The Rams had a chance to put their collective foot on the throat of the San Francisco 49ers a month ago, but couldn't get the job done. At the time San Fran was barely relevant in the NFC West playoff picture, the Rams were looking more and more like a team emerging as a serious playoff threat, and Troy Smith was the starting QB. Everything was set up for the Rams to solidify their spot atop the division and put an end once and for all to any hopes the 49ers had for a playoff berth.
Unfortunately, the Rams didn't get the job done that day, allowing the 49ers to win in overtime and hang around in the playoff picture thanks to the game of Troy Smith's life, a scrambling, dodging affair that generated big play after big play, even as he struggled to find consistency. It was one of the most frustrating losses imaginable.
On Sunday the Rams got a second chance to make things right and take care of the 49ers themselves. This time, they didn't squander it. It may not have always been pretty (in fact, having watched the game twice, once live and then again on DVR to review a few key point, I can tell you it was as far from pretty as you could possibly imagine), but in the end the Rams got the job done. They bottled up Troy Smith, overcame a flat second quarter, and finally landed what proved to be the knockout blow for San Francisco and their coach, Mike Singletary, who was fired when the 49ers returned to the Bay Area last night. All in all, not a bad day's work.
Of course, all this will still go to waste if the Rams can't handle their business next weekend when they travel to Seattle to play a winner-take-all game which has already been flexed to NBC's Sunday night slot. Still, the Rams have won more games in 2010 than in the three previous seasons combined and control their own destiny heading into the last week of the season. You couldn't honestly ask for anything more.
Sam Bradford -- What more can honestly be said about Bradford at this point? Well, how about the fact he can come back from adversity just as well as he can ride a wave of momentum? In the previous three games Bradford showed every sign of hitting the rookie wall, failing to throw a single touchdown and being intercepted five times as he played a regular-season schedule beyond twelve games for the first time in his life.
Against San Francisco, though, Sam was right back to the guy we've all come to know and love, efficient and productive. Even dinging him a bit for losing a fumble in the first quarter which looked for awhile as if it could derail the Rams' momentum, Bradford was spectacular. A 71% completion rate, a 107.0 passer rating, and one record for rookie completions in a season broken. He barely missed his second career 300 yard game, finishing with 292. It's simplistic to say the reason the Rams have gone from 1-15 to a chance at a .500 record is because of Sam Bradford. There are tons of areas where the Rams have improved from the past few seasons; far too many to just say it's all because of the quarterback.
Then again, the reason the Rams have gone from 1-15 to a chance at a .500 record is because of Sam Bradford.
Danario Alexander -- I'm really tempted to put the whole receiving corps on here, as both Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola had very nice days as well. Gibson did fail to come down with one ball he probably should have, but also made several outstanding catches and showed some serious YAC abilities on his 41-yard reception in the first quarter. Amendola did what he does every single week, catching pases for tough yards, forcing the 49ers to account for the underneath pass all day long, and making hay on a couple end-around plays. (I won't go into much detail about his pass-throwing form, but if you're reading this, Danny, you've got to get on to your front foot, man!) Hell, even Laurent Robinson had a nice catch for a TD with Bradford scrambling to buy time until he could get open. So really, it was a pretty good day for all the Rams' receivers, something we don't get a chance to say very often.
I still think Alexander deserves special recognition, though, so I'm singling him out here. Is there still any question from anyone out there as to why so many of us who follow the Rams are incredibly excited about what Danario Alexander brings to the table? Every time he's actually targeted something good happens, and Sunday really showed off his full potential. DX simply took over game for a period of about two minutes or so, during the scoring drive which put the Rams up by eight, at 22-14. On a team badly in need of weapons in the passing game to complement the young phenom playing quarterback, Alexander shows all the signs of being a special talent at wideout. If he could just keep his knees intact, DX could be better than just a starter at the NFL level; he could be a game-changer.
Defensive Line -- The last couple weeks the Rams' vaunted pass rush had been stymied by a pair of outstanding offensive lines, both of which underlined the need to get more push up the middle. The unit seemed to take a bit of frustration out on the much more vulnerable O-line of the 49ers, pressuring both Alex and Troy Smith mercilessly. Chris Long and James Hall both played an outstanding game, and Fred Robbins was solid as well.
Unfortunately, one good game against a weak offensive line does not change what we saw the previous two games. The Rams' defensive line, while talented at both ends, needs upgrading at the tackle position, as well as an overall infusion of youth in a group with several veterans contributing this season. Still, it's tough to complain after watching them harass the San Francisco QBs all day long.
Pass Protection -- Against both the Saints and Chiefs, the Rams' offensive line looked porous and, at times, downright overmatched. The middle was absolutely atrocious, and even the tackles played poorly at times. The line as a whole played much better against the 49ers, no mean feat considering some of the talent San Fran boasts on defense. (Patrick Willis, anyone?) Well, actually, I should say they did a better job of protecting the quarterback, as Sam Bradford stayed clean most of the day. He was hit only a few times and rarely hurried, a huge factor in his much-improved performance. As far as opening up running lanes for Steven Jackson, the other job of the offensive line, well, you're just going to have to look in another section for that.
Play Calling -- I'm putting this in the good bin conditionally, and this is the condition: I reserve the right to also put it elsewhere if I feel like it. Agreed?
I'm sure everyone gets tired of hearing me harp on the conservatism of the Rams' coaching staff when it comes to play-calling at key moments in the game. Hell, I get tired of listening to myself occasionally. So I thought I would change it up a bit and say I thought the offensive play-calling on Sunday was just creative enough, and just daring enough, to make a real difference in the Rams' fortunes. From the trick play with Amendola throwing down the field to the willingness to take a couple long shots to DX, the Rams worked in just enough of the unexpected to put the 49ers back on their heels a bit, and it showed.
I will say this: I hear a lot of complaining about the tendency to just run Steven Jackson up the middle play after play when it isn't working, and I understand the frustration, but I will defend the coaching staff in this instance. The Rams lack a real change of pace back, a cutter who can get to the outside, and SJ39 is really at his best running between the tackles. Unfortunately, this season the interior of the offensive line has been just putrid at creating seams for Jackson to run through. So you have a back who, while fast enough to get outside, isn't really the elusive type you want to stretch out toward the sideline, no real run blocking up front, and no second back you can throw in the game to offer a different look from your primary guy. The running game for the Rams is a bit of a Catch-22 right now, and I think it has more to do with the players on the field than misuse of the options by the coaching staff. That being said, I love seeing the end-around with Amendola, just to force the defense to at least consider the possibility of some misdirection.
Run Blocking -- Sure, I just got done talking about the offensive line playing better in terms of protecting Bradford, but that doesn't mean they get a pass. Again on Sunday we saw Steven Jackson, who is still physically capable of making a major impact on the game, stymied time and time again as he tried to find a seam to run through. The culprit, once again, was an offensive line that just absolutely cannot get any sort of push in the middle, with Adam Goldberg again the biggest offender. Why John Greco isn't seeing any playing time is completely beyond me, calling to mind the old saw about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
When you have a future Hall of Fame running back going for 48 yards on 24 carries, something is seriously wrong with your overall running game. It was nice to see John Karney back on the field, but it didn't ultimately seem to make much difference as far as the Rams' success moving the football on the ground. Whether the answer is trying to get Jackson out to the edge more often, changing the personnel on the offensive line, or simply waiting for the offseason to try and upgrade the guard positions, something is going to have to change if the Rams are going to have any sort of running game at all in the future.
Kick Coverage -- Look, the Rams' special teams have actually been very good this year for the most part, okay? They have. I remember the bad old days, when the Rams would regularly rank dead last in every single special teams category, no matter what personnel or coaching changes they would make every season. Certainly, it's been a joy to watch a team that regularly wins the field position battle and doesn't allow points in the third phase of the game.
That being said, when Ted Ginn runs a punt back for a touchdown up the middle, without deviating from a straight line by more than ten feet the whole way, the coverage team gets a spot in the Bad section. Jut the way it is. Sorry, guys. You've got to be better than that. The Rams beat the 49ers badly on both sides of the ball, offense and defense. Unfortunately, that TD return kept the contest a whole lot closer than it really should have been.