kicked off the second half of their season Sunday with one of the most frustrating, heartbreaking losses we've seen all year. I don't say that lightly, either, as there have been several games already in 2010 that the Rams were perfectly capable of winning, only to see their chances slip away due to an ill-timed penalty or collapse in the game plan.
This one, though; this one really hurt. The Rams had a chance to put another nail in the coffin of the 49ers in the NFC West, but instead, let them pry the lid open far enough for a nice big ray of daylight to come creeping in. San Francisco has now won three of their last four after beginning the season 0-5 and have pulled back within striking distance of the top of the division. It's still not where most of us believed the 49ers would be at this juncture in the season, by any means, but they're no longer facedown in a shallow ditch dead as we pass the midpoint of the campaign.
So the Rams left San Fran without putting the boot squarely on the Niners' necks, and they left without solving the mystery of how to get a win on the road. Four victories in a row at home are nice and all, but until this team can figure out how to win a game away from the dome, it's hard to see them as legitimate contenders, even in a division as weak as the West.
Long and Laurinaitis -- You'd think I would get tired of singing the praises of these two, but you know what? It really never gets old. Week after week, Chris Long and James Laurinaitis are incredibly productive weapons for the Rams, even when the rest of the defense around them is struggling.
Long just may have had his most impressive outing as a pro, as he ran roughshod over the Niners' rookie right tackle Anthony Davis all afternoon. It's a little funny now to look back at Long's rookie season and try to recall just how concerned we all were that the Rams had drafted another Adam Carriker. The fears were justified, too; the Rams' atrocious drafting record was cause enough, even before considering Long's lack of production out of the gate. There were plenty of people at the time lamenting both Long's dismal future and the pass on Glenn Dorsey, the defensive tackle out of LSU.
Instead of going the route of so many other busted Rams picks, though, Long has turned into an absolute beast. While James Hall may still lead the team in sacks, Long is easily the most powerful presence on the defensive line. Every single play, he pressures the O-lineman standing across from him, the quarterback, and occasionally a running back unlucky enough to draw the task of picking up the pass rush. And while the guys on the inside of the line have done a nice enough job, the idea of Long playing opposite another truly elite pass-rusher is almost too giddy to contemplate.
For his part, Laurinaitis's day actually doesn't look all the impressive when you take the final numbers. He didn't get into quite as much of the fray as he usually does, after all, but there's a reason for that. After starting off the game with a sack and an interception right off the bat, the Niners started keying on Laurinaitis, and continued to focus on him the rest of the day. The extra attention he drew should have translated into increased production elsewhere on the defense; unfortunately, there weren't a lot of other guys stepping up to fill the void.
Sam Bradford -- Don't get tired of talking about him, either, as it seems every week the kid from Oklahoma gives us some reason to be excited about the future of this team. This time it was a solid, steady performance all afternoon, capped by a game-tying drive in the waning moments of the fourth quarter to send the game to overtime. It's a little too easy to say he doesn't play like a rookie, but at the same time it may be the most accurate statement you can make about Sam Bradford. He just doesn't look like a first-year guy out there. At all.
Now, if the Rams could only find him a little better talent to throw to...
Steven Jackson -- He had a good day rushing the football, with 81 yards on 20 carries, but his work in the receiving game elevated his afternoon great status once again. Jackson caught 8 balls for an additional 67 yards (including the catch of the day on that late drive). Another day, another 150 total yard performance. Yawn.
Brandon Gibson -- I'll be the first to admit, I'm a little biased toward Brandon Gibson. I don't know why, exactly, but I really like him. It's odd, too, because I usually prefer the speed guys, the vertical threats who can hit a home run at any moment. But something about the catches Brandon Gibson is capable of making, in traffic, with a defender's hand in his face and another climbing up his back, just really impresses me.
And, of course, with the admiration comes disappointment when things go bad. We see Gibson make those astounding catches, and then follow them up with a dropped ball when he's wide open in the flat. It's very frustrating.
Without many people really noticing, though, Gibson has quietly become a quality option for Sam Bradford to throw to. He's had easily his two best games of the season the last two times out, and possibly the biggest highlight has been a glorious lack of dropped passes. Eight catches for 72 yards this week, 11 for 67 yards against Carolina. Gibson is never going to be a number one receiver, never going to be the guy other teams have to track on each and every play. That doesn't mean, however, he can't catch a ton of passes and contribute to the offense in a big way.
On the other hand, I would like to suggest to Brandon that when he catches a ball, he should just run upfield immediately. Dancing and juking may look cool, but there were at least two times when Gibson left 4+ yards on the field because he tried to get too fancy after hauling the ball in. Just turn upfield and run, Brandon. Please.
The Secondary -- Oy. Where to start with this mess? I thought about breaking this down into little bite-sized pieces of suckitude, shining the spotlight on each individual problem, but that just seems too great a task following such a performance. Instead, I'll just point a big angry finger at the whole secondary for the Rams, as there was more than enough failure to go around.
The 49ers managed nine plays on the day that were longer than 21 yards, to go along with two other pass interference calls longer than that as well. When an opponent accumulates eleven plays longer than 20 yards, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong in the secondary.
That's not to absolve the line of blame; there were plenty of times when Troy Smith had all day to throw, and even more times when they got close but just couldn't put him away. Smith himself deserves some credit, as he used his feet to extend several plays until coverage loosened up downfield, but there were still key plays when the D-line couldn't get any real pressure on the quarterback. Nonetheless, the coverage was porous all day, to say the least.
Neither Ron Bartell nor Bradley Fletcher played very well. (A point in Fletcher's favor, though, is the fact he did play much better than Kevin Dockery, who replaced him for awhile.) Oshiomogho Atogwe, even apart from the pass interference call at the end of the game, didn't play very well the rest of the time either. I realize Vernon Davis is a rather good football player, but you simply can't let both he and Delanie Walker, the Niners' other tight end, beat you for an average of 20 yards per catch. Davis went off for 79 yards on four catches; Walker went one better, catching four of his own for 80 yards.
Up 'til this point in the season, the secondary for the Rams has been solid. Not as spectacular as the front seven, mind you, but still impressive. The Rams have allowed opponents to move the ball against them, but only rarely have they given up big chunks of yardage. Teams have had to fight for every yard against the Rams' secondary. Against San Francisco, though, they looked flat-out overmatched. Just a horrific afternoon for the Rams' defensive backs.
Third-Down Offense -- One positive you can say for the Rams' defense on a day when there was plenty that went wrong is they got the Niner off the field when they had the chance. San Francisco didn't convert a single third down all afternoon. (Though they did convert one rather memorable fourth down.) Unfortunately, the Ram offense didn't do much of a job converting on third downs, either, going just two for fourteen. A 14% conversion ratio just isn't going to get it done against any opponent, much less one who's playing pretty well at the moment.
You want to know the big reason why the Rams struggled so badly on third down all day, look no further than their yards-per-play on passing plays. On passes for the afternoon, the Rams gained just 5.1 yards per play. Throwing that many short dink and dunk passes is going to leave you with too many third downs in the seven to ten yard range, and that's exactly what happened to the Rams. Too many times they got to third down still needing close to a full ten yards to move the chains, and that's just not a recipe for success. Unfortunately, the dearth of vertical threats in the Ram offense is likely going to doom them to similar dink and dunk tactics the rest of the season.
Penalties, Penalties, Penalties -- The Rams committed twelve penalties on the day, a painful number. Even worse, those 12 penalties cost the Rams 135 yards, which is just almost unbelievable. Nearly a field and a half worth of penalty yards.
Most damning were the pass-interference penalties, both of which added huge chunks of yardage to the San Francisco cause and extended drives. I will go to my grave arguing with anyone who cares to debate that the interference call on Bartell at the end of the game was complete and utter crap, as that ball was not catchable. It was seven feet behind a receiver running full speed. Unless he has Dragonball instant transmission, that pass is going incomplete. Still, the fact remains Bartell was playing out of control, and bad things happen when you play out of control.
At this point in time, the Rams just aren't a talented enough, a good enough team, to overcome mistakes of this sort. They're getting better, and there's certainly more talent here than there has been in awhile, but this is still far from the sort of team that can just outplay their mistakes. Penalties will kill just about any team, but when you're talking about a team with as thin a margin of error as the Rams, they simply don't have the wiggle room to give almost a field and a half worth of free yardage away.
The bad news for the Rams (and those of us who count ourselves among their fanbase) is the road only gets tougher from here. The first half was set up beautifully for the Rams, with a very weak schedule made even weaker by the scheduling of home games. In the second half, though, things actually get pretty tough. The Atlanta Falcons come to town next week, and while the Rams have played well at home, the Falcons look like they just might be the most complete team in the NFC. This was a game the Rams badly needed to win if they were going to keep themselves in a good position to compete for the division. As it stands now, the Seahawks and 49ers both look like they're figuring it out at the right time, while the Rams just played a terribly sloppy game and are about to see the difficulty of the season ramp up a couple notches.