Week 3: Redskins (1-1) at Rams (0-2)
Sept 26, 2010 3:15 CST
There were so many things to love in the Rams' 30-16 victory over the Redskins, that it's easy to gloss over some of the same problems that characterized so many Rams' losses: penalties (9 for 99 yards), turnovers (2), dropped passes, difficulty establishing the run (SJ had 16 yards on 9 carries... and 42 yards on the tenth), and injuries left and right.
When the Rams lost Steven Jackson to a groin pull, then had a field goal blocked, fan negativity was palpable. Washington led off the second half with a field goal fueled by a 56-yard pass (and 15-yard horse collar penalty), to take a 16-14 lead. The dome was silent, and Twitter was awash with dour predictions that can be summed up in five words: "Same old sorry-ass Rams."
But these weren't the same old Rams that we thought we were watching. They didn't just lie down and let the Redskins bully their way to an easy road win. Miraculously, they stopped shooting themselves in the foot long enough to mount a game-making touchdown drive that gave the Rams a 21-16 lead that they never looked back from.
The Rams won this game by undoing many of the wrongs that led to a heart-wrenching 9-7 loss to last year's Redskins team. They won this game with contributions from players that few fans had ever heard of. And, most meaningful for the season ahead, they did it by riding the arm of their new savior, Sam Bradford.
Key #1: Righting past wrongs.
The Rams met the Redskins in Week 2 last year, with the chance to set a tone for the year to come. Sadly, the loss did set a tone -- that the Rams' coaches were so afraid of negative consequences of individual plays, that they let whole games slip away. Ultimately, the 2009 matchup came down to a series of 4th-down plays.
Now, usually, second chances aren't very easy to come by. But Spagnuolo and the Rams' offense got one early in this game: a 4th and 1 from the Washington 40 on their very first possession. Last year, they faced a 4th-and-2 from the Washington 41, down two points with time ticking away in the fourth quarter, and punted. This year? The Rams showed more faith in their offense, and more fire in their bellies. There was no trickery, just an inside handoff to Mike Karney up the gut, and a 2-yard gain.
Two plays later? THIS. Rams lead, 7-0.
The Rams had a second 4th-and-1 inside Washington territory, on the 43 this time and up by a single touchdown (24-16), and went for it again. And again, the Rams' offensive line surged forward, and Ken Darby rode the wave for a 2-yard gain. And again, the gamble paid off in points, as Josh Brown nailed a 29 yard field goal five plays later to make this a two-score game.
After winning only his second game in 19 tries, perhaps Spagnuolo isn't so concerned with redemption on little decisions like this. But these gutsy go-for-it decisions helped fuel the Rams and their fans, helped create a "Dome field advantage," helped create a surprising victory where an easy path to defeat lay waiting.
Key #2: Contributions from every part of the active roster.
A running theme of the first two losses of this season has been promising young talent languishing on the gameday inactive list. Brandon Gibson. Jerome Murphy. Dominic Curry. This week, the coaches let the kids play (come out of necessity, others by virtue), and got rewarded. They also were forced to reach into the back of the cupboard for depth players to take key snaps. This too shows patience and trust on the part of the coaches, because you know you're going to take some bad with the good when you play young and unproven talent. You just hope that the good plays outweigh the bad.
- Brandon Gibson, starting in place of the hobbled Laurent Robinson, led the team in targets and laid a brilliant block on Jackson's 42-yard touchdown scamper to seal off an interior cutback lane. (He also had three obvious drops and only came down with three passes).
- Dominic Curry had a textbook-perfect blocked punt, giving the Rams ideal field position ... which was immediately coughed up on a rare off-target throw by Bradford. Unfortunately, Curry also left the field early with an injury on a subsequent Rams punt.
- Mardy Gilyard had his first NFL catch, good for a crucial first down in the red zone. He also suffered his first NFL fumble, on the receiving end of a Rueben Doughty head slap worthy of the great Deacon Jones during a kickoff return.
- Ken Darby, the Rams' the so-unheralded-it-hurts backup to SJ, followed up Gilyard's clutch catch (the ninth throw of an eleven-play drive to that point) with a shockingly good 12-yard touchdown gash. Overall, the 3.2 yards per carry that Darby and Keith Toston combined for won't wow anyone, but they served their purpose in an offense that was able to successfully run play-action pass plays even without their Pro Bowl runner.
- Gary Gibson, subbing at defensive tackle for the still wobbly Clifton Ryan, had three pass breakups on the day, and contributed to a pocket-collapsing surge that got more effective as the game went on. Though McNabb was only sacked once, he took plenty of punishment in the fourth quarter when the Redskins were down two scores and depended on big passing plays to mount a comeback.
- John Greco was brought in to spell right guard Adam Goldberg on multiple series, and was an effective weapon in the running game. Late in the game, the Rams' simply wore down their bigger counterparts, and running plays often ended with offensive linemen in the second level.
- Justin King wasn't the young cornerback I expected to write about, but he made several physical plays in the defensive backfield, and appeared to be used as the primary nickel back after Kevin Dockery's release. This put King on the front lines, trying to take away two of McNabb's favorite receiving targets, TEs Chris Cooley and Fred Davis. These two were held to a modest 7 catches for 64 yards and zero scores -- hardly the numbers you expect from tight ends facing the Rams' defense.
- Even Bryan Kehl, whose name I confess I did not know prior to kickoff (but who was signed off the Giants' practice squad to replace the injured Josh Hull), forced me to look up his number after a blazing hit on McNabb that led to Bradley Fletcher's interception, and a tackle and would-be fumble by Cooley that the replay refs couldn't verify.
Overall, it was a very strong day from the unheralded, unsung, and undrafted. This win was truly a 45-man effort, and this quote says all you need to know:
Redskins WR Santana Moss: "The Rams were a way better team then they had this past year," ...
Key #3: The "light" comes on for Mr. Bradford... again.
Earlier this week, I built a case against pessimism for the 2010 season, after yet another disheartening 0-2 start. That case was built on Sam Bradford's incredible adjustments to NFL-caliber game speed that he's already shown this season. The many quotes you hear attributed to veteran teammates? You know, the "he doesn't play like a rookie, he plays like a 10-year vet" and all that? We all saw it today.
Given an almost identical set of offensive talent to work with, Bradford went stride for stride with Donovan McNabb in the box score, and made a few outstanding individual plays that Rams fans will remember well. Three that I recall?
1st quarter, 2nd and Goal at WAS 3: THIS. The ball is snapped, Bradford play-fakes to Jackson, drawing up the center of the defense, and rolls right with a slow-footed defensive tackle in plodding pursuit. (Further examination reveals this person to be #94 Adam Carriker!) Michael Fells was a part of the play-fake, selling a seal block on the right end before breaking into a pattern ... but this doesn't fool DeAngelo Hall, who quickly shadows him in coverage. Fells goes toward the back corner of the end zone and slows, as Bradford takes a deliberate turn toward the pylon. Hall is caught in no-man's land, but is fast enough to be the only Redskin guaranteed to stop a head-first Bradford dash. He takes off, as our man stutter-steps and floats a perfect ball right over his head to the now wide-open Fells.
The play-fake, the route, that belongs to Pat Shurmur, and they weren't anything special. But the execution, the savvy improvisation to how the defense played it, that belongs entirely to Sam Bradford. Like John Coltrane's reinvention of "My Favorite Things," a brilliant football play isn't about the melody, it's the way it's played.
4th quarter, 3rd-and-20 at the STL 49: THIS. The Rams generally did a good job of staying out of long down-and-distances, and that helped their offensive productivity immensely. But with no lead feeling safe, and facing a still-dangerous opponent, the Rams couldn't afford to give in.
Bradford again goes on the rollout right, and all three Rams receivers -- Gibson starting from the left side, TE Darcy Johnson motioning to the right slot, and Mark Clayton split wide right -- stagger themselves between the right hash and the right sideline, giving Bradford three potential targets... and plenty of Redskin defenders. Bradford gives the complex pattern time to develop, then darts the ball to the inside shoulder of the only receiver in position to get the first down. A gutsy, dangerous throw, but one that only Clayton had a shot of catching. Good for 25 yards and a first down, this play led to the last three of the Rams' 30 points.
4th Quarter, 3rd-and-7, WAS 19: Incomplete to Gibson in the end zone.
Why remember this play? Because Bradford's day wasn't all sunshine and roses. He made mistakes, including an interception that was entirely his fault. When he wasn't able to step into his throws, they lacked his customary zip and accuracy, showing why scouts consider his arm strength to be merely average. (Conversely, his extra oomph and accuracy on passes he can step into reveal a mechanical purity of form that is awe-worthy.) But he never called out his receivers for mistakes that were his own making.
On this play, his receiver Gibson had two steps on his man and was streaking toward the end zone. Bradford saw it and sailed the ball, but either threw it a count too soon or a smidge too far, and Gibson was unable to make a play on it. The drive ended with 3 points when it could have been seven. Bradford walked back to the sideline, shaking his head, and got a consolatory slap from QB coach Dick Curl. Helmet off, Bradford met Gibson coming back, and gave dap and a shake of the head to say "hey, my bad."
Some part of Bradford knows how good he can be, and won't be fully satisfied until he gets there. His teammates know it, and they know too that he will continue to raise them up along the way. Today was just the first step.