A year makes a hell of a difference, or I guess 11 months. On All Hallows' Eve of last year, the Rams were 0-7. We were staring into the abyss with no way out. Spags was hurting for a win as bad as we were. Steven Jackson was just hurting. Marc Bulger was coming out of a game in which he threw for less than 150 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. It was a bleak, black block of time for Rams fans.
We came out of Detroit with a win, and went into the bye with a shred of dignity intact. That shred would be shredded even further as the Rams would come out of the bye and lose the final eight games of the season. Still, if there's a game worth remembering from the 2009 season, it's hard to consider a loss would be more memorable than the lone victory.
Now, we go into Detroit riding a tsunami of optimism (OPTINAMI!) buoyed by two wins, a marquis franchise QB and an surprisingly stout defense. Eleven months make a hell of a difference.
Breakdown after the jump.
For game-related info, check out the SBN page for the game. For Lions news leading up the game, head over to Pride of Detroit.
Conventional stats are taken from Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com; advanced stats from Football Outsiders. Feel free to suggest other statistics you would like to see included.
St. Louis Rams, 2-2: t-1st (!), NFC West
Detroit Lions, 0-4: 4th, NFC North
STL pass - 92/158, 58.23 cmp% (25th), 868 yds, 6 TD, 6 INT
5.49 yds/att, 217.00 yds/gm (19th), -9.3% passing offense DVOA (26th)
DET pass D - 79/120, 65.83 cmp% (22nd), 964 yds, 8 TD, 5 INT
8.03 yds/att, 241.00 yds/gm (26th), 12.5% passing defense DVOA (17th)
It's hard not to think this is not a matchup in which Sam can shine. The Lions' secondary has forced a pair of interceptions in their last two games, facing Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. They have a much improved pass rush. Free Safety Louis Delmas is one of the more underrated defensive players in the country. So why the confidence? Cornerbacks. Jonathan Wade is a starter in Detroit. Yes, that Jonathan Wade. Chris Houston starts on the other side and is aggressive on first moves as any corner in the league. And while I like Alphonso Smith, he's not the biggest defender. Nate Vasher and Amari Spievey fill out the group. I don't see how anyone could argue that the Lions' CBs are much better than some of our recent opponents'.
So I expect a healthy dose of Mark Clayton and Danny Amendola with an occasional Brandon Gibson play. For me, I'm interested to see who steps up into the fourth receiving role. Is Laurent Robinson, who wasn't limited in practice despite a sore ankle, ready to break out? Mike Hoomanawanui was limited but may go; is he the play? What about Van's favorite TE, Daniel Fells? Is it Mardy Gilyard's day? There's a chance for those guys to make a name for themselves on Sunday. Failing to do so may make this game closer than Rams fans are hoping.
STL run - 110 att, 381 yds, 3.46 yds/att (25th), 95.25 yds/gm (21st), 2 TD, 0 fumb
-19.4% rushing offense DVOA (29th)
DET run D - 111 att, 538 yds, 4.85 yds/att (29th), 134.50 yds/gm (25th), 5 TD, 2 fumb
5.9% rushing defense DVOA (24th)
This one confuses me a bit. The Lions do a good job at limiting opportunities up the middle, thanks largely in part to a certain rookie DT we'll get to shortly. Julian Peterson is a quality OLB. And yet the Lions' rushing defense has been poor. Still, that certainly doesn't mean the Rams are sure to run all over the Lions on Sunday.
Obviously, this matchup depends almost completely on a groin. If Steven Jackson is healthy and can make cuts with certainty and confidence, he's one of the best running backs in the league, something he proved in Detroit last season and again in week 3 against the Redskins on his 42-yard sprint to the end zone. If not, it's hard to believe Ken Darby can take a game over, to say nothing of Keith Toston or Chauncey Washington. Considering how bad Arizona's and Oakland's rushing defenses are and how little we were able to create in our first two games, I'm not the most confident fan when it comes to the Rams' rushing attack.
STL O-line - 10 sacks allowed (t-23rd), 21 QB hits allowed (t-21st)
3.26 Adj. Line Yds (29th), ranked 17th in pass protection
DET D-line - 13 sacks (t-5th)
4.00 Adj. Line Yds allowed (16th), ranked 4th in pass protection allowed
Ndamukong Suh is it. I know Ram fans are on a Bradford high, and rightly so, but Suh is a force. He's tied with the Giants' Barry Cofield for the most QB hits among DTs with 5. Sedrick Ellis, of the New Orleans Saints, Cofield and Suh are the only DTs with 3 sacks. And it's not just Suh - Kyle Vanden Bosch is causing problems for opposing offenses as well from the RDE spot. Sam said it himself:
They cause a lot of problems with what they do up front. They’re able to put pressure on the quarterback. I think they force some guys to makes some hurried throws, quick decisions and they’ve been able to cause some turnovers, so we’re going to have to be very prepared for this defense.
The Rams' O-line hasn't been bad, it just hasn't been consistent. And certainly, you can attribute much of that to the inexperience of the two starting tackles, rookie LT Rodger Saffold and RT Jason Smith. Nevertheless, this is a talented unit that should be playing better. With as much as the Rams have invested in Sam Bradford, financially and otherwise, it has to play better for a full 60 minutes.
DET pass - 108/176, 61.36% (19th), 1,017 yds, 5 TD, 7 INT
5.78 yds/att, 254.25 yds/gm (7th), -1.5% passing offense DVOA (23d)
STL pass D - 81/147, 55.10% (5th), 923 yds, 3 TD, 4 INT
6.28 yds/att, 230.75 yds/gm (21st), -0.9% passing defense DVOA (12th)
With Shaun Hill standing in for the injured Matt Stafford, Detroit hasn't suffered much. He has thrown six interceptions in weeks 2-4, but did toss 5 TDs while averaging 301 yards per game. The Lions' passing options are the opposite of the Rams: a top tier #1 WR with weak colleagues. The Lions do have a nice duo of TEs, though, in Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler. In fact, Megatron, the two TEs and Jahvid Best are the top four receivers for the Lions. The gameplan in terms of assignments is relatively simple.
That should portend good things for a Rams defense that has done a great job in covering the deep pass. The cornerbacks and safeties on the Rams have performed well beyond any reasonable expectation to this point. The tight ends could be an issue if they attack the linebackers underneath, but dealing with Calvin Johnson shouldn't be counted out. O.J. Atogwe needs to be used in helping Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher in dealing with one of the best WRs in the league. And rookie Jerome Murphy, who could see playing time this week, will need to play more disciplined than is generally asked of a third round rookie corner. When an opposing receiver gives your HC a trio of migraines, that says as much as any stats can about who the defense will be keyed on.
DET run - 87 att, 321 yds, 3.69 yds/att (22nd), 80.25 yds/gm (25th), 4 TD, 3 fumb
-12.4% rushing offense DVOA (25th)
STL run D - 102 att, 465 yds, 4.56 yds/att (25th), 116.25 yds/gm (20th), 1 TD, 3 fumb
-17.2% rushing defense DVOA (8th)
Jahvid Best exploded into the NFL with 5 touchdowns in his first two games, but hasn't seen the end zone in the two games since. He's plenty talented with enough speed and quickness to trouble even the most seasoned defense. The issue here is containment from the OLBs and CBs. Best isn't going to attack defensive tackles and inside linebackers in Bettis-like fashion, but he can certainly take the outside alleys for huge gains.
This is a huge test for Na'il Diggs, Larry Grant and especially David Vobora, whose reputation as a run-stopping specialist will be tested in Detroit. Sure, defensive end containment will play a part, but the key in keeping speed backs bottled through the middle is largely the job of the corners and outside linebackers. It's a big job for some big men. If they can't step up to the plate, the chorus calling for a OLB early in the 2011 Draft may grow a little larger, and get a little louder.
DET O-line - 8 sacks allowed (t-14th), 21 QB hits allowed (t-21st)
2.79 Adj. Line Yds (32nd), ranked 6th in pass protection
STL D-line - 9 sacks (t-9th)
4.12 Adj. Line Yds (18th) allowed, ranked 17th in pass protection allowed
I think is the unit that offers the Rams the best opportunity to win the game. Detroit's offensive line just isn't very good, though Jeff Backus is an underrated LT IMO. A significant portion of Lion fans have been calling for a high pick OT for years now. There's a reason. The point of attack here has to be C Dominic Raiola.
Raiola's undersized, coming in under 300 lbs. Big Fred Robbins, on the other hand, comes in at 325, and Clifton Ryan, who looks to have gotten over migraines of his own, isn't much smaller. Anchoring the defensive line attack around those two heavyweights makes sense to me. Especially with two starting DEs who can hold their own against the run: Chris Long and James Hall. I just don't see how the Rams can lose this battle and win the game without either a HUGE game from Sam Bradford or some crazy plays that decide the game - special teams, a huge defensive TD, etc.
This week's top 3 storylines brought to you by three key players and anagrams:
1.) Samuel Bradford - bad ram for duels
If you're going to pick on someone, Bradford isn't the man you want to test. The NFL Rookie of the Week for Week 4, Bradford is getting better week after week. Eventually, that trend has to end unless he's going to end his rookie season in Seattle by throwing for 842 yards and 9 TDs, returning a punt for a TD, and leading the defense with 3 sacks and a pair of interceptions. Still, for now, he's not the Ram you want to duel with.
2.) Ron Bartell - tell Barron
As in tell Alex Barron, and Richie Incognito, they weren't the 2005 draftees worth keeping. Instead, Ron Bartell and O.J. Atogwe, taken in the 2nd and 3rd rounds respectively, are still worth something to the team and should be around in future as the defense continues to shut down opposing passing attacks. Of more immediate impact is what he's done this season, which is to earn the contract extension the Rams offered Bartell before the 2009 season. He and Bradley Fletcher Bradley make up a solid corner duo. They need to maintain their production Sunday against the Lions.
3.) Megatron... - get man or...
Calvin Johnson makes plays. He's so good, when he doesn't win the game single handedly in week 1, every NFL fan calls bullshit. Instead of blaming Detroit for not having won the game earlier or the Bears for doing the same, fans blame the NFL for having rules that don't make sense to even the most unlearned football fan. He's so good that the one player who dared to accept being drafted ahead of him was summarily run out of the league. He's stupid good. Without other WR threats, Johnson is having to work twice as hard for half the results. The Rams can't afford mental lapses when it comes to Calvin Johnson, or he will transform all over that ass.