Rams and the Red Zone: where offense goes to die

An inch is often the difference between a touchdown and a harmless incompletion. It might just have been the difference between a praise-filled, laudatory piece and the one I actually wrote.

  Saying the Rams' offense has underperformed would be an understatement. In short, it's been really, really bad. In just about every facet.

  Tied for 5th worst in passing yards per game. Most drops of any team in the NFL. The worst rate in the NFL of sacks that take three seconds or longer. And ultimately the most important, the league's second-worst scoring offense. Pick a metric outside of the running game, and this offense is failing. Miserably. And I mean that literally. The tenor here at TST has been miserable after each game, and nearly after each possession.

  A simple evaluation of how bad this offense has come inside the opponents 20-yard line, the vaunted red zone. At this point, I almost kind of hope the Rams offense doesn't operate in the red zone, because it has been as bad as any horror writer could imagine. H.P. Lovecraft couldn't write something more terrifying.

  So if you can stomach it, I'm going to get into each red zone play (save for field goals) by the 2011 Rams thus far. Oddly enough, Derek Pease from RamsHerd approached the same topic, albeit from a statistical standpoint. It's a great read at the macro level and a good primer for the micro level after the jump. You might want to check it out just to test your nausea tolerance.

  After the jump, every Rams redzone play with a trio of videos.

Week 1, v. Philadelphia Eagles

1st and goal, PHI 1 (2:15, 3Q)

  The Rams didn't get into the end zone until late in the third, set up by a pass interference call on Brandon Gibson. Down by 14, a touchdown would bring the Rams within one possession. Unfortunately, they would set the bar for red zone futility with this possession.

  On first down, the Rams came out in a power goalline formation, with TE Stephen Spach on the right side and Brit Miller lined up at FB. Cadillac Williams had carried the load for most of the day after Steven Jackson was sidelined with a quad injury, and was the designed ball carrier on this play. DE Juqua Parker would work TE Billy Bajema to the inside and held his ground as Cadillac tried to get through to the end zone to no avail.

2nd and goal, PHI 1 (1:37, 3Q)

  The Rams have been pretty consistent at making mistakes all season, and that was certainly the key in the season opener. Here, Billy Bajema flinched on the line, and the offsides penalty would move the ball back five yards.

2nd and goal, PHI 6 (1:22, 3Q)

  A soft playaction as Bradford tries to hit Kendricks on the outside. Nearly picked off by S Jarrad Page. Sam needs to go to his next read here.

3rd and goal, PHI 6 (1:16, 3Q)

  The Rams go max protect as Bradford tries to hit Amendola fading into the corner. Strange playcall, poor execution, very Rams-ish.

Week 2, v. New York Giants

1st and goal, NYG 1 (10:14, 1Q)

  The Rams had four red zone possessions resulting in twelve offensive plays in this game, more than any other all season in both categories. On this first play, the Rams show run early before Bradford looks for Kendricks in the end zone. Kendricks flattens the route as Bradford expects him to bend it toward the back. An overthrown ball gives Kendricks no chance.

2nd and goal, NYG 1 (10:08, 1Q)

  The Rams try to run the power off tackle to the left here, but Bajema gets pushed back and Miller can't get around him to lead for Cadillac. Loss of one, and the Rams just look lost.

3rd and goal, NYG 2 (9:22, 1Q)

  Before breaking this one down, let's look at the video:

  Bradford sees the Giants' blitz being set up and audibles into the shotgun, as Mike Sims-Walker motions to the left side leaving a WR pair on the weak (right) side. Both Bradford and Salas make a mistake on this play.

  On Sam, he just waits too long to get rid of the ball. The Giants send one more man than the Rams have blockers, meaning someone is coming untouched...and since Sam audibled out of the original play (at the 0:09 mark) knowing it was coming, he should be fully cognizant that the pressure's on the way. That being the case, Sam has to get the ball out quicker.

  Salas, meanwhile, telegraphs his route with his left foot. He's running an angle slant route, meaning he's going to run inside instead of straight ahead before breaking his route off (the replay at 0:38 is the best look).  Conceptually, you hit the inside portion at full speed, and then plant and turn to the outside as the ball is in the air. With his left foot, Salas straightens up one step before he plants and turns outside. He then takes a huge step (time consuming) to burst out. That huge stride signals to S Antrel Rolle that he's heading to the sideline.

  Sensing the route, Rolle tightens up on Salas since he's lost his inside momentum. When he plants, Rolle is close enough to maintain tight coverage throughout the turn. Even if the Giants had blitzed with one less rusher, Bradford would have had an incredibly tight window.

1st and 10, NYG 15 (4:06, 1Q)

  This is the famous double fake injury play. At this point, the Giants' defense is exhausted. The Rams hurry to the line after a Kendricks reception for a first down, and quickly snap the ball. As Bradford receives the snap, several of the Giants are still getting into position and discussing their assignments. With so many players yet to set up, the Rams' offensive line mauls a huge hole for Cadillac who goes untouched into space before being tackled at the 7. After the play, Deon Grant takes a nap.

2nd and 2, NYG 7 (3:35, 1Q)

  The Rams go to their jumbo shotgun package with just two receivers on the field, both on the left. The offensive line picks up the delayed blitz, and Bradford comfortably tosses it to the corner for Mike Sims-Walker...and overthrows him. MSW never really seems to explode in the route, so it's hard to tell if this is overthrown or underran. Regardless, it's an incompletion.

3rd and 2, NYG 7 (3:29, 1Q)

  With trips left, the Rams O-line again picks the pressure up well. It's a well-designed play, and well run. Salas runs into the flat into space, and Bradford hits him in the hands. Salas catches it at the front of the ball (not around the middle, and as he turns, he lowers the ball. As CB Aaron Ross comes in to wrap his arms around Salas for the hit, he knocks the ball with his hand. Salas grasps at it as he falls, but can't bring it in.

1st and 10, NYG 16 (13:17, 3Q)

  A decent first down run, and plus blocking from the line. But Brandon Gibson can't get rid of Antrel Rolle, and he gets to the inside to bring Cadillac down.

2nd and 7, NYG 13 (12:38, 3Q)

  Bradford's got trips right, including Lance Kendricks who lined up at WR out of the huddle. On the snap, Kendricks runs straight into the end zone, opening up space underneath for Salas who digs across. He's dropped quickly, setting up a short third down.

3rd and 3, NYG 9 (11:58, 3Q)

  This is probably the most frustrating of all of these, because the playcall is perfect and the defense completely misplayed the situation. As Bradford drops back after the snap, he sees a safety blitz coming off the weak side. Once he sees it, he knows he has DX one-on-one, and that he should be able to get open on the inside slant.

  DX does in fact come wide open, likely affected because he had multiple downfield targets and receptions earlier in the game, pushing his coverage back. DX has half of the entire end zone to himself, but Bradford's pass is flat and LB Michael Boley gets a piece of the ball, standing 7 yards away from Bradford. Sam won't get an easier read all season, and DX won't have as easy a TD route all year. And yet we got nothing out of it.

1st and 10, NYG 19 (1:34, 3Q)

  Bradford takes a deep drop looking to his right before throwing to his left to DX on the curl. It''s a bit outside and DX can't hold on.

2nd and 10, NYG 19 (1:30, 3Q)

  The Giants only rush five, leaving plenty of defenders back to blanket the Rams' receivers. The protection is fine, but Sam is visibly uneager to throw. Eventually, he throws it toward DX, but it's so low he was possibly just throwing it away.

3rd and 10, NYG  19 (1:24, 3Q)

  This is football 101. Have a mismatch with a more athletic, bigger WR? Don't try to curl him back (as on 1st down). Don't send him over the middle (on second down). But if you've already done that, you've set up the fade. Just toss it into the corner and let him go and get it. Great throw from Sam, great job by DX to go up and get the ball.

Week 3, v. Baltimore Ravens

1st and 10, BAL 19 (5:26, 3Q)

  Here's a great microcosm of the Rams' red zone troubles. Sam's in the shotgun with an empty backfield. The Rams are using two TEs, with Hoomanwanui in-line on the left and Kendricks kicked out as a WR. As Kendricks curls outside, Bradford fires it perfectly into his hands. Kendricks makes the kind of drop that you watch 50 times and still don't understand how he dropped it. I've actually watched this play now about 20 times to be honest, so I guess that was a bit of hyperbole.

  Of course, it wouldn't matter, because Jacob Bell was flagged for a chop block, taking the ball back 15 yards. Strangely, the Rams would score a touchdown on the next play with Bradford finding Brandon Gibson in the back of the end zone. This, ladies and gentlemen, was your only play in the red zone for the Rams all game.

Week 4, v. Washington Redskins

1st and goal, WAS 3 (11:05, 4Q)

  The Rams try to run to the strong side here with Bajema lined up on the left, but Harvey Dahl is slow to pull around (not seeing the blitz from the secondary) and gets caught up behind Bajema. The logjam allows S Reed Doughty to come in unmolested to take down Steven Jackson just behind the line of scrimmage. Not the way to start off your first red zone trip...which didn.t come about until the 4th quarter.

2nd and goal, WAS 4 (10:28, 4Q)

  Keystone Kops much? The Rams set up in the I weak offset, with Bajema at TE on the right and Miller at FB. As Bradford executes a play action with Jackson (and an unconvincing one at that), OLB Brian Orakpo jukes Rodger Saffold out of his shoes. Saffold resorts to holding and tackling Orakpo, drawing a holding penalty. To finish the play, Bradford scrambles around a bit like a horny donkey before throwing to his fullback (the last resort to end all last resorts) who drops the ball and ends up on his butt. You could literally set this play to Yakety Sax.

2nd and goal, WAS 14 (10:21, 4Q)

  The Redskins show blitz, but only bring four. The confusion hits RT Jason Smith especially hard, as he can't find someone to block until after OLB Ryan Kerrigan is already hunting down Sam Bradford. Sam gets the pass off toward Steven Jackson on the circle route, but it's way too early. Neither he nor his coverage had even turned to the throw yet.

3rd and goal, WAS 14 (10:17, 4Q)

  This is where it hurts. Let's check the video:

  The playcall's perfect, sending TE Lance Kendricks up the seam as Washington settles into a nickel-based Tampa 2 scheme. The blocking is, actually, perfect. Jason Smith and Harvey Dahl do a great job of picking up a stunt between Kerrigan and Barry Cofield. On the other side, Rodger Saffold jams Orakpo upright and could have blocked him for 10 seconds with ease after winning the pad level battle. Sam has time to throw and hits Kendricks perfectly in stride on his back shoulder to avoid London Fletcher who was late to drop into deep coverage. It caroms off of Kendricks' arm, hand and chest and falls to the ground.

  It's sad how you can do every little thing perfectly on a play and have it all go to shit with a single mistake at the end. And not only that, but it might have been (along with Sam's throw) the easiest component of the play. There is no excuse nor explanation for this. It's a drop by a rookie tight end who has had way too many costly drops. This was one of them.

1st and 10, WAS 20 (6:02, 4Q)

  The Rams lucked out here. Washington LB Rob Jackson is going to come on the blitz and embarrass LG Tony Wragge who had come on for Jacob Bell by this point. With a quick slap & swim move, he gets from his initial MLB to the quarterback as fast as possible. Sam sees him coming and tries to hit Jackson wheeling up the side, but he can't throw it far enough while being pummeled. Luckily for the Rams, there's a tad too much pummeling, and Jackson is flagged for roughing the passer.

1st and goal, WAS 10 (5:58, 4Q)

  Trips right, Kendricks in line to the left with Jackson on Bradford's left-hand side. Jackson runs a dig, but his break is way too loose. Redskin CB Josh Wilson stays with him and gets a piece of the ball in perfect coverage.

2nd and goal, WAS 10 (5:54, 4Q)

  This one was closer than I remember. Sam's hard count draws LB Rocky Macintosh forcing Wragge to put an arm out. Had that been it, Macintosh would have gotten called for the neutral zone infraction. But as Macintosh steps into the neutral zone, Kendricks flinches before Wragge's arm comes up. It's the right call to flag Kendricks for a false start, but it was close.

2nd and goal, WAS 15 (5:54, 4Q)

  One last video to check out:

  The Redskins show the same heavy blitz without any deep man, but pull off into coverage. In doing so, CB Josh Wilson is forced to come from the outside (where he was initially lined up against MSW) around the back to try and get to a streaking Lance Kendricks.

  Sam gets enough time and throws for Kendricks in the end zone, but Lance stutter steps around some traffic (right around the 0:30 mark) and the pass sails past him. It's the kind of minute detail that doesn't jump out in real time, but after watching tape, you hope that a coach (TE, OC, etc.) irons out that wrinkle. That needs to be a touchdown.

3rd and goal, WAS 15 (5:50, 4Q)

  Luckily, the previous play was a mistake that doesn't cost the Rams any points. The Redskins line up in the same full blitz; this time, they bring everybody. Seeing the blitz, Bradford knows he's going to have Steven Jackson, who vacated the backfield up the line, wide open. In fact, Orakpo sees it too. He starts to blitz, but when he sees Jackson fly outside, he knows he's the only thing preventing him from a touchdown. He gets back in time to hit Jackson just after he makes the catch, but AxJax falls into the end zone. Great awareness by Sam and execution by Steven.

Conclusions?

  Having watched every single one of these plays, I don't think I've found a red zone panacea.

  Do guys need to catch the ball? Sure, but that's not a red zone solution - that's a "any field position, any situation, you might want to catch the ball" solution. Does Sam need to do a better job of identifying defensive wrinkles and being prepared to throw to the best matchup at the appropriate time? Yes, but he should get better at that as the season goes on and he grows more comfortable in this offense. Does the offensive line need to provide more consistent protection in pass blocking and do a better job of opening things for running backs? Just substitute "block well" for "catch the ball" in the first answer. And man, the red zone is not the place to pick up penalties...

  There are some positives though, which is hard to believe considering how bad the Rams have been in the red zone. For one, guys have gotten open, especially Lance Kendricks. There's been at least an attempt to run the ball in the red zone. And we haven't had a single turnover from a play inside the opponent's 20.

  If there's a problem, it's the simple frequency of the mistakes versus the frequency of the successful plays. The drops, penalties, blocking gaffes and misreads have been, as a whole, more frequent than the properly executed play. At its core, this isn't a red zone problem - it's a comprehensive offensive problem. Consider that Sam Bradford has thrown for less than 190 yards in three out of his four games. His completion percentage (and yes, obviously, the receivers deserve a large share of the blame as do the offensive line here  - it is a team sport...) is under 50% for the season.

  So in the end, it's not so much that there's a solution to be found from the Rams' red zone woes. It's that the solutions need to be applied for those other 80 yards of the field as well. There's hope to hold out.

  With a talent like Sam Bradford, an offensive mind like Josh McDaniels' and a running back like Steven Jackson, there are valuable components on the offense. But the supporting cast has to step up. The mental mistakes have to be the exception rather than the expected. And it needs to happen soon.

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