It's always easy to criticize the play calling with your hand burried in a bowl of nachos and four beers into a game. Like blaming the refs it makes for a nice scapegoat after bewilderingly bad play. Still, that doesn't mean you can't, shouldn't question the decisions made on the sideline or in the booth, and for the 0-3 St. Louis Rams, the offensive play calling has offered much to question.
After the season opener in Seattle, the big question on our minds was about the missing running game. That changed in week two, when the Rams decided to grind it out against Albert Haynesworth and the Washington Redskins. Steven Jackson carried the ball 17 times for 104 yards, and Kenneth Darby added another two carries for offense that was on the field just 25 minutes. This week against the Packers the Rams had even more success on the ground. Thirty-three of 69 total offensive plays were rushes. Steven Jackson carried the ball 27 times - the third most carries he's had spanning this season and last - picking up 117 yards.
So, according to the preseason analysis, Jackson carries, Rams win...what happened? Turns out, you have to pass the ball too. huh. Of course, the Rams have been passing ball, but you'd be hard pressed to point out any memorable passes, i.e. big plays...the kind of big plays the Packers used to beat the Rams this week. Chew on this number:
That's the Rams average gain per passing play this season. That's the league's worst total, tied with the lowly Oakland Raiders, actually. The Rams have had just three passes of 20 yards or more, another league worst. Clearly, they're not throwing the ball deep, airing it out. Take a look at the play-by-play.
Yesterday, according to the play-by-play, the Rams passed deep just once. After Josh Brown's leg made it 23-17, the Rams next drive, which started out nicely with a Steven Jackson 20-yard run, ended with two incomplete short pass attempts to force a punt. Against Washington, according to the official play-by-play, the Rams threw deep just twice, on their final possession of the game. Per the stats at Pro Football Focus (which are a little different thanks to better classifications than the play-by-play), they threw four passes for 10 yards or more...and completed 3 of them, one that beauty over the middle to Keenan Burton for 25 yards.
Go back to this week, with the box stacked, often with five LBs, the Rams did not throw deep to take advantage of the mismatch. That should really stand out to anyone, armchair QB to seasoned football analyst, as big, big mistake.
Is it a personnel thing? Partly. The Rams don't have world beating receivers, but Donnie Avery has proven he can catch a deep ball. Sure his hands have been a little rusty of late, but what's the loss in trying? Keenan Burton may be a physical over the middle guy, but he has the speed to catch a deep ball or two also. Bulger can make those throws, and while Boller is a little shakier when he goes deep, he's still capable of putting the occasional ball into a receiver's hands. Personnel is not an excuse for not trying to mix it up in this case, whether you like the personnel or not.
Football is a game of balance. You can't have a good running game with the pass, etc., etc. This week, with the running game working well, the vertical passing game was MIA, tragically, on day where it made all the sense in the world to mix some deep strikes into the play calling. The Rams missed a golden opportunity by looking like West Coast zealots.