get it done."

Nope. Instead of putting a dagger in the 49ers' attempt to salvage their season, the Rams lost their fourth game the season by four points or fewer. Three of those tight losses have come on the road, where the Rams remain winless since Nov. 1, 2009.

For the third time this season, the Rams had a chance to get above .500 with a road victory. For the third time this season, they fell short, losing for the fifth straight time to San Francisco.

At 4-5, the Rams dropped a game off the pace in the NFC West behind Seattle (5-4), which defeated Arizona 36-18.
"We're not the old Rams," Long said. "We're trying to be a new team and set a new standard. And the standard isn't losing close games on the road."

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rams vs. Panthers--Postgame Notes

- The Rams improved to 4-4 on the season as they defeated the Carolina Panthers 20-10. It was St. Louis’ fourth consecutive home win, giving the Rams a 4-1 record at home this season.

- Prior to the game, the Rams honored former WR Isaac Bruce by retiring his number 80 jersey. Bruce became the ninth player in franchise history to have his jersey retired, and many of his former coaches and teammates were on hand for the ceremony.

- During Bruce’s ceremony, several dozen fans formed a tunnel through which Bruce and his former teammates walked to the center of the field. Those making up the tunnel were fans chosen through a lottery of 15-year Personal Seat License (PSL) holders and other select fans.

- QB Sam Bradford completed 25-of-32 passes for 191 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions to give him a single-game career-best passer rating of 112.4. Sunday was Bradford’s third consecutive game without an interception, and he’s now gone 96 consecutive attempts without being picked off.

- Bradford was 9-of-11 for 73 yards and two touchdowns on third down Sunday, good for a passer rating of 133.9.

- For the fifth time in as many home games this season, the Rams held their opponent under 17 points. Defensively, St. Louis is allowing just 12.6 points per game at home this season and 17.6 points per game overall.

- RB Steven Jackson gained 63 total yards (59 rushing, 4 receiving) to give him 9,839 yards from scrimmage on his career and moved past WR Henry Ellard (9,816) into fourth place on the franchise’s all-time list.

- The Rams held Carolina to just 25 rushing yards Sunday, the second lowest total allowed by St. Louis since the club relocated to the Gateway City in 1995. The 25 yards allowed were the fewest given up on the ground since Carolina rushed for 31 yards against St. Louis on Nov. 11, 2001.

- St. Louis won the time of possession battle 36:28 and held Carolina to 0-for-4 on third down in the first half.

- As a team, the Rams forced four turnovers, including three interceptions, and St. Louis scored 10 points off of takeaways Sunday. Three of the team’s takeaways came in the fourth quarter. On the season, the Rams have 15 total takeaways. St. Louis had 20 in 16 games in 2009.

- LB James Laurinaitis ended Carolina’s first drive of the day when he intercepted Matt Moore’s first pass attempt of the game. The interception was Laurinaitis’ first of the season and third of his career. Laurinaitis also sacked Moore later in the game, the linebacker’s second sack of the season.

- The Rams held the Panthers scoreless in the first quarter, marking the sixth time in eight games this season that their opponent has failed to score a first quarter point. St. Louis has allowed zero points in the first quarter at home this season and six total first quarter points in 2010.

- WR Danny Amendola caught a touchdown pass for the second consecutive week. His two-yard catch, his second of the season and third of his career, gave the Rams a 10-3 lead just before halftime. Amendola now has 15 consecutive games with at least one reception.

- Seven different Rams caught a pass Sunday with Amendola and Brandon Gibson tied for the team lead with six catches each.

- S Craig Dahl recorded his third forced fumble of the season when he stripped WR Steve Smith late in the third quarter. DE Chris Long recovered, and the takeaway resulted in a 23-yard touchdown pass from Bradford to TE Daniel Fells.

- St. Louis recorded its third takeaway of the day when DE James Hall hit Moore’s arm and forced an errant throw that was intercepted by S James Butler. The interception was Butler’s second of the season, and led to a 41-yard Josh Brown field goal.

- DE Chris Long recorded a sack, giving him three consecutive games with at least 1.0 sacks for the second time in his career. Long now has 4.5 sacks on the season, second among Rams defenders.

- S Oshiomogho Atogwe clinched the victory with an interception on Carolina’s last drive of the game. Atogwe has two interceptions on the year and 21 for his career.