You can be excused for being unable to ignore the sense of foreboding hanging over the St. Louis Rams this week. With Mark Clayton out, the team's top receiver, and coming off a lopsided loss to the Lions, Hitchcock couldn't have made doom seem any more impending. Head coach Steve Spagnuolo had to coax a win out of his team this week to keep the season's hopes alive and stave off questions as to whether this team could actually be turned around after too long in the wasteland.
They did it, taking advantage of a Chargers team that has been completely hapless on the road, despite ranking among the league's best in total offense and defense.
Someone forgot to tell the Rams that they were overmatched...or maybe they didn't and therein lies the genius. Chris Long and the Rams defense played their best game of the season. On the strength of 7 sacks and a strong secondary that will be underrated all season, the defense held San Diego, a team averaging 28 points per game, to just 17 points...and probably could have limited them to less than that had the offense been more able to contribute in the second half.
Full breakdown after the jump.
Let's stay with the defense. The pass rush, after laying an egg last week, was dominant. It was the kind of performance that put Spagnuolo on the map when he was the defensive coordinator for New York.
We talk an awful lot about Bradford, but the defense is quickly becoming the identity for this Rams team.
Pressure came from all over, not just limited to the front four. The linebackers made a real effort to chip in with Larry Grant picking up 2 sacks on the day. More than the sacks, the defense gave San Diego's protection fits with an array of looks, shifting at the line throughout the game to make reads impossible for Philip Rivers. This will be remembered as Chris Long's breakout game, with 2 sacks and 2 QB hits and more pressures. Long terrorized San Diego all day and his presence made things easier for his linemates. Long's real value might not ever be reflected on his stat sheet as he's made the team around him better. What he could do with a threat on the other side of the line is the stuff dreams are made of.
All that pressure made it hard for the Padres, er, Chargers to do anything. Losing Antonio Gates and Wyoming product Malcolm Floyd only helped.
More impressive was the timing the defense showed for making big plays. My favorite, with San Diego down by just a TD, they were marching down the field. On second-and-20, following a Randy McMichael penalty (ha!), the defense got another sack from James Hall that forced the Chargers to kick a 49-yard field goal that was ultimately blocked. Momentum, undecided at that point, shifted firmly to the Rams, who got a field goal on their next drive to make it a two score game.
The defense softened up and allowed San Diego to drive down the field in less a minute. It's a lesson for the entire Rams team NOT to ease into cruise control and play too cautiously. That dogged the offense in the second half.
In three wins, the Rams have scored more than 2 touchdowns just once, against Washington. I'm probably being picky here, but there's reason for concern.
The Rams offense did well for itself in the first half of this game. Mixing things up and moving the ball. Bradford et al controlled the ball for a solid 18 minutes of the first half. The first ingredient in keeping the potent Chargers' offense off the field. In fact, they had the ball in excess of 11 minutes in the second quarter.
Let's break down the offense in a couple of areas that stood out today.
Bradford is tough as nails, of that there can be no doubt. His biggest shortcoming is one typical of a rookie, and therefore not something to panic about going forward. Bradford locks onto his receiver, like his neck stops moving and he gets tunnel vision regardless of how many men are open. He hangs his hat on that accuracy, trying to force something when it's not there. It's a testament to just how good he is that this hasn't cost the Rams more than it has and the kid still has an impressive first year stat sheet. However, it almost cost him a few INTs today, as it has in the past, and will certainly result in a few going forward.
Mark Clayton was the kind of receiver that made his rookie QB's tendency less apparent. With an inexperienced group of players at the receiver positions now, Bradford has to get beyond that.
That said, Bradford is still mighty impressive. Yes, it is hard to remember some times that he is just a rookie. He finished the day with a 58 percent completion rate, even throwing in a couple scrambles for good measure, one that got the Rams a much needed first down. As his game improves Bradford will be a real force.
The playcalling continues to be frustrating at times. Although, I think some of it reflects the team's lack of experience/talent as much as it does what's coming from the sidelines.
Case in point, the Rams getting ridiculously conservative in the second half. Steven Jackson deserves carries because he's a great player. Pat Shurmur was rewarded with a TD when he finally went to Jackson in the red zone after Bradford's tendency to lock on a receiver cost them a score sooner.
In the second half, drives featured more running from the start. Throw in some mediocre run blocking and it resulted in too many three-and-outs to start the half. The score wasn't lopsided enough to simply run, run, run right out of the gate in the third quarter. And with a group of young receivers who can struggle in coverage and sometimes with their hands, we've seen it result in some turnovers for the Rams.
But I wonder if the Rams weren't trying to limit some of the damage by not putting the ball in the air? If you give the ball to Jackson enough, things will happen. Finally, it worked like that late in the fourth quarter.
The loss of Mark Clayton hurts, but there is enough talent here with a varied skill set to keep things moving. Danario Alexander just looks like an NFL receiver with the height and moves. He caught 4 of 5 passes thrown his way. It speaks volumes about his ability when the Rams coaches put him out there and called plays for him since he hasn't seen contact since college.
Gibson stepped up today too. Along with Amendola and Bajema, he caught 3 balls on 5 throws. All three of Gibson's catches were for 10 yards or more. Why was he not targeted in the second half?
What can you really say about this guy? Jackson can still dominate a game. We had demanded more touches in the red zone, and after three consecutive sacks the Rams finally handed it off to him for a red zone TD.
This unit gets tons of credit for pass protection. They've done a great job. The afore mentioned three sacks on Bradford were largely of his own doing, that whole locking on to his receiver thing...
Run blocking leaves a little to be desired. Feeding Jackson the ball early in the second half should have been more successful, even if was a little too conservative. This group just isn't getting lanes cleared out, especially in the middle. More than anything, they just lacked the consistency.
Finally, credit the special teams. The blocked field goal speaks for itself. San Diego had struggled with ST coming into this game, losing at least two games specifically because of special teams play. That didn't happen this week, but the Rams got help on their returns, particularly Amendola's 42-yard punt return that set up a field goal.
Josh Brown was money as well, hitting a sweet 48-yarder to seal the deal. This unit needed a better outing after last week, and they did it.
Same goes for the Rams, who now head to Tampa Bay. This was an important win that was needed to keep hope alive in an anything goes NFC West race. Now, they need to pick up their first road win next week in Tampa Bay and another when they face Carolina the week after. Win those two games, and they're well positioned at 5-2 for a more difficult stretch run and a shot at the title.