Sunday, October 30, 2011

Standout defensive effort lifts Rams to upset of Saints

By Alvin Reid
The Sports Xchange
ST. LOUIS—Maybe the good karma from the World Series transferred over to the St. Louis Rams on Sunday afternoon.
The winless Rams shut out the powerful New Orleans offense until midway through the fourth quarter and rode the stellar defensive effort to a 31-21 victory over the Saints.
The Rams returned one of their two interceptions for a touchdown, blocked a punt and continually harassed quarterback Drew Brees(notes) while smothering the Saints offense.
Safety Darian Stewart(notes) returned an interception 27 yards for a touchdown with 2:51 remaining to seal the Rams' first win of the season.
"I just read the play and broke on it. We had to come up with a big play, and I came up big," Stewart said.
First-round draft pick Robert Quinn(notes) had his best game as a Ram with a blocked punt and a crucial first-half sack to stall a Saints drive.Chris Long(notes) also stood tall with three sacks on a flustered Brees.
Quinn blocked a Thomas Morstead(notes) punt with 1:41 left in the first half to set up the Rams at the New Orleans 15-yard line. Quarterback A.J. Feeley(notes) connected with Greg Salas(notes) for a 12-yard gain to the 3-yard line. Salas fumbled, but an alert Steven Jackson fell on the ball. Jackson scored from 3 yards out on the next play to give the Rams a 10-0 lead.
Jackson finished with 159 yards on 25 carries and added four receptions for 32 yards. He also inspired the team with an emotional pregame speech.
"I told the team that if you have ever been in a fight, if you have ever been punched, you can either run or find the will to keep fighting," Jackson said. "I challenged them as football players. I challenged them as men to find something inside them they didn't know they had. I think you saw that in the fourth quarter."
Brees was intercepted by Josh Gordy(notes) on the first play from scrimmage following the kickoff. Feeley capped a seven-play, 38-yard drive with an 8-yard touchdown toss to Brandon Lloyd(notes) to make it 17-0 at halftime.
Feeley said Lloyd "called his own play" and told the quarterback, "I'm running this." Feeley had 20 completions on 37 attempts for 175 yards and was not intercepted. Lloyd caught six passes for 53 yards and the TD.
The Rams took a 3-0 lead with 8:32 left in the second quarter on a Josh Brown(notes) 38-yard field goal.
After holding the Saints and forcing on punt on New Orleans' first drive of the second half, the Rams immediately went back to work on offense. An 11-play, 73-yard drive ended with Jackson's second touchdown of the day on a 3-yard run. The key play of the drive was Jackson's 32-yard run on fourth-and-2 from the Saints' 35-yard line.
Down 24-0, the Saints scored their first points with 1:21 left in the third quarter when Feeley was sacked and fumbled on his own goal line. The ball was recovered by linebacker Jonathan Vilma(notes) for a touchdown.
A three-yard Pierre Thomas(notes) touchdown run cut the Rams lead to 24-14 with 10 minutes left in the game.
Stewart's interception return pushed the Rams' lead back to 31-14. Brees hit Lance Moore(notes) for an 8-yard touchdown with six seconds left in the game to cut into the final margin.
NOTES: Chris Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals tossed the coin before the game, and the Rams won the toss. The baseball team was on hand and was recognized during the first quarter. … Jackson's two touchdowns moved him to fourth on the Rams' all-time TD list. … The Rams were clad in their 1999 Super Bowl champion throwback jerseys. … Saints first-round draft pick Mark Ingram(notes) was on the inactive list with an injured heel suffered in the 62-7 blowout of Indianapolis last week. … The Saints activated running back Chris Ivory off the physically unable to perform list and released tight end Tory Humphrey.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Murray, Cowboys trample Rams 34-7

ARLINGTON, TEXAS -- A former University of Oklahoma star flashed his considerable talents Sunday at Cowboys Stadium, and it wasn't Sam Bradford.
Bradford, the former Sooners Heisman Trophy winner, could only look on in admiration -- or was it disgust? -- as former OU teammate DeMarco Murray left his cleat marks all over the St. Louis defense.
Murray got his day started with a 91-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and didn't stop until he had gone well over 200 yards rushing. His 252 yards rushing was a Cowboys single-game record and also a record for a Rams opponent.
On this day, the Cowboys didn't really need Tony Romo except to hand off. But Romo got into the act as well, throwing a couple of TD passes as the Dallas crushed the hapless Rams 34-7. The Cowboys improved to 3-3; the Rams fell to 0-6.
Veteran A.J. Feeley made his first start since 2007, in place of Bradford who did not suit up because of a high ankle sprain. The Rams couldn't sustain much of anything on offense, even with the addition of Brandon Lloyd to the receiving corps via last Monday's trade with Denver.
As for the St. Louis run defense, it made Murray look like the next Emmitt Smith or Tony Dorsett with a mirage of missed tackles and missed gaps.
For the second week in a row, the Rams had their opponent backed up near the shadow of its goal line. And for the second week in a row, they gave up a touchdown of 90 yards-plus. Last week in Green Bay, it was Jordy Nelson racing 93 yards with an Aaron Rodgers pass.
Sunday against Dallas, it was Murray racing 91 yards on a run up the middle for the game's first touchdown. It was the longest run against the Rams in franchise history and came on a delayed handoff that had the St. Louis defense thinking pass. Defensive tackle Fred Robbins looped to the outside on the play and linebacker Brady Poppinga was blocked at the point of attack, leaving a gaping hole.
Late in first quarter, Cadillac Williams fumbled away a screen pass with the Cowboys taking over at their 38. Despite a sack by James Hall, the Cowboys gobbled up yardage in big chunks in the passing game after the takeaway, with Tony Romo completions of 18 yards to Jason Witten, 34 yards to Dez Bryant, and 17 yards to ex-Ram Laurent Robinson giving them a first-and-goal at the St. Louis 4.
On third-and-goal from the 1, Romo threw to a wide-open Jason Witten for a TD and a 14-0 lead. In what looked like a busted coverage by the Rams, safety Quintin Mikell was left trying to cover two Cowboys in the end zone. Once he left Witten, that's where Romo threw it.
But the Rams' offense showed some rare life following the ensuing kickoff, taking over on its 15. The big play came on third-and-3 from the Dallas 46, with Steven Jackson roaring up the middle for a 40-yard gain to the Dallas 6. Operating against the NFL's top-ranked rush defense, Jackson had only 14 yards on 10 carries until that run. On the next play from scrimmage, Jackson scored on a 6-yard run, running untouched to his right into the end zone.
The Rams got the ball back with a chance to tie before halftime, but a third-down throw by Feeley intended for Brandon Lloyd was intercepted by Dallas corner Mike Jenkins, giving the Cowboys possession on the St. Louis 30 with 3:34 to play in the first half. But Dallas, second-worst in the league in red zone offense ahead of only the Rams, had to settle for a 30-yard field goal by Dan Bailey and a 17-7 halftime lead.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Rams overmatched against Packers

The Rams matched Green Bay yard-for-yard, first down-for-first down. Unfortunately for them, they didn't come close to matching Green Bay point for point, falling to 0-5 on the season Sunday.
With the Rams squandering scoring chance after scoring chance, Green Bay jumped to a 24-0 first-half lead and cruised to a 24-3 victory Sunday, staying unbeaten for the season at 6-0.
The Rams missed a field goal on their first possession of the game, and settled for a field goal on their last possession of the half after reaching the red zone. In the second half, each of the Rams' first five offensive possessions reached Green Bay territory, including advances to the Packers' 10_ and 15-yard lines. But how many points did the Rams get out of all that? Zero.
The best chance came late in the first quarter. On a first and goal from the 10, quarterback Sam Bradford badly underthrew a fade pattern in the end zone intended for Danario Alexander, with Sam Shields intercepting  the pass. Later in the second half, a potential scoring drive was scuttled by a 16-yard loss when a backwards pass eluded Cadillac Willams. And midway threw the fourth quarter, a fourth-and-6 pass to tight end Lance Kendricks right at the first-down marker was dropped.
It was that kind of game and it's been that kind of season for the Rams. Missed opportunities and sloppy play have been consistent themes.
It's not as if the Packers had receivers running free all day against the Rams _ just enough to take a 24-3 halftime lead thanks to three Aaron Rodgers touchdown passes plus a Mason Crosby field goal. The Packers led by only 3-0 early in the second quarter, when Rodgers got his throwing arm warmed up on a chilly, windy day at Lambeau Field.
After a fourth-and-3 gamble by the Rams failed at the Green Bay 41 late in the first quarter, the Packers had the short field to work with. A fourth-and-1 gamble by the Packers at midfield resulted in a 15-yard gain by James Starks. Rams linebacker Brady Poppinga, the ex-Packer, slipped at the line of scrimmage, giving Starks an extra-large running lane.
On the next play, Rodgers completed a 35-yard TD pass to James Jones, with defender Justin King trailing by a couple yards on the play. It marked the fifth TD pass King has allowed in the last three games for St. Louis.
Green Bay scored on TD passes on their next two possessions. After Quinn Porter downed a Donnie Jones punt on the Green Bay 7, the Packers struck for seven on the next play. On the play, Al Harris bit on a play fake by Rodgers, leaving Jordy Nelson uncovered. Both Harris and safety Darian Stewart had chances to tackle Nelson at the Rams 40, but both missed, tripping over each other in the process.
The 93-yard touchdown was a career long throw for Rodgers and a career-long catch by Nelson, giving Green Bay a 17-0 lead with 9 minutes 11 seconds left in the first half. Before the half was out, Green Bay got back in the end zone on a seven-yard pass from Rodgers to Donald Driver. Driver was double-teamed by King and Craig Dahl at the goal line, and well covered at that. But King and Dahl both left Driver _ heading for the line of scrimmage thinking Rodgers might scramble. Rodgers didn't scramble _ he tossed the ball to a wide-open Driver with 1:51 to play, stretching Green Bay's lead to 24-3.
Going with a no-huddle offense almost exclusively, the Rams gained 222 yards in the first half, good output against any defense. But they had only three points to show for it. Jason Brown missed a 47-yard field goal attempt, wide right, on the Rams' first possession of the game. Brown made a 36-yard field goal with 3 seconds left in the second quarter.
* * *
Mike Sims-Walker, who was signed in free agency almost immediately after the lockout to give the Rams help at wide receiver, was among the pregame inactives for St. Louis on Sunday.
Sims-Walker, who had a couple of drops against Washington prior to the bye week, was working with the "scout" team by the end of the practice week, running the routes of Green Bay receivers for the Rams' starting defense.
The Rams are expected to start Brandon Gibson and Danario Alexander at wide receiver against Green Bay.
There were other lineup/inactive developments as well. Veteran Ben Leber, who started the first four games at weakside linebacker, was inactive. The former Minnesota Viking had done little so far this season, and is expected to be replaced in the starting lineup by Chris Chamberlain.
Veteran Rod Hood also was inactive, meaning street free agent Brian Jackson _ added at the start of the practice week _ will join Justin King, Al Harris, and Josh Gordy as the four active cornerbacks against Green Bay's potent passing game. King and Harris will start, with Gordy the third corner in the Rams' nickel and dime packages.
For the second game in a row, running back Jerious Norwood is on the inactive list. As a result, RB Quinn Porter is likely to return kickoffs, with potential help from Austin Pettis. With newly-signed WR/return man Nick Miller on the pregame inactive list, Pettis, Porter and Greg Salas are all options on punt returns.
The Rams' other inactives Sunday were TE Stephen Spach and DE C.J. Ah You. The roster decisions mean that rookie wideouts Pettis and Salas are both active for the first time this season. In addition, rookie linebacker Jabara Williams makes his NFL debut for St. Louis.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Familiar Mistakes Doom Rams

For a few fleeting minutes, there was a flicker of hope. After all but sleepwalking for three quarters the Rams managed a field goal and a touchdown in the fourth quarter, chipping into what had been a 17-0 Washington lead. Then linebacker James Laurinaitis picked off an underthrown Rex Grossman pass and returned it 15 yards to the Washington 19.
With 5½ minutes left to play, the Rams were in the red zone with a chance to tie the score.
"There's no doubt when we got that interception, I thought we were going to score," quarterback Sam Bradford said. "We were going to tie the game. Then I thought our defense was going to get another stop; I thought we were going to get it back and go win the game in (a) two-minute drive."
So much for the optimism of youth.
In the end, the Rams reverted to form. And in 2011, "form" on offense translates to dropped passes, missed passes, shoddy pass protection and penalties.
Lots of them.
And so it was Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome.
An incomplete pass on first down was followed by an illegal shift penalty, and then back-to-back sacks allowed by left tackle Rodger Saffold. Just like that, first-and-10 from the 19 became fourth-and-30 from the 39. The Rams couldn't even get a field goal out of the Laurinaitis takeaway. They were forced to punt and ultimately punted away a chance at the ever-elusive first victory of 2011.
The Rams never got close to scoring range again and fell to 0-4 for the season with a 17-10 loss. Thanks to a bye week, the Rams now have two weeks to contemplate their plight. When they return to action Oct. 16, it will be in Green Bay, home of the Super Bowl champion Packers. Next comes a trip to Dallas on Oct. 23, followed by a visit from the 2009 Super Bowl champ — New Orleans.
The season is slipping away faster than you can say "miscue."
There's no getting around it: If the losses continue to mount, the job security of coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney will be in doubt.
"Every Sunday's a sense of urgency," Spagnuolo said afterward. "If we were 4-0, and we were getting ready to play the fifth game, it would be pretty urgent because you can go the other way pretty quick. So I don't think it changes."
But something must change, because the Rams continue to make the same mistakes over and over.
A week after being sacked a career-high five times, Bradford was sacked seven times Sunday for a new career high. Those aren't the kind of "milestones" the Rams had in mind when they drafted him No. 1 overall in 2010. Without throwing anyone in particular under the bus, Bradford clearly is getting frustrated with his pass protection, or lack thereof.
"We've got to figure it out," he said. "You can say run 'three-step,' you can say run 'quick game,' get the ball out of your hand quicker. At some point you've got to be able to throw the ball down the field. And in order to do that, you've got to have time to read out the routes because they take time to develop. So hopefully during this bye week — we've got two weeks to get it figured out before we play next. But that's one area where we definitely need to be better."
He continued ...
"I'm not going to lie," Bradford said. "It is getting frustrating, just for the fact that when we put ourselves in situations early in the game where we get behind, we've got to throw the ball to get ourselves back in the game and we've got to pick up chunks of yards. In order to do that, in order to put points on the board, you've got to have time to go through the progressions and read it. I'm not saying there weren't times today where I could've gotten the ball out quicker. I'm definitely going to have to look at the film and see that, too. But we've got to be better."
Saffold, who played so well as a rookie last year but has struggled much of this season, had a particularly tough day against Washington. He was clearly agitated in the locker room afterward.
How can the Rams do a better job of protecting Bradford?
"We've just got to go back out there and take care of it," Saffold said. "Simple as that. It'll come. We've just got to go back to the drawing board and fix the mistakes. That's all it is. That's all you can do every single week. It's not going to change. My answer's not going to change."
All told, the Rams managed a meager 172 yards of offense Sunday, the ninth-lowest output for the team since the move to St. Louis in 1995. Not even the return of running back Steven Jackson to full status for the first time since his thigh injury in Week 1 helped. He gained 45 yards on 17 carries, averaging just 2.6 yards a rush, and caught four passes for 19 yards.
The Rams dropped at least six passes, including two by Mike Sims-Walker and two by Lance Kendricks.
"No excuse," Sims-Walker said. "I gotta catch the ball. That's what I'm here for. I gotta make plays, and I didn't make 'em today."
And there's more. The Rams were flagged for five false starts, four against the offense and one on special teams. False starts usually are much more common on the road because of crowd noise, but not for the Rams.
"Most of those (Sunday) came on hard counts," Bradford said. "We've just got to do a better job of hanging in there."
And not just at the line of scrimmage.