By Rams Nation's Mike Franke
Position by position:
* QB: Kurt Warner only played the first drive of the game, but he had a very sharp outing: 7-for-7 for 55 yards and a FG drive. The Rams appeared to have game-planned for the Bucs, at least this drive, and had Warner throwing everything out of no more than 3-step drops, and nothing deeper than his opening dart to Torry Holt for 17, but that is solid strategy against Tampa, and Kurt executed flawlessly, so much so that he got a short night. Marc Bulger (9-15-110) played 2 quarters-plus and also looked sharp, including a nice 23-yard pass to Kevin Curtis on the Rams’ 2nd FG drive and a nice 1:00, 60-yard FG drive at the end of the 1st half, punctuated by a 19-yard pass to Mike Furrey. Bulger had a long interception, but that was erased by a roughing penalty, and Rams’ QBs were a perfect 13-for-13 for the first half. A Bulger 19-yarder to Dane Looker set up the Rams’ lone offensive TD. Kirk Farmer spent most of the 4th quarter handing off. The key number for the QBs tonight? Zero, as in no interceptions. Huge relief, to me, anyway, that Warner didn’t throw any, especially against a defense he normally plays catch with. Both he and Bulger threw accurate passes with zip and stayed pretty comfortable in terms of pass rush. A successful night.
* RB: Being hard to take down was key for Rams RBs tonight, since there weren’t a lot of holes opening up front, and every RB really showed us something. Lamar Gordon (11-41) did a lot of tough running and made the Bucs work for tackles. His last two runs were an 11-yarder on 3rd-and-15 in the red zone, where he just barely lost his balance or he would have had a TD, and an 8-yard run where he was blatantly tackled about that far out of bounds. Arlen Harris (10-27) stepped in and ran even tougher. He had a couple of highlight film runs in the second half. On one dead-end sweep right, Harris spun out of a tackle ala Marshall Faulk and cut back upfield for a nice gain. His 7-yard TD run had all the desire you want to see from a player trying to make a team. He’s stopped dead at the 5, but he never quits, keeps churning, and breaks free for a coast to the house. Harris is hard to take down, has decent receiving skills, and contributes on special teams – surely he has made this team. Joffrey Reynolds (8-25) did some nice running in the 4th and hit big holes with good quickness. The fullback issue has still got a ways to go, though. Brian Natkin laid some good pops straight on, but he really messed up on the failed Gordon sweep at the end of the first drive, and looks far from being fluid as a receiver. May be good enough considering his inexperience; we’ll see.
* WR: Torry Holt always eats up the Bucs, even in preseason, as he had a whopping 6 catches for 52 yards in the first half. The other receiving star was once again Kevin Curtis, who continues to display great hands, and who also absolutely turned a Buc DB inside out on an out-and-up pattern for 23 yards in the 2nd. This guy is going to make big plays. Dane Looker, Mike Furrey and Brandon Manumaleuna all had catches for first downs on scoring drives. Brandon had just the one catch, but he still looks like a very smooth receiver. On the down side, Troy Edwards had a huge drop at the start of the 2nd half, Cam Cleeland dropped a perfect TD pass from Bulger in the 3rd, and Shaun McDonald didn’t do much of anything. His skills are far behind his hype at this point (never mind that I’m hyping Curtis like the second coming of Lance Alworth).
* Offensive line: Pass blocking was decent all night, as the Rams only yielded one sack, Warner was untouched, and Bulger was kept mostly upright. Kyle Turley and Adam Timmermann looked very solid on the right side. Dave Wohlabaugh left the game early with a broken left thumb, so Andy McCollum slid back to his old spot at center, played there all night, and also looked very solid. I was impressed with David Loverne. He saved Bulger at least once by getting a good chip on a DE beating the LT. John St. Clair was fine when he only had to protect a QB for a short drop, but that sack in the 2nd, where he made some guy named Ron Warner look like Simeon Rice, quickly brought back painful memories of John’s play last year and makes you wonder if there are any speed rushers he’s not over-matched against. If St. Clair has to be the answer at LT this year, the Rams are in trouble. Run blocking could have been better, too. Tampa run-blitzed very successfully and blockers didn’t get outside very well on sweeps.
* Defensive line/LB: The subs probably stood out more than the starters on the defensive line. Tyoka Jackson had 2 sacks, Courtland Bullard had one, and Jimmy Kennedy added one. Bullard was so Leonard Little-like on his sack that radio announcer Steve Savard misidentified him. Impressive play, if he can keep making them. DT play isn’t my specialty, but I saw nothing out of Kennedy, to the point I’m considering renaming him “Teddy.” Especially against NFL starters in the first half, he was getting blocked with ease by one guy, sometimes getting knocked back like a lightweight. Boy, I hope I missed something. Early on, run defense looked good, especially with Adam Archuleta and Robert Thomas making plays, but, here we go, you bring in Jamie Duncan and the Bucs start ripping off nice runs. Duncan has GOT to feel some urgency sometime to make something happen. The Bucs ran for nearly 100 yards, getting 4+ a rush. May have hurt that Ryan Pickett had to leave the game early with a mild ankle sprain. The pass rush of the starters was much too weak, save for a near-sack by Little that Shaun King managed to wriggle out of somehow. That’s a lot of criticism for a defense that gave up one TD the first 59:30, so let me add that the starting LBs were really flying around, and that Jackson’s and Bullard’s sacks were big plays that stopped Tampa drives. I am also just about ready to order a Scott Shanle jersey. He was a madman tonight, delivering at least three clean, open-field, bone-crunching hits. A bonafide seventh-round find. We saw a good overall defensive effort tonight, I just wish the starters would have continued to look impressive instead of just-average.
* Secondary: HERE’s where the game was really won on defense. Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler are a pair of young CBs with miles of potential. We saw some of what they can be tonight, batting down key third down passes, blanketing receivers and not getting intimidated by bigger receivers (which’ll be a must.) The two were absolutely impressive. Fisher led the defense with 10 tackles. But the big tackle of the night was Adam Archuleta’s hit-and-strip on Keyshawn Johnson, which turned a third-down conversion into a loose ball, which Kim Herring turned into a 59-yard TD the other way. The kind of clutch play this defense made all of 2001. Nice block by the speedy Fisher at the end of that return, BTW. Kevin Garrett gave up a TD to Charles Lee, but had perfect coverage; Chris Simms’ throw was just perfect. Garrett also got a bum call on the ensuing 2-point conversion. Nick Sorenson dropped an interception; that is the kind of play he’s GOT to make if he’s going to make this team at safety, where the Rams are becoming impressively deep.
* Special teams: Kick coverage was MUCH better than last week. Just about every Tampa return was stopped inside the 30. Much better discipline tonight; guys actually stayed in their lanes. Herring’s coverage on the opening kickoff was * perfect *, funneling the returner over to Garrett for the tackle. Garrett also made a HUGE hit on a 4th-quarter punt return, but broke his wrist on the play. Sean Landeta averaged a whopping 47.2 per punt and has stabilized that position after basically 8 years of comic relief. Jeff Wilkins hit 3 FGs. All chippies, but a make’s a make. On the downside, Owen Pochmann kicked off seven times and put exactly one into the end zone. A couple didn’t make it inside the 10. And the Rams’ blocking on returns was no good at all. Sorenson looked bad blocking on punt returns, and Harris was greeted by two Bucs before he could even get upfield on his last kickoff return attempt. The Rams also don’t appear to have settled on a punt returner – Harris, McDonald and Looker all got tries.
* Coaching/discipline: It is fun to finally beat one of these gung-ho coaches who treat a preseason game like a playoff game. Down 16-0, Jon Gruden goes for 2 after the first TD, and follows it with an onside kick? Then down 26-14 after their 2nd TD, with 0:19 left IN THE GAME, going for 2 again? Relax, Chucky, will ya? I liked Mike Martz’s game plan for Warner. Looks like Mike has finally figured out how to attack Tampa Bay. Quick passing and mix in the run instead of getting Warner killed all the time with slow deep drops. But I was still surprised at the fairly early hook for Warner. I still want to see him throw some deep passes and throw out of a pocket. Maybe that will be the strategy for Buffalo. Martz needs to stop the nasty habit of calling sweeps on short-distance downs, like the failed Gordon sweep that snuffed the Rams’ first drive. Thought you were never supposed to run outside in those situations. It ain’t happening against Tampa Bay, anyway. But still, pluses for the early game plan, NO turnovers, just 6 penalties for 30 yards compared to Tampa’s 12-124, the special teams improvement, and the level of execution, not just by the first-stringers, but by everybody on both sides of the ball. This coaching staff is doing a lot of good work with all the players. You don’t see the amount of screw-ups late in the game that you used to.
* Waiver bait: Leon Johnson appears to have gone from KR/RB/FB to toast. He wasn’t even in to return kicks, which is telling, because that was a big reason for acquiring him. More and more it feels like Troy Edwards needs to pick up his game at WR. I wish DE Randy Garner would actually do something, so I can understand the fuss over him. And man do I wish it was capologically feasible to cut Duncan. What a bust. Sorenson was pretty rough on STs tonight, and I think that gives Steve Bellesari a shot at beating him out.
* Upon further review: The Ed Hochuli crew gets a good grade tonight. The roughing penalty by (irony) Warner on Bulger was obvious, as was the criminally late throwdown of Gordon. Pass interference calls looked good, except maybe the one against Garrett on Tampa’s first two-point attempt. The call I wonder about most was the early holding call on Little, apparently for tackling a RB trying to go out on a pass pattern. If it happened at the line of scrimmage, it’s good defense, at least when it’s done to Marshall Faulk.
* Cheers: Good loud crowd tonight. Sure the game was a sellout in name only, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all to hear there were 60000+ in actual attendance. The Ed didn’t seriously start emptying out until partway through the 4th. No noticeable changes at the Ed this year, although they may have cranked up the P.A. another notch or two, fans’ long-term hearing be damned. They more than made up for that by mixing Jimi Hendrix into their musical rotation, though. Maybe I was caught off-guard, but the WIU band at halftime was the loudest marching band I can remember. And there is apparently a law that every halftime show must include “Georgia On My Mind,” although I couldn’t tell you if Mrs. Frontiere was at the game.
* Who’s next?: Quick turnaround to Buffalo on Saturday, followed by the first round of cuts. The Rams’ main goals will probably be to come out healthy and to continue to execute. I would especially like to see Warner cut loose, and look out, Marshall Faulk should see some playing time in Buffalo as well. Buffalo gave up a lot of points in Tennessee last week, but they have made big free agent moves to shore up their dreadful D from last year. I’d like to see the Ram starting defense get a consistent pass rush going again; Buffalo had some struggles with pass protection last year, as well as special teams. So all the Rams’ units stand a chance of maintaining or picking up momentum from this week’s game. And there are still a lot of guys battling for jobs: #3 RB, #5/6 WR, #3/4 DE, #3 SS, among many others. At the very least, there will be a lot to watch, and with two potentially explosive offenses, it could well be an entertaining affair to boot.