Another games, another disappointing loss at the end of the fourth quarter. However, we can hardly bemoan these narrow defeats, with few believing, if any, that the St. Louis Rams would be able to rally after losing Sam Bradford for the season. Much like the game against Seattle, the Rams “L” in the game column was a classic case of “shooting themselves in the foot.” Costly turnovers, missed field goals, and overall missed opportunities. So, what can we take away from this week?
1. The one obvious bright note for the St. Louis Rams over the past quarter of the season has been running back, Zac Stacy. The rookie, 5th-rounder eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the second-consecutive week on Sunday, finishing the day with 27 rushes for 131 yards. More impressively, Stacy averaged 3.0 yards after contact and forced 7 missed tackles. Aside from an occasional case of “stone hands” and the constant fear that his injury-riddled past might flare up again, Stacy appears to be “the man” for the rest of the season, and into the foreseeable future.
2. On the flipside of that coin is Benny Cunningham, the other rookie running back whose ghost fumble abruptly halted the Rams opening drive of the game. After the game, Cunningham implied that a lack of dexterity in his thumb, due to injury, disallowed him to secure the ball as much as he would have liked. That brings up two questions: 1) Why was he carrying the football and 2) Where was Isaiah Pead? Obviously, Daryl Richardson being scratched from the active roster is certainly not something that will be occurring on a weekly basis. However, how deep in the dog house is Isaiah Pead if the St. Louis Rams would rather give the rock to an undrafted free agent who has missed the previous couple of weeks with injury?
3. Kellen Clemens actually strung together a pretty effective game for the St. Louis Rams, although most will likely focus on his “game ending” fumble in the fourth quarter. The veteran backup went 20 of 35 passing for 210 yards, including a beautifully timed, anticipation touchdown throw to Jared Cook in the endzone. If nothing else, Kellen Clemens has demonstrated that the St. Louis Rams can still complete on the offensive side of the ball for the rest of this season.
4. However, for the second game in a row, the St. Louis Rams have had the opportunity to win/tie on the final drive of the game… and came up short. To be fair, there isn’t anyone really to blame for the handful of last second incomplete passing attempts. Kellen Clemens threw a decent ball, Austin Pettis was at least challenging to get in position for the catch, and Brian Schottenheimer went for the kill shot instead of playing it conservative and going for the first down; something Rams’ fans had complained about all season. In the end, it just shows that this receiving corps still has a ways to go in their development. Moreover, it should make us all be thankful that Sam Bradford will be manning the ship in 2014, especially considering how effective he has been in the fourth quarter when the game is “on the line.”
5. No one can blame Tim Walton for the defense yesterday. The St. Louis Rams missed tackles, failed to contain on the outside, were sloppy with their gap responsibilities, and, in some cases, assumed they could simply “run down” Chris Johnson in the open field. As a result, the rest of the world will be forced to hear about Tennessee’s nearly irrelevant running back for the next couple of weeks.
There is no question that the St. Louis Rams will use at least one of their first-rounders in the upcoming draft on a defensive player to help in the run game. Rams Nation should tune their “draft watch” onto the top defensive tackle and inside/outside linebacker prospects in this upcoming class.
6. If there was one criticism of Walton, it would have to be the odd combination of five-man blitzes and “off-coverage” on the outside later in the game. Anyone who has taken Defense 101 understands that the quickest way to negate an effective pass rush is by playing soft zone coverage on the outside, allowing the receivers to break clean off the line and the quarterback to get the ball out of his hands quickly.
Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson have proven over the last couple of weeks that they can “hold their own” on the outside against squads with no “true” No.1 wide receiver. In fact, the combo yesterday allowed only three total receptions on six targets, for a grand total of 36 yards. Walton has slowly moved away from the “soft zone” that plagued the Rams at the start of the season. However, it appears as though some habits die hard.
7. The defensive line is continuing to show why they are, again, the dominant pass rushing unit this season, wrangling up their second-consecutive game with four or more sacks. What is most impressive about this unit is that is doesn’t appear to matter “who” the opposing team chooses to focus their attention on during the game. The Tennessee Titans went out of their way to either double-team or chip Robert Quinn for a majority of the game on Sunday. As a result, Kendall Langford recorded two sacks, four total pressures, and five defensive stops from the interior of the defensive line, grading out as the 2nd-best defensive tackle in the league for Week 9; Chris Long tagged on eight more quarterback pressures and William Hayes added three more, including a sack. Pick your poison: Robert Quinn going 1-on-1 with your starting left tackle or singling up the rest of the defensive line, which includes two other 1st-round monsters…
8. Greg Zuerlein was again not-so-clutch on Sunday, sailing his lone 44-yard attempt slightly right of the upright. Some will point the finger at Johnny Hekker, who was late in his rotation of the football on the ground. However, in the end, it is up to the kicker to guide the football… and that did not happen. So, instead of taking a 10-7 lead heading into the half, knowing that your offense will get first crack with the ball to start the 3rd quarter, the Rams lost their momentum and walked off the field tied with a team they had obviously outplayed to that point. Last year, Zuerlein went through a similar mid-season slump before reigniting in the latter portion of the season. Hopefully, this coaching staff can break down whatever is mentally blocking their young stud.
9. Quick stat for Tavon Austin during punt returns on Sunday. In the lone punt catch where Tavon didn’t “hesitate” at the start of the return, he tore apart the Titans punt coverage unit for 24 yards, and nearly broke it for a touchdown late in the 4th quarter. On his two other attempts, where there was a prolonged hesitation at the start of the return, he averaged 4.5 yards on two tries. Moral of that story: There are a lot of “moves” that were effective in college against players with inferior talent, speed, and vision. In the NFL, even the special-teamers, gameday “inactives,” and practice squaders were once the top players on their college rosters. Like Isaac Bruce said in an interview earlier in the week, “Don’t think, just play.”
10. This week, the No. 10 spot is going to be fully dedicated to campaigning for a handful of Pro Bowl worthy players on the St. Louis Rams’ roster:
First and foremost, Robert Quinn has been, arguably, the most dominant player on the defensive side of the football this season; bar none. He is currently graded as the second-best player in the NFL, trailing only J.J. Watt overall, but leading the league as a pass rusher. However, unlike years past, Quinn has been equally as effective against the run, grading out with a “significantly” positive grade in five out of nine games this season. To put that into perspective, he had managed a positive run stoppage grade only one time in his 32 career games prior to this season.
Don’t look now, but Jake Long is currently graded as the second-best offensive tackle in the NFL this season, ranking Top 15 as a pass blocker and 1st overall as a run blocker this year. Those grades have come against four of the nine Top 10 pass rushing units (excluding, of course, the St. Louis Rams) and in spite of the fact that 1) Chris Williams, his interior help, is starting for the first time as a guard, 2) the Rams’ running backs, his backend help, have been depressingly ineffective at picking up the pass rush, and 3) his “new” quarterback has a tendency to hold the ball for an extraordinarily long amount of time. Moreover, it appears as though Jake Long is getting better as the season progresses, grading out as the No. 1 overall offensive tackle in Week 8 and the No.2 overall tackle in Week 9.
Lastly, Johnny Hekker is running away with the title of “best punter” for the 2013 season. Punters may be the most difficult position to compare in the NFL, since “key” statistics like average distance and total yards don’t take into consideration the “context” of those punters’ typical kicking situation. However, Hekker has landed 29% of his attempts inside the opposing 20, forced a fair catch on 20% of attempts, allowed an average of 2.4 yards per actual return this season, and booted a touchback on only 4% of kicking tries. As a result, Hekker is currently graded as the top punter in the NFL this season, with little chance of anyone catching him.
Make sure to go cast your vote for these three players at http://www.nfl.com/probowl/ballot! You can vote as many times as you want, so make sure your voice is heard.