The Rams came out in the first half of yesterday's game with a clear intention of putting the passing game into motion first. The clearest evidence? The first series included three passes and no rushes, despite being just 20 yards from their own end zone. The blocked punt following those failed pass attempts set the tone for the first two-thirds of the game, leaving the Rams scrambling to mount a comeback.
It was the literal scrambling, however, that had me confused.
On four clear occasions in the first half, Austin Davis was the target of a pass rushing Eagles who was allowed a clear path to the QB without a single Ram to block him.
Let's just go through those plays, and then we'll look at what it means.
Play #1 - 1st Q, 12:18 remaining; 2nd & 10, STL 40
This is the Rams' second possession, following the blocked punt and a first down conversion from the initial series of the drive. The Rams are set up in the ace (single back formation) with a tight end, Lance Kendricks, on the left side. Zac Stacy's in at running back.
Here's the pre-snap:
And here's what happens:
Davis is able to at least kill the play at Jared Cook's feet before something worse happens, because this play had no chance of success. You've got the five offensive linemen blocking four defenders and Zac Stacy just kind of bottling up the middle. Meanwhile, here comes Casey Matthews bearing down on Davis who doesn't have a bltiz release option.
Not the best thing to ever happen.
Play #2 - 2nd Q, 13:17 remaining; 2nd & 9, PHI 18
Here's another second down play, this from the second quarter after Alec Ogletree got the fumble out of LeSean McCoy. The Rams are seven wide at the line in the 12 (the first digit refers to the number of running backs, the second to the number of tight ends), with plenty of protection available...
That's free safety Malcolm Jenkins coming free on the blitz. Matthews was on the other side, but you can see him tracking back. Bennie Logan tries to stunt behind the two slants in front of him, including Fletcher Cox, but you can see he's not engaged (he's the one with the pink towel on his back). That leaves Jake Long and Zac Stacy.........blocking no one at the top of the Rams' line. Meanwhile, Jenkins is about to ruin this one before it starts.
Play #3 - 2nd Q, 11:43 remaining; 2nd & G, PHI 5.5
The Rams were still able to pick up the first down, and a 5-yard run on first had them in striking distance here in the 11 ace, the tight end on the right side here. Tavon Austin is put in motion to provide playaction on the snap:
That's Connor Barwin off the edge while the O-line and Lance Kendricks try to deal with the five other rushers. Davis at least had Stacy to release to, but look at the Eagles' linebackers in the middle of the field; Stacy wasn't going anywhere.
Play #4 - 2nd Q, 11:39 remaining; 3rd & G, PHI 5.5
The Rams go empty backfield with all five options out there. It's five versus five on the line...but Jake Long and Rodger Saffold double up Trent Cole, and the other three O-linemen pick up three defenders. Too bad that leaves Vinny Curry with a free line to Austin Davis who hits him mid-release causing a fumble. Cox, who had two Rams blocking him, picks up the ball for the turnover.
What to make of this?
Part of it, certainly, is communication and pre-snap reads. The QB and center have to work together as C Scott Wells calls out the protections to know who that might leave open on the rush. The quarterback, then, has to know that if that threat materializes, he has a play to make, either by releasing to the pressure valve or scrambling or throwing it away.
Take the first play out of these four. Wells calls out the protection, so Davis should know that if Casey Matthews is coming, he's coming unmolested. So on the snap, he has to see that and make whatever adjustment installed as the play.
In other cases, it was an execution breakdown. The last of the four is probably the best example; you have five linemen. They have five pass rushers. This is not a difficult math problem.
And yes, everyone's favorite target, OC Brian Schottenheimer, isn't absolved here either. If your line is having that much trouble dealing with the pass rush, even when you've got numbers, you have to have extra bodies committed to protection. It sucks, sure. You'd rather have all available assets downfield as targets, but it's a priority issue. The first priority is making sure Davis has time to find somebody. If he doesn't, it won't matter who's available. A target that gets open after two and a half seconds does nothing for a quarterback who has to get a pass off a second after the snap.
Overall, it's not entirely indicative of much. It's just a small example of how things went wrong early on.
The chemistry isn't quite perfected. Austin Davis and Scott Wells don't have years of experience working with one another. The level of performance isn't great. These are just the unblocked rushes...the number of pressures that came from misexecution was something else entirely. And the play selection did little to keep Davis' ribcage intact. He was slow to get up from the last of these four, and for understandable reason.
So in that sense, there is a forest for these four trees.
If the Rams are going to cure their sporadic offensive woes, it's going to require all three aspects to work in harmony: communication and an understanding of the situation, a proper execution of the responsibilities of the players involved, and the opportunity for both of those to create a positive end result based on the playcall itself.
Otherwise, just take a knee.