Previewing the Rams second meeting with the San Francisco 49ers.
Tie on one. Tie fighter. Tie, tie, tie, tie, tie.
Yeah, the most recent meeting of the St. Louis Rams and the San Francisco 49ers was a madcap mess of football that was wildly entertaining yet, in the end, a bit depressing as the Rams squandered the opportunity to get their biggest win of the season against one of the best teams in the NFL on their home turf.
On Sunday, in St. Louis, both teams have the opportunity to do what they couldn't three weeks ago: win the game. Given how improbable that last meeting was and how inconsistent the Rams have been this season, it's impossible to guess what's going to happen in this game.
Enjoy the rollercoaster, kids. It ends soon.
St. Louis Rams, 4-6-1, 3rd - NFC West
San Francisco 49ers, 8-2-1, 1st - NFC West
Dec. 2, 1:00 p.m. ET - FOX
STL-SF in blue - click to enlarge
SF pass - 200/291, 68.73 cmp% (1st), 2,224 yds, 16 TD, 6 INT
8.29 yds/att, 12.06 yds/cmp, 202.18 yds/gm (27th), 34.5% passing offense DVOA (4th)
STL pass D - 254/385, 65.97 cmp% (29th), 2,524 yds, 13 TD, 12 INT
7.06 yds/att, 10.70 yds/cmp, 229.45 yds/gm (16th), -1.0% passing defense DVOA (10th)
The season-long stats take on a bit less certainty with the switch at quarterback from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick. Still, you can get a feel for the Niners passing offense - contracted, but efficient and relatively risk-averse. We know the options for Kaepernick having seen them so recently - Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams (though he's now out for the year), Randy Moss and of course TE Vernon Davis. It's a tall task, but the Rams did an alright job in this aspect...if you count Kaepernick's legs as part of the rushing game.
The question is how the Rams use their passing defense. Are they going to push Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins and Bradley Fletcher well off the line and force Kaepernick to work underneath? He's definitely got the arm to work deep. Do we see something similar to what we saw against the Cards where the Rams lull the QB into a false sense of security by tightening the screws after the first or second drive? That's the key for me, and I'm eager to see how this unit, which has put in a pretty impressive season.
SF run - 333 att, 1,797 yds, 5.40 yds/att (1st), 163.36 yds/gm (2nd), 12 TD, 1 RB fumb
24.3% rushing offense DVOA (1st)
STL run D - 301 att, 1,225 yds, 4.07 yds/att (11th), 111.36 yds/gm (14th), 14 TD, 0 RB fumb
-4.6% rushing defense DVOA (21st)
Bread and butter here, folks. The combination of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter has, yet again, served the Niners very well this year, though Hunter's finished for the year. How San Fran shuffles its depth chart behind Gore with Brandon Jacobs and rookie LaMichael James the two likely top options is yet to be seen. The real key here is keeping Kaepernick from extending drives out of defended passing plays.
Assuming Robert Quinn passes the rest of his baseline concussion tests, he and Chris Long have a tough, tough assignment. Joe Staley and Anthony Davis are powerful tackles, though better suited to the run. They've got to collapse the edges without allowing obvious escape routes to Kaepernick. Similarly, Michael Brockers, Kellen Langford and Jermelle Cudjo have to be involved in pushing the line back in the passing game to allow the linebackers and safeties to spy Kaepernick appropriately. And yes, even in the traditional power running scheme with Frank Gore, the Rams have to limit those plays to force Kaepernick to go to the air. It's the only feasible defensive setup against this offense. The Rams have to execute on all fronts though to have a chance.
SF O-line - 31 sacks allowed (26th), 50 QB hits allowed
4.85 Adj. Line Yds (1st), 9.2% Adj. Sack Rate (31st)
STL D-line - 31 sacks (4th), 51 QB hits
3.74 ALY allowed (7th), 6.4% Adj. Sack Rate (19th)
Look at the difference between their ALY and ASR, and you get the idea. Great in run blocking, not so much in the passing game. Along with the aforementioned Staley and Davis manning the left and right tackle spots, respectively, the interior line consists of Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin and Alex Boone, left to right. Plenty of size and power, but as we saw just three weeks ago, not a ton of movement skills.
And that's what helped the Rams rack up five sacks and nine QB hits against the Niners - the Rams' D-line beats them on mobility. And I would be ok if the Rams get a repeat performance in terms of pass rush and limiting Frank Gore in the running game to a similar line - 21 carries, 97 yards, 1 TD. It could be worse...like Kaepernick's ground line - eight rushes, 66 yards, 1 TD. That's where the Rams' D-line has to, and should, improve with a week to prepare exclusively for Kaepernick. It's understandable that having planned for the Niners with Alex Smith at QB, they weren't fully prepared to deal with Kaepernick for as much as they did. No excuses this week. Contain and crush. That means Quinn won't come flying off the snap looking for that huge, arcing line toward the QB. Instead, the Rams need a flattened D-line to push their way back keeping width. When Kaepernick tucks, then they have to fly to the ball along with the second level defenders. Random note? Against the run up the middle, Football Outsiders ranks the Rams the 2nd best in the entire NFL. Michael Brockers, y'all.
STL pass - 214/355, 60.28 cmp% (21st), 2,342 yds, 15 TD, 10 INT
7.12 yds/att, 11.81 yds/cmp, 212.91 yds/gm (21st), 0.5% passing offense DVOA (20th)
SF pass D - 224/372, 60.22 cmp% (10th), 2,060 yds, 12 TD, 10 INT
6.05 yds/att, 10.10 yds/cmp, 187.27 yds/gm (2nd), -10.2% passing defense DVOA (6th)
Ah, the Rams passing offense. Completely inept one week, sublimely effective the next. Which of those bears fruit on Sunday? You don't know. I don't know. The Rams sure as hell don't know. Could we get a Jets-esque performance? Certainly. One of the obvious keys here is Danny Amendola. We know Danny's a tough SOB who will get on the field whether he should be or not. That's not the question. The question is if he can be effective. He wasn't last week against Arizona, and the Rams did the smart thing in pulling him. If it's a similar offering this weekend, the Rams could find it tough going. The big difference between this game and the last Rams-Niners game? Chris Givens should be on the field.
That means an adjustment from the Niners passing defense. Given how productive Amendola was last time against the Niners (11 rec, 102 yds), the Niners have to make an adjustment there. Furthermore, even without Givens, Bradford connected with four other Rams receiving options for 10+-yard receptions: Brandon Gibson, Brian Quick, Lance Kendricks and Steven Jackson. If the Niners press to deny Amendola with Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, and Perrish Cox, those alternative options have to make themselves known again. If they use their LBs to stifle the short stuff, someone has to attack the middle of the field, be it Kendricks, Gibson, Pettis, Quick...whomever. If Danny can't make enough effect, the Rams need some versatility in working underneath to open up the outside and deep routes. I don't think a couple designed HB screens would kill the Rams...but much like last time, the gameplan will be crucial here. If the Rams can jump out early and force the Niners to respond, they can put themselves in a position to play their strengths, chiefly Jackson, Amendola and Givens. If not...well, we've seen that before, and it ain't pretty.
STL run - 292 att, 1,296 yds, 4.44 yds/att (10th), 117.82 yds/gm (12th), 3 TD, 3 RB fumb
1.8% rushing offense DVOA (12th)
SF run D - 278 att, 1,002 yds, 3.60 yds/att (3rd), 91.09 yds/gm (4th), 3 TD, 4 RB fumb
-27.6% rushing defense DVOA (1st)
So the plan to pace Steven Jackson...has it really been in place all along or is it a public game to account for the lack of reliance on what arguably has been the Rams most consistent and most effective offensive option: running the damn ball? Last week against the Cardinals, the Rams leaned on the run nearly twice as much as the passing game. I don't think there were any Rams fans upset with the results. So given that media strategy, should the Rams veer closer to last weeks' run heavy plan or go back to the balanced attack that served them so well in San Francisco for three quarters? Blah dunno.
Part of it depends on the vaunted Niners rush defense. The defensive line being what it is, having Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman behind them seems nearly unfair. Add in Ahmad Brook and Aldon Smith on the outside, and it's obvious why this unit is as good as it is - they're fast, they're powerful and they're smart. Combined, Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson offer that...though when it's 2v4, the odds are stacked against you. The Rams, if they intend to run on this unit with safety support especially from SS Donte Whitner, needs to isolate opportunities for the RBs. It'll be an uphill battle, but so has this season. Faith, friends.
STL O-line - 28 sacks allowed (24th), 53 QB hits allowed
4.30 Adj. Line Yds (8th), 7.2% Adj. Sack Rate (22nd)
SF D-line - 28 sacks (t-11th), 50 QB hits
3.89 ALY allowed (12th), 6.5% Adj. Sack Rate (17th)
Nod and spit. I know I have to offer more here...but it almost seems sufficient. Look, the ever-changing line for the Rams has been sufficient at times, amazingly proficient at others, horrendous at some. Given the level fo talent, that alone is near miraculous. While it sets up a painful offseason conundrum (draft to improve or settle on the brilliance of the coaching that makes much out of little?), for now it's a unit to enjoy scratching it's way to mediocrity and above. Rodger Saffold is playing his best football this year, though in limited time. Robert Turner has quietly put in a very, very, very impressive season mostly at center, though with Scott Wells back he's sliding over to LG. Harvey Dahl is doing Harvey Dahl things at RG, but RT? Well, I think we're all relatively comfortable revisiting the position in two months time.
Sunday, the Rams deal with one of the best trios of any 3-4 front in the league. Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald can give the best lines fits. For the most part, the Rams put in a workable effort last time. They'll need a similar showing again. We know about the Justin Smith-Aldon Smith grab game. The truth is, they're good at it and it's (relatively) legal. Jeff Fisher knows this, and approaches it the right way. The question is if he and the rest of the coaching staff have been working on something to ensure that this stunt (football puns!) affects the Rams negatively as rarely as possible. Call me a homer, but I'd guess they have.
This week's top 3 storylines brought to you by Skyfall, the most enjoyable Bond film since GoldenEye and the best Bond film since You Only Live Twice...wait, point of order
Look, if you haven't seen Skyfall yet, that's fine. But don't get past this and act like I'm ruining something you've had nearly a month to see. You've been alerted.
1.) Aston Martins, Moneyball and a return to a past worth returning to
Skyfall is a Bond movie about Bond movies. More specifically, it's a Bond movie about the difference between new Bond movies and old ones. Unlike the latter Pierce Brosnan films and Daniel Craig's second Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall adheres strictly to the classic Bond formula: lead, credits, MI6, Bond girl, villain, Bond girl dies, villain motivation action, exotic locale, big fight, villain dies, denouement. It's simple and allows plenty of flexibility to work in a supporting female character or two, plenty of action and a double agent or plot device somewhere along the way. Skyfall blends the secondary items perfectly including a reveal scene of a 1965 Aston Martin DB5, the Bond car of all Bond cars, to the classic Bond leitmotif. It is the most blatant, comprehensive note that this Bond is about Bond (there are plenty others...the "resurrection" line, Javier Bardem's scene in his cell (more on that in a sec), Q, Moneypenny...honestly, there are too many to remember) and moreover, it's about Bond returning to its roots.
Interesting the timing then that the Rams brought Jack Youngblood in to talk to the team and go over film study with them and that during halftime, the Rams will honor past greats of the organization including: Isaac Bruce, Ernie Conwell, Eric Dickerson, D’Marco Farr, Vince Ferragamo, Rosey Grier, Dennis Harrah, LeRoy Irvin, Mike Lansford, Todd Lyght, Tom Mack, Andy McCollum, Lawrence McCutcheon, Tom Nutten, Orlando Pace, Jackie Slater, Adam Timmerman, Jeff Wilkins, Aeneas Williams and Jack Youngblood.................pretty obvious. The current Rams leadership in the front office and among the staff is clearly keen on resurrecting the Rams of years past, and not just the Greatest Show on Turf. Like the Bond films, this is a proud franchise with a storied history. One of Steve Spagnuolo's biggest mistakes was not just ignoring it but making efforts to explicity shun it. Jeff Fisher's wise enough to know that a team this young can only benefit from the influence of Rams legends past.
2.) M: death and rebirth
M is the head coach behind MI6, the operative's operative. And while it's impossible for most yunguns or new Bond fans to imagine M beyond Judi Dench, the role was filled with male actors prior to the Brosnan incarnations. (SPOILER ALERT - last chance) So when Dench's M dies in Skyfall, it is a forced break from the past. It's termination in the personal and professional sense.
Steve Spagnuolo was fired, his career as the Rams' head coach terminated. It was the death of an era. And like Skyfall, even with the end of the career of the previous head manager, everything else continues on. The team is still intact. There are still accomplishments left to be had on the table. It is necessary to usher in new vision from the top. And it's a penance for the failures that can only be laid at the feet of the responsible party. There's a sadness therein, but the greener grasses of the potential in a future yet to be experienced is justification enough to move on. So it is with Jeff Fisher and these Rams. The last three years, largely, stunk. We move on, and we press ahead with the hopes that it gets better. To a degree, it has already. But until the demons are excised, there's still a stain yet to be cleansed from inside Rams Park. Speaking of...
3.) Javier Bardem and demons past
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Skyfall is Javier Bardem's Raoul Silva/Tiago Rodriguez as the embodiment of previous Bond installments. There are some obvious symbols of what Skyfall embodies: the destruction of MI6 as the destruction of previous Bonds, the bleached blond hair as a Daniel Craig doppelgänger, the facial disfigurement as a result of a failed suicide that leaves Silva disgustingly disfigured and unrecognizable. Bardem is the manifestation of Bond gone wrong, a character, a series and an idea.
In a sense, the last seven or so years have been the Rams gone wrong. A departure from what the franchise and the fans deserve. A memory that has turned into its bizarro self as quickly as it reached its peak. Football's strange in that way. You can go from the basement to the mountaintop and back again in a flash. The difference is, many teams don't have a past to serve. Most teams don't have 15 Hall of Famers and counting. Most teams haven't been to the NFC Championship nine times (only the Cowboys and 49ers have been there more, 14 and 13 times respectively). Most teams don't have the iconography of the Rams, the first team to ever put an emblem on their helmets. The Rams are special. Most teams can't say that. And the team does themselves a disservice when the quality of their play doesn't mimic that uniqueness. This Rams team is on the right track toward doing just that. But there will be a time, maybe a game, maybe a moment, when these Rams have to bid goodbye to the failures of years past. They're putting themselves in position to do it, and it will be cathartic. We as Rams fans deserve as much.