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Monday, 12 September 2011

Rams Post-Mortem

Let me preface this by saying I did not expect the Rams to win. Nor do I expect the Rams to be better than 2-5 by the time the Cardinals come to visit in week 9. However, yesterday’s game vs the Eagles has given me some cause for concern, and has brought up some issues we know all too well from past seasons. In this piece I’ll give a quick overview of 3 things that worried me about last night’s performance from St Louis, and break down 2 of the TD plays that show the sublime and the ridiculous sides of the Rams performance.

Injury Woes

It was always likely to happen in week 1, particularly with such a limited off-season, but the extent, severity and importance of the injuries suffered by the Rams is as painful to read about as they probably were to suffer:

-      Sam Bradford missed his first ever snaps as an NFL QB, jarring his hand against Eagles defensive lineman Juqua Parker on a 4th quarter pass that was nearly picked off by Asante Samuel. How Samuel dropped it after Greg Salas battled it gently up into the air is beyond me, but that’s beside the point. Bradford left the game and didn’t return. X-rays have shown no bone damage, but he has suspected nerve damage. There’s no real news on whether he’ll miss time, but in his own words: "I don't see there being any way I'm not going to be on the field next Monday night." Here’s hoping.
-      Steven Jackson started pulling up on his long TD run about 15 yards short of the endzone. He managed to get in for the score, but carried the ball only once more in the game. Reports say he has a quad pull/strain, and will have an MRI on it today to assess the extent of the damage. Early estimates have said it may keep him out for 2+ weeks. Fortunately, Carnell “Cadillac” Williams performed well in his place – rushing for 91yds and catching 5 passes. He and Jerious Norwood may well need to carry the load on MNF against the Giants next week.
I don't think elbows are supposed to look like that...
-      Danny Amendola is an unusual one. Reports of his injury are split down the middle: Some calling it a dislocated elbow, some a broken shoulder. The picture certainly indicates it’s elbow related, but the prognosis is very unsure. Depending on the damage done, he could be out for a few weeks to a season. If he has broken his shoulder as well (poor guy) then I think we can probably starting warming IR up for him now. With the number of receivers still on the roster, if Danny does hit IR it might be a space used for another CB.
-      Jason Smith has not got a concussion, which makes a change. He does, however, have a high ankle sprain. Rams fans will remember how badly this affected TE Michael Hoomanawanui last season, and Smith could be sidelined for a number of weeks with this issue. Adam Goldberg filled it, but was out of his depth against the Eagles pass rush.
-      Ron Bartell is quite lucky to not have a concussion. He got crushed by a downfield lineman, and was almost lucky to escape with a shoulder stinger. Hopefully the severity of this will be low, as losing their #1 corner would be devastating for the Rams.
-      Quintin Mikell left the game suffering cramps, but nothing more serious. Hopefully this was just a symptom of week 1 rustiness, as Mikell had a reasonable game to start with. He got beaten by DeSean Jackson for a TD in the 3rd quarter, but he did manage to sack and force a fumble on Michael Vick.

Salas did manage to catch one pass late on

Hands Made of Ham

The Rams dropped so many passes. 8 definite recorded drops, along with 3 or 4 more catchable balls that receivers either didn’t fight for (Lance Kendricks on the 3yd line stepping back from a ball and almost allowing an interception) or ridiculously batted the ball up in the air when covered by 2 DBs (Greg Salas – fortunately, Asante Samuel’s hands were even worse). These drops weren’t just from rookies, with Mike Sims-Walker and Brandon Gibson also putting balls on the ground. Gibson did go some way to make up for it with a diving catch later in the game, beating Nnamdi Asomugha on a nicely weighted ball from Bradford, but by this point the game was long gone. Just about the only guy not to drop anything was blocking TE Billy Bajema. Last year the Rams biggest problem was not having a reliable #1 receiver they could lean on to make big plays for TDs or on 3rd down. The addition of Mike Sims-Walker, supposedly to rectify this, was nullified by Nnamdi in this game, and Sam’s traditional get-out-of-jail-free target Danny Amendola was lost to injury early. With so many passes dropped in the opening drives, Sam got frustrated, and it was clear he had lost some confidence in his receivers. He went on to badly overthrow Danny in the endzone when he was wide open, and to hold on the ball too long when the coverage was good (if not great), leading to a couple of sacks that could have been avoided. Inactive this week were Danario Alexander, Austin Pettis and Michael Hoomanawanui – perhaps one of these guys can catch? On last season’s evidence Illinois Mike has some very reliable hands on him, and pairing him up with Kendricks should cause some nice mismatches over the middle, so the faster he gets back to fitness the better.

D-line Deficiencies

Rams DL was quiet
Last season was the exception to the rule, with the Rams D-line improving in all categories, helped in no small part by Fred Robbins’ motor and Chris Long’s development. Last night, however, the front 7 was susceptible, and in Steve Spagnuolo’s words post-game: “There was a lot of fundamental things we didn’t do right”. Too many times, the blitzes dialled up against Vick were dealt with easily up front (and Todd Herremans can take a lot of the credit for this at RT, almost shutting down Chris Long all day), and even when rushers did get through, the tackling wasn’t clinical enough to get down an athlete like Mike Vick. Just look at this play from the end of the 3rd quarter. Vick trips over on his own 11 yard line, before missed tackles from Bradley Fletcher, Ben Leber, Chris Long, Gary Gibson, Justin Bannan and nearly Eugene Sims (who eventually caused Vick to fall) allowed Vick to recover to the 37 yard line. That’s 5 missed tackles, accounting for a 26 yard swing. Other, less mobile QBs wouldn’t have got away, I’m sure. But that’s no excuse when you’ve known for months that Vick would be coming to town in week 1. It does beg the question, why was Robert Quinn inactive? The 1st round pick did not dress for the game, and the Rams went with Sims instead. Perhaps this was due to Sims’ versatility to take part in special teams too, and it’s no guarantee that Quinn would have done any better than Long and Hall did, but his athleticism would have at least given Eagles LT Jason Peters something to think about.

A Block Party? Not quite.

Run blocking was good, if not great, for most of the night. The TD carry for Jackson was perfect in so many ways. Whether it was designed as misdirection, or just an instinctive bounceback from Jackson I’m not sure, but every single guy picked up their assignment. Jacob Bell and Rodger Saffold opened up the 3 hole superbly; Lance Kendricks looped around Saffold from his position set back off the line to act as a lead-blocker for Jackson, sealing off and eventually drilling LB Moise Fokou into the ground; Danny Amendola from the slot came inside and did just enough to keep S Kurt Coleman away from the play; and further downfield Brandon Gibson was able to use his body to shield Nnamdi Asomugha and keep him guessing as to which direction Jackson would go. As Brian Billick says on the video, the Eagles LBs did the Rams a big favour by over-pursuing on the initial move by Jackson to the right hand side, meaning that the 3 whole opened by Bell and Saffold was gaping. You can see how far C Jason Brown has to move to even reach Casey Matthews on the play, who from his position at ILB should be reading and reacting Jackson’s movement better, not just following his first steps.

Jackson, on his way to the end zone

As good as the blocking and play design was on the Jackson TD is exactly as bad as it was for the Juqua Parker TD. Rodger Saffold made a very weak attempt at cutting DE Darryl Tapp. It’s hard to exactly tell what the design of the play was, as the handoff from Bradford to Williams was botched. It looks like it should have been a stretch play to the left based on the first steps of the OL, but as none of the linemen went downfield, and Lance Kendricks took off on a route rather than staying in to block, there’s a possibility it might have been designed as a play action pass. This would have worked well against an Eagles 8-man box, and would explain Saffold’s decision to cut, but not his technique. He did not move quick enough to catch Tapp as he took a wide route to the backfield, and Saffold’s contact served only to cause Tapp to stumble directly towards Bradford and Williams. Had the handoff been successful (as a fake, rather than Bradford falling over), then perhaps Tapp would have taken down Williams and allowed Bradford to roll out and find a wide open Kendicks over the middle of the field. A confounding factor of the play action theory is Juqua Parker, who as a result of the stretch-left blocking plan was allowed to run free into the backfield. In a play action situation, he could have drilled Sam Bradford from behind, and may have caused a fumble anyway. Success for the Rams on a play like that would rely very heavily on Parker biting hard on the play action and turning back up field to chase Williams, or on Bradford being able to boot out around Parker and beat him with his athleticism. I find it quite hard to believe the Rams would design a play that left Bradford so exposed as this would have done, and so I have to think this was always a simple zone blocking run to the left, with Kendricks taking off downfield in an attempt to draw he OLB with him, and Bajema doing a similar thing from the right hand side.

Parker strolls in for a TD

In this situation, Saffold cutting Tapp is a horrible decision. On a stretch-left play, the whole purpose is for the OL to move as a unit to the left hand side, with responsibility for blocking anyone between their nose and the nose of the guy to their left. In a perfectly executed play, the DL and LBs will flow to the left too, but one block will either be better or worse than the others, causing one hole in the line to open up slightly more than the others. It’s the RBs job to read the play, make a cut back through the hole at the line of scrimmage (or fire through their initial target hole between guard and tackle), and finish the play running against the flow of the D, hopefully catching them wrong footed and giving the offence a better first step. For this reason, cutting a DE from left tackle on a stretch left play is absurd. The rest of the line, both O and D, will be flowing towards this point. As you can see from the video, at the point where Saffold has a lie down, the back side of the line pile into him, all driving their D-linemen to the left. As soon as there is a point where the stretch stops dead, all the holes will begin to close from left to right, as the bodies pile up at this one location. The back would have no chance of making it through, and would be met with a wall of his own men, as well as the DL, and would be forced to cut back behind the line of scrimmage and aim to run around the outside of the RT. In this particular play, we’ve already discussed how Juqua Parker was wandering freely into the backfield from the right hand side, and again he would have met Williams smack in the face, possibly causing a fumble. Aside from Sam Bradford stumbling before the point of the handoff, this play was doomed from the start, and unfortunately for the Rams got pretty much what it deserved.

-     -  Phil Gaskin (@sosayitisaid)
-     -  The Pulling Linemen

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to apologise to all Rams fans for jinxing Ron Bartell's injury. Obviously I wrote this before it was revealed he had two separate neck fractures, and therefore is certainly not lucky for him, or the Rams.

    As I said above, losing their top corner will be devastating for the Rams.