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 by Elvis
7 months ago
 Total posts:   26016  
 Joined:  Mar 28 2015
United States of America   Los Angeles

Significant blips aside, the Rams’ defense is keeping the team’s season alive

By Rich Hammond Dec 1, 2019

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Tempted to teeth-gnash at times when it comes to this Rams defense? That’s fine, but also remember where the Rams would be right now without it.

Remember when the Rams were tied with New Orleans at halftime? When they trailed Cleveland at halftime? When they held only a three-point lead over Chicago after three quarters and led winless Cincinnati by only seven at halftime? The defense carried the team to victory each time.

There are two very glaring, very ugly games on the ledger for the Rams defense: a 55-point torching by Tampa Bay in September and last week’s embarrassing 45-7 loss to Baltimore. That’s 100 points in two games. Unacceptable. In the Rams’ other 10 games, they allowed a total of only 150 points.

That’s winning football. Don’t forget that the Rams secondary underwent a near-complete transformation after the injuries to safety John Johnson and cornerback Aqib Talib and the trade of Marcus Peters. The Rams also have been playing with a third-string middle linebacker, and the defense has been backing an often moribund offense that regularly commits turnovers or can’t stay on the field for long.

The Rams defense dominated in Sunday’s 34-7 victory over the Cardinals. Arizona didn’t cross the Rams’ 40-yard line until its initial drive of the fourth quarter. The Rams’ first-string defense remained on the field, clearly itching for a shutout after being drawn and quartered by the Ravens six days earlier.

“It’s funny,” defensive tackle Michael Brockers said, “just how you can bounce back from a game like that and just have a total team game, where we truly lock in and we’re in front of the motions and we communicate. When we do things the right way, man, most of the time the games end up looking like this. When we beat ourselves and we have offsides and pre-snap penalties, things that kind of kill drives and kill our momentum, you’re going to have games where you get humbled.”

Much of the attention from Sunday’s game probably will go to the Rams offense, which put up 200 yards in the first quarter and shredded Arizona’s defense in the air. Quarterback Jared Goff passed for 424 yards and two touchdowns, and the Rams collectively rushed for 132 yards.

That’s good. The thing is, the Cardinals defense is prone to that type of meltdown every week. The unit can’t defend the pass and, in particular, can’t defend tight ends, which the Rams exploited by throwing to usual run-blocker Tyler Higbee seven times for 107 yards and one touchdown.

Give the Rams offense a solid B-plus grade for Sunday’s game. Even against a bad defense, 34 points and 549 yards is nothing to sniff at, and Goff looked more comfortable in the pocket, and in many of his intermediate-level throws, than he has all season. Goff also was sacked only once and the Rams’ oft-critiqued offensive line held up well enough for the backs to average 4.9 yards per carry. Those are not small things and not to be overlooked.

In context though, what mattered more was that the Rams defense mauled the Cardinals offense, which recently had shown signs of improvement with rookie quarterback Kyler Murray and first-year (offensive-minded) head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Arizona came in with a 3-7-1 record, but also with three consecutive losses by a total of 16 points, all of which included good-enough offensive play to win.

The Rams held the Cardinals to season lows in points and yards (198) and sacked Murray six times. That’s notable against a mobile quarterback such as Murray, given that less than a week earlier, they had zero answers for Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. The players aren’t identical — and Jackson is much better right now — but the Rams held Murray to 191 yards from scrimmage, his second-lowest total of the season.

Murray also had thrown only one interception in his past seven games, but Rams rookie safety Taylor Rapp easily read one of his attempts midway through the third quarter, dropped into coverage, picked off the ball and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown and a 34-0 lead.

And even though the Rams offense turned this game into a blowout, there were eyebrow-raising moments early. The Rams easily drove into the Arizona red zone on their first two possessions but then stalled and settled for two field-goal attempts, one of which was missed. Imagine if the Rams defense had been porous early and the Cardinals had been able to capitalize with an early touchdown or two, the complexion of the game could have changed dramatically.

“Having a game like this is great for you to look at,” Brockers said, “but we’re supposed to do this. We’re supposed to beat teams like this. We should win the games we’re supposed to win, when we’re playing like this, playing team ball like that.”

All of this begs a reasonable question: Why can’t it always be like this? If the Rams are this strong on defense, with all-world players on the line (Aaron Donald) and in the secondary (cornerback Jalen Ramsey) and solid depth across the board, what excuse can there be for the Baltimore game?

There isn’t one, which makes it all the more frustrating, but there’s plenty of evidence that it was a blip. Look at some of the Ravens’ touchdowns. More than once, while the Ravens celebrated, Rams linebackers and defensive backs looked at each other and gestured. Clearly, some breakdowns were taking place. How many tackles did Jackson break? How many times — as safety Eric Weddle admitted after the game — did the Rams clearly have no idea whether Jackson still had the ball or had handed it off.

That’s not stuff that should happen to a good defense, but the idea that somehow coordinator Wade Phillips had lost the script was ridiculous. Phillips has been around the NFL almost as long as the forward pass. It’s not as though he got fooled by the Ravens.

“It’s definitely a game you should throw out,” Brockers said. “It wasn’t a thing where guys didn’t give effort for the whole game. It’s just that guys weren’t in position to make the plays. We just had to come back together and get on the right track and know where everyone is. It goes back to communication and executing our plays and just going out there and playing for each other. That’s what we’re about, going out there and giving 100 percent effort because you’ve got your brother next to you doing the same thing.”

For most of the season, that’s what has happened. Yes, the Rams have played some weaker offenses of late, but they can’t help the schedule. After 12 games, they have allowed an average of 3.7 yards per rush (tied for third-best in the NFL) and 6.7 yards per pass attempt (tied for fifth-best). Remember when the Rams’ run defense was a significant problem? Not much is said about it these days.

That starts with the front seven, which never let the Cardinals establish any momentum on Sunday. From the game’s first series, the Rams’ linemen and linebackers swarmed the ball-carrier. The Cardinals averaged only 3.5 yards per rush. They were below that only once in 11 previous games this season. The Rams didn’t miss tackles, unlike a week earlier, when Jackson and Mark Ingram seemed to be greased up.

“We knew we had to show up, so we just moved on and stuck to the game plan,” Donald said. “I feel like we played good as a team today. That’s what we’re going to have to keep doing for these next couple games, and we’ll see what happens.

With four games remaining, it’s still unclear whether the offense will be productive enough for the Rams, now 7-5, to make a late run for a wild-card spot. Games against Seattle, Dallas and San Francisco remain on the schedule, and each has a defense that could cause the Rams offense to revert to previous (poor) form.

The defense, though, is a bright spot. The performance against Murray raises hope that the Rams might be able to handle Seattle’s Russell Wilson next week, at least better than they did in the teams’ first meeting when Wilson amassed 300 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns.

If nothing else, the Rams defense showed it wouldn’t be defined by the disaster against Baltimore.

“I thought it was really just a great plan by our coaches,” coach Sean McVay said, “but I also thought our players’ ability just to come in and be physical and understand exactly what we wanted to get done. There was a mindset that this group had really throughout the whole week, that I thought was special. There was kind of an opportunity that they couldn’t wait to really take advantage of in terms of just competing again.”

 by snackdaddy
7 months ago
 Total posts:   6848  
 Joined:  May 30 2015
United States of America   Merced California
Hall of Fame

Aside from the two stinkers, the defense has definitely kept us in games. I'm still concerned about the offense. One game doesn't mean they're back. They played well against Atlanta then ok against Cincinnati. Two bad teams and bad defenses. They were pretty bad after that before yesterday. I'm still hoping but I know its an uphill battle.

 by Elvis
7 months ago
 Total posts:   26016  
 Joined:  Mar 28 2015
United States of America   Los Angeles

Some more Hammond:

https://theathletic.com/1427050/2019/12 ... =twittered

Sean McVay helped Jared Goff, and five other observations from the Rams’ blowout win

By Rich Hammond Dec 2, 2019

In an NFL version of an ink-blot test, the Rams slid Jared Goff in front of viewers’ eyes Sunday afternoon.

Which image showed up? That of a skilled quarterback returning to form, or an average quarterback carving an awful Arizona Cardinals defense? Too often, the answer depends on one’s established bias After watching him in high-profile situations for three-plus years, most people have made up their minds about Goff.

Which is a shame, because in many ways Goff is still a work in progress at age 25 and is a product of the people around him. That includes, in no particular order, the Rams’ offensive linemen, running back Todd Gurley and coach Sean McVay. Goff, as the quarterback, certainly is the high-performance driver of the Rams’ offense, but how far can he take it if one or two of the wheels go flat?

That’s not meant to inoculate Goff from criticism. Too often this season, he has looked skittish in the pocket, has made bad decisions with the ball and generally has not looked like a confident leader on the field. These are legitimate knocks, and Goff is not merely a victim of people letting him down.

Sunday’s game, however, showed what can still happen for the Rams’ offense when everything is clicking, as Goff completed 32 of 43 attempts for 424 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.

“It was a great game for Jared,” McVay said, “but that was the game that we expect from him. Those are the things that we know he’s capable of, and it’s always a collaboration of the unit. But I was really pleased with his ability to command and control the game and I thought it was one of his best performances for sure, and that was needed for our team.”

Yes, the Cardinals have the worst pass defense in the NFL, but it’s not as though the Rams just dropped in a quarter in a slot at the entrance to the stadium and automatically got 549 yards. They still had to execute, and across the board they did, arguably better than in any other game this season.

It all goes back to McVay. Too often this season (and even going back to the end of last season) he has been slow to make adjustments, either from week to week or within games. It’s fair, then, to note that in two of the past three games, McVay’s game plan has been solid and put the Rams in position to win.

Two weeks ago against Chicago, McVay probably didn’t know what to expect from a revamped offensive line, so he went primarily with two-tight-end sets and ran the ball a lot and the Rams grinded to a 17-7 victory. Last week against Baltimore, well, the whole team was terrible, and McVay stood at the front of that line.

McVay rebounded this week. His early game plan centered around having Goff under center, then executing play-action fakes. The Cardinals bought it, over and over. The Rams didn’t take big, unnecessary chances down the field but still picked apart the Cardinals’ secondary and McVay did a nice job of emphasizing Tyler Higbee, certainly aware of Arizona’s previous difficulties against tight ends.

Goff was sacked only once, and McVay did a nice job at times of rolling him out after some of those play-action fakes. It’s something the Rams should have been doing more of in previous games. Goff isn’t speedy, but he’s also far from clumsy when he leaves the pocket, and he has the ability to make throws on the move.

Finally, perhaps to the chagrin of critics who have already certified him as a bust, Goff had a very good game, perhaps his best of the season. Never mind the numbers. The Rams’ pass plays showed Goff to be calm, making good decisions and stepping into his throws with confidence.

“I was definitely better,” Goff said. “We all were. It was a full team effort.”

One persistent criticism of Goff is that he can’t win games by himself, that things need to be near-perfect around him in order for him to thrive. There’s some evidence of that. Goff is increasingly proving himself to be a boom-or-bust quarterback, with ratings that swing wildly. Since late October, Goff has had game ratings of 119.3 and 120.7. His other three ratings were 51.2, 69.9 and 62.0. There’s no middle ground right now.

That’s part of what makes Goff such a target for debate, and such debate should continue. But even Goff’s harshest critics should be able to praise him when he has a strong game. He did Sunday, and here are five more takeaways from the Rams’ 34-7 victory over the Cardinals:

Gurley quietly strong
Are the Rams finding a groove when it comes to Todd Gurley? Sunday’s game presented a best-case scenario, as the Rams never trailed and were able to maintain a comfortable run-pass balance.

Gurley finished with 19 carries for 95 yards and one touchdown, and also caught a 20-yard pass. (Gurley also had a 28-yard touchdown run brought back for a holding penalty late in the third quarter.) Gurley now has exceeded 18 carries twice this season, against the Cardinals and two weeks earlier against the Bears, when he had 25 carries for 97 yards. Gurley also averaged 5.0 yards per carry against the Cardinals, only the third time in 11 games this season he reached that number.

The Rams’ goal all season was to have Gurley healthy and productive in December. Now they’ve arrived and he’s 1-for-1, but with an interesting game ahead. The Rams play Seattle at the Coliseum on Sunday night. In the teams’ first meeting in October, the game was close throughout but Goff attempted 49 passes while Gurley had only 15 rushing attempts. That balance must be closer this time.

Four out of five isn’t bad
As noted earlier, McVay helped out the offensive line by rolling Goff out more often against the Cardinals. Even so, credit tackles Andrew Whitworth and Bobby Evans for keeping outside pressure to a minimum.

Whitworth has rebounded after an odd, early-season run of poor play and he’s been just fine down the stretch. Evans, a 22-year-old rookie out of Oklahoma, looks to be a keeper. Evans had a strong debut against Chicago, but skeptics wondered how he would perform when not protected by the Rams’ two-tight-end set. Nothing is ever perfect, but Evans looks quite comfortable and will improve.

The only issue for the Rams was inside. Rookie right guard David Edwards is understandably going to have some consistency issues, but he committed four penalties and that’s not acceptable.

Zuerlein danger zone
There’s something odd going on with Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein, who missed a 41-yard field goal in the first quarter Sunday. Zuerlein now has missed six of his 28 field-goal attempts this season. In 2017 and 2018 combined, Zuerlein missed only six of his 71 attempts. But that’s not the weird part.

Zuerlein has been solid from distance this season, as he is 4-for-5 from beyond 50 yards and 7 of 9 from 45 yards or beyond. Zuerlein also has been fine up close, as he is 14-for-14 on field-goal attempts from 39 yards or fewer, plus 29-for-29 on extra-point attempts.

The mid-range field-goal attempts are killing Zuerlein, though. He has missed four of five attempts from 40 to 44 yards this season. He has one make, from 44, and misses from 40, 41 (twice) and 44.

Zuerlein has remained very consistent, since 2017, in every area except those low-40s field-goal attempts, and there don’t seem to be any trends in terms of turf, weather or situation. He’s just missing them, and that’s a bit troubling.

Rookie of the year
Among Rams rookies, most of the immediate post-draft attention went to running back Darrell Henderson and defensive lineman Greg Gaines, even though safety Taylor Rapp was the highest pick at No. 61.

It’s now clear that Rapp is the star of the rookie class. Rapp started the season in a smaller, sub-package role, but grew into something bigger, both because of the shoulder injury to star safety John Johnson and because of Rapp’s own solid play.

Rapp has now started six consecutive games and had his NFL highlight moment Sunday, when he intercepted a Kyler Murray pass and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown. Rapp’s first career NFL interception was a long time coming, given that he had two others overturned by penalty.

The Rams clearly have a keeper in Rapp, and the interception helped illustrate why. After the snap, on a second-and-10 play from the Arizona 25, Rapp briefly bit on the Cardinals’ play-action fake, but quickly read Murray’s intentions, ran back and made an athletic play to intercept a ball headed toward Larry Fitzgerald. Rapp maintained body control and ran for the end zone.

Johnson and Rapp seem headed toward a successful long-term partnership, which will make the transition away from veteran safety Eric Weddle easier (as soon as next season).

“As the season progresses,” Rapp said, “you start to feel more comfortable and play loose and you try to make plays. I feel like I’ve been able to feel more comfortable game-in and game-out, keep progressing. Now I finally feel like I’m just out there playing loose.”

Late bloomer?
Anyone who watched Tyler Higbee in training camp, before his 2016 rookie season, saw potential. The fourth-round draft pick out of Western Kentucky quickly developed chemistry with Goff, his then-roommate, and the 6-foot-6 Higbee looked as though he might be a red-zone target for the Rams.

It never happened, and over the years, Higbee developed more value as a run-blocker as the Rams drafted and developed Gerald Everett as more of a pass-catching threat at tight end.

On Sunday, though, with Everett out because of a knee injury, the Rams turned to Higbee in an attempt to exploit the Cardinals’ struggles to cover tight ends. It worked, as Higbee recorded a career-high 107 yards (and one touchdown) on seven receptions.

“I had a college coach tell me and I’ve said it before, ‘Just prove to be reliable,'” Higbee said. “When they call your number and it’s your turn to make a play, just make the play. That’s all I’m trying to do.”

Higbee likely never will be a dynamic threat in the pass game, but he’s solid, with 33 receptions this season on 41 targets, and he has earned Goff’s trust in difficult situations.

“Tyler showed what he can do,” Goff said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he continued to get the ball like that.”

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4 posts Jul 13 2020