A Heartbreaker in D.C.: Redskins 9, Rams 7

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-- Alright, first off, I'm just going to admit it: I was very impressed with the Rams' defense yesterday. They held a Washington Redskins offense that boasts an impressive array of weapons to just three field goals, no mean feat. I give Steve Spagnuolo and Ken Flajole all the credit in the world for an excellent game plan, and the players on the defensive side the same for executing said game plan. 
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In fact, to be honest, I found myself getting rather excited about what this team might be in the future watching the Rams stymie the 'Skins in the red zone. Time and time again as Washington drove down into scoring range, the Rams' defense stiffened up and got the stop. They stopped the run, they stopped the pass, they stopped pretty much everything the Redskins threw at them when their backs were against the wall. 

I'll say it right now: if the defense we saw from the Rams yesterday was the real thing, and not just offensive ineptitude on the part of Washington (and I don't think it was, but it's tough to say this early in the season), then this thing may just turn around quicker than I thought. There are still miles and miles to go before this is anything resembling even a decent NFL team, but a defense of the sort the Rams showed yesterday will keep a team in plenty of games while they try to fix the rest of the mess. 
-- James Laurinaitis was one of the most impressive players on the field for the Rams again yesterday. He was extremely active against both the pass and run, and made several exceptional plays, including the stop on 4th-and-1 that gave the Rams one last chance to try and get it right on offense. I think the Rams may really have something with this guy. 

-- In fact, I'm going to go on record as saying the whole secondary looked very, very good for the Rams yesterday. James Butler is looking more and more like a great signing, as he recorded seven tackles against the 'Skins. Both of the corners, Ron Bartell and Jonathan Wade, played solid coverage and wrapped their men up when making tackles. And Oshimago Atogwe continues to be one of the more underrated defensive players in football, making plays everywhere on the field. He isn't quite Troy Polamalu, but he isn't a far off as you might think. 

The only real complaints I have with the secondary, in fact, is the amount of cushion they often give, especially the corners. Both Wade and Bartell have the athleticism to make plays on pretty much any receiver, yet they both play as if they're afraid of giving up the big play. As a result, they rarely get beaten deep, but get beaten underneath much more often than you like to see. Wade in particular needs to play a little less conservatively and play closer to his man. Sure, he might get beaten downfield once in a while, and that will most definitely suck. On the other hand, you look at how easily teams are able to move the chains between the 20s, and you can see the pass coverage guys are just giving a bit too much space. 

-- On the other hand, the pass rush wasn't very good at all. Chris Long did nearly force a safety, but other than that there was very little pressure on Washington QB Jason Campbell. The secondary did an admirable job covering their targets, but when you consistently give a quarterback time to throw, he'll find his receivers. Someone will get open. Still, the line was much, much better against the run than they were Week 1, so even here there is a real positive to take away. 

Okay, that's the good stuff. Now for the bad. 

-- This offense sucks. No two ways about it. They suck. Marc Bulger got rid of the ball more quickly yesterday, but let's face it: he threw for 125 yards. I'm sorry, but that just isn't going to get it done. I'm torn on Bulger here, because ordinarily he holds the ball too long and gets sacked, and he definitely didn't do that yesterday. On the other hand, he also made several really awful decisions and failed to generate any sort of creativity out on the field. 

-- Even worse than Bulger -- far worse, in fact -- were the receivers he was throwing to. I'll give Laurent Robinson a solid grade, but the other options for Bulger were just awful. My colleague Keegan Hamilton has already offered a nice take on Donnie Avery, so I'm not going to belabour his struggles. 

On the other hand, I'm perfectly willing to talk about Randy McMichael. Remember how good we were told McMichael's hands were? Well, I'm still waiting to see any signs of his ability to catch the tough ball in traffic. His routes are sloppy, he lacks any sort of explosiveness, and I honestly wonder if McMichael isn't afraid of contact. He just seems completely incapable of hanging on to the ball in a tough situation. And this guy is supposed to be one of the Rams' primary offensive weapons. 

-- The one and only real bright spot on the day was the performance of Steven Jackson, who managed to amass more than 100 yards against a Washington D-line which featured both Albert Haynesworth and the talented rookie, Brian Orakpo. However, even Jackson's performance, solid as it was, didn't come without a caveat. 
Doesn't really relate to anything, I know, but I thought it was a funny picture. - LIOGRAPHY.COM
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  • Doesn't really relate to anything, I know, but I thought it was a funny picture.
First, the play-calling was questionable again this week, notably in terms of not using Jackson in several key spots. Late in the game, staring 3rd-and-2 in the face, the Rams chose to go pass rather than hand the ball again to Jackson, even though he had gained eight yards on the previous two plays. Memo to Pat Shurmur: just because your play-calling Week 1 was supremely uninspired does not mean the proper way to atone is to get cute in key situations the next week. Go with what's working, okay? Short yardage on 3rd down, in likely 4 down territory anyhow, hand the ball to the big fellow and let him move the chains. Period. The bottom line is this: Steven Jackson had a very nice day, going over 100 yards against a very tough run defense. However, he did so on only 17 carries. Especially late in the game, when it was clear he was beginning to make some real headway against the defense, Jackson should have gotten several more carries than he did. 

The second component to Jackson's performance being less than it could have been is Jackson himself. Too many times -- and not just yesterday, but in most games the past few years -- we see Jackson take the ball, do that little stutter-step dance routine of his, then run right into a defender. In most of those situations, if he had simply taken the ball and run with it, rather than trying to get fancy with his footwork, Jackson could have gained significantly more yardage. It was especially noticeable in yesterday's game when on multiple occasions, Mike Karney opened up a great hole for Jackson to go through, and Jackson instead threw his hesitation move in there and ended up being brought down for a much smaller gain than he should have. Donnie Avery's fumble may never have occurred if Jackson had run hard ahead a couple plays earlier, when Karney blasted him an absolutely huge hole right through the Washington D-line. 

In the past, Jackson has often left yardage on the field, but he has also had to try and create his own space a lot of the time, leading to him hesitating behind the line of scrimmage as he tries to let a hole develop. In this current offensive system, though, with a fullback doing much of the heavy lifting, Jackson absolutely must learn to simply accelerate through the hole created, rather than trying to do it all himself and, more often than not, failing to take full advantage of the yards available. 

-- And finally, as I near the end of my ranting about the Rams' offensive woes, I still just don't quite understand the philosophy behind this offense. The Rams feature a power running back who can force teams to stack the box, but they're going with a dink-and-doink sort of west coast attack to complement the running game. This offense has shown absolutely no ability to stretch the field, allowing teams to play shallow zones without fear of getting beaten deep. There was talk all offseason about committing to the run, and really building the offense around Steven Jackson, but he has yet to run the ball 20 times in either of the Rams' first two games of the season. 

There are two ways to score points in the NFL: you can have talent, or you can have a plan. The Rams are painfully short on talent, and they don't seem to have much of a plan. There are a very limited number of good weapons on offense for this team; until they start taking advantage of the few they do possess, I think the Rams are in for a whole lot more failing to put points on the board. And it's a shame, too, because it looks as if the defense just might be good enough for this team to win some games. 

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