by Rams Nation's Mike Franke
Position by position:
* QB: We will rally behind Marc Bulger, and we will play good
* RB: Marshall Faulk came up with that truly dominating game the offense has needed all season, with 26 rushes for 158 yards and a receiving TD. One of the key plays of the game may have been the Rams' third play, when Marshall surged for 3 tough yards on 3rd-and-3. Behind some of the best blocking he's gotten this season, Faulk figured for 10 plays of 7 yards or more, including rushes of 40 and 32 yards in the 4th quarter. Marshall sliced back between a pancake by Brandon Manumaleuna and Adam Timmerman's seal block to blow the 40-yarder open. The cutback was especially prescient because the whole Raider defense overpursued, thinking sweep all the way. That set up Faulk's 10-yard TD catch. The 32-yard run set up the Rams' last TD, and has to be my favorite play of the season. Sweeping left, Faulk breaks a DB's tackle to avoid a 5-yard loss. Again taking advantage of overpursuit, he cuts back right, into the open field, where he stiffarms Bill Romanowski to the ground. After dropping Romo like a crumpled-up fake prescription, Marshall busts inside the 5 behind a block from BULGER. How'd he beat Marshall downfield? Marshall didn't take that one all the way, but he carried the Rams all the way today for a much-needed win.
* Receivers: Everything came together for the Rams today, including high-impact performances from Torry Holt (4-80) and Isaac Bruce (5-70), who caught the Rams' first 2 TDs. Holt's 50-yard catch on the first drive set up a TD pass to Bruce, who made an impressive 1-handed snag, wheeled and dived inside the pylon for the points. Absolutely impressive hands and feet by Torry on his TD catch, hauling in a tight pass from Bulger while leaning, stretching and tap-dancing to keep his feet in. No passes to TEs today, but Terrence Wilkins and Troy Edwards actually got onto the field, and Wilkins even had a 14-yard catch on a shovel pass. Bulger threw for Edwards once, but well behind him. Marshall's big day de-emphasized the role of the receivers, but they showed up big anyway, for a nice change.
* Offensive line: This unit is starting to look like the 20th Maine at Little Round Top. But if you've watched Ken Burns, you know how that came out. The line lost Grant Williams for the season with a broken leg on the first play of the 2nd quarter. But it was still their best run-blocking game of the season by far, with good work from Timmerman, Andy McCollum and Tom Nutten, who spent most of the game at right tackle after the Williams injury, with John St. Clair shifting to LT and Heath Irwin taking Nutten's LG spot. Irwin looked good at his new spot, and Nutten looked all right at his, despite a couple of false starts. Solid blocking from Manumaleuna and Conwell added to the line's performance. Pass blocking was porous, though. Bulger was sacked three times and probably saved a half-dozen more with last-second passes. They couldn't handle the steady diet of Raider blitzing at all and got Bulger whacked around like a piñata. But given the very makeshift nature of the line right now, the run blocking gets them a moral victory.
* Defensive line/LB: FINALLY, a big-play day from what had been a no-play bunch. The Rams had really missed Tommy Polley, but he was back today and combined with Ryan Pickett for a huge 4th-and-1 stop deep in Ram territory early in the game. That play made a statement the Rams kept repeating. Jeff Zgonina sacked Rich Gannon on a flubbed pass attempt to squash the second drive. They forced a 3-and-out the next drive, before Terrence Wilkins' long punt return set up a TD to put the Rams up 14-0. Adam Archuleta's stop of Tyronne Wheatley was key to forcing Oakland to settle for their first FG. Leonard Little sacked Gannon and forced a fumble late in the 2nd, and the league's highest-scoring offense was held to just 3 points at halftime. The Ram defensive line had a big speed advantage on the Raider offensive line, and used it. Little and Grant Wistrom kept Gannon under significant heat today, although personal fouls by each contributed to Oakland's 2nd FG. By the 4th, with the Rams now up 27-6, the front four really did some teeing off. Damione Lewis finally showed up, with two sacks and a pass deflection to Wistrom for an INT. Hustle doesn't always show up on the scoreboard. The defense twice averted disastrous 12-men-on-the-field penalties. Once was with a wise timeout on the early 4th-and-1. Another time Brian Young absolutely busted his ass getting off the field, and with Gannon and the center not savvy enough to get off a quick snap, Oakland failed on a 3rd-and-short and had to settle for a FG attempt. Effort and enthusiasm were far and away better than any time this season, and probably not by coincidence, big plays followed. Holding an offense that had been scoring 40 pts/game to only 13 should give this defense a big confidence boost.
* Secondary: Adam Archuleta was a monster today, unofficially with 13 tackles and a tackle-for-loss. He was a glorified LB most of the game with the Rams in a dime setup, and really ate it up. But that's what 40-year-old Jerry Rice did to the Ram secondary, ate it up, 7 catches for 133. That included a 53-yarder on the game's first play, where he found a yawning gap in the zone, Kim Herring was woefully late to close, and Marcus Knight took out 2 Rams with one block. Rice and Tim Brown got embarrassingly open a couple of other times early, but Gannon didn't find them and settled for the dumpoff. Gannon threw for 332 today, but there's a lot of yardage there when the Raiders were well behind. The Rams played zone defense better than they have all season. Chad Cota broke up a pass, and although Travis Fisher's downfield tackling was VERY poor today, he did notch his first career INT late in the game. A big key for the secondary was holding Brown to just 3 catches. Aeneas Williams played all game, mostly as the nickel back. This secondary will really be a bear when he and Dexter McCleon are back to 100%.
* Special teams: Terrence Wilkins set up a Ram TD with a 55-yard punt return, and a couple of times, he missed taking a kickoff back all the way by just a hair. He's becoming a bona fide weapon there. Jeff Wilkins' kickoffs were all deep, but coverage was pretty poor, with the Raiders getting across the 30 just about every time. Mitch Berger averaged 43.7 a punt, but really disappointed me with dumb line-drive punts right at dangerous Philip Buchanon. That's either poor punting, poor coaching, or both.
* Coaching/discipline: The team has really come together since last weekend's game. That was the most enthusiasm I've seen on the field this year. The offense visibly rooted on the defense from the sidelines and vice versa. They even trotted out the tactic of introducing the whole team at once instead of a player at a time. Any thoughts that the team is ready to splinter, or that Mike Martz is losing his players, should be completely banished… Martz wasn't stubborn today. Big reason the Rams won. Faulk ran 26 times, while 21 passes were thrown total. Martz also finally called good runs for Faulk, letting him use his speed on sweeps, or getting the ball to him on quickly-developing plays. Easily the best running game tempo of the season. Martz didn't force Bulger to do too much, either. Big key was that the Rams got to pick on mainly man coverage for the first time this season instead of dealing with the dreaded Cover-2… When you first saw two timeouts used in the first quarter, you immediately assumed they were wasted. But the defensive TO prevented the Rams from having 12 men on the field on the key 4th down. And the offensive timeout may well have prevented a big Ram mistake deep in their own territory, when instead they drove 97 yards for the opening score… Lovie Smith really befuddled the Raiders today by calling for a lot of dime coverage. If that's what it should be called. It was surprising how little Jamie Duncan and Don Davis were on the field. The majority of the game, they appeared to have Polley at MLB with Aeneas and Archuleta lining up where the OLBs would. And even given some slipups, the Rams played their best Cover-2 of the season when they were in it. Today's play held good signs that Lovie has the defense coming together…
* Upon further review: I usually have nothing but criticism for Bill Carrollo and company, but this looked like a well-called game. There sure were a lot of calls; the teams combined for 25 penalties. Good call on Holt's TD, which was correct on the field and not overruled on the challenge. Good call on an obvious block above the waist on a punt return early in the 2nd. Their worst call was the face mask penalty tacked on to the end of Faulk's long run to start the 4th; replay showed he was just dragged down by the collar. So, has refereeing been better this year, or am I just mellowing out?
* Cheers: Fans were probably in a great mood as soon as they came in; everybody got a very nice free team cap. Caps like that cost $20 at the souvenir stand. When Bulger hit Holt with the early bomb, you could really feel the love in the crowd again… I don't want to hear any crap about St. Louis fans any more, either. Everybody showed up today even though their winless team was supposed to get rolled by an undefeated team. Everybody stayed at least until Bulger started falling on the ball in the last minute. The roar of the crowd was ear-splitting, and although they play in a damn loud stadium of their own, the Raiders could not handle the sound. They had four false starts… The stadium changed the Rams' intro music, and for some reason there was no halftime show at all. But hey, whatever brings in a win, I'm for it…
* Who's next?: The Rams have a chance to go into the bye week with great momentum, as the Seattle Seahawks come in next Sunday with a shortened week to prepare. The Seahawks are near the bottom of the league in rushing despite the presence of Shaun Alexander. Going into Monday night, Alexander was good for just over 60 yds/game rushing, although he seems to have improved quite a bit as a receiver, where he is good for another 40 yds/game. Alexander and fine young WR Darrell Jackson seem like Trent Dilfer's best available targets, and they have a big, tough rookie TE in Jerramy Stevens, who could do some damage. Their offensive line has not given up many sacks, but like the Rams', is wracked with injuries. Now flip to the other side of the line of scrimmage, where the Seahawks are extremely suspect. They do have the Defen-sive Rookie of the Month, Rocky Bernard, who leads them with 4 sacks, and they get John Randle back from an injury this week. But their run defense is 31st in the NFL, giving up a whopping 189.5 yards per game, an outright invitation to feed the ball to Faulk over and over. The secondary's not that imposing, either, although Doug Evans has made plays against the Rams in the past. Their pass defense is probably deceptively high, and that's just 16th in the league, because everyone runs on them. The Rams have a great chance here to win a game in the trenches, establish the run and keep Bulger from having to do too much. The swagger's coming back, and as long as the guys don't press too much, the wins will keep on coming.