BY JIM THOMAS
It's not an illusion, the Rams' offense is as bad as it looks. In fact, with just two games remaining in the 2011 season, the Rams' lack of production has reached historic proportions.
With a league-low 166 points scored, the Rams are on pace to score less than 200 points for only the second time since World II. If the Rams stay on their average of 11.9 points per game, they will complete the 2011 season with 190 points scored.
And given the caliber of the defensive competition in their final two games, the Rams might be lucky to score at all.
Entering their Monday night game at Candlestick Park, Pittsburgh was ranked No. 1 in the league in total defense and No. 2 in scoring defense. The Steelers' foe, San Francisco, was No. 4 in total defense and No. 1 in scoring defense.
The Rams travel to Pittsburgh for a Christmas Eve game at Heinz Field. Then on Jan. 1, they ring in the New Year by playing host to San Francisco in the season finale at the Edward Jones Dome.
The Steelers are in a knock-down, drag-out fight with Baltimore for the AFC North title. The 49ers, who beat the Rams 26-0 on Dec. 4, still could be in the running for a first-round playoffs bye when they face the Rams. So neither team might be resting any regulars when they play St. Louis.
Before coach Steve Spagnuolo's arrival in 2009, you had to go back 65 years and two cities in franchise history to find a Rams team that scored fewer than 200 points. From 1937 through 1944, the Cleveland Rams never scored more than 196 points in any of the franchise's first seven seasons. (The Rams didn't field a team in 1943.)
But in those days, the Rams played only 10 or 11 games a season, not 16. Even the 1982 Rams during that strike-shortened nine-game season managed to score exactly 200 points.
So from the '44 Rams, who scored 188 points in a 4-6 campaign, one must go all the way forward in time to the '09 club —which scored 175 points — to find another Rams team that scored fewer than 200 in a season.
In '09, Spagnuolo stepped into the considerable mess left by predecessor Scott Linehan, one replete with bad draft picks and failed free agents.
The 2010 offense under rookie quarterback Sam Bradford was much improved, scoring 114 more points than the '09 squad, marking the second-best improvement in points scored in the NFL by a team from '09 to 2010.
But despite the signing of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the drafting of two wide receivers and a tight end in Rounds 2-4, the trade for Brandon Lloyd and the signing of offensive lineman Harvey Dahl in free agency, the Rams have regressed noticeably in this injury-plagued 2011 season.
As Dahl said after the Rams' 20-13 loss Sunday to Cincinnati, "We just can't get it all connected on offense."
Not even close.
The Rams rank last in the league in third-down conversion rate (26.9 percent) and are 30th in red-zone offense, scoring touchdowns on just 35.7 percent of their possessions inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
"It's hard to move the ball when you're not converting on third down," Spagnuolo said following the loss to Cincinnati. "We haven't been able to generate those explosive plays, and that's kind of been the story a lot.
"For whatever reason (defenses) are taking away certain weapons that they defend a certain way. We've got to try to manufacture some points working our way down the field. It's hard to be perfect for however number of plays, but one thing we've got to do is convert on third down."
With a tattered offensive and no true fullback on the roster, the Rams had trouble gaining inches — much less yards — on third down against the Bengals.
In going 0-for-eight on third-down conversions through three quarters, the Rams never faced any situation longer than third-and-7.
They had a third-and-1, third-and-2, third-and-3, and third-and-four plays — all very manageable down-and-distance situations. But they had minus-10 yards to show for those eight third-down plays:
• Steven Jackson was stopped for 1- and 2-yard losses on runs.
• Kellen Clemens was sacked twice.
• Clemens threw incomplete once and scrambled once for one yard (on third-and-2).
• The only other plays to gain positive yardage besides Clemens' scramble were a 1-yard completion to Lloyd on third-and-4 and a 5-yard completion to Danario Alexander on third-and-6.
A facemask penalty against the Bengals' defense did give the Rams a first down on third-and-1 in the second quarter, but because it came on a penalty it wasn't counted in the conversion stats. On the actual play, Lloyd lined up in the backfield took a pitch from Clemens, and was nailed for a 3-yard loss.
So the red zone remains the dead zone for the Rams, and the act of actually crossing the goal line remains a rarity.
The Rams have scored only 15 TDs this season, and if that number doesn't change against Pittsburgh and San Francisco, it will be the second-lowest total in franchise history — trailing only the 10 TDs scored by the Cleveland Rams in 1937.
And if the Rams don't score at least 34 points over their final two games, they will become just the 15th team in the NFL since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978 to score fewer than 200 points.
Those hardly are "milestones" a team wants to reach.