By Rams Nation's Mike Franke
Position by position:
QB: Marc Bulger continued his recent homesick play with a mediocre game, 22-36-223. He really never got on track all night. After opening the game with 2 completions, he had a pass deflected at the line and later bounced a poor pass to Marshall Faulk at the goal line. He forced a throw for Torry Holt in the 2nd that Cleveland's Earl Little jumped for an interception. Luckily that was Marc's only pick, because his ineffectiveness continued. The Rams settled for FG attempts FIVE times in the red zone. The second FG was forced by Bulger getting one pass from the 8 knocked down at the line and another in the end zone. Bulger checked off nicely a couple of times to set up the 3rd FG, with 21 yards on a screen to Faulk and a dumpoff to Dane Looker took for 31, but the offense couldn't punch it in from there. After Aeneas Williams' interception TD made it 16-7, Bulger cashed in Aeneas' second pick with a nice pass to Isaac Bruce for a 16-yard TD. The Rams didn't stick the knife in after halftime, though, as Bulger took a sack on 3rd-and-4 by not unloading the ball quickly on a 3-step drop. Cleveland narrowed the lead to 23-13, but Bulger made some tough 3rd-down plays on a 6 ½ minute drive in the 3rd to put the Rams up another valuable 3 points. He hit Mike Furrey for a quick, tough 6-yard pass and catch on 3rd-and-3. Two plays later on 3rd-and-5, he hit Looker on a comebacker for 12. An 11-yard dumpoff to Faulk on 3rd-and-19 set up Jeff Wilkins' 4th FG. Bulger did later drive the team to a 5th FG attempt, which was missed. It wasn't pretty, but Bulger made just enough plays to win, without committing multiple critical mistakes, which is what ultimately counts.
RB: The offense ran mostly through Marshall Faulk, who ran for 102 and added 43 receiving yards. His 15-yard run on what I will call a pitchback draw got the Rams' first FG drive going. He had 9- and 10-yard runs the 2nd FG drive, and he got the Rams' 3rd FG drive going with a 21-yard screen pass where he showed his old acceleration behind a downfield block. Faulk showed nice ability to wheel away from tacklers after the catch. An 11-yard catch-and-run on 3rd-and-long shortened the distance for Wilkins' 4th FG. He seemed to get stopped for no gain half the time, but Faulk gained many tough yards tonight, and put the game away with two late runs for 21. That gave him his 4th-straight 100-yard rushing week, as Faulk is once again pulling the Rams into the playoffs.
WR: The usual suspects were pretty disappointing. Torry Holt was invisible with 4 catches for 31, and his ankle injury from a couple of weeks ago seemed to bother him. Isaac Bruce was just 3-31, but one was a 16-yard TD where he ran a pretty pattern to get open in the end zone. Ram WRs had a lot of trouble getting open in the red zone, though. Holt also dropped a pass to kill an early drive, and Faulk dropped a pass to kill a late 3rd-quarter drive. The big plays came from unsung players. Dane Looker took off with a short pass for 31 to set up a Ram FG, surviving a twisted ankle at the end of the play. Mike Furrey had a big 3rd-down catch to keep a Ram FG drive alive in the 3rd. And, of all people, John St. Clair made a very nice 18-yard catch on 3rd-and-inches to keep a FG drive going in the 2nd. Everybody is a weapon in this offense.
Offensive line: Pass protection was very solid. Bulger had fantastic time on most of his dropbacks, and none of the three Cleveland sacks were the line's fault. On the first, Bulger or a WR missed a read for a quick pass and Marc ate the ball. Marc had only himself to blame on the 2nd, which came from his own indecisiveness on what was supposed to be a quick pass. And Bulger ran right into Kenard Lang on a bad naked bootleg call in the 4th. Orlando Pace and company kept Bulger's jersey very clean otherwise. Kyle Turley had an impressive block on Faulk's first long run, and Faulk had 102 yards, but run blocking wasn't as strong as last week. With the Rams trying to run the clock out, St. Clair false-started, then nobody blocked Gerard Warren for a 5-yard loss for Faulk. The Rams only took 22 seconds off the clock and flirted with disaster. But in the end, the line's control of the line of scrimmage was a big factor in the win.
Defensive line / LB: The defense got itself off the hook by making big plays in an otherwise lackluster effort. Up 7-3, Cleveland was driving effortlessly after Bulger's interception, but Leonard Little blew in on 2nd-and-12, past the RB's whiffed block, knocking the ball loose from Kelly Holcomb and recovering the fumble to change the momentum of the game. The Rams got a FG off that turnover. The Rams should have had the game salted away late in the 3rd, after Tyoka Jackson's sack of Tim (no relation) Couch forced a fumble, recovered by Pisa Tinoisamoa. Unfortunately, the defense allowed Cleveland to stroll 83 yards for a TD the next time out to draw within 26-20. This was just part of a disturbing nightlong trend where the Rams made somebody called Jamel White (16-101, 140 total yards) look like Barry Sanders. White gashed the Ram front repeatedly, helped by a lot of lousy tackling and an apparent absence of DTs. Injuries to Robert Thomas and Ryan Pickett, plus Leonard Little's injury apparently keeping him on the sideline a lot, really showed. Cleveland drove 72 easy yards for their first TD, and 42 easy yards for their 2nd, assisted by very light pass rush and the Rams' ineffectiveness with the blitz and handling any kind of misdirection play. The Browns succeeded all night long with reverses, counters and quick tosses. Disappointing, undisciplined play from the front seven. Penalties hurt too, like Tinoisamoa's roughing penalty at the start of the 1st TD drive and most of the defensive line biting on a Couch hard count the play before Cleveland's 2nd TD. Yuck. But they came up with big plays in the final 4:00 to stop two Cleveland chances for the lead. Tinoisamoa got a sack, Grant Wistrom stopped White for no gain, and good pressure flushed Couch out of the pocket for one stop. With 2:11 left, Tyoka tipped a pass incomplete. Little's pressure forced an incompletion on 3rd-and-3, and on 4th-and-3, Brian Young sacked an indecisive Couch and forced a fumble the Rams recovered and kept the rest of the way for a barely-victory. Not to discount their big plays, but the Ram defense has to tighten up for the playoff run. The rushing defense in particular has been too soft the last couple of weeks.
Secondary: Aeneas Williams was the star of the game. He ended Cleveland's first possession by HAMMERING Holcomb on a 3rd down blitz for a sack. With 1:17 left in the half, and Holcomb probably still remembering that hit, Aeneas faked a blitz, dropped off the line and popped out of the weeds to pick off a ball thrown right to him, returning it 46 yards for a TD to put the Rams up 16-7. And he wasn't done. On the second play of the ensuing drive, he made a sweet break on a pass at midfield, made a pretty catch and returned that interception to the 20 to set up a Bruce TD. Just about single-handedly, Aeneas sent the Rams on a 90 second, 17-point surge. The rest of the secondary didn't look very good, other than having the short stuff covered well on the Browns' late 4th-and-3. Travis Fisher got beat by Quincy Morgan for a TD, and nobody (probably was supposed to be Tinoisamoa) had the TE in the end zone on Cleveland's first TD.
Special teams: Special teams were OK, but failed in the clutch. Jeff Wilkins hit 4 short FGs but missed a crucial 39-yarder which could have made it 29-20. Sean Landeta was awful, along with punt coverage. His first punt went a weak 29 yards and set up an easy Cleveland TD. His last kick, with 2:24 left, way outdistanced the coverage and Dennis Northcutt returned it 26 yards, into Rams territory. Wilkins ran 7 yards with a fake FG for a first down, and Arlen Harris looked good returning kickoffs, but Mike Furrey personified the inconsistent special teams, returning one punt 23 yards but nearly fumbling away the next.
Coaching/discipline: Red zone offense was a major failure tonight, and threatens to be an Achilles heel for the postseason. I suppose Mike Martz deserves some credit for taking the sure points each time with Wilkins. Martz extended the first FG drive with a well-designed fake. Looker faked a shovel pass to Brandon Manumaleuna, then pitched out to Wilkins, who took it outside for 7 yards and a 1st down. But they had an awful time in the red zone, as nobody could get open and the running game didn't work. Down 7-3, Martz got away with an extremely dangerous call on 3rd-and-short, that being the rollout pass to St. Clair. What a time to throw a lineman his first career reception. It worked, though, and set up a FG. Martz's dumb call of the night came inside 6:00 left. The Rams have driven inside the 20, in FG range, are eating up clock, RUN THE BALL! No, Martz calls a naked bootleg, which the Browns immediately blow up for minus-7, and Wilkins ends up missing a FG that was 10 yards farther out than it should have been. Cleveland picked up most of Lovie Smith's blitzes, but he dialed up a perfect one on their first 3rd down. Aeneas and Archuleta blitzed from either side, and nobody picked up Aeneas, who clocked Holcomb for the sack. But pass rush was pretty light tonight, and tackling was pretty poor, especially in the running game, so Lovie has some rough edges to smooth for next week's big game with Seattle.
Upon further review: Tom White and company used to be a pretty good crew, but they have gone completely mental recently and the Rams won tonight despite them. White lost a game for Seattle in Baltimore and tried to lose one for the Rams tonight, taking a Faulk TD off the board in the 3rd for an illegal shift, when CLEARLY only one man was in motion. The Rams settled for a FG, so the refs cost them 4 nearly-critical points. They also let a Browns receiver line up offsides on a play late in the first and let Holcomb commit obvious grounding early in the 2nd. Awful officiating job, with many blown, EASY calls.
Cheers: Monday Night Football's presentation tonight was very satisfying from a Rams fan perspective. Michaels and Madden had nightlong praise for the Rams, Michaels at one point saying they "could very well win the Super Bowl." Madden grouped Aeneas with Lawrence Taylor as defensive players who could dominate a game. His analysis of Aeneas' interception TD was excellent, pointing out the fake blitz and Holcomb's mind being on the big hit he took from Aeneas earlier. ABC had an excellent halftime feature on the Rams' coaching staff's preparation for the game, including defensive coaches drilling their players that Holcomb does not look off his receiver. ABC reinforced that by replaying Aeneas' INTs again after the feature. Awesome. I wish they would have done a lot better job calling the spot of the ball and keeping us up to date on injuries, but I still went away very impressed with tonight's broadcast.
Who’s next?: The Rams can clinch the NFC West with a win at home over Seattle Sunday, and if the Seahawks continue their recent road play, it's a done deal. Seattle is 1-5 on the road after getting wiped 34-7 by the same Viking team the Rams crushed 48-17 last week. Minnesota softened up the Seattle secondary with short passes and then burned them deep all day long. Martz will want to get Holt lined up on Ken Lucas, who was Randy Moss' personal whipping boy. Seattle's rate of forcing turnovers has slowed way down. They're hurting at one DE, and the heart of their defense, LB Anthony Simmons, is nursing a neck injury. Looking at how Minnesota made Reggie Tongue stick out as a liability at safety, the Ram offense should have opportunities for downfield strikes Sunday, and Faulk will definitely keep a still pretty deficient Seahawk run defense (118.7 ypg) occupied.
Stop me if you've heard this before: stop their running game early and the coach will go pass-crazy and forget he has an All-Pro back there. I mean Mike Holmgren this time, not Mike Martz. Particularly the way they have struggled against the run lately, the Rams MUST stop Shaun Alexander early and force Matt Hasselbeck into predictable passing situations. The Vikings flummoxed Seattle into 34 passes vs. 14 handoffs to Alexander. The Vikings blitzed successfully Sunday – more good news for the Rams. The Seahawks aren't getting consistent WR play – Darrell Jackson just got over a bad case of the drops, only to see Koren Robinson disappear last week. But the Rams have to be wary of Seattle's speed at WR, plus the clutch play capability of Bobby Engram. If the front can't get heat on Hasselbeck, the backfield will have their work cut out for them. If they get pressure, Hasselbeck will have his work cut out for him, and that's the way the Rams need to keep it if they want to stake their claim on the division title Sunday.
Game stats from nfl.com