Nov 16, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) celebrates after sacking Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (not pictured) during the second half at the Edward Jones Dome. The Rams won 22-7. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Well, how about that? The St. Louis Rams have now beaten three of the four teams that played in the conference championships last season. However, unlike the wins over the Seahawks and 49ers, this one was “decisive,” with the Rams beating the Broncos handily in all three aspects of the game. Obviously, there are plenty of takeaways from the game. We’ll jump right in with our quick thoughts…
1. Tip of the hat (again) to Greg Williams and the St. Louis Rams defense, which truly looks like a Top 5 unit. Yesterday, they snapped just about every record streak that Peyton Manning had started in Denver, and held the future Hall-of-Famer to his lowest point total since his exit in Indianapolis. Aside from the one busted coverage, the Rams played nearly flawless defensive football. They were aggressive, got solid pressure on Manning, and took advantage of their opportunities. If they play like this, there is no ceiling for this Rams squad.
2. Switching to individual performances, you have to stand in awe at the transformation of T.J. McDonald since Mark Barron came into town. After struggling early in the season, McDonald has now been the best defender on the field for two-consecutive weeks. Having, apparently, settled into the new scheme and his new role, he has truly been the “Enforcer” that Jeff Fisher imagined when taking him out of USC. He may not be on Kam Chancellor level yet, but he is making defenders regret coming across the middle, and playing nearly unblemished football in the box.
3. The only player that might challenge for the “top performer” might be Alec Ogletree, who is averaging one interception per game in his two contests against Peyton Manning. The stud outside linebacker unofficially managed 12 tackles yesterday, including five defensive stops, and force a turnover as a key moment in the game.
4. However, you cannot mention the St. Louis Rams defense without talking about the Aaron Donald. The should-be leading candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year recorded one of the two Rams sack on Manning yesterday, and drew a ton of attention from the offensive line. Robert Quinn, despite not registering an official sack, also played well, recording three hits on the quarterback, five total pressures, two battled passes, and forced a number of penalties from Denver offensive linemen. Oh yea, and Chris Long isn’t back yet…
5. Despite some of the grading, the three cornerbacks for the St. Louis Rams played wonderfully against unarguably the best collection of receivers in the NFL. Even with Julius Thomas out early, and Emanuel Sanders leaving midway through the second half, the Broncos still had two All-Pro level receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker. However, aside from a handful of longer gains as the Rams protected their lead, the trio of Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, and EJ Gaines kept their receivers in-check. More importantly, the group rarely missed any tackles, leading to limited yards after the catch opportunities. As a result, Peyton Manning and his “clockwork” offense went 4-for-12 on third down and, worse, 0-for-3 on fourth down conversion attempts.
6. That leads us to our recurring segment: Rodney McLeod makes a massive mistake in coverage. With under 3:00 to go before the half, the St. Louis Rams had the Denver Broncos in a 3th and 10 situation. The St. Louis Rams appear to be in a deep zone coverage scheme (Cover 3 or Cover 4). Janoris Jenkins runs with Emanuel Sanders up the sideline, shaded to the outside, then hands him off as the Broncos receiver cuts inside towards the middle zone. The problem? McLeod had already bit on an underneath route, before bailing and attempting to get back into position. It was too late. The pass glided gently over his head and into the waiting arms of a receiver in his zone. Another week, another miscue. Luckily, the Rams were able to overcome this one. McLeod would get “the last laugh” after a bone crushing hit that would knock Emanuel Sanders out of the game with a concussion. However, a thousand big hits won’t make up for a free safety that regularly fails to be the safety net in the backend.
7. Switching over to the offensive side of the football, kudos to Shaun Hill for a beautiful day. Hill’s performance yesterday was the epitome of what you hope for from your backup quarterback. He was smart with the football (i.e. zero turnovers), was efficient and moved the ball down the field (i.e. 69% completion percentage and 6-of-17 on conversion attempts), and made the “big play” when the opportunity presented itself (i.e. 63-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Britt).
8. Why was Shaun Hill effective? Some will point to a perceiving improvement on the offensive line. However, the issue with the Rams (in general) has never been the offensive line, but, rather, the quarterback holding onto the ball for too long. Yesterday, Hill’s average time to attempt was 2.47 seconds (6th-fastest in the NFL in Week 11). Last week, Austin Davis average time to attempt was 2.82 seconds (slowest in Week 10) and his average time to sack was 3.62 seconds. In the NFL, particularly against strong defensive units, you cannot hold onto the football as a quarterback. That was the difference yesterday. This offensive line was not, and was never, the main issue.
9. Tre Mason is the future in St. Louis. The rookie pounded his way to 113 yards on 29 attempts, including “clocking eating” carries at the end of the game. Not only was it his first NFL game with 100+ yards, he was also the first running back to break that barrier against the “vaunted” Broncos run defense all year. The writing appears to be on the wall for Zac Stacy, who simply isn’t as explosive, versatile, or consistently-healthy as Tre Mason or Benny Cunningham. It would not be surprising to see Stacy on the trading block this offseason.
10. The St. Louis Rams (literally) do not win the game yesterday without Johnny Hekker and Greg Zuerlein. To start, Hekker averaged 43.3 yards per punt, did not allow a single return yard, and landed four of his six kicks inside the 20 yard line. In fact, Peyton Manning started 46% of his drives inside his own 20, with his best starting field position being the 25. Meanwhile, Legatron went 5-of-5 on the day in field goal attempts, including two 50+ kicks. The dynamic duo appear to have all of their confidence back. Miami Herald reporter, Adam Beasley, said is best on Sunday: