The word out of Rams Park from coaches and players last week was unanimous: The team had a great week of practice and preparation, and was ready to take Jerry World’s by storm as it boarded a charter flight bound for Dallas on Saturday afternoon. Nothing is promised in life or the NFL, of course, with each week bringing a different challenge. But the Rams took the field Sunday with that look in their eyes, as if they were expecting to prevail in battle.
By the conclusion of the 60-minute contest, something else altogether had materialized – a 31-7 rout in favor of the Cowboys. St. Louis had a thoroughly unproductive day in the Brian Schottenheimer offense. Quarterback Sam Bradford was sacked six times, picking himself up off the ground over and over again like a bad movie stuck on replay.
The Rams’ offensive line, thus, was the focal point of the game, and for all of the wrong reasons. Football starts at the line of scrimmage, and yet the Rams’ pass blocking was similar to a dike that kept springing several holes. When one was plugged, several more would appear as the Cowboys’ defense attacked with stunts, blitz packages and man-on-man power rushes off the edge.
In squeezing the pocket from several different directions with regularity, Dallas forced the Rams to take a major step backward in terms of protecting Bradford in the pocket and opening holes in the running game. Allowing six sacks for 43 yards should prompt some embarrassment, make players examine their willingness to compete and fight until the whistle. This group also struggled to open holes in the running game and, without any holes through which to explode, the team’s tailbacks managed only 35 yards. Simply, the O-line unit lacked continuity and didn’t play together. Bradford’s bodyguards must form an attitude coming off the ball, one complete with flat back explosion, as opposed to being on their heels all day.
The visitors’ aerial attack, too, labored. St. Louis finished 1 of 13 on third-down conversions – an eight-percent success rate. When you’re winning, an output of 232 total net yards perhaps isn’t the chief concern. Most of the Rams’ production over the weekend, however, came when the game was out of hand. The offense was dominated from start to finish by Monte Kiffin’s defense, which had a much different look than the old Tampa 2. Bottom line: The Rams must develop more anticipation and timing within the offense, while sustaining drives and putting up points early to set the tone of a game and not play from behind in every game.
For the second week in a row, the Rams’ defense also struggled, especially in the area of getting off the field on third down. Dallas converted a whopping 45 percent of its third downs, and running back DeMarco Murray almost earned himself a Pro Bowl bid for the way in which he bullied the Rams up and down the field. Murray had previously sliced and diced the Rams in 2011, setting a personal career high with 252 yards. Sunday brought more of the same – 175 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, to be specific. Defensive coordinator Tim Walton had no answer for the gashing that was taking place for most of the game, or at least until the Cowboys called off the horses by taking Murray out of the contest.
The Rams still appeared very soft in zone coverage, but showed some improvement in man coverage by yielding only 203 yards. They did give up three touchdown passes to Tony Romo, who received plenty of time to dissect the secondary like a surgeon. No. 1 receiver Dez Bryant may not have had a blockbuster day, but Romo spread it around to seven different receivers who took advantage of the Rams’ frequent lapses over the middle of the field.
Nonetheless, the main difference boiled down to the Rams’ inability to stop the run. Keeping the defensive line fresh is smart, and it has usually worked extremely well. Yet platooning them in two by two on the inside allows the opponent to game plan on inside runs when the backups are in and take advantage of the defense when mainstay tackles Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford are standing on the sidelines.
Unfortunately, the special teams blunders must be addressed, as well. A botched punt return attempt by the Cowboys’ Dwayne Harris resulted in a fumble recovery by Will Witherspoon, which could have set a completely different tone. But, despite great field position, the Rams’ offense stalled. On came Johnny Hekker and, in a strange turn of events, the punter sailed a pass toward gunner Stedman Bailey, who was blanketed. It would have been a 55-yard field goal attempt for kicker Greg Zuerlein, or a relatively easy task for Hekker to pin Romo and Co. inside their own 10-yard line.
Then there are the penalties. Special teams flags have plagued the Rams all season, and Sunday was no different. Tavon Austin’s brilliant 85-yard touchdown, set up with a stutter-step, lateral slide and burst up field, was wasted. Unlike the Atlanta game, head coach Jeff Fisher can’t argue the flags assessed to a few monster hits that left multiple Cowboys sprawled on the turf during the special teams phase of the game.
At some point, the Rams must stop sleepwalking into these games. Have some cayenne pepper for breakfast, and get ready to attack. Manhandle opponents while executing in all three phases, remove the killer penalties, and start playing like you belong in the NFL. The 49ers come to town this week, in front of a national audience on Thursday Night Football. One of these NFC West combatants will be 1-3 after that game, creating a huge gap between themselves and the division-leading Seahawks.
It’s time to have a heart-to-heart with the man in the mirror.