By Rams Nation's Mike Franke
Position by position:
* QB: St. Louis is gearing up for the Great Quarterback Controversy of ?02 all over again after Marc Bulger?s strong closing statement tonight: 21-35-347, 2 TD, 1 INT. Marc has led the team to 5 straight wins, averaged 300 yards passing a game, and leads the NFL with a QB rating of 106. He got the Rams off to a fast start yet again this week, engineering a 65-yard TD drive on the opening possession. He did it as he would have to a lot of the night: without much help from the running game. So for the second straight week, here?s the rookie-and-former-third-string QB carrying the Rams to a win. Bulger was most remark-able tonight for his composure under strong pressure from constant Bear blitzing. He repeatedly found and hit secondary receivers, including Lamar Gordon and Rickey Proehl for TDs. He threw the ball away when necessary instead of forcing a stupid pass. He rolled away from pressure well. Play of the night was a 32-yard completion to Isaac Bruce made after Marc shrugged off a blitzing DB who was draping him. That drive went 82 yards and ended in the TD to Proehl. The blitzing forced Bulger into throwing less accurate-ly than usual. His receivers bailed him out several times. And he had a costly fumble on a red zone sack the second time the Rams had the ball. That switched the momentum of the contest from a Rams romp to a real fight. But Bulger?s lone interception was every bit as effective as a punt, and with Marc out for a series with a finger injury suffered on the sack/fumble, Kurt Warner may have left the QB issue open with an out-of-sync 3-and-out that went sack, incompletion, 13-yard pass on 3rd-and-17. If Kurt?s 100%, he?s the best QB at this stage. But the way Bulger has played, it would be hard to blame Mike Martz if he has a Tony LaRussa-quick hook next week at Washington.
* RB: Lamar Gordon got all the work at tailback, and it was work. He had just 45 yards on 16 carries, and one of those was a 29-yard run. A very nice run, where he (finally) turned the corner on a sweep and got extra yardage along the sideline with very nimble footwork. But he struggled on the ground the rest of the night, a combination of Chicago?s fast defense, less-than-powerful run blocking, and his own inexperience at reading his blocks. Lamar was a very nice weapon receiving, though, with 4 catches for 52, including the Rams? second TD, where he warded off a couple of Bears tacklers. He also handled the ball securely. Gordon came up with almost 100 total yards, and the Rams won, so if you?re feeling really outrageous, you could actually say they didn?t miss Marshall Faulk (who watched the game in street clothes) tonight.
* Receivers: Isaac Bruce is really ballin? these days, leading
the team again this week with 6 catches for 141 yards. Isaac has really returned
YAC to his game. After almost all of his catches, he would put some kind of
outrageous move on his defender to gobble up additional yards. Five of the six
catches were for 20 yards or more. He set up the Rams? first TD with back-to-back
21- and 22- yard plays, the first coming on 3rd-and-9. Rickey Proehl made the
Rams? final TD drive possible, with a great stab
of a Bulger pass on 3rd-and-5 on the first series. He caught an 8-yarder a few plays later for the clinching TD. Ernie Conwell got behind the LB for a 52-yard catch on the Rams? 2nd drive. It is such fun to watch Ernie mow down defenders after the catch. Torry Holt caught 4 for 54, and Troy Edwards has really worked his way into this offense. He grabbed 3 for 26 and converted a big 3rd-and-9 on the last TD drive.
* Offensive line: There were a few reasons the Rams couldn?t get the running game going tonight. James Hodgins really struggled with Keith (Tractor) Traylor. Good thing fellow superload Ted Washington was out. The other issue for the Rams: the very real possibility that Brian Urlacher is not human. Urlacher?s speed and instincts are worthy of the high echelon of NFL RB?s, let alone LB?s, which he showed while blowing up a lot of plays. John St. Clair struggled at times. He gave up one of the four sacks the Rams allowed and had a couple of false starts. But on other plays, there he was, picking up a blitzing Urlacher perfectly and neutralizing him. Another of the sacks by the blitzing Bears was clearly a missed assignment by Gordon. But the line still could have done a better job tonight. There was no middle running game at all, and because blitz pickup wasn?t as good as you hope to get, Bulger had a lot more heat than he did the last couple of weeks.
* Defensive line/LB: I don?t know who made it onto Madden?s dreaded horse trailer, but the Rams won this game thanks to their dominant pass rush. Grant Wistrom, playing like his hair was on fire, easily had his best game of the season. He sacked Chris Chandler once and pressured him a mess of times, spending most of the evening in either Chandler?s face or his hip pocket. Leonard Little applied pressure almost as well from the left side, as the Bears? tackles were overmatched. The Rams blitzed effectively much of the night, which got James Whitley two sacks and Adam Archuleta one. Damione Lewis took advantage of the chaos with two sacks of his own. His first sack forced Chicago to settle for a FG to draw within 7-6. Huge play at that juncture. Ryan Pickett made some big run stops, including a stuff of Leon Johnson on a 3rd-and-1 near midfield in the 2nd. So did Archuleta, who led the team with 9 tackles and played like a monster. Tommy Polley had a somewhat-quiet 6-tackle night. He looks really bad defending receivers on downfield pass routes. Jeremy Shockey scorched him in week 2 and Stanley Pritchett beat him badly in the 4th tonight for 21. But that was a rare lowlight in a game that saw the Bears pass for just 157 yards and Anthony Thomas run for just 61. Everything the Ram defense needed to do tonight, they did.
* Secondary: The Rams have to do everything in their power
to keep Dre Bly around, don?t they? Bly was all over the field tonight, with
six tackles and two or three near-interceptions. Marty Booker did have 7 catches,
but nothing very damaging. James Whitley was similarly all over the place, with
two blitz sacks among his 5 tackles. They limited Chandler to 157 yards. The
Bears tried to take shots downfield, but those were covered easily by Bly, Travis
Fisher and Archuleta on separate occasions. The Bears had a size advantage at
WR, but the Ram DBs more than compensated for that with their speed and good
* Special teams: Is there a high school team around here with a decent special teams coach who can take over the Rams? job? Edwardsville? Webster Groves? The Bears handed the Rams? heads to them with a 20-yard fake punt that led to their first score, a play they should have seen coming from a mile away. Martz, probably correctly, no longer trusts Jeff Wilkins to hit a 48-yard FG indoors, bypassing that opportunity for a Berger pooch punt. Berger did not punt very effectively. Punt and kick coverage was mostly poor. Terrence Wilkins got nothing going on punt returns due to good Chicago kicks, and the coverage teams drove the team backwards with several penalties. Unacceptably ugly, going on three years now. Something HAS to be done about special teams. Adding Leonard Little there has helped, but they need more.
* Coaching/discipline: Both QBs must have had a hard time
sitting down after the game, because the opposing defenses blitzed their butts
off. Both Lovie Smith and Greg Blache had their share of success with the blitz,
and their share of getting beat. The Bears beat it a couple of times with Thomas
runs (including a TD); the Rams beat it moreso with the pass. Lovie?s aggressive
approach was definitely the way to go against the slow-footed Bear offense.
Both offenses tried to keep the opposition off-balance with misdirection. The
Bears tried option passes from Marty Booker twice unsuccessfully, once off a
direct snap. They hit paydirt with a fake punt, though. Martz got the Rams?
first TD on an inside handoff to Conwell and got a first down the next drive
with an 11-yard reverse by Holt. He got Conwell open against an LB for a couple
of big plays. The first play called for Warner was really bad, a rollout that
would?ve been much better suited for Bulger. A key play gone wrong was the 3rd-and-1
run with 2:00 left that the Bears stuffed. But it seemed like a good call, because
Gordon?s only successful runs were outside. I was looking for a reverse to Bruce
or Conwell; same kind of run. And it killed the Bears that they had to waste
a timeout earlier in the half. Nearly a minute came off the clock before they
got the ball back on offense, since they had no timeouts left after the 2:00
warning. Sure, the Rams had some brutal timeouts tonight, and I guess I will
NEVER understand why Martz can?t get plays in on time. But the sloppiest area
was the amount of dumb penalties the Rams took. That?s two straight weeks with
10+ flags ? Martz HAS to get that cleaned up. The coaches get mixed marks for
motivation. The offense went into a huge funk after Bulger?s fumble, and the
defense was very flat coming out of halftime. But Martz reportedly tore into
the team toward the end of the half, which seemed to snap them back into life
for their second TD drive.
* Upon further review: You know you?re going to get a long game with Gerry Austin refereeing, and his crew didn?t disappoint, with 16 flags, 11 on the Rams. The cheesiest flag was a ?roughing? call on Little, who made a hit on Chandler that seemed very allowable. They were awful on the late long pass to Pritchett. They did not see him step out of bounds twice. When Martz called for a review, Austin seemed to say, we have no idea where to really put the ball, so we?re putting it on the 35. They took long conferences for plays that seemed obvious, like Conwell?s opening TD. But generally, they handled the game well. They didn?t let the players get out of control and their judgment on downfield pass defense plays was very solid.* Cheers: Tonight?s crowd never seemed as loud as last week?s, maybe because of the number of Chicago fans at the game. The Bears managed the crowd noise well, which shows you the big difference between a veteran QB like Chandler and a youngster like Drew Brees. Warner got a very nice reception upon entering the game, but within 3 plays, there were morons booing the 2-time league and former Super Bowl MVP. Nice. Bulger also got a nice reception when he re-entered the game. A pretty good amount of the crowd left early, with the game still very much on the line, and you want to know why? I stayed and didn?t get home till 12:45. This game must have been ABC?s biggest money earner this season. It was close all the way, and filled with interruptions, injuries, changes of possession, all accompanied by lengthy commercial breaks.
* Who?s next?: The next step for the Rams is to get above .500, which they will go for next week in Washington. Before the season, this game was being billed as a sort of summit for mad scientists Martz and Steve Spurrier. Spurrier?s creation, though, seems to be a three-headed monster that can?t get out of its own way. He is switching QBs for the umpteenth time this season, so Shane Matthews is out (again) and the Rams will face either the rookie Patrick Ramsey or the popgun-armed Danny Wuerffel. Although his reputation is as a passing coach, Spurrier?s Redskins are 26th in the league in that area, as he really lacks the talent (and possibly the Vanderbilt-level competition) to get his system running smoothly. The leading receiver by far is up-and-down Rod Gardner, but keep an eye out for Ram killer Willie freakin? Jackson, who the Skins just picked up. Stephen Davis is a respectable RB, but the Rams may not have to worry a lot about him, because Spurrier won?t give him the ball. Playing in a total quagmire in New Jersey Sunday, Spurrier called 35 passes and got Davis the ball just 19 times. That?s ?Madder? than Martz (and then some). The Redskin offensive line has been soft up the middle, and they are near the top of the league in most sacks allowed. The Ram defense stands to fare well against a subpar offense here. The Redskin defense has not played up to its preseason promise. The LB nucleus of Lavar Arrington, Jeremiah Trotter, and Jesse Armstead has played too tentatively. It?s a top 10 defense against the pass, but just average in sacks and against the run. And heck, the league has known since about 1990 to run at Bruce Smith. The Redskins have the same kind of speed at LB as the Bears, so they could be very disruptive blitzing Kurt Warner. Warner above everything else needs to avoid the dumb mistakes he made the first five weeks. The Rams can run on Washington successfully, especially with a healthy Marshall Faulk, and they can successfully pick on young CB Fred Smoot. So Warner doesn?t have to pull a stupid stunt like forcing a pass over on Champ Bailey?s side of the field. He will be helped greatly if the offensive line puts in a decent game. If they can handle the blitz a little better than tonight, and Warner takes far better care of the ball than he did the first five weeks, the Rams will have a decent shot at their sixth straight win.