By Rams Nation's Mike Franke
Position by position:
* Special teams: How's this for a storyline? The coach publicly rips his kicker after a 39-point loss and then has to rely on him the very next week to pull out a game in the last seconds. Jeff Wilkins was up to the task this week, hitting 3 FGs - from 26, 37, and the game-winning 26-yarder with 23 seconds left. Wilkins also made a TD-saving tackle in the 1st, as the Rams' coverage teams problems raged on. They more than made up for it in the return game, though. Dre Bly returned a punt 78 yards for a TD in the 2nd, getting a big burst of speed to turn the corner at the start of the run and getting a big block downfield from James Whitley, who smeared the Big Dead punter. Trung Canidate averaged 32.6 per kick return and brought a couple across midfield, helped on one by crunching wedge blocking from Tyoka Jackson. Isn't this what makes sports great? After a week of being slammed everywhere for being pathetic, special teams wins the game tonight.
* QB: Well, Marc Bulger's 6-and-0 now, although it wasn't always pretty. Good numbers for a player coming off a three-week absence, though: 24-40-319 with 2 TDs and 2 bad picks. The picks were both ugly, a little disappointing from Marc at this juncture, because he had been avoiding those bad plays. One was forced for Ernie Conwell, who Bulger looked to almost every time he got in trouble, and the other was an out pass for Isaac Bruce that just didn't have enough on it. Mike Martz didn't max-protect as much for Bulger tonight as he had been, and the Big Dead blitzed a lot, and he got rattled at times. But Marc swung a lot of good plays, and his numbers are hurt by about five dropped passes. The key for Marc was his mobility. He made a couple of plays tonight that Kurt Warner just couldn't make. In the 4th, he dodged a heavy rush to hit Conwell for a 1st down. Warner would have been SO sacked on that play. Bulger rolled out and hit Torry Holt in the back of the end zone to put the Rams up 24-7 just before halftime. Bulger's good footwork helped him make a lot of plays. And although he missed a couple of wide open opportun-ities, he hit the key one, finding a streaking Holt again for a 58-yard play just inside the 2:00 warning to put the Rams within winning FG range. Now I'm wondering why it was so hard for the Rams to make last-minute comebacks under Warner, when Bulger already has two this year. The Comeback Kid!
* RB: Once again, strangely little to say about the running game. The Rams' Chinese fire drill of an offen-sive line isn't making much headway, even against defenses that are weak against the run. Marshall Faulk (46 total yards on 11 touches) is clearly hurting, and a lot of fans don't think he should be on the field. Lamar Gordon (45 total yards on 10 touches) is still feeling his way. Faulk's too banged-up and Gordon's too inexperienced to make a lot happen without blocking help. Gordon impressively held on to one ball after taking a huge body slam from Adrian Wilson, and the radio postgame show pointed out that Faulk made a couple of crucial blitz pickups, so they had their moments.
* Receivers: Torry Holt took some heat from Mike Martz after a lackluster effort last week, and responded by restoring his "Big Game" reputation tonight. He had a TD, a 35-yard catch and a 58-yard catch-and-run to set up the winning FG among his 7 for 141 yards. Isaac Bruce was only a decoy, just 2 catches for 29, but he threw a little block at midfield that got Torry about half his yards on the 58-yarder. Rickey Proehl (4-53) caught a 33-yard pass on 3rd-and-4 in the 2nd to maintain a drive that ended in a Troy Edwards TD catch from 4 out. Ernie Conwell had five catches. Those efforts made up for the sequence after the Big Dead took a 28-27 lead in the 4th. The Rams 3-and-outed after Holt, Bruce and Proehl all dropped catchable balls.
* Offensive line: Funny how in two weeks, Adam Timmerman's already better at tackle than John St. Clair. I wonder if the Rams would consider drafting a guard, dumping St. Clair and sticking Adam out there. St. Clair had a false start tonight and gave up a sack to Kyle freakin' Vanden Bosch. Bulger got a lot of heat from St. Clair's side; I'm just not sure John is ever going to catch a clue out there. The Big Dead do not have a feared defensive line. They blitzed a ton, especially against the Rams' low-protection packages, which got Renaldo Hill a sack, but in the end, it was just those two sacks for the Big Dead, as the Ram o-line did a pretty good job picking up their blitzes and Bulger usually did a good job of getting rid of the ball. The line teetered on the edge, but stayed upright this week instead of plunging into the abyss like they did in K.C.
* Defensive line/LB: Unfortunately, the sorriest second half by the defense in at least two years far over-shadows their good first half work. The Rams won this game despite the defense basically quitting after halftime. Here's why I would be a bad personnel guy, because I would cut Jamie Duncan Tuesday morning. Duncan spent the game blowing tackles, trying to one-arm-tackle guys (nice technique!), overrunning plays badly or just getting completely taken out of plays. He may be the Rams' worst MLB EVER and is rivaled only by The Road Grader as their worst free agent pickup ever. Don Davis had a poor game and was no help. Tommy Polley is sorely missed. Robert Thomas made a couple of big plays, including a big 3rd-and-1 pass deflection to force a Big Dead punt early in the 4th. Leonard Little had a first half sack and fumble that set up a Ram TD, but there was little pass rush, little guts, frankly, in the second half. The defense blew a 17-point lead. They allowed 260+ yards in the 2nd half to a team that averages 290 A GAME. Marcel Shipp converted a screen pass into an 80-yard TD in the 3rd thanks to some of the most embarrassing defense ever. Several times the Big Dead made big plays thanks to Ram defenders being unable to stay on their feet. What, do they have to practice running without falling down now? Tyoka Jackson's swan dive was the key to Jake Plummer's HUGE 24-yard 3rd-and-3 scramble to set up their go-ahead TD. The Big Dead ground the 4th-quarter clock from 7:00 down to 2:00, as the Rams failed to stop TWO different 3rd-and-5 RUNS, but Thomas stopped Shipp on 3rd-and-6 to force the punt that got the Rams the ball for the last time. The Rams forced a lot of 1st-half punts behind good run stops by Little and Ryan Pickett, but this 2nd-half lay-down job that nearly blew a game to a very bad team ought to stick in some craws at Rams Park for a long time.
* Secondary: Pretty disappointing performance from a unit going against a bad team's 4th, 5th and 6th-best WRs. Travis Fisher and Dre Bly had plenty of trouble with the not-feared combo of Kevin Kasper and Jason McAddley. McAddley beat Bly for 17 to start the Big Dead's first TD drive, and beat Fisher for 22 to start their 3rd TD drive, which was extended by a 18-yard pass to Kasper on 3rd-and-5 in front of a slow-breaking Bly. A Fisher pratfall led to a Kasper 24-yard catch to start the Big Dead's go-ahead TD drive, and ANOTHER crucial penalty by Adam Archuleta, who has been a poor pass defender lately, extended the drive after a 3rd-and-goal. Kim Herring did a good job on the Big Dead's TEs, but left the game with an injury. Fisher led the defense with 7 tackles and picked off Plummer to preserve the win. But, as I also suggest for the front seven, I'm not sure anybody on defense deserved to win tonight.
* Coaching/discipline: Mike Martz made the personnel move of the week by making Terrence Wilkins inactive for the game. Bly replaced Wilkins at punt returns and scored a TD. Canidate was very effective as the replacement kick returner. With Jeff Wilkins hitting 3 FGs and a game-winner, it looks like Martz's calling out of the special teams worked, although coverage is still poor. Torry Holt was another player who answered Martz's challenge after the Chiefs game. Lovie Smith's defense was awful, though. They came out of halftime completely flat, and Lovie was frankly outcoached. How come the Big Dead could figure out to blitz every Ram empty-backfield formation, but Smith's response to Big Dead empty backfields was to drop back into soft zones and give up long completions? Tackling was awful; linebacking was awful; Lovie has a heck of a lot of work to do, and he's fallen behind. Bulger finally had to face the lack of max-protect blocking that Martz had been saddling Warner with. Shoot, Mike, doing that to Warner was wrong, and it's just as wrong to do it to Bulger, although he was able to slip out of some trouble. That caused the forced INT to Conwell that you gave him a major sideline chewing-out for. Martz really flew into some sideline rages tonight, and at one point, it looked like Holt wanted to complain to Martz about a particular failed call, so it isn't all harmony down there, either. After Holt's 58-yard catch, Martz inexplicably called another pass, which narrowly missed being a sack disaster or an interception disaster. That should have been a spike. Martz eventually was careful to get the clock stopped to get the FG team on in orderly fashion and leave enough time on the clock to allow a mistake. A win's a win, and I'm happy as a clam to even the score with Bidwill, but tonight was pretty ugly, and Martz has got a lot of work ahead of him.
* Upon further review: I’d call it an uneven job by Jeff Triplette and crew, who were roundly criticized by the radio team. There was a horrible fumble call on an early and obvious Bulger incompletion which had to be reversed by a replay challenge. Steve Savard ripped Triplette for not having his eye on an obvious play. The radio team also felt personal fouls for a head hit on Bulger and a late hit out of bounds on Holt would have been better left no-calls. I approved of those calls, since they've been called on the Rams all season. Funny, though, how Archuleta was called for faceguarding right before the Big Dead's last TD, when it wasn't called on David Barrett defending Isaac Bruce on an end zone pass in the 2nd.
* Cheers: The fans showed up tonight - there weren't a ton of empty seats and actual attendance was probably over 60,000 - but the crowd was really flat. Plenty of boos for bad tackling, kick coverage and dropped passes, but rousing cheers to just about anything Faulk did. A lot of the crowd had bailed by the time Wilkins won it. On radio, Steve Savard and Jack Snow weren't terribly impressed with the refereeing tonight, to put it lightly. Not only was Savard extremely critical of Duncan's play, but Malcolm Briggs was ripping Duncan from the sidelines. And justifiably so. A very entertaining listen. They had the Hardee's Rams bobbleheads on the big screen a couple of times - why does Grant Wistrom's look like Bill Clinton?
* Who’s next?: The Seattle Seahawks shape up as a much bigger challenge next week than the team the Rams pounded 37-20 earlier in the season. They're coming off a shocking win over the Falcons and have finally gotten RB Shaun Alexander rolling. QB Matt Hasselbeck is playing his best ball of the season, if not his career. The return of WR Darrell Jackson combined with the emergence of young WR Koren Robinson has made Seattle a lot more effective offensively. After all, they did score 39 off that Chiefs team the Rams just lost to by 39. The Ram defense is not going to be able to focus on just one weapon. Of course, the Seattle defense figures to have the same problem. Faulk ran all over them in the first meeting, and Seattle languishes at the bottom of the NFL's rushing defense rankings by a full 30 yards. They're also 30th in the league in sacks, which is going to make the line of scrimmage the place where this game is won or lost. The Ram defense needs to put decent pressure on Hasselbeck and make them work for their scores. The Ram offensive line certainly won't dominate the way it did in the first meeting, but they are still going to have to be at least decent against a bad Seattle defense. Turnovers will be critical in a game that looks like a tossup from a week away. The team that wants this game the most will be the one that works the hardest in the trenches and concentrates the hardest to avoid crucial offensive mistakes.