Last week we started our official look back at the St. Louis Rams 2010 season, kicking it off with a look at the themes that defined last year's Rams team and following it up with an in-depth look from 3k at the season opening loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Fans will recall that week two turned out to be another huge disappointment for the Rams, stealing defeat from the jaws of victory, or whatever the proper bastardization of that cliche is.
Matt Bowen at the National Football Post did some of our work for us for week two, breaking down the Rams' opening score on a play action pass that made it look like the Rams could score at will. Unfortunately, they could not score at will, and despite the easy second quarter touchdown Bowen looks at, Bradford and the offense struggled to move the ball, to hang onto the ball even, through the second half of the game.
Let's continue the season review after the jump.
3k broke it down possession-by-possession, the David Foster Wallace of football analysis. In order to try and wrap this thing up before the end of the 2011 season, I'm going to truncate things a little bit for week two, keying in on a couple key plays and possessions that, for me, capture the essence of the 2010 Rams: a better team working its way back to competitiveness, but not quite ready to make the leap.
The first half was a solid, if still imperfect, effort by the Rams on both sides of the ball. They went into the locker room at halftime leading 7-3. It might have been 10-3 if not for a missed 36-yard field goal. Luck gave the Rams a little nod at the start of the game, before flipping to the Raiders on that missed three-pointer.
After a 53-yard kick return put the Raiders in Rams' territory, they were quickly able to push the ball to 3rd-and-1 at the Rams' 6-yard line. A field goal would have made it 3-0, but Oakland instead decided to give the Rams an early 4th down test. An off-tackle run was stuffed by Craig Dahl. Oakland even threw in an illegal formation penalty, which was declined, to sweeten the deal. Rams ball at the six.
A much better drive, featuring some fine work as a runner and receiver by Jackson and a 36-yard reception by Daniel Fells, put the Rams at Oakland's 6-yard line. The pass to Fells worked because the Rams sold the run so well on that play. The Rams ran the ball on four of the five plays leading up to that.
So what do they do with a shiny new set of goal-to-go downs? Run it again. As fans, it's easy in hindsight to call the plays. Oakland was accounting for Jackson first and foremost, and they successfully key in on a run to the right tackle, shifting as a unit after the snap and having more than enough defenders in place to overwhelm blockers and stop Jackson.
On second down, the Rams feed the ball to Jackson again, who gets one yard as the middle of the line and the fullback are flooded with defenders. Ironic that Pat Shurmur and the Rams offense would be criticized later in the season for not giving Jackson more carries in these exact situations. I hate calling plays in hindsight, but it is pretty clear at this point, with Oakland stacking the box, that throwing the ball on one of those plays might have been more fruitful.
Let me illustrate.
In the picture above you see the immediate post-snap movement. In the red "square" is Jackson, about to get the hand-off and hit his hole, which is technically in the middle. Circled is that middle, the problem area. What you see here are five blockers (Bell, Brown, Goldberg, Smith and Bajema) entangled with three Raiders' defensive linemen. Bajema is alone with Tommy Kelly, who gets credited with the tackle. But it's not really much of a tackle. Jackson hits the mass of bodies where Kelly grabs him and the pile really takes him down.
The blockers failed to open a hole and get more men to the second level, ready to push one or more of those linebackers you see, still watching the play unfold in this shot, out of the way and allowing Jackson to scamper into the end zone. From the viewer's chair, it's hard to tell exactly what the blocking assignments were. I can't imagine the plan was for five guys to tie up three defensive linemen. So what happens is you get poor run blocking combined with what looks to be some miscues on the assignments: experience and talent.
On third down, Jackson miffs his block, and Bradford is sacked for a 13-yard loss. Field goal unit comes out, and Brown misses the kick.
Lesson: Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you. Oh, the conservative offensive philosophy also bites the Rams in the ass, though not for dinking and dunking. Like I mentioned in the into to this whole recap business, the Rams coaching staff getting to know the team and the players, hence the playcalling, was a central theme. Using stud running backs to break-in a rookie QB is a long-time tradition, and you see that here. As the season went on, the coaches got more comfortable with Bradford having the ball in his hands, but not so much with the offense around him.
Fast forward to the second half of the game, which is essentially like an entirely different game. The offense's inability to establish a rhythm following the second quarter touchdown gets even worse.
Fans ballyhooed all season about the Rams not making half-time adjustments, but that's exactly what happens. The Rams come out looking to pass the ball after leaning heavy on the run in the first half.
The Rams first series starts with a quick pass to Laurent Robinson who misses the ball by inches. No matter, as an Oakland offsides give the Rams five yards. Easy, right?
No. A repeat of the running play above results in two yards, two yards they were lucky to get. But that's still fairly successful for a first down with five yards to go. On the next play, Bradford and Clayton aren't on the same page. Clayton runs a deep hook route, and Bradford throws a vacant part of the field. On the next play, 3rd-and-3, Bradford has time to make a dead-on throw to Laurent Robinson who can't make the catch. It's worth noting that a second miffed block by Jackson results in Bradford's pass getting tipped a little, but it was still a catch-able ball. Punt.
That series pretty much sums up the offense, a unit that just can't string together a good series. They barely had 7 minutes of possession in the second half. Fits and starts. You can see why the coaches recoiled at the idea of introducing more risk into their offense: players couldn't consistently make the plays.
Let's turn now to the defense, which had a helluva time with Oakland in the second half. Oakland made a big adjustment, inserting the quick-releasing, more mobile Bruce Gradkowski and giving him more blockers, sometimes using six linemen.
The Rams couldn't get pressure with their front four, and mistakes behind them led to far too many big plays that allowed Oakland to move the ball just enough to hit three field goals and score one TD. Their touchdown drive, which came after the Rams' three-and-out described above reveals all you need to know.
They pick up 79 yards on the first four plays of that possession, going from their own 17-yard line to the Rams' 4-yard line. Let's look at this series, because it really says it all for the defensive struggles.
1-10-OAK 17 (9:40) Gradkowski pass short right to Heyward-Bey for 16 yards.
It's going to be a play-action pass. Three defenders (Grant, Laurinaitis and Atogwe) are going to get pulled to the opposite side of the field, where it looks like McFadden will be headed. Grant gets engaged, but the others pull away, not in time.
Gradkowski rolls out to his right. DHB comes across the field on a dig route, passing those three Rams defenders eyeing McFadden that I mentioned above.
Na'il Diggs (yellow circle) is lined up almost on the line. The TE shoots past him, and gets picked up by Fletcher. Meanwhile, Diggs looks like he isn't quite sure what to do. He never engages with a blocker, takes a step up field and then spies Gradkowski rolling out, and then turns his back to him and runs down field a bit before turning around into a blocker who takes Diggs out the play with ease. I'm not exactly sure what Diggs' assignment is in this situation, but had he given some chase to the QB he might have forced Gradkowski to throw it away or make a riskier throw, at the very least given one of the DBs a chance to smother DHB (top right red circle).
1st-and-10 OAK 33 (9:09) Gradkowski deep right to Miller for 24 yards
TE Zach Miller, lined up in the slot on his QB's right side, blows past the Larry Grant and Bradley Fletcher. Initially, Fletcher is lined up outside of Diggs, but they switch before the snap. At the snap, Diggs latches on to DHB, lined up to the outside. Fletcher stays back, keeping his eye on the QB, allowing Miller to put more than a few steps between him. I'm not sure who, if anyone, was supposed to cover Miller, but nobody did.
In front, the Rams defensive line just can't get much pressure on the quarterback. Oakland used an extra blocker on the line some in this game, but on this series, the Rams DL struggled with the Raiders front five. Credit Gradkowski some for his quick throws.
1st-and-10 STL 43 (8:46) McFadden left end for 9 yards
The Ram show blitz, with Diggs on the line again and Atogwe moving up there pre-snap. McFadden runs outside, as the mass of black and white jerseys move that way with him. Diggs misses the tackle, and Laurinaitis pushes him out of bounds.
2nd-and-1 STL 34 (8:14) McFadden up the middle for 30 yards
Ugh, this was a back breaker. The OL and DL engage on the snap and the pile gets moved to the QB's right. McFadden is headed to the hole on the left side of the mass. James Laurinaitis recognizes the play and comes in, but gets blocked by the fullback. McFadden moves far enough to get a first down, barely, facing Larry Grant one-on-one. Grant can't make the tackle. Had he done so, it would have been a three-yard run, maybe. Atogwe was deep, and slips just a little when he changes his direction laterally. Eventually he makes the tackle, but had he not slipped, it's likely that McFadden would have had no more than 20 yards.
A penalty moves Oakland back to the 9-yard line, but they quickly get those five yards back on a Gradkowski scramble. Cut to...
3rd-and-4 STL 4 (6:07) Gradkowski short right to Murphy for 4 yards, TOUCHDOWN
The Rams are in the nickel; Raiders in the shotgun. When the ball is snapped, they finally get some real pressure. Chris Long gets to the QB, but is about a half-second too late, though he does force Gradkowski to throw off his back foot. Oakland's eligible receivers are covered...except for one. Murphy, from the slot, runs a basic out route, blowing by James Butler, by the time Murphy cuts outside, there's more than enough distance between him and Butler. Touchdown...Oakland leads 13-7.
One more play of note. It's the end of the 4th quarter, just under three minutes remain, 2:50 to be exact. After a weak roughing the passer call against Fred Robbins that gave Oakland a new set of downs, the Rams defense has them at 3rd-and-7 at their own 37-yard line. Stop them here, and there's probably enough time on the clock for the offense, which scored on its last drive, to get into field goal range for the win.
3rd-and-7 OAK 27 (2:50) Gradkowski short left to Murphy for 13 yards
Nickel package...blitz is on, and very nearly successful. Darian Stewart and Eugene Sims get to the QB, knocking him down, but just a millisecond too late. He makes the throw to Murphy. Rams' rookie Jerome Murphy has his fellow Murphy, giving him the tiniest of bumps as he fires off the line. Once again, Murphy, Louis Murphy that is, bursts off the line, gets past a Rams defender on a quick out. First down...end of game.
Again and again, you see the inexperience. Which it's hard to fault the Rams for, this was a young team with newer coaches. It was also a team that was, obviously, still lacking. Talent is a fairly generic term, but in this game we can drill that down to a specific quality in terms of talent: speed. The pass rush, particularly the front four, lacked the speed to get more pressure on Gradkowski who was making them pay with his quick release and speedy players like Louis Murphy. Same with McFadden, they had a hard time matching his speed one-on-one.
This game also reveals the Spagnuolo-led Rams' character, their commitment to the program. To the bitter end, the Rams fought. A struggling offense finally got some momentum, scoring a late TD. The defense, even in spite of some spotty play, still held their opponent to just 16 points. They came home the next week and won big over Washington, not allowing two close losses to linger.
Now, these players have another year of experience. Joining them will be some new help, including a speedy pass rusher, Robert Quinn, who fate kindly allowed to slip to the Rams in the first round of the draft. These are the kind of games the Rams will win this year.