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Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Sack It Off - Rams Done Before Thanksgiving. Again.

The hardest thing about summing up the Rams at the moment is where to begin. At 0-5, things looked bleak, at 2-7 there was a glimmer of hope, but after defeat to the Seahawks the season is basically over before Thanksgiving. Again. Here are just a few of my musings brought on by Sunday’s game.

The Seahawks scored 3 TDs on the Rams on Sunday. A passing TD, a wander to the right from Marshawn Lynch and a breakaway run by Justin Forsett. This makes the D sound pretty shoddy, especially considering Tarvaris Jackson hadn’t thrown a TD pass since week 5... But just look at where these scoring drives started from: Rams 40, Rams 25, Rams 21. Thanks to punt returns and turnovers, Seattle had to move the ball a total of 86 yards to score three times against a team that has scored 2 TDs in a game just once all season. The D actually played a pretty good game. They forced turnovers early, they got consistent pressure on the QB, and the rotation at DE looks better every game as Long dominates, Quinn improves, and Hall continues playing like a true pro. Unfortunately, they were given an impossible job by the offence and special teams.

As Spagnuolo eluded to in his post-game press conference, something was wrong with the game plan on the punt team, and why Donnie Jones kept putting the ball deep in the middle of the field is beyond me. On 10 punts in the game, 7 were returned, for an AVERAGE of 10 yards. 70 yards of territory eaten up without the D stepping foot on the field. One return, for 25 yards, came when the Rams punted from their own 25 and put the Seahawks on STL 40 – starting the drive which ended with the Seahawks first score. Another, for 37 yards, came when Washington took the ball on the SEA 12. Stopping him for even a 10 yard return here gives the Seahawks a long field and puts some pressure on their offence to move the ball. Instead, from the 49 yard line, they could pretty much do what they want. Fortunately, the ensuing drive was ended by two sacks (Hall and Quinn), but the punt from Seattle went like this:

(14:51) 9-J.Ryan punts 63 yards to STL 1, Center-49-C.Gresham. 18-A.Pettis to STL 9 for 8 yards (35-K.Cox).

A long punt, well covered, and even with an 8 yard return, the Rams were pinned deep. It's not even as though poor punt coverage should be a surprise. Does no-one remember what happened against the Cardinals?

The turnovers are a different matter, and one that has been a constant problem this year. Sam Bradford now has 5 passing TDs, 5 interceptions, and 6 lost fumbles for the season. Although the offensive line has to take some of the flack for the problems, so does Sam, and so does Josh McDaniels.

Sunday was a good case in point. The offensive line read like this.

Mark LeVoir (Kevin Hughes) – Jacob Bell – Tony Wragge – Harvey Dahl – Adam Golderg

LeVoir has been with the Rams less than a month, and will now be out for a few weeks minimum with a pectoral problem. He left in Q2 and was replaced by Kevin Hughes, a rookie free agent who was on the practice squad until Saturday. Left to face Chris Clemons, he struggled horribly, but of course he did! In the space of 48 hours he went from being a body at training to playing LT against one of the better big pass rushers in the NFC. Injuries are something you can’t plan to avoid, but they’re something you MUST adapt to if you want to succeed in the NFL. When Saffold went down with his pec injury, LeVoir was the next man up. As an experienced tackle, bringing him into the lineup shouldn’t precipitate a huge change – you can expect him to miss a couple of blocks that his better predecessor might have made, perhaps give up a false start penalty as he gets used to the QBs cadence, but it won’t force you to re-evaluate your entire gameplan. But when he goes down, and you’re faced with putting a guy 1 day removed from the practice squad into active duty, you NEED to help him. As Spagnuolo said post-game, you have choices how: a) leave a TE/RB in to block with him, b) get rid of the ball quicker, c) get the receivers open quicker. As I see it, there’s one thing you have to do, which essentially encompasses b) and c), and negates the need for a). Go West Coast. Run shorter, quicker, crossing routes. Get the ball away from Sam quickly. Help the receivers get open by not asking them to get big separation from the Seahawks huge corners. Although lacking Amendola and Salas, who might be candidates 1 and 2 as being most useful in that kind of attack, the Rams do now have some experienced receivers fit and on the active roster: Lloyd, Clayton and Gibson all have the ability to run these kinds or routes. Clayton and Gibson did it reasonably well last year.

Danny, we miss you nearly as much as Sam does...
 To say one positive for the Rams offence, they did try to go in to a simple no huddle offence. Although obviously OL are the real athletes on the team (as we all know), in a no huddle passing offence there aren’t a whole lot of things to think about for an OT, even one thrust into unfamiliar territory. Jacob Bell is experienced and level-headed enough to have given any instructions to Hughes on the line if required; all it would take is a quick discussion on the sidelines to sort the communication. When they did this to start the second half, the offence did have some limited success, moving the ball from the St Louis 20 down to the Seattle 38.

Some might argue that the best way to protect against a hard pass-rush would be the run the football with Steven Jackson, keep the D-line honest. There was just no way that could ever be part of the game plan against Seattle. Jackson has been in good form the past few weeks, notching up 3 consecutive 100 yard games, and playing a very sizable part in the Rams getting both their wins in that stretch. But he has never in his career run for 100+ yards against Seattle, and the Seahawks D ranks 8th against the run, conceding just 3.5 YPC (compared to the Rams league worst 4.8). There was no release here for the Rams.

Sure, the Rams did look to shorter routes eventually, but they just weren’t quick enough. Bradford continued to take 5 step drops and hold the ball, expecting his backside to be solid enough to keep him upright. I’m not saying he should start hearing footsteps and get jumpy in the pocket, because no QB ever succeeds when they do that, but he should know that his internal clock has a few less ticks on it this week than most, and the ball needs to be gone. The blame here could fall on the wideouts if they’re running slow and sloppy routes, or it could fall on Sam if the plays were there and he just let them pass him by, but ultimately to me it falls on Josh McDaniels, and not having enough up his sleeve to be able to play the offence out of a hole. Sam held on to the ball, the DL kept coming, and the sacks were inevitable. Seattle’s second TD came 5 plays after a strip-sack by Clemons, and the fumbled ball was recovered on the Rams 25. With this increased lead, the Rams no-huddle approach became ineffective. Seattle were able to keep coverage personnel on the field and stop the Rams making the big plays they needed.

The interception by Red Bryant, which led directly to Forsett’s 22 yard TD, was the final straw of this game, and finally broke my spirit. You can have a look at the play here, if you really want to...

To set the scene, on 1st and 10 from the STL 23, Bradford had been sacked by Clemons and Bryant, who hit the QB almost simultaneously in the backfield. At 2nd and 19, deep in their own territory, with under 6 minutes left in the game, it was pretty obvious to everyone the Rams would have to pass it. From a 4-down lineman set, the Seahawks brought 3. LT Kevin Hughes matched up well with the rush on this play, and despite Steven Jackson initially staying in to help him block, he was able to peel off to the left and sit about 2 yards past the line of scrimmage in a good 10 yards of space. The left hand side of the DL was neutralised too, as Adam Goldberg shadowed the rush, and was helped out inside by Harvey Dahl when Raheem Brock attempted to spin back. Dahl was frozen at the line of scrimmage briefly, as the OL expected rushes from DTs Brandon Mebane and Red Bryant up the middle. Instead, whilst Mebane rushed inside-right over Jacob Bell, Bryant took one forward step then turned and dropped back into coverage, following the TE coming off the line. Bell dealt with Mebane well, initially helped by Tony Wragge, but as the play developed and Bradford stepped up in the pocket, Wragge got lazy. Instead of keeping Mebane engaged and occupied, Wragge dropped his right hand, and began to look around for something else to do on the right side of the line. His initial read was Red Bryant, and he watched as the DT dropped off, so he wasn’t looking for him. His RT and RG were dealing Raheem Brock deep in the backfield, so there was nothing to do there. What ensued, this screenshot will demonstrate pretty well:

Jacob Bell continues to block Mebane throughout the play. He does glance back in case there is a delayed rush from a linebacker behind him, but stay engaged throughout, tying up Mebane’s right arm. But, because Wragge has dropped off the block, even though he’s directly in front of his quarterback and in the middle of a throwing lane, Mebane still had a free left arm and enough space and balance to jump. Bradford’s throw hit him square in the hand, and the ball starts to tumble. Wragge, here’s some blame.

Is Wragge really better than Brown? 

After a ball is tipped so close to the release point, it’s pretty much anyone’s guess as to where it’s going to end up. Fortunately for the Rams, the deflection favours the receiver. Austin Pettis appears to have run a hitch on this play, and despite feeling a lot of pressure on his inside shoulder from DB Roy Lewis, he still has the opportunity to make the play. He’s able to get a jump and bring both hands up to meet the ball as high as he can, and it hits in perfectly on his right palm. Now I know he probably wasn’t expecting it, and the balls obviously no perfect spiral at this point, but when a ball hits an NFL receiver in his open hands, he has to make the catch 99 times out of 100. Pettis, here’s some blame.

It’s pretty hard to attribute much blame to anyone else on this play. Although Seattle had 8 in coverage, they did line up in a standard 4-3 set to begin the play, meaning there were only 4 DBs out there. With Steven Jackson able to leak off to the left, Sam had 5 receiving options available to him. From the footage I’ve seen, I don’t know exactly what routes the other WRs were running. It appears as though Bradford’s pass was intended for Mark Clayton, who had found a soft spot in the zone coverage, inside corner Richard Sherman, and underneath safety Earl Thomas (who was playing very deep) – had the ball reached its intended destination, it would have found Clayton in a yard or two of space, and with the time to make a cut up field. You can’t put any blame on Clayton then, he had made himself an available and open target 15 yards down field. 

Bryant reportedly ate 3 DBs for breakfast on Sunday

 You can’t really put anything on Bradford either. He saw the rush from Brock in front of him, and stepped up nicely into the pocket behind Dahl’s block. He did still hold the ball a little long for my liking, but realistically if he wanted to find an open receiver downfield then he had to – and at 2nd and 19 the dump off to Jackson, which probably would’ve made no more than 6/7 yards, was of little use. But that’s just the point. At 2nd and 19, normal plays that could make you 3-6 yards are useless, you’re constantly fighting to get yourself out of a hole, and the defence is able to drop 8 men in coverage. Sometimes when that happens, a defensive lineman finds himself in the right place at the right time. As the ball looped out of Pettis' hands, the 323lb Bryant found the ball falling straight towards him. He caught it, managed to switch it to his left arm so he could hand off Austin Pettis, and bumbled a few yards before being brought down at the sideline. After getting himself a sack on the play before, he'd earnt his spot in the limelight. For the Rams, they have to learn: it’s what happens when you don’t deal with pressure.

-      Phil Gaskin (@sosayitisaid)
-      The Pulling Linemen

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