travel to the frozen tundra of Buffalo
today to take on the Bills
of Chan Gailey
and Ryan Fitzpatrick
, along with their patented Doomsday Running Game.
Hmm. Okay, that isn't working. I was trying to go for an NFL Films kind of feel there, but I'm not sure even Harry Kalas (bless that magnificent voice), could make this particular bit of football sound apocalyptic in any way, shape, or form.
What we do have, lacking the drama of Doomsday anything, is a pair of teams both hoping to hang on to their slim playoff chances this week, playing in a cold as shit upstate New York burg. Doomsday drama notwithstanding, it's actually exactly the sort of thing that makes the NFL great.
The Rams head into Buffalo at 5-6-1 overall, riding a two game winning streak. The Bills come in a similar 5-7, have won two of their last three, and are desperately trying to keep sight of Pittsburgh
for the last AFC Wild Card
spot. It's likely one of these two teams will bid their playoff hopes adieu this weekend.
Three things the Rams must do to make sure it isn't them doing the adieu bidding:
Key #1: Rush the Line
The Buffalo Bills have had apocalyptically bad luck this year on their offensive line, in terms of injuries. It wasn't a great unit to begin with, and the health issues have been...well, how about this: do you remember in "Gone With the Wind", when there's that one long pan, a shot of a seemingly endless field of bodies, all sprawled on the ground? The Simpsons did a parody of it one time with children and a trampoline Homer bought from Krusty the Klown. That's right! You do remember!
Okay, now take that scene and make all the bodies offensive linemen wearing Bills uniforms. Yeah. Sort of like that.
What that means for the Rams is they're playing a team with a serious, exploitable weakness, and are actually in a good position to take advantage of it. The St. Louis defensive line is a talented, dynamic group -- even if the tackles haven't quite risen to the level set by the ends just yet -- and they should be able to get into the Buffalo backfield and after Ryan Fitzpatrick. Look for Chris Long to have himself a big day, particularly if the Bills don't swing help over to his side and double-team him all afternoon.
Key #2: Run Stuffers Anonymous
The one thing the Bills can do, almost absurdly well, is run the ball. That decimated O-line can't keep Fitzpatrick on his feet, but they can pull in run-blocking well enough to allow the Bills' tandem of backs to tear up the field. The Rams can expect a heavy, heavy dose of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, more than they'll probably want to see.
The worrisome part of that, of course, is those defensive tackle issues I mentioned just a second ago. The Rams have been up and down this season defending the run, and they're biggest issues have come primarily in the middle of the field. Michael Brockers has shown plenty of talent for getting up the field, but he also gets washed out of the play far too often for a player with his kind of physical abilities. James Laurinaitis has been stout as always this season, but he's had to make far too many tackles on running backs.
This may be the number one key for the Rams, honestly. If they can stop the Bills' running game and force them to lean on Fitzpatrick to try and move the ball, they have a very good chance of walking out of Buffalo with the win. Fitzpatrick throws 25 passes, the Rams are in big trouble. He throws 40, and they've probably taken care of business.
If I were the Rams (or at least Jeff Fisher, since being a whole team would be kind of weird, and probably stressful on my mind), I would load up the box and force the Bills to go through the air. Do to Buffalo what teams have largely done to the Rams the past couple years, daring them to throw by stonewalling Steven Jackson with eight players in the box. The Bills' top receiver, Stevie Johnson, is nursing a hamstring injury as well, making his status as a real threat somewhat uncertain. Load up the line and just dare Buffalo to go downfield, I say.
Key #3: A Balanced Attack
The Rams' offense hasn't been very good this year. Actually, that's probably being a little generous; the Ram offense has been downright anemic for much of the season. There have been flashes of something better from time to time, but overall this just isn't a team that scares the opposition with the explosive offensive capabilities.
The good news is the Bills' offensive line isn't the only area that's been hit hard by the injury bug. Their secondary has had a rough go of it as well, which could very well give the Rams an opportunity to work more through the air than they've been able to at times. Danny Amendola's status is still very much up in the air, but I'm not so sure that's necessarily a bad thing. It always hurts to be without your top receiver, but there are times I wonder if what Sam Bradford needs isn't to be forced to spread the ball around, rather than just trying to force it in to the same undersized white guy over and over and over again, regardless of the coverage.
What I would like to see this week from the Rams is real balance in the offense. They have to be able to establish the run early, in order to try and stop a very good Buffalo defensive front from running roughshod around the Ram backfield. A heavy dose of Steven Jackson early, with a little sprinkling of Daryl Richardson to the edge added from time to time, would be a good start. From there, though, I want to see Bradford and the Rams spread the targets around. As encouraging as it has been seeing Chris Givens emerge as a legitimate top receiving target for this team, too often the Rams seem like strictly a one-trick pony on offense.
The Rams need to do a better job distributing the ball in the passing game, and this would be an ideal week to start doing so. The conditions in Buffalo may or may not be all that conducive to doing much throwing, but no matter what this offense must find a way to diversify. If that means screens and swing passes to the tight ends and/or running backs all day, so be it. Getting as many players involved as possible in the passing game is going to be huge for this team going forward; they might as well start right now.
At the beginning of the season, the Bills were, I believe, a much better team than the Rams. As of this moment, though, these are two teams headed in opposite directions. The Rams are starting to gel, starting to get things together and playing increasingly solid football for Jeff Fisher. The Bills, on the other hand, are slowly bowing under the weight of injuries to one of the more vital areas of their team, as well as a quarterback who seems to have taken a decided step back from who he was a couple years ago. As things stand at this moment, even playing in the brutal nuclear winter of Buffalo, I think the Rams are the better team. And I think they get the job done today.
Rams 23, Bill 14