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Analyzing the Good, Bad and Ugly of Rams Opener

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Don't worry, guys. I think the day just might be coming when you can take those bags off.
Okay, hold your hand up in front of your face. Extend your index finger. Now, take your thumb and hold it about half an inch away from you finger. Resist the temptation to pretend you're crushing someone's head. 

See that half-inch gap? That's how close the Rams were to winning the game Sunday. Seriously. They were just thaaaaaat close. The fact that they didn't win is kind of a bummer, of course; it certainly would have been nice to get an opening game win against an Arizona Cardinals team which looked extremely beatable in their new post-Kurt Warner, post-Anquan Boldin incarnation.

Still, as far as new beginnings go, it certainly could have been a whole lot worse. Nobody got hurt, and the outcome of the contest was still in doubt pretty much all the way until the end. That's far more than one has been able to say for most Rams games in recent years. 

The Good 

Sam Bradford -- I suppose this one goes without saying, but Bradford was outstanding. He made one really, really bad throw that went for a pick, but we're all just going to have to get used to seeing that occasionally with a rookie under center. The only real complaint I can come up with for Bradford is the fact he had to throw the ball 55 times, but that's hardly his fault. 

Actually, I take that back. It would be nice to see Bradford learn how to gear back a bit more on his short throws. There were several touch passes he was much too firm with, leading to balls going right through the intended receiver's hands. Still, I'm completely willing to chalk that up to a rookie learning curve and nerves until we see him start winging three-yard screen passes ten feet over his receiver's heads, Michael Vick-style. 

In the end, it really couldn't have gone much better for Bradford and the Rams in terms of his debut. He looked, and played, like a future NFL great, and all the Rams have to do is build a team for him to lead. 

Chris Long -- Long took advantage of the Cardinals' right tackle Brandon Keith all day long, and it was a sight to behold. We've been waiting for Long to live up to his billing as a #2 overall draft pick, and yesterday he actually looked the part. He ran right past the huge but mobility-challenged Keith several times, leading to his being in Derek Anderson's face all afternoon. 

You have to like Long's motor, as he is a remarkably tenacious player who never quits on a play, but that tenacity hasn't translated into consistent production to this point in his career. Let's hope we see a whole lot more performances like yesterday's throughout the 2010 season. 

Mark Clayton and Danny Amendola -- Clayton made one 'wow' catch and hauled in ten overall, a remarkably productive afternoon for a receiver just picked up less than a week ago. Amendola had a nice day as well, picking through coverage and getting open time and time again. Amendola also got a chance to show his elusiveness on one long pass play as he turned a simple slant route into a 36-yard gain. 

Donnie Jones -- Sure, you could argue that the punter of any team as offensively inept as the Rams of recent years should be good at his job, given the amount of practice he receives. That doesn't change the fact that Donnie Jones is a freakishly brilliant punter. And I think he deserves some credit for that. 

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The Bad

The Running Game -- Steven Jackson had a solid outing, running 22 times for 81 yards, but that was essentially the entirety of the Rams' ground game. Jackson took quite a beating for his troubles, too, as the Cardinals stacked the box against him even when Bradford was throwing well. The Rams absolutely have to figure out some way to get Steven Jackson some plays off without giving up running the ball entirely. Kenneth Darby ran the ball one time, gaining exactly two yards, and that was it. I was excited when the Rams decided to keep Keith Toston on the roster, as I like his style of running, but he saw zero action. Until the Rams can find a backup running back they're actually willing to hand the ball to this is going to continue to be a major problem. 

Play Calling -- I'm having a tough time with this one, honestly. Last season the Rams couldn't try to get too creative in their play calling, as they lacked a quarterback capable of making tough throws to facilitate a creative game plan. So I gave Pat Shurmur a pass. Now, this year we've got a rookie QB who you don't want to overload and put too much on his shoulders right out of the gate, so we see a bunch of conservative, short throws that go for one to four yards at a time. Plus, with the offensive line still so much a question mark, you don't want to get the kid killed, right? So do I still give Shurmur a pass on not being creative? 

At this point, I probably have to say yes. The Rams at least took a couple shots down the field, which was nice to see. Still, the play calling overall did not impress me, as Shurmur's offense once again seemed to generate an inordinate number of quick outs to a wide receiver right at the line of scrimmage, with the receiver being immediately brought down for a two-yard gain. Sure, it could have been protecting the young QB, but I'm beginning to wonder if Pat Shurmur and Steve Spagnuolo just think those are really good plays. 

Tight Ends -- Again, this might come down to the offensive philosophy, but the tight ends were virtually invisible in yesterday's game. Daniel Fells caught four passes, but totaled just fifteen yards. The only time you really noticed Billy Bajema was when he missed a blocking assignment. Well, that's not quite fair: He did have one very nice reception that went for fifteen yards. Still, in order for this offense to work, the tight ends are going to have to present legitimate targets for Bradford to distribute the ball to. I don't think they succeeded yesterday. 

Cornerbacks -- Early on, it looked as if the Rams' secondary was doing a marvelous job of shutting down Larry Fitzgerald and keeping Derek Anderson from doing much of anything. As it turns out, the Cardinals' failure to have a big passing day had more to do with Anderson and Fitzgerald being incapable of running the same play and the pressure the Rams' line was getting on Anderson. Once Arizona started going to Steve Breaston, the Rams had no answer, and the secondary as a whole was gashed for big gains. Ron Bartell had an interception go through his hands as well, one which he likely could have returned for solid yardage. 

The Ugly 

Clock Management -- Okay, seriously, Spags, what the hell were you doing at the end of the game with your timeouts? The Rams managed to lose a full twelve seconds trying to get in place for a play when Steve Spagnuolo decided not to call a timeout with well under a minute to go. I understand not wanting to burn all your timeouts too soon, I really do. I lived through the Mike Martz era, after all, so I know a thing or two about bad use of timeouts early in the game. But at the end of the game, you simply cannot let the clock run as long as Spagnuolo and the Rams did and expect to have the necessary time to put together a legitimate shot at winning the game. That was just awful, and it shouldn't ever happen again. 

The Third Quarter -- In the third quarter yesterday, the Rams absolutely dominated. They beat Arizona unmercifully on defense, refusing to allow the Cardinals to move the ball at all. The offense looked pretty good as well, with Sam Bradford and his receivers looking like they were getting into a solid rhythm. It was quite possibly the best quarter of football the Rams have played in two, maybe three years. 

So why is it under the Ugly section? Because the Rams lost the game yesterday in that third quarter. They utterly dominated the Cardinals the whole quarter, and somehow still only managed to put three points on the board. The second half kicked off with the score tied at ten, and after the best fifteen minutes of football we've seen from the Rams in two years the score was 13-10. Failing to put points on the board and burying Arizona even while outplaying them handily is what ultimately doomed the Rams to another disappointing opening day loss. 

Hold on to the ball -- And last but not least, I just have to say to Clifton Ryan: look, I know you're a defenisve lineman. I know you're not used to really handling the ball all that much. And I know your eyes got all big when you saw that endzone so close. I understand all those things. I really do. But I need you (and everyone else who doesn't handle the ball much, in fact), to listen very carefully and hear me when I say this: Your first priority has to be to hold on to the ball. Don't worry about making the big play, don't worry about running the ball back for a touchdown, don't worry about getting on the highlight reel on Sportscenter. I don't care if you have to wrap both arms around that ball and then try to run it back while clutching it as tightly as possible against your stomach. You cannot, under any circumstances, give that ball back once you've managed to take it away. If Ryan holds on to that ball, the worst that could have happened is the Rams have a first-and-ten on the Arizona 30. Instead, the Cardinals end up with a touchback and a fresh set of downs on the 20. The way the Rams' defense was playing they could have iced it right there with a touchdown. Instead it's just a missed opportunity to put one up in the win column. 

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