Game Notes: Saints 28, Rams 23 -- The Great Leap Forward

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Okay, Rams fans, now you should be excited. 
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Two weeks ago, after the Rams beat the Detroit Lions for their first victory in over a year, I played the role of buzzkill, trying to explain why it wasn't all that encouraging the Rams won. Sure, it was nice to finally erase that big ugly zero from the win column, but there wasn't really anything in the game which made me think the Rams were really starting to turn it around. The Lions are one of the worst teams in football; the Rams are essentially their peers. Of course the Rams should be able to beat a team that bad at times. Play a real team, look good, and get back to me was the message. 

This, though, this was.. something else entirely. 

On Sunday, the Rams took on one of the best teams in all of football, the New Orleans Saints, who look like the reincarnation of the Greatest Show on Turf most weeks, and guess what? They gave the Saints everything they could handle and had a chance to win the game on the final drive. 

Maybe this thing really is headed in the right direction. 

I'll be the first to admit, I didn't give the Rams much of a chance going into yesterday's game. The Saints looked like the best team in the NFC; the Rams looked like, well, the Rams. I was kind of expecting a score that looked a bit like something Bill Swerkski's Superfans would have predicted when Ditka was involved. Saints 220, Rams 6, something along those lines. 

Instead, the Rams absolutely took it to New Orleans, playing possibly the best game they've played all year on both sides of the ball. They held the Saints to almost ten points less than their season average in scoring; the Rams' 23 points was a season-high. Put simply, the Rams looked not just like a real football team on Sunday, but a pretty good one, to be completely honest. 

The Good

Steven Jackson, again: Jackson rolled up 131 yards on the ground yesterday, and added 45 more on 9 catches. Another day, another 150+ total yards. Yawn. There's no question at this point Jackson is one of the truly elite players in all of football; he's been a consistent producer on a lousy team the past two seasons, to a level very few backs ever reach. Better yet, he's managed to avoid injury so far this year. He's the best player on the Rams, and it's not remotely close. 

The Passing Game: Hallelujah! At last, it looked as if the Rams had some sort of passing game. Marc Bulger actually managed to look a bit like the Bulger of old, tossing a couple touch passes -- especially to Donnie Avery -- that wouldn't have looked entirely out of place in a highlight reel from 2003. 

Something I thought was a fantastic idea was using Bulger a bit differently yesterday, getting him outside the pocket on some bootleg plays, and it seemed to pay dividends. The O-line held up nicely, but getting Bulger moving around and giving the Saints an additional aspect to worry over was a huge part of the offense's success, I thought. The Rams simply aren't talented enough on offense right now to be predictable; they're going to have to get creative if they're going to be successful. 

Oshiomogho Atogwe: What can I say? He's the defensive version of Steven Jackson for the Rams this year, an elite player stuck in the middle of a large batch of underwhelming. Atogwe's coming-out party was 2008, but this season has really cemented him as one of the better safeties in the league. The hit on Marques Colston that jarred the ball loose just short of the goal line was a classic Atogwe play: not only did he make the play, he showed that nose for the takeaway we've seen so much of the last two years. 

The Rest of the Defense: Chris Long has a sack now in two straight games. Does that mean anything? Tough to say, but it's certainly better than talking about how long it's been since he's had a sack, isn't it? James Laurinaitis continues to look like an incredible steal in the second round of the draft, and a future star in this league. The secondary as a whole did a great job holding the Saints to a mere 21 points and picking off Drew Brees twice. Against a lesser offense, that performance yesterday might have come damned close to being a shutout, honestly. 

The Bad 

Unfortunately, it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows for the Rams. It would be easy to just say, "Well, they held in there against one of the best teams in football. That's overachieving, big time. Why poke holes in it?" It also doesn't teach us anything. 

Clock Management: This is the big one for me. To this point in the season, I've been plenty impressed with Steve Spagnuolo and the job he's done instilling a new culture and a new system in what was an awful, awful organisation. He inherited a team that was a complete mess, and while they're still short on talent in a big way, we've seen a whole lot of progress made in a fairly short period of time. I think Coach Spags is doing a bang-up job on the whole. 

Still, I think it's fair to ask the question: what in the world was he thinking on that last drive of the game? For that matter, what was Marc Bulger thinking? He's been around this league long enough to do a better job of managing the time resources he has. 

At some point on the final drive of the game, probably on second down when the Rams tried to run a hurry-up play, they had to spike the ball. You have to stop the clock on one of those plays, get back over to the sideline, and get a play set up. Instead, they tried to catch the Saints off guard (at least, I hope that was the rationale, because nothing else makes any fucking sense at all), and instead managed only to ruin their own chances of making a play. 

Twice Marc Bulger went to the check-down route to Steven Jackson on that final drive, short passes right over the middle of the field. Look, I understand he's your big play maker, and the driving force of the team, but midfield with 70 seconds to go isn't the time to be throwing a screen pass. I don't know if it was a matter of thinking they would outsmart New Orleans, or if Bulger simply let the game speed up on him and made a couple poor decisions, but the play-calling at the end of the game was not at all good. 

It's become a bit of a theme so far in Spagnuolo's tenure as head coach: in each of the game the Rams have had a chance to win (and I realise those opportunities have been relatively thin on the ground), clock management has managed to become an issue. So far, I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt to a first-year coach who is much better acquainted with trying to prevent offenses from driving in a hurry than he is getting his own to operate on the quick, but I think it needs to be addressed. The Rams do a better job of managing the time they had on that last drive of the game, it doesn't come down to a jump ball in the endzone. There was plenty of time to actually win the game if better decisions had been made. That's all there is to it. 

The Kickoff Return: Let's face it; if the Rams don't give up a 97 yard kickoff return to open up the second half, we're probably not having this conversation today. Instead, we're quite possibly discussing the biggest upset in the NFL so far this year. 

I will say this for the special teams: I haven't noticed them much. And really, that's high praise for a unit you really only discuss when something goes horribly wrong. Well, okay, fine. Or if something goes wonderfully right, like a 97 yard kickoff return. Still, I tend to look at special teams the way I look at an offensive lineman: if you're noticing him a lot, chances are it's because there's a problem. So the special teams gets a pass. Maybe not a complete pass, but I'm not going to bury them, when this is the first time all year I can think of special teams might legitimately have cost the Rams a game. 

The Second Half Blues: Steven Jackson ran for 131 yards yesterday, and 100 of those came in the first half. In the second half, the Saints were clearly keying on Jackson in a big way, and the Rams didn't make the adjustment. I understand they're thin in the receiving corps, especially since wideouts continue dropping like flies, but when the opposition decides to go all-in to stop one player on offense, don't keep trying to win with that one player. Not to go all Zen on everyone, but you must be like the water. The Saints committed to shutting down Jackson in the second half, and they did a fine job of it, mostly because the Rams gave them the chance to do so. Spread the ball around a bit more, and maybe New Orleans can't just key up on Jackson every play. It's a tough balance to strike, because if the Rams had gone away from Jackson and the offense sputtered, know-it-all columnists like me would be ripping them apart today, saying things like, "How in the world do you not put the ball in the hands of your only real playmaker? Unbelievable!" 

Nonetheless, the fact is this: the Saints were single-minded in their attempts to shut down Steven Jackson in the second half of yesterday's game. The fact he was still effective at all is testament to just how remarkable a player he is. Still, if the Rams distribute the ball a bit better, I think the half plays out differently. 

The Ugly 

There wasn't a whole lot in yesterday's game which would qualify as really ugly, I don't think. Yeah, the kickoff return sucked, but hey, things like that happen. It doesn't seem to be a systemic issue this year as it has been in seasons past. And yeah, that final drive of the game was just painful to watch, with bad play-calling and bad clock management sinking the Rams' chances. Still, though, there was only one play I would call really, really ugly. 

Danny Amendola dropped a pass yesterday that likely would have resulted in a gain of about 40 yards or so, and possibly six points. Out completely alone in the flat on second down, all Amendola had to do was catch a perfectly-thrown pass from Bulger and he would have been off to the races. (And as we all know, if there's one thing Amendola absolutely can do, it's run.) The ball was right there. It hit Amendola in the hands. And he just dropped it. 

Instead of a long completion, maybe even touchdown, instead the Rams had a third and long, which they failed to convert. It was a play that very well could have turned the tide in favour of the Rams; instead, it qualifies as the only gratuitously ugly play of the game yesterday. 

So yeah, I think we can all be excited today about what the Rams did against a Saints team which came in unbeaten and expected, I'm sure, to walk all over one of the league's doormats. The Rams are not at a point yet where we can be too upset they couldn't pull the W out; just throwing a scare into a team like New Orleans is an accomplishment all on its own. 

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