By Rams Nation's Mike Franke
Position by position:
* QB: Clutch play. Usually pinpoint accuracy. Standing strong in the pocket with veteran poise. Finding nine different receivers for completions. Leading the offense on long scoring drives. Putting up outrageous statistics, like, say, 36 for 48, 453 yards, 4 TDs, no interceptions. Kurt Warner at the height of his game? No, not even Warner ever had a game this good. That was Marc Bulger at the wheel today, pulling the Rams out of a ditch for a dramatic win. And Bulger didn’t have Marshall Faulk to help him, partly due to injury, partly due to San Diego’s defense. The Chargers dared Bulger to beat them, and he did. Marc started the Rams off hot again, finishing an opening 85-yard drive with a perfect 17-yard TD pass to Ernie Conwell in the corner of the end zone. The Rams were down 17-7 at the half thanks to turnovers that were no fault of Bulger. Marc responded with an 87-yard 3rd-quarter drive to pull them close. The key play there was a 21-yarder to Rickey Proehl on 3rd-and-10; the capper was another perfect TD pass, this one to Isaac Bruce from 27. Another crucial turnover put the Rams back down by 10, and with 4:58 left, it seemed all over but the shouting, but then, Bulger went back to work. He led the Rams’ hurry-up offense 94 yards in just 1:52. He hit Torry Holt, Bruce, and Proehl twice before forcing a 34-yard sideline pass to Bruce that Isaac turned into gold with a tip and a TD. Down 24-21, the Rams recovered an onside kick, and Bulger proved a Marc of excellence again. He hit Lamar Gordon 4 straight times, then Holt, then Bruce, before finding Isaac again for the game-winning 7-yard TD. The Rams hadn’t had a comeback like this in 4 years, but Bulger did the job thanks to great poise (and blocking). He found alternate receivers repeatedly, eluded any pressure in the pocket, threw well on the run, didn’t make any bad mistakes – just an incredible game. Marc can tell his grandchildren about this game one day. Hell, WE can tell OUR grandchildren about this game one day, even if Kurt Warner comes back 100% next week and Marc never starts another game for St.
* RB: The fast, physical San Diego defense put Marshall Faulk in their crosshairs today, and accomplished what they hoped to, as the team MVP was held to just 36 yards rushing and 36 yards receiving. Faulk had a costly fumble near the goal line in the 3rd quarter that seemed lethal at the time, and left the game with about 12:00 left with a sprained right ankle. This to go with a left foot injury suffered early in the game when Marshall’s shoe came off. That’s gotta cost somebody a shoe contract. Warrior all the way, Marshall says he will be back next week. Lamar Gordon came up very big in Faulk’s place. What a clutch performance by a rookie! Gordon had four straight catches and a 9-yard run on the Rams’ game winning drive. That run was on a 2nd-and-13 just before the 2:00 warning, and Gordon punctuated it with a headlong dive into the San Diego defenders. Gordon’s effort in the clutch today should be long remembered by Rams fans.
* Receivers: Happily, Isaac Bruce made yours truly in row HH look like a fool. After two costly fumbles, frankly, inexcusable fumbles for a 9th-year veteran, the mandate from this seat was, “DON’T throw it to Bruce,” made repeatedly. Donnie Edwards had returned the first fumble for an 82-yard TD. But Isaac did a much better job recovering from his fumbles than I did, with 4th-quarter TD grabs of 34 and 7 yards to go with a 27-yarder in the 3rd. Isaac made a spectacular tip play to catch the 34-yarder and had a great nose for the end zone on the game-winner. Isaac finished the day with 10 catches for 163. Torry Holt added a big 7 for 118. Rickey Proehl (3-37) had a big 21-yard catch on 3rd-and-10 to set up Isaac’s first TD. Ernie Conwell (2-20) caught the first TD, and Brandon Manumaleuna (2-38) looked really good catching the ball. Troy Edwards had a 27-yard reverse but a costly fumble returned for a TD on his only reception.
* Offensive line: Bulger looked like the “real” Kurt Warner today because the offensive line provided its staunchest pass protection of the season. Bulger wasn’t sacked and wasn’t touched often. The Chargers only got a little additional pressure with blitzes; they were usually unable to get a blitzer through. Orlando Pace utterly dominated the left side of the line, and John St. Clair has really developed these last four weeks. John had an excellent game against Marcellus Wiley, who registered only one tackle. The middle of the line was also strong, as Bulger usually had all kinds of time to throw. San Diego has great speed on defense and has been a leading unit against the run for a couple of years, and Faulk missed a lot of the game, so the Rams were not able to dominate up front running as they had the last three weeks. But their dominant pass protection was more than enough for success today.
* Defensive line/LB: The Rams had only one sack, but oh, what a big one it was. Tyoka Jackson exploded through the line to get Drew Brees with the Chargers near midfield, trying to drive for the winning score with about a minute left in the game. Jackson’s tackle not only forced San Diego into a 3rd-and-19, it took about 25 seconds off the clock, as Brees failed to call a timeout. The defense gave up only 10 points even though the front seven didn’t dominate. The Chargers killed themselves with penalties as much as anything. LaDainian Tomlinson rolled for 120 yards, and the Rams were surprisingly slow up and down the line of scrimmage (at least compared to the likely Pro Bowl RB). Why San Diego didn’t feed LT the ball even more is beyond me. Brees threw for only 139 yards, but I didn’t notice that much pressure on him. Grant Wistrom had only 2 tackles, and he and Leonard Little rarely got into the QB’s face, but they made key plays. Little stopped Tim Dwight on a reverse in the 3rd for a 3-yard loss. Wistrom had a key play in the 4th, flushing Brees from the pocket on 3rd-and-23 on a play that kept San Diego out of field goal range. That’s an unappreciated play, because the Rams’ comeback began on the ensuing drive. Adam Archuleta (team-leading 8 tackles) and Damione Lewis stopped Tomlinson on 3rd-and-long runs. Ultimately, the Rams let the Charger offense inside the 30, let alone the “red zone,” only twice, and that was too far out for their weak kicking game to contribute key points. Bend but don’t break defense worked to the max today.
* Secondary: Another stalwart effort from the Rams secondary. Dre Bly worked Curtis Conway over to just 2 catches for just 19 yards. That stunted Brees, who threw for only 139 on the day. Conway’s his favorite receiver. Tim Dwight was their leading receiver, but just for 53 yards; a pretty good game from Travis Fisher. And it was big that the young Rams DBs didn’t let any receivers get behind them deep on the Chargers’ final possession. Kim Herring broke up Brees’ first attempt into the end zone on that drive before Dexter McCleon ended the threat with an end zone INT on the game’s deciding play. Excellent safety help by both men. Herring also had a diving interception in the 2nd . James Whitley stopped Terrell Fletcher short on a 3rd-and-18 to stop San Diego’s first drive after halftime, and the Rams followed that with a TD drive. With Herring coming to life, Bly playing dominating ball, and the youngsters playing quite well, the secondary has really pulled itself together in the wake of Aeneas Williams’ season-ending injury.
* Special teams: Special teams turned in the most important play of the game. With just over 3:00 left and the Rams down 3, Jeff Wilkins punched a perfect onside kick. It bounced high into the air, and Dre Bly, the master of the onside kick recovery, SKIED for it and pulled it in to set the Rams’ winning drive in motion. Then special teams almost blew the game after the Rams took the lead. Wilkins had to make a possibly game-saving tackle on a return that came across midfield. Mitch Berger had another exceptional day punting, getting just under 50/punt, with a long of 61(!). Leonard Little made the stop on a couple of punt returns. The Rams got little going on their own returns, including the hideously stupid call at the start of the 4th for Terrence Wilkins to throw a crossfield lateral to Bly. It was a long return, but it was called back because the lateral was an illegal forward pass. Really dangerous call to make at that juncture anyway.
* Coaching/discipline: A-plus-exclamation-point for Mike Martz. He didn’t panic after Faulk’s injury (as he said he did in Tampa), and his team never quit on him. Faulk didn’t get a lot of touches when he was in there, but that was more “Mad Marty” than it was “Mad Mike.” The Chargers were determined to take away the run, and Martz went to the air because they were willing to let Bulger challenge them. So Martz had Marc throw 48 times. And this wasn’t from any simple game plan. It looked like Martz really gave Bulger the keys to the car. Martz called oodles of motion, empty backfields, bunch formations and misdirection. And Marc handled it all like he’d been running it for years. Major accolades to Martz for having Bulger as ready to run the full offense as he was today. Poor timeout management could have hurt, but didn’t. The Rams used two on their first 3rd-quarter drive, including one before the first play, which came after about a 5-minute TV timeout. Huh? The Rams committed a lot of penalties (10), and the fumbles (FOUR) better get under control quickly. After I said Lovie Smith learned from Super Bowl 36 last week, he seemed to forget it this week. He didn’t bring extra rushers and kept the secondary in pretty soft zones as the Chargers moved into scoring position on their final drive, including a conversion on 4th-and-12. But results are results.
* Upon further review: I cringed upon seeing Ed Hochuli at midfield today. He refereed two of the Rams’ three losses last year, including the Super Bowl. Flags didn’t just fly today, they swarmed – 22 penalties in all. The least popular call was easily the 2nd-quarter roughing-the-passer call on Wistrom. Man, that was just a tackle, nothing more. Jack Snow (radio) didn’t think Bulger was really roughed in the 3rd, either. And Bly got away with taking off his helmet after recovering the onside kick. But good calls on two of Bruce’s TDs: that future Hall-of-Famer Ryan McNeil interfered on the first one, and that Isaac indeed got in on the 3rd one, called correctly before and after the review. Refereeing was really pivotal. Penalties killed several Charger drives today; they stopped themselves as much as the Ram defense stopped them.
* Cheers: Marty Schottenheimer said today’s crowd was the loudest he has ever heard. That is truly high praise, considering he coached in Arrowhead for 10 years. And the crowd deserves high praise. More than any other game I can remember, they willed the team to a win. It was as loud and intense as it has ever gotten in the Dome. It shows on the stat sheet, too, under “Penalties.” Half of San Diego’s 12 penalties were plainly crowd noise-induced false starts, including 3 in a row (!) their first series. 12th man? Absolutely! The crowd probably also forced a Charger delay of game, so there’s 35 yards of defense from your crowd.
* Who’s next?: Reeling ain’t the half of it to describe the Chicago Bears, who have lost seven in a row and managed to blow a 3-TD lead at home today to the Patriots. Injuries have really decimated the team, which went 13-3 last year. Their success last year came from pounding the defense with Anthony Thomas, but injuries on the offensive line have withered their running game. Chicago is also very banged-up at QB. Crystal Chandelier shattered AGAIN today, and the regular starter, Jim Miller, is far from 100%. Heck, they called four option passes today. Even at full steam, the Bear offense is not that threatening; it’s back to a 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust scheme that doesn’t expect the QB to complete a pass over 5 yards. Very defendable. The Bear defense is surprisingly near the bottom of the league in total defense. It’s an overall effort – they’re in the bottom third against the run, the pass and in sacks. Even so, Brian Urlacher is close to being the league’s best LB, and Roosevelt Colvin leads the team with 7 sacks from his LB position. The defensive line had just 3 sacks going into today, though, so it’s apparent they’re weak up front (after losing man-mountain Ted Washington for the year) and have to blitz to get any pressure. Mike Brown has been a great play-making safety for their secondary, but the New England receivers toasted them today. The Rams will have to do a couple of things well next Monday night if they are to achieve the tantalizing .500 mark: stop the run, protect well against the blitz, and please, oh, please, take better care of the ball.