Week 6: Chargers (2-3) at Rams (2-3)
Oct 17, 2010 12:00 CST
The Rams had to answer some pretty big questions in this game against the Chargers. They did that and more. They got their swagger back against a tough opponent, re-animated a St Louis crowd that feared a slippage back into the dark days and ways of the old Rams, and most importantly of all, earned a big win in the standings.
The numbers hint at the progress that this team is making. In six weeks, the Rams have matched their win total from the last two seasons combined. With seven sacks, the Rams' defense punished the quarterback like no other game in the past seven years. And with three consecutive home wins, the Rams are defending the Dome better than they have since the fading heyday of 2004.
Impressive numbers. But with my daughter (a converted Cardinals fan) in tow for her first game, we found ourselves focusing on some more elemental figures this afternoon. Here's a recap of the game, based on her first lesson in winning football.
#8: Sam Bradford
"Okay," I said, as we began to walk from the car. "How many Rams do you know?"
An embarrassed silence. Clearly, my own flesh and blood is not a RamsHerd reader, which stings a little until I remember that I am not much of a reader of the 'tween' fiction that she devours. "Okay, let's try this from the top: do you know who our quarterback is? Here's a hint, he's a rookie... his name starts with Sam..."
She, after a moment's hesitation: "Samford!"
I may be housing the only person left in St Louis who doesn't know Sam Bradford's name, but that's all right, because he's making a name for himself where it counts: in opposing defense's gameplans. The Chargers were clearly attuned, like the Lions last week, to Bradford's mobility and the Rams' penchant for the screen game. They were successful in flushing the rookie out of the pocket and forcing him to run to his left, where he is much less accurate or capable. He tossed two near-interceptions and took a sack by running out of bounds on plays to his left... but those plays didn't kill the Rams. And rather than dink and dunk with screen plays, Bradford and the receivers attacked downfield with slants and posts.
Summing up the bad plays and the good, the rookie moments with the flashes of veteran savvy, Bradford's net came out to a plus-17 on the scoreboard in the first half, while the game was squarely in his hands to control. Shurmur and Spags took the game largely out of his hands in the second half with a misguided "ground and pound" approach (a return to high-percentage screens would have been nice to see here), but when the Rams needed to make a big conversion, they leaned on Bradford's golden arm. And did he deliver.
Hustling past the Post-Disatch building toward the stadium, I tried to give her a quick refresher on how offenses work in football, starting with first and ten, and getting to the importance of converting third downs. Once we got to our seats, the Rams put on a show, to the point where she now knows how (and when) to signal "first down!" Several of these exuberant cries came after huge third-down plays pulled off by Sam Bradford and his friendly TEs:
--- STL drive 1 ---
- TE Daniel Fells converts a 3rd-and-4 with an 8 yard catch: Drive ends in a FG. (3-0 Rams) --- STL drive 5 ---
- WR Mardy Gilyard converts a 3rd-and-17 with a 21-yard catch deep up the middle.
- TE Billy Bajema extends the same drive with a gladiator-like play, fighting through four Chargers defenders to turn a short catch into a 9-yard gain on 3rd-and-9.
- TE Michael Hoomanawanui pushes that same drive into the red zone with a 5-yard catch in the flat on 3rd-and-1. The drive ends in a TD. (17-0 Rams) --- STL drive 11 ---
- TE Billy Bajema romps to the SD 26 with an 18-yard gain on 3rd-and-9, putting the Rams in position for the game-icing points. (20-10 Rams)
Part of the reason the TEs were so heavily involved in the game was that the Chargers were strongly keyed on Danny Amendola. You don't often see double coverage on a three-yard crossing route, but Amendola drew it regularly. (Getting 20 targets in a week, as Amendola did last week, will do that.) And Bradford, to his credit, didn't force the ball his way too often. Five players were targeted five times, but none got more than those five looks (unless you count plays taken away by penalty).
#84: Danario Alexander
We missed the opening kickoff, and were riding the escalators to the top tier of the stadium when a big cheer erupted -- for the first of Chris Long's sacks, it turns out. After a quick pit stop at the snack bar, we got to the inner walkway at section 450 and ringed our way around as the Rams offense got to work, stopping to watch the plays.
At section 441, I pointed out #84 on the field. "That's our new receiver. This is his first game ever in the NFL," without going into the whole back story... the surgeries, the struggles, going undrafted, the difficult rehab, and finally the homecoming. Then he caught his first pass as a Ram -- a simple 5-yard out -- and got a big cheer from the appreciative crowd.
Clambering into our seats in section 415, we saw Bradford lob a throw to Alexander, who reached up over the helpless DB (who gave up 6 inches in height and plain never saw the ball) and turned it into an easy first down. "Easy money," I told her. Another down, another completion to #84, and by now my girl knew his name and number.
Then, before we could make a dent in our hot dogs, Danario streaks down the left sideline. The defensive back is playing inside leverage, but Bradford trusts his new receiver to be faster and better. He arcs the ball over the top of the route, and Danario makes a spectacular diving play to cradle it -- his first ever touchdown in his NFL debut, and a 10-0 Rams lead. By this point, the crowd knew we might be watching something special.
Third down: make some noise!
One of the big benefits of watching games with your offspring in the stadium, rather than at home, is that you aren't the only one yelling. Once the light came on that, when the other team has the ball you're supposed to make noise, she settled in for some good old fashioned hollering.
The Dome came to life Sunday, despite being several thousand seats shy of full. However, those fans lingering on the edge between belief and investment, those that watched the game from home, must have gotten the sense that they might be missing something by not being here. They and the faithful outside of St Louis heard something strange on their TV sets: crowd noise.
was it as loud as it seemed on tv?
By the end of the game, we got pretty close to "Greatest Show" noise levels. With a packed house, it could have been off the charts. These long-suffering Rams fans have been waiting for something to shout about, and now they have it.
"Do you know what it's called when our defense tackles their quarterback before he can throw it?" I asked, somewhat naively. She, having just been bombarded by four massive 20-foot letters on the jumbotron after a pileup in the Chargers' backfield, says sardonically: "Uhh, a 'sack?' "
The beautiful thing about the Rams' pass rush was that it created a ripple effect, destabilizing the Chargers' offense. Take a look at the immediate aftermath of each of the Rams' sacks:
- --- SD Drive 1 ---
- 2nd-and-12, SD 33: Rivers sacked by Chris Long.
--- SD Drive 3 ---
- 1st-and-10, STL 24: Rivers sacked by Larry Grant.
2nd-and-20, STL 34: Interception by Atogwe! [watch]
--- SD Drive 4 ---
- 1st-and-10, SD 21: Rivers sacked by Larry Grant.
2nd-and-16, SD 15: 9 yard pass to Sproles.
- 3rd-and-7, SD 24: Rivers sacked by Chris Long.
4th-and-19, SD 12: Punt.
--- SD Drive 6 ---
- 1st-and-10, SD 35: Rivers sacked by James Hall.
(STL offsides penalty)
2nd-and-6, SD 34: 6 yard pass to Sproles.
--- SD Drive 10 ---
- 2nd-and-10, STL 42: Rivers sacked by Fred Robbins
3rd-and-14, STL 38: 17 yard pass to Buster Davis (!)
- 2nd-and-20, STL 27: Rivers sacked by James Hall
3rd-and-24, STL 31: Incomplete.
4th-and-24, STL 31: Chargers field goal BLOCKED by James Hall
Those seven sacks contributed directly to four busted-up Chargers drives. San Diego fans can growl at Norv Turner all the want, but don't underestimate the impact of the Rams' suddenly legitimate defensive front on this game.
#39: Steven Jackson
"He's just the man, isn't he?" This said, with a disbelieving shake of the head, by the elder fan on my left, headphones and binoculars in hand. Steven Jackson had just blown through the hole for a 9-yard gain on third and 5, preserving the ball and the three-point lead. It was the third and perhaps least probable of five consecutive carries that led the Rams from nail-biting to the victory formation.
"Our defense was gassed, it was no secret. They'd been fighting for us, and they'd held San Diego. It was going to come down to who had the ball last. We knew we had to get a first down, and we had to get it in a convincing manner to take their will away from them. We did that. Coach challenged me, and I challenged the offensive line, and everyone responded.''-- Jackson, quoted by Steve Korte of the Bellevue News-Democrat
"I told 'Jack' after the game that he has unbelievable ability, but even greater willpower and effort. To see the way he strives to compete and to win -- it fuels us. It fuels the line. It fuels the offense. I mean, I was beyond impressed with him today."-- Jacob Bell, quoted by Jim Thomas of the Post-Dispatch
Spagnuolo came to town more almost two years ago wanting to win games in just this way, smashing the ball between the tackles until the time ticks away and the fans can roar one last time. Finally, on the back of Steven Jackson, he got one.