Preseason Week 3:
Rams (1-1) at Patriots (2-0)
August 26, 2010 6:30 pm CST
Video highlights of a Rams win headline at NFL.com... when was the last time that happened?
Forget for a moment the giddy pleasure of embarrassing the Patriots in their own house, in front of their fans. (But oh, it's so much fun to remember the shocked silence of their fans, or the look on Tom Brady's face -- like the princess who tried sleeping on a rock-hard pea.) Never mind the fact that the game doesn't count. (Bill Belichick certainly didn't use this game to "evaluate the roster," keeping Brady and the first team offense in the game until the 4th quarter, racking up face-saving points against the Rams' 2nd and 3rd stringers on defense)
And keep thoughts of Donnie Avery, who may be out for the season, in your heart while we consider what tonight's performance means for the Rams.
This was nothing less than an arrival, for Sam Bradford, for St Louis, and for Rams fans everywhere.
For more than a year, the Rams have been completely absent from the world of pro football, where anything can happen on 'any given Sunday.' No, when the Rams showed up to play, you knew what would happen -- they would play hard, but they would make a critical mistake (or lots of them), they would lack the talent to make up for those mistakes, and they would suffer the loss in the end.
Not any more. The Rams may or may not be fully ready to contend this season -- conventional wisdom still says that they're an impact draft class away from having the blue-chip talent in place -- but at the very least they showed that they can surprise teams. They can win games that perhaps they shouldn't. And as the Patriots just found out, they can even make their opponents flat-out look bad.
This outcome wasn't luck. This was a beat-down of an opponent that either didn't compete, or couldn't compete, until it was too late. So often, that described the Rams. No longer.
Some game notes and tweets:
My favorite drive on the night ended in a punt. The game was tied 7-all, and the Rams had just forced the first of many three-and-outs from the Patriots. Bill Belichick kicked away on fourth-and-one from midfield (very un-Sith-like, Lord Vader), figuring that after all, these were the Rams, and pretty soon he'd get the ball back with better field position, or maybe just grab an easy turnover for a quick score. The punter dropped a perfect dagger of a kick inside the five yard line, backing up Bradford against his own goal, with no Steven Jackson to lean on.
In a surprise, Ken Darby came out as the Rams' primary backup runner, and he exploited the tiniest of crevices for positive gains, setting up a makable -- but still treacherous, because after all, these were the Rams -- third and five. Bradford calmly surveyed the keyed-up Pats defense from the shotgun set, and darted the ball almost as soon as it was snapped to a sharp-cutting Danny Amendola for a surgical 12-yard gain and an easy first down.
A brilliant one-handed grab by Michael Hoomanawanui (more on him in a minute) gave the Rams another first down on the very next play, and just like that the Rams had erased the field position advantage that Belichick thought he had sewn up. The drive could have kept going, but for a disgraceful drop by Laurent Robinson, who uncharacteristically let a bullet of a pass get through his hands and into his body, bouncing harmlessly away. But nevertheless, a Rams punt backed the Patriots up and set up yet another excellent defensive series, and then another Rams scoring drive.
Pat Shurmur, long reviled in this town, should get a lot of credit. The Rams' offensive coordinator called his first "complete" game, dialing up a really effective package of passes and a strong enough mixture of runs to keep the Patriots defense off balance all night long. And Spagnuolo gets credit for green-lighting the aggressive play-calls into the rookie's huddle.
Most importantly, they didn't water down the playbook for the personnel on the field. They said to their own ultra-young roster, "This is the offense. You need to execute." And with Bradford (age 22) setting such a high bar, he might have earned trust for all the young players from the coaching staff. 4th-stringer Thaddeus Lewis (age 22) came in for the second half, and chewed up more than nine minutes of clock running a perfect "Spagball" offense before finding Brandon Gibson (age 23) for a brilliant 20-yard catch-and-run into the end zone. And after the Rams and Patriots traded scoring drives, Keith Null (the bearded veteran, about to turn 25) was brought in to get the game-winning points, leading a perfect two-minute-drill down the field.
- Chris Long and the defensive front four were the reason the Rams were able to hold down the Patriots. The Rams were consistently able to generate pressure on Brady by only rushing four linemen, which allowed them to clog the field with defenders against New England's quick-pass-based attack. The Rams did occasionally bring more, but those blitzes were never telegraphed, and were made more effective by the basic rush package. Long's best play of the night resulted in a sack -- for Fred Robbins, who out-worked Pats guard Stephen Neal to chase down a flustered Brady for a ten-yard loss.
Whoever this Michael Hoomanawanui is for the Rams, he's made the team tonight in Foxboro. Good hands, route-runner.
Uh oh! Hoomanawanui might have done more than make the team, he might be pushing for TE1 duties. By my count, the rookie from Illinois was already one of the top three TEs on the roster, and was making the block-first Billy Bajema expendable. But what he did tonight was nothing short of revelatory. In his first touchdown catch of the night, the Rams lined him up as an H-back, the third tight end on the field (with Bajema and Darcy Johnson). Bajema released immediately up the field, drawing coverage away, and Hoomanawanui rumbled around the outside -- trusting Darby to pick up the unblocked defensive end -- and plucked Bradford's pass out of the air as easily as grabbing a pie off a windowsill before diving into the end zone.
His next catch -- the one-handed grab I mentioned above -- was made in traffic and caused jaws to drop. The throw itself took serious moxie on Bradford's part. He had to throw behind the receiver, because coverage was too tight to lead him. Bradford has been putting balls in mailboxes all summer, but this was some serious John Elway-level gun-slinging. And Hoomanawanui... I still don't know how he came up with the ball. He's fending off the linebacker with his outside arm, twisting backwards while lunging forward, and just holds up his hand and stops the ball like he was Neo, stopping bullets.
His next catch was his second TD on the night, and like the first, he simply flowed into a hole in the coverage and tumbled into the end zone. (Who ever heard of a Rams receiver wide open in the red zone?)
The thing is, though, every tight end the Rams put on the field made plays, from Billy Bajema's textbook-perfect block setting up Bradford's game-opening deep ball to Avery, to Fendi Onobun's 35-yard catch and run for a 4th-quarter touchdown that wasn't. Every tight end, that is, except Daniel Fells, the nominal starter who sat this contest out. The Rams offense didn't miss a beat without him, which is great news for us, but perhaps troubling news for Fells in the last year of his contract.
The loss of Donnie Avery will be felt. Unfortunately, it's hard to get too excited about this ascendant performance, because the Rams lost an emerging weapon in Avery just before the half. The Rams had a tenuous three-point lead and faced a third-and-eight from deep in their own territory. (This means an automatic draw play and a punt, right coach?) Avery got a step on his man deep, and Bradford decided to go for it, launching the ball and then taking a hard shot from the oncoming pass rush.
The ball was ever so slightly underthrown, though, and as Avery turned his head to find it, he twisted and slowed imperceptably to try and elevate over the clueless defensive back. But his foot "froze" on the brand new "FieldTurf DuraSpine Pro" surface, and instead of launching his body upwards, his leg wobbled, his knee crumpled, and Avery crashed to the turf. It may not look as sickening on replay as a Joe Theisman-type injury, but as someone who has seen the Rams suffer all too many turf-related injuries, I can say that it made my stomach turn.
Ominously, the Rams will also be playing on a new FieldTurf surface at the Edward Jones Dome, their "Gameday Grass 3D" variety. As the turf gets worn in, it should become less dangerous for those delicate twisting ligaments and tendons. Last season's "NextTurf" surface spelled doom for Keenan Burton, Laurent Robinson, Jacob Bell, Bradley Fletcher and too many more.
The Rams are fortunate to have the depth at WR that they do. Burton had a very strong fourth quarter, creating a first down from a second-and-twenty on two physical catches. Brandon Gibson came back from injury to make a couple of very nice plays, including a brilliantly timed stop-and-go pattern that shook off the Patriots first-string corner like a belt-less crash test dummy. And Mardy Gilyard got some quality looks at split end instead of working from the slot. None possesses the natural deep-ball ability that Avery has, but Gibson and Gilyard in particular could step into that role.
Talent evaluators have been saying all along that the Rams lack a true number one receiver. That is, until Avery was injured; now they're saying that we've lost our only true #1. But what other see as a problem is actually a potential strength on this roster -- a large corps of fungible assets that can step in and contribute.
Watching on the sidelines last night, and waiting for his turn in the offense, was the Rams' newest addition to this corps: Danario Alexander.
If we learned nothing else tonight, Rams fans, it's this: there are very real reasons for hope in 2010. The future of this franchise isn't some far-off thing that's several draft picks or free agents away. The future is here.