The Rams tried to play a man's game in San Francisco, and lost. AP Photo / Marcio Jose Sanchez
The Rams tried to play a man's game in San Francisco, and lost. AP Photo / Marcio Jose Sanchez
As the Rams prepare to face the San Francisco 49ers in the first of their divisional rematches, it's a good time to look at how different this team is now. Not just in personnel, but in attitude and in play. One need look only at the scoreboard over the last two weeks for the easiest quantification of that change: two wins over winning teams by a combined score of 80-29.
Those two wins were as unexpected in the statistical community as they were in the Rams fanbase (or any other). Football Outsiders, keepers of the game's most advanced statistical analysis -- they break down every play of every game and measure its "value" -- had the Rams squared and measured by the end of week 7. 26th-best team in the league, they said. And with the loss of Bradford, there was little apparent hope of improvement.
Clemens' first two starts in relief of Bradford did little to change that rating, but as you can see, the next two games created a radical shift in their rating. Unlike their dramatic comeback win over Arizona in week 1, the FO statistics project something sustainable in the way the Rams are playing now.no comments
It's safe to say that the Rams have found a new identity in their two-game winning streak. Perhaps better said, they've found an old one.
After opening the season without a known commodity starting at running back, the Rams invested heavily on the perimeter to prepare for an aerial assault helmed by an efficient Sam Bradford. Bradford then averaged 45.5 passing attempts per game through the month of September, but only had 17 points per game to show for it. The Rams were a team that constantly found itself behind in games, throwing to catch up. Moreover, the team didn't have a single rushing touchdown in any of Bradford's starts.
Against the Chicago Bears, though, the new-look Rams showed that they've perfected a much different approach. Backup Kellen Clemens dropped back to throw 24 times, and completed only 10 passes. But he handed off a total of 29 times to a dynamic trio of players in Tavon Austin, Zac Stacy, and Benny Cunningham, and got a total of 261 yards and three touchdowns out of them. The result, despite a series of officiating gaffes that kept Chicago momentarily alive, was a 42-21 blowout win.
This follows a trend that started in a 38-8 demolition of the Indianapolis Colts before the bye. In that game, Kellen Clemens dropped back to throw only 18 times and handed off to running backs 37 times, getting 138 yards and a score. That's better than a 2:1 ratio in play-calling favoring the run.
Nine completions = 38 points. Ten completions = 42 points. That's an eye-popping 4.2 points per completed pass over two games.
While Bradford was quarterback, he completed 159 passes and his team scored 156 points, resulting in a very different math. No one will argue that Clemens has played the position better than Bradford, though. What we have here is not so much a quarterback controversy, but a controversy of offensive philosophies.
What we also have is a two-game win streak and a 5-6 record that, but for some questionable red zone plays against Tennessee and Seattle, could be 7-4 and second place in the division. What we have is a team that has discovered its identity in the absence of its franchise player.no comments
What does Sam Bradford have to do with playing defense? Or more importantly, what does the absence of Sam Bradford have to do with the sudden improvement in the Rams' ability to shut down opposing quarterbacks? Anything? Nothing?
In one of the more unusual stories of the season, the Rams have seemingly played better overall after losing their starting quarterback, despite the fact that Bradford had gotten off to a better start this season than any other. (Bradford was on pace to join the very rare 30-TD, 10-INT club.) In fact, but for their QB play, the Rams could have won each of the past three weeks.
The headlines in this season turnaround have focused on the emergence of a couple young players, Zac Stacy and Tavon Austin. But just as important, the Rams' pass defense has suddenly transformed from one of the league's very worst to one of its best.
See the full infographic after the break.no comments
In the midst of what can be described as nothing other than a "lost season," the Rams have faced critique from every direction, especially from within their own fan base. What's wrong with Brian Schottenheimer's play-calling? Why is the Rams' defense so soft? Why hasn't Tavon Austin lived up to his billing? Why didn't the Rams sign a legit backup quarterback? Why can a team like the Colts, the only team worse than the Rams in the 2011 season, be suddenly competing with the league's elites, and how far away are the Rams from that status? Is the Rams' high-risk, high-reward draft strategy inherently flawed?
After today's shocking blowout upset of those Indianapolis Colts, the Rams have the luxury of being able to answer those questions.
Life without Sam Bradford so far has seen the Rams step up considerably in his absence, playing well enough to win but just poorly enough -- especially at quarterback -- to lose. If you were feeling charitable, you could point to those evidences of good play as "Progress," but charity is in short supply in a town that has not seen winning football in ten years. Years of losses have a way of sapping the clarity and color from those rose-colored glasses.
So when Robert Quinn and Chris Long combine to forcibly separate Andrew Luck from the football, and that football gets carried into the end zone for easy Rams points, the primary reaction from Rams Nation is blinking disbelief. "This isn't supposed to happen to us."
When Zac Stacy finishes an impressive offensive drive jump-started by Tavon Austin and Chris Givens and puts the Rams up 14-0, the fleeting reaction is "uh oh." As in "This just sets the table for a dramatic Colts comeback." Don't judge us, that's just who we are.
But when Tavon Austin scores three consecutive touchdowns on plays of 98, 57 and 81 yards to put the Rams up 35-0 on the Colts, and when those Colts have less than 100 yards of total offense to show for themselves at that point in time, all the doubts and pain get washed away, leaving only disbelief.
How did this happen? Where did these Rams come from? What the *&%# did I just see? And this: WOO HOOOO!
The answers are in Jeff Fisher's and Les Snead's blueprint for rebuilding this team. It has taken longer than we would like, but the explosive talent that the Rams drafted is finally exploding. The Rams defense and special teams consistently gave the Rams short fields, and Zac Stacy carried the load early, setting up Kellen Clemens to have his best (and easiest) day as a pro: 247 yards and 2 TDs on only 9 completed passes.
The so-called Jeff Fisher attitude on defense is finally being matched by legitimate play-calling and legitimate play-making, with constant pressure, big hits and opportunistic hands making up for the occasional lapses in discipline. (As an aside, I find that it is much easier to look past broken plays on defense, such as the long catch-and-run plays by Donald Brown and Daniel Herron, when you have a thirty-point cushion on the scoreboard.)
All over the field, you could point to players drafted or signed by the Fisher-Snead regime making plays: Chris Givens' fantastic 35-yard grab setting up the Rams' first offensive touchdown. Any one of Tavon Austin's electric runs. Trumaine Johnson's athletic leaping interception of Andrew Luck in the end zone, snuffing the last vestiges of hope in Indy. Jake Long's muscular run-blocking that set up a game-icing 50-yard run by Benny Cunningham.
Add contributions from trusted veterans Chris Long, Robert Quinn and James Laurinaitis -- the latter positioned for a timely interception after a perfect "Tampa Two" deep drop. Add in Rodger Saffold playing guard for the first time in his college or pro career, and doing so admirably well -- and this after another week of rumbled discontent and assurances that this season would be his last in horns.
Add it all up, and you have a statement win, not only for this team, but for the direction that this team is heading.
Thank goodness.no comments
The most primal weapon in football is the ability to run the ball. NFL passing attacks are damn close to rocket science, but running the ball -- or stopping the run -- can be understood by humanity's hairy ancestors. Hit. Wham. Clobber. Get up and do it again. Trickery in the run game amounts to little more than "Look over here, then go over there."
In the absence of Sam Bradford and the technical ability he brings in the passing game, the Rams have gone medieval on offense, and it's worked. Zac Stacy carried the ball for 27 of the Rams' 31 called run plays, and totaled 127 yards with two touchdowns, and set up a third with the team's longest run play of the year.
Unfortunately, Jeff Fisher's former team knows the caveman playbook as well, and they were just a little bit better at it. Chris Johnson had a resurgent day with 150 yards -- 98 of which came in the second half -- and two touchdowns of his own. Unlike Stacy, Johnson had help from his teammates, as Shonn Greene and Jake Locker each had touchdown runs of their own.
"Live by the sword die by the sword," you could say, although "sword" implies a weapon of skill and forgery. The Rams and Titans budgeoned each other with the football equivalent of stone axes matted with blood, bone and hair. When the game was over, the Rams were the losers, thanks to their inability to stop the run, and unwillingness to keep running the ball when it was needed most.
This was a one-possession game all game long, and in that kind of game one can't help but think about key mistakes.
- Benny Cunningham inexplicably losing the ball after bursting through the hole and seeing nothing but daylight between him and the end zone in the first quarter.
- The Rams squandering Cortland Finnegan's first impact play of the season by failing to run the ball even once deep in Tennessee territory, even to set up Greg Zuerlein on his favored left hashmark, and watching helplessly as he sailed a 44-yard field goal wide right.
- Kellen Clemens failing to protect the football on a busted play, and creating a critical turnover that led immediately to Tennessee's game-winning points.
- Failing to pick up a crucial first down with seconds draining from the clock, as Clemens looked to Austin Pettis and/or the referees to bail him out in the end zone.
The last sequence sent Rams fans home in a familiarly piqued state. Just a week ago, Brian Schottenheimer lost track of his running plays in a crucial goal line series. Today, Schottenheimer again asked too much from his backup quarterback in a do-or-die moment in the game, as Clemens targeted Austin Pettis in each corner of the end zone on 3rd- and 4th-down from the Tennessee 26 yard line, with only four yards to gain for a fresh set of downs.
These bone-headed decisions are undercutting positive game-planning, as the Rams have mounted ten drives into scoring territory in the past two games, both against quality defenses. Schottenheimer has necessarily mixed the run and the pass to get to this point. But when your best tools are stone axes, he would do well to lean on his cavemen and just keep swinging.no comments
As the Rams prepare to face off at home against the Tennessee Titans, even in their weakened state, I believe many fans have this game tentatively circled as a win. However, Jeff Fisher's former team is showing surprising signs of life, coming off the bye week with a 3-4 record and only giving up a single point more on defense than they've scored on offense.
Is the franchise finally headed in the right direction in the post-Fisher years? And is this Titans team more formidable than we think? To get the answers, we talk to Tom Gower, longtime writer for both Football Outsiders and Total Titans.no comments