Now, to be fair, the Rams are not a good football team. Not yet, by any measure of the imagination. One win against a Washington Redskins team that is decidedly middle of the pack doesn't change things that dramatically from one week to the next. They still have lots and lost of holes, and the overall talent level just isn't there yet. On the other hand, it looks as if the Rams are finally, after years of wandering in the desert, headed toward being a good football team, which means I had better figure out how to say nice things about them before they get there.
The Running Game -- Usually, when you say the Rams' running game had a good day, you're talking about Steven Jackson. (And only Steven Jackson.) This week, though, that was almost completely turned upside down, as Jackson struggled and then got hurt, while the backups did the yeoman's work in chewing up ground.
The first series of the game was good for Jackson, as he broke off a 42-yard run for a touchdown, but after that the Rams' centerpiece was a virtual non-factor, gaining only 16 more yards on 9 carries. The culprit, as it had been in each of the Rams' other poor running performances this season, was a lack of space up front, owing in large part to the Redskins' willingness to stack the box up front against Jackson.
After Jackson was forced to leave with a groin injury, however, the Rams' running attack took off, as the offensive line stepped up to the plate with an outstanding effort and some success in the passing game forced Washington to drop more players off the line.
I'll admit I haven't been a believer at all up to this point in Kenneth Darby, but he was absolutely outstanding in the third quarter, rolling up yardage and carrying the ball six plays in a row at one point. Keith Toston had a fine effort as well, hitting the gaps aggressively and getting into the second level very effectively.
Offensive Line-- If you wanted to point to one reason the Rams were able to get the win yesterday, you need look no further than the big guys up front for the offense. When Jackson sprung loose early for his long TD run, it was thanks to the huge hole opened up by the guards. The offensive line's greatest performance, though, came later on in the game after Jackson was gone.
In the third quarter, the Rams' line simple imposed their will on the Redskins' defense, taking control of the line of scrimmage and forcing gap after gap for Ken Darby to scamper through. Even with the Rams' biggest weapon out of the game and Washington shifting their attention to putting pressure on Sam Bradford, the line held strong and refused to allow the 'Skins' pass rushers to get to the quarterback.
Sam Bradford and the Passing Attack-- You might think I was getting tired of singing the praises of Sam Bradford by now, but you would be wrong. I'm also not getting tired of talking about how good Danny Amendola and Mark Clayton have been, What was new this week, though, was the involvement of a couple other players in the Rams' passing game. Daniel Fells, even playing on a bad knee, had a couple very big receptions, and Fendi Onobun saw his first NFL action, making one particularly nice grab in the third quarter to pick up a crucial first down.
Brandon Gibson, whom I've been stumping for to get playing time over Laurent Robinson since about the middle of the preseason, had an up-and-down day, with 3 catches for 33 yards total. He did make one outstanding grab right over the middle of the field for sixteen yards, but Gibson also missed a couple balls which were very catchable. After praising his hands I had to cringe when he let a pass from Bradford go right off those hands on a crossing route. Still, I like what Gibson brings to the table, especially opposite Clayton out wide, and I hope to see him in there more as the season goes on.
Bradford did throw one bad interception, right after Dominique Curry blocked a punt, that hurt the Rams badly and helped shift the momentum of the game over to the Washington side. Even so, there was no panic in Bradford's game, and his excellent work leading the charge later on more than made up for his second-quarter miscue.
Chris Long-- Another one in the "not tired of praising him yet", file, Long was once again hugely disruptive as he pressured Donovan McNabb all day long. The fact Long isn't rolling up big sack numbers is almost hard to believe when you watch how often he's right in opposing quarterbacks' faces at the moment they release the ball.
The Secondary-- This has actually been a bit of a sore spot for the Rams this season, but the secondary put together their best performance to date as well. Bradley Fletcher brought down a key interception late in the game to help put the Redsins down for good, and Ron Bartell played quite well despite being a little banged up. Oshiomogho Atogwe is also beat up at the moment, but still managed a productive performance early, and backup safety Darien Stewart did very nice work filling in for Atogwe later on in the contest.
James Laurinaitis-- What more can I really say about Laurinaitis? If it weren't for the presence of Steven Jackson on the roster, Laurinaitis would likely have to be considered the best player on the Rams' roster on either side of the ball, even over Sam Bradford for now. Another Sunday, another day of making tackles all over the field.Play Calling-- I've been very critical of Pat Shurmur and Steve Spagnuolo's handling of the offensive scheme of this team so far, so I feel like I should give credit when credit is due. Early on in the game, the Rams looked like the same old dull uninspiring offensively challenged team we've seen for god only knows how long now. Plodding. Painfully conservative. Predictable.
A funny thing happened after Steven Jackson was forced to leave the game, though. It almost seemed as if having their best player, their safety net, removed from the mix forced the Rams to change their offensive approach, and suddenly they were much more effective. Without the comfort level provided by being able to simply hand the ball to Jackson out of the most basic formations available, the Rams had to get creative, and that creativity, along with the outstanding play of the offensive line, is what allowed the Rams to put up 16 points in the second half of the game. They went with multiple-receiver sets, forcing Washington to spread their defense, and mixed their pass and run plays much more effectively than I've seen in the past from this offense. Ordinarily you can call the play the Rams are going to run before they ever finish lining up to run it, but that was not at all the case yesterday in the second half.
The question now, of course, is whether the lesson sticks with Shurmur and Coach Spags. By refusing to simply count on their one big horse to try and carry the team and getting creative in both their formations and the ball distribution the Rams were able to take full advantage of a weak pass defense and run up some points on the board. What will happen when the Rams actually get Jackson back on the field? Will they remember this lesson, and simply plug Jackson into an offense which is tough to read and spreads the ball to all possible weapons? Or will they go back to two tight-end, conservative run formations play after play and allow teams to go right back to stacking the line against the only weapon the Rams have the confidence to utilize?
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