Now, to be fair, the Rams are not a good football team. Not yet, by any measure of the imagination. One win against a Washington Redskins team that is decidedly middle of the pack doesn't change things that dramatically from one week to the next. They still have lots and lost of holes, and the overall talent level just isn't there yet. On the other hand, it looks as if the Rams are finally, after years of wandering in the desert, headed toward being a good football team, which means I had better figure out how to say nice things about them before they get there.
The Running Game -- Usually, when you say the Rams' running game had a good day, you're talking about Steven Jackson. (And only Steven Jackson.) This week, though, that was almost completely turned upside down, as Jackson struggled and then got hurt, while the backups did the yeoman's work in chewing up ground.
The first series of the game was good for Jackson, as he broke off a 42-yard run for a touchdown, but after that the Rams' centerpiece was a virtual non-factor, gaining only 16 more yards on 9 carries. The culprit, as it had been in each of the Rams' other poor running performances this season, was a lack of space up front, owing in large part to the Redskins' willingness to stack the box up front against Jackson.
After Jackson was forced to leave with a groin injury, however, the Rams' running attack took off, as the offensive line stepped up to the plate with an outstanding effort and some success in the passing game forced Washington to drop more players off the line.
I'll admit I haven't been a believer at all up to this point in Kenneth Darby, but he was absolutely outstanding in the third quarter, rolling up yardage and carrying the ball six plays in a row at one point. Keith Toston had a fine effort as well, hitting the gaps aggressively and getting into the second level very effectively.
Offensive Line-- If you wanted to point to one reason the Rams were able to get the win yesterday, you need look no further than the big guys up front for the offense. When Jackson sprung loose early for his long TD run, it was thanks to the huge hole opened up by the guards. The offensive line's greatest performance, though, came later on in the game after Jackson was gone.
In the third quarter, the Rams' line simple imposed their will on the Redskins' defense, taking control of the line of scrimmage and forcing gap after gap for Ken Darby to scamper through. Even with the Rams' biggest weapon out of the game and Washington shifting their attention to putting pressure on Sam Bradford, the line held strong and refused to allow the 'Skins' pass rushers to get to the quarterback.
Sam Bradford and the Passing Attack-- You might think I was getting tired of singing the praises of Sam Bradford by now, but you would be wrong. I'm also not getting tired of talking about how good Danny Amendola and Mark Clayton have been, What was new this week, though, was the involvement of a couple other players in the Rams' passing game. Daniel Fells, even playing on a bad knee, had a couple very big receptions, and Fendi Onobun saw his first NFL action, making one particularly nice grab in the third quarter to pick up a crucial first down.
Brandon Gibson, whom I've been stumping for to get playing time over Laurent Robinson since about the middle of the preseason, had an up-and-down day, with 3 catches for 33 yards total. He did make one outstanding grab right over the middle of the field for sixteen yards, but Gibson also missed a couple balls which were very catchable. After praising his hands I had to cringe when he let a pass from Bradford go right off those hands on a crossing route. Still, I like what Gibson brings to the table, especially opposite Clayton out wide, and I hope to see him in there more as the season goes on.
Bradford did throw one bad interception, right after Dominique Curry blocked a punt, that hurt the Rams badly and helped shift the momentum of the game over to the Washington side. Even so, there was no panic in Bradford's game, and his excellent work leading the charge later on more than made up for his second-quarter miscue.
Chris Long-- Another one in the "not tired of praising him yet", file, Long was once again hugely disruptive as he pressured Donovan McNabb all day long. The fact Long isn't rolling up big sack numbers is almost hard to believe when you watch how often he's right in opposing quarterbacks' faces at the moment they release the ball.
The Secondary-- This has actually been a bit of a sore spot for the Rams this season, but the secondary put together their best performance to date as well. Bradley Fletcher brought down a key interception late in the game to help put the Redsins down for good, and Ron Bartell played quite well despite being a little banged up. Oshiomogho Atogwe is also beat up at the moment, but still managed a productive performance early, and backup safety Darien Stewart did very nice work filling in for Atogwe later on in the contest.
James Laurinaitis-- What more can I really say about Laurinaitis? If it weren't for the presence of Steven Jackson on the roster, Laurinaitis would likely have to be considered the best player on the Rams' roster on either side of the ball, even over Sam Bradford for now. Another Sunday, another day of making tackles all over the field.
A funny thing happened after Steven Jackson was forced to leave the game, though. It almost seemed as if having their best player, their safety net, removed from the mix forced the Rams to change their offensive approach, and suddenly they were much more effective. Without the comfort level provided by being able to simply hand the ball to Jackson out of the most basic formations available, the Rams had to get creative, and that creativity, along with the outstanding play of the offensive line, is what allowed the Rams to put up 16 points in the second half of the game. They went with multiple-receiver sets, forcing Washington to spread their defense, and mixed their pass and run plays much more effectively than I've seen in the past from this offense. Ordinarily you can call the play the Rams are going to run before they ever finish lining up to run it, but that was not at all the case yesterday in the second half.
The question now, of course, is whether the lesson sticks with Shurmur and Coach Spags. By refusing to simply count on their one big horse to try and carry the team and getting creative in both their formations and the ball distribution the Rams were able to take full advantage of a weak pass defense and run up some points on the board. What will happen when the Rams actually get Jackson back on the field? Will they remember this lesson, and simply plug Jackson into an offense which is tough to read and spreads the ball to all possible weapons? Or will they go back to two tight-end, conservative run formations play after play and allow teams to go right back to stacking the line against the only weapon the Rams have the confidence to utilize?
Honestly, it isn't easy to find a whole lot of bad with the Rams' performance this week. I suppose that's what happens when you actually win football games: even the weak parts of your performance become fairly easy to gloss over in light of the fact you got the victory. Still, it wasn't all sunshine and blowjobs for the Rams; there's still a lot of work to be done.
Run Defense-- The Washington Redskins came into the game yesterday towing one of the weakest running attacks in the NFL. So what did they do against the Rams? Just went out and gashed them play after play in the second quarter, with new backup running back Ryan Torain gaining 46 yards on just 7 carries. Clinton Portis was nearly as effective, carrying 7 times himself for 44 yards.
Overall, the Rams allowed Washington to compile 116 yards on just 17 carries, an average of 6.8 yards per carry. If the Redskins had stuck with their running game more than they did I wonder if Rams would have figured out some way to stop them. Honestly, I kind of doubt they would have.
The Rams seemed to miss Clifton Ryan, whose size has helped immensely in the early going this season with simply sealing off the gaps up front, but one player wasn't going to fix these woes. Santana Moss broke away for several big plays, ending up with 124 yards on just 6 catches (56 came on one reception), and Chris Cooley dinged the Rams for an especially disheartening 19-yard catch on a play that looked to be well in hand by the Rams. The defense has some work to do this week before the Seahawks come to town in trying to limit the breakdowns which lead to big gains for the opposition.
Special Teams-- After years of special teams being a constant bugaboo for the Rams, they've finally been able to find some real consistency under Spagnuolo's staff. However, yesterday was a big step back for the third phasers, as they allowed a blocked field goal when the A gap was left completely unblocked, and the return game just hasn't been able to get much of anything going the past couple weeks.
Part of the return issues, of course, is the fact teams are learning just not to kick the ball to Danny Amendola, going instead to the much less explosive Mardy Gilyard. I'm a big fan of Gilyard in the passing game, but on special teams I'm not sure he's really doing all he can to help the Rams. On the other hand, it's tough to complain too much about Gilyard not getting the yards when the blocking simply isn't there. I'm not sure exactly what the solution is, but the Rams need to figure out a way to generate more on their kickoff returns in particular. Personally, I would be interested to see what Fendi Onobun could do as the deep man; his freakish combination of height and speed that makes him such an intriguing tight end makes me think he could be a potent force with the ball in his hands on returns as well.
The coverage unit remains solid on special teams, so I don't want you thinking I'm bashing them all together. Teams are not getting much of anything against the Rams on either kickoffs or punts, and the coverage units (as well as the kickers themselves), deserve a ton of credit for that. On the return side, though, the Rams need to find some way to consistently get shorter fields to work with.
Officiating-- I really hate to be That Guy, bitching about the refs, but I just can't let it go. The officiating in general yesterday was, I thought, remarkably weak, and there were a few calls which were downright embarrassing. The worst of all was the non-call at the end of the second quarter, when Albert Haynesworth broke into the Rams' backfield and nearly got Sam Bradford in the process of handing the ball off to Keith Toston for a three-yard loss on a goal line run. The only problem was Haynesworth's entire torso was over the line of scrimmage by the time the ball was snapped. Albert Haynesworth is 6'8" and weighs roughly in the neighbourhood of 600 pounds. It doesn't seem possible one should be able to miss something that size three steps into the neutral zone. But there you have it.
On a more general note, though, I've been very disappointed in the officiating this season in relation to the way they're calling penalties on hitting the quarterback. Bradford was hit at least twice I can think of yesterday below the knees, which is supposed to be a penalty by the new NFL rules. (Call it the Brady Rule.) Unfortunately, the referees didn't seem to see it that way. On the other hand, the push of Oakland's Bruce Gradkowski drew an immediate flag. (I'm not defending Fred Robbins here, by the way; that was one of the stupidest penalties I've ever seen a player take on an NFL field.)
The problem isn't that the league has made it too easy to penalize players for hitting the QB, although I do think there's some of that. The problem is that the officials don't seem to be at all on the same page in the way they're calling those rules from game to game. It's tough enough being an NFL defender; the league absolutely must get their referees straight on exactly what players can and cannot do. It's just unfair for players to try and figure it out from week to week.
the Second Quarter-- Look, I have no idea what in the world happened in the second quarter to the Rams, but they looked like a completely different team that quarter than they did the rest of the game. Getting a consistent 60 minute effort from the players on this team has seemingly been a tough chore at times for Coach Spags and his staff, and yesterday saw some continuation of that issue. They didn't disappear for as long this time, and the team certainly played with a vengeance after the half, but we shouldn't just gloss over the fact the Rams let a 14 point lead almost completely evaporate before they could turn the tide. At this point I think it still has a lot to do with inexperience by the players and a learning process about how to keep that level of energy up for the whole game with no breaks, but it's certainly something I think worth watching as the Rams move forward trying to become the team we're all hoping they can be.
In the end, it was about as good a Sunday as you could possibly ask for from the Rams. Steve Spagnuolo got the first September win of his coaching career, the Rams won a sold-out home game (hopefully ensuring the next game or two also sell out and we can avoid the blackouts we saw late last season), and the Rams' offense finally looked like a unit with some verve and an ability to move the ball in creative ways. Hell, the fact I had to put the officiating on notice just to have one really 'ugly' thing to write about should tell you a little something about how well the Rams played. They took on a pretty good Washington team and came away with a very impressive victory, particularly considering they played such a large part of the game without the player who has been the only bright spot on this roster for much of the past three to four years.
Now we'll see if they can build on it, or if it will be back to the way it was next week when Seattle comes to town.