Week 8: Panthers (1-6) at Rams (3-4)
Oct 31, 2010 12:00 CST
The darkened Dome was half-filled with emotion half an hour before kickoff, and half-filled with empty seats, a sign that marked the continuing transition of this franchise as it saluted one of its all-time greats. For Isaac Bruce, today's retirement of his iconic #80 was just a waystation to his eventual induction to the Hall of Fame. (And as I've written before, there's no legitimate debate about his HOF credentials.) For the team, it was an opportunity to try and reunite the fans of last generation, those who swooned before the Greatest Show on Turf, with this new team that's relying on defensive intensity to carry its still-maturing offense through the season.
By all indications from the Dome on Sunday, that new love affair is still a work in progress. Despite a gritty, hard-fought win over an outclassed Carolina Panthers team, the building that once housed playoff glory struggled to retain the interest of a large chunk of fans who started their exodus at halftime.
For Bruce, this is an ironic flashback to his arrival in St Louis, a football town scarred by decades of flat-out incompetence and ultimately burned by a fickle owner and his moving trucks. The lanky and proud receiver stood out as the only elite talent on the bedraggled team that washed up on the riverbank, and he became the lodestone to which fans attached their first allegiance. Now he retires his legacy to the rafters, and exhorts the next generation of players to re-earn the love.
“He really talked to us about having pride or having belief in the organization, having a love for the organization where it’s just not a moment you are passing through but a moment you want to help build and help leave it better than what it was,” safety Oshiomogho Atogwe said. “He just gave us some history of the Rams organization and what it meant to him and how he worked to uplift it and uplift his teammates. That’s something I took to heart and something I believe the rest of the guys took to heart uplifting the organization and uplifting your teammates.”-- StLouisRams.com, "Rams Draw Inspiration From Bruce"
Those fans that did remain got to see the Rams get back to .500, and defend the Dome for the fourth time in five home games, with an ugly-beautiful win.
Offensively, the Rams' lack of healthy wideouts became glaringly apparent from the game's first drive, a series of blown up screen passes and a mis-timed slant that, even with a defensive penalty to help out, led to a pitiful three-and-out. The team's three offensive drives in the first quarter produced a total of 25 yards and a missed field goal. For a time, Isaac Bruce appeared to be the best player on the Rams sideline, even in his dotage.
Fortunately, though, the Rams' defense (and the ineptitude of the Panthers' offense, whose first four drives earned a total of 16 yards) kept the game scoreless, and gave the Rams time to begin to develop a rhythm established by power runs and the screen-passing game. Rarely did they find a second gear, but Bradford, Jackson and the tight ends plowed relentlessly forward.
As football goes, it was ugly but convincing. And Bradford awoke from a mini-slump to show the poise and accuracy that are his best weapons. Consider that, on third down, the Rams young quarterback was 9-for-11 for 73 yards and two TDs. His season-long passer rating on 3rd down is a sparkling 101.2, halfway through his rookie season. (Perhaps the Sam Bradford-Peyton Manning comparisons aren't entirely premature....)
Just a few game notes, based on my in-game observation, before I go back to the tape:
- Michael Hoomanawanui is stepping up, and contributing all over the place. #86 lined up as an H-back, as a pure TE, as a second TE on an overload, and even as a receiver. The stats show only two receptions for nineteen yards, but his impact on the field was felt. And on the play that Gibson broke open for 33 yards -- the longest play from scrimmage by either team today -- Hoomanawanui was split wide, with Gibson in the slot, covered by a safety.
- Ron Bartell is a warrior, plain and simple. He played through the game on a bad shoulder, one that he re-injured midway through the second half. He crumpled and nearly crawled from the far sideline back to the bench, in obvious pain. Two drives later, he was back on the field and made a spectacular leaping deflection on a deep pass intended for Steve Smith, stretching out full-length to get a hand on the ball. His fellows in the secondary played well, also, with Bradley Fletcher delivering some punishing hits, Kevin Dockery playing technically sound coverage, Quincy Butler and Jerome Murphy filling in with good play as well.
Spagnuolo's message is being heard, loud and clear, on the defense, and James Laurinaitis is the one delivering it. The rebuilt and re-energized defensive line should get a lot of credit for yesterday's win. James Hall broke his hand -- and played through it, deflecting Matt Moore's arm to set up an easy interception by James Butler. Chris Long had to exit for a brief period, but came back to draw a critical holding penalty with a furious rush to help halt a late drive, and finished with a sack for the third consecutive week, and forced a fumble for the second consecutive week. Jermelle Cudjo and Fred Robbins delivered consistent punishment up front.
But the man who took it upon himself to fire up his team was James Laurinaitis. Early in the game, as the Rams' offense was sputtering and the Panthers huddled to attempt a counter-attack, Laurinaitis stood with his back to the line of scrimmage, giving his key defensive players an intense staredown, punctuated by headbutts all around. He then followed up by making three tackles-for-loss, grabbing an interception, and playing spectacular all-around ball. The Rams' second-round pick of the 2009 draft may turn out to be the most pivotal acquisition of the previous five drafts.
As Isaac Bruce watched, these Rams went out and confidently bullied a win from the woeful Panthers. The football may not be worthy of the "Greatest Show" tag yet, but to borrow a line from another famous St Louis "Ike," I think it's gonna work out fine.