On opening day for the St. Louis Rams, the sun was bright and plentiful, the temperature outside was perfect tee shirt weather, while tailgaters ate burgers, shrimp on skewers, and the smell of toasted ravioli filling the air. The outdoor party filled the parking lots and every alley way leading to the Edward Jones Dome. The anticipation, excitement, energy, and hope for a better season filled the streets as the fans started to enter the ED.
The Rams let a true opportunity slip away. The Arizona Cardinals limped into St. Louis with several of their Blue graded players nursing pre-season injuries. Star running back Chris Beanie Wells had knee issues and was inactive. Star receiver Larry Fitzgerald – who strained his right MCL in the first pre-season game and missed the rest – played at 90%, lacking burst and acceleration to create separation from defender. His lateral cutting ability was non-existent.
A young untested QB (Derek Anderson) in a new system on the road vs. a divisional foe was like blood in the water for sharks as the Rams came out very confident, excited and on a mission to begin the 2010 regular season. The Cardinal defense jammed the box with 8-9 defenders while a single safety played center field. The Cards game plan on defense was to stop the run and force Sam Bradford to beat them with subpar receivers.
QUARTERBACKS: Bradford in his debut had 32 completions on 55 attempts, for 253 yards, three interceptions and one touchdown. The rookie quarterback showed great toughness while leading his team, with flashes of brilliance. The Cardinal defense sent every blitz package including the kitchen sink, using combination of linebacker and safety blitzes along with line stunts, tattooing Bradford. At one point it looked like controlled chaos with a lot of mixing and moving of controllable parts from a bird’s eye view. Like a poised veteran, he stood tall in the pocket under pressure and was very composed. His mobility and skills to throw on the run were fine-tuned, throwing his first TD to Laurent Robinson before the half. Having the command of the offense, he also had the respect of the head coach and staff. Sam led his team on several long, sustained drives and proved to all he was ready to drive the car in the fast lane. GRADE B-
RUNNING BACKS:The Rams workhorse, Steven Jackson carried the ball 22 of the Rams 24 rushing attempts. The other two carries went to Kenneth Darby and Mike Karney. As Arizona crowed and stacked the box, Jackson skipped and skated to good first half yardage of 47 yards with a 5.9 average. A surprising call on 4th & goal, with a play action fake to Jackson and Bradford rolling right and playing for his first TD. The play call fooled me as well as the Arizona defense which was expecting #39, and if I know #39 he wanted that ball. His pass blocking was good, helped protect the pocket stepping up to protect Bradford on several occasions. At some point they will need the big workhorse running skills, and will ride him. SJ39 ended the day with good, not great production rushing for 81 yards on 22 carries, along with 4 receptions. Watching NFL highlights into the early AM, it was refreshing to see the Cleveland Browns running backs pound out yardage with Peyton Hillis (the big thumper) and Jerome Harrison (the change of pace back). This forces defenses to make adjustments; the Rams personnel department might want to take note. GRADE: C+
WR Mark Clayton a polished professional was on the roster for under a week. Traded from Baltimore, he outperformed the other Rams receivers. Other receivers on the roster should take note of how Clayton approaches his craft, practice sessions and his overall game. Mark is human as well, with a few drops (three), but displayed a few acrobatic catches to contort in midair with soft hands, finishing the game with 10 receptions and 119 yards. Receiver and return specialist Danny Amendola contributed with 6 receptions and 67 yards, while adding 9.3 yard average on 3 Punt returns. This group lacks the deep speed and playmaker on the edge, broken record! GRADE C+
From the first play, until the final Hail Mary pass, offensive line of collective bodies played fairly well together. While there is a lot of room for improvement, I was very impressed with the two young bookend tackles, Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith. Both youngsters gave up a pressure and Saffold yielded a sack, but their names were not mentioned over the PA system – not bad! Jacob Bell, Jason Brown and Adam Goldberg will need to anchor the middle down vs. the bull rush technique while helping each other with what is called chip blocking. Arizona did a great jog mixing up the blitz with safeties and linebackers keeping this group on their heels. Lacking true girth across the front, Jackson struggled in the second half with Arizona aligning 8-9 men in the box daring the Rams to pass and Bradford was hit often and got ugly late. GRADE: C-
The Cards game plan was use Larry Fitzgerald has a decoy while feeding the running game. When the timing was nowhere to be found with Anderson and Larry, they moved to a power misdirection running attack. The 3rd and 4th quarters belong to Steve Breaston. The Rams struggled to make adjustments to stop number 15. Bartell did a good job vs. a struggling Fitzgerald, dragging his knee all around the ED. Bradley Fletcher’s recovered fumble sparked the Rams fans and teammates. Justin King and Kevin Dockery – who left the game early due to injuries – played mostly in the sub-packages (nickel/dime using 5/6 defensive backs) and struggled in coverage, despite a few force tackles. The safeties spent most of the day on fire zones and applying press on the pocket, blitzing and attacking Cardinal QB Anderson. Atogwe aligned like a hybrid outside linebacker with good production. Safeties James Butler and Craig Dahl were in the mix most of the second half with both corners out due to injuries. The Rams secondary was rattled with pass completions. GRADE: B-
This linebacker crop of Laurinaitis, Diggs and Grant, are not thumpers, meaning they lack the girth and size to take on shed a big guard and move to the ball. This is a very athletic group that is well schooled and knows where the ball is going on pre snap reads and capable of beating the offensive line to the POA (point of attack). This group was surprised and struggled with Arizona’s 5 play 76 yard drive of counter and misdirection, and were lucky they never really got a big dose of it again throughout the remainder of the game. GRADE: C
Even though this group has good depth in 2010, lasting all 16 games for Fred Robbins is a concern. Ah You might have found a home at left DE. Off the bench he applied pressure with a force fumble and was disruptive, DT Fred Robbins and Ah You a sack each. The #2 pick in the draft in 2007 – Chris Long – still struggles to sack the quarterback, despite three pressures off the left side. This group did an adequate job overall. CJ Ah You forced a fumble, and Clifton Ryan awareness to gather his 320 pound athletic frame to lower his center of gravity, scoop the ball and head for the races. It was unfortunate fumble, ball security was not the issue; his team’s blocking was! The fumble by Ryan was the momentum changer and deflated the team and fans. GRADE: B-
Josh Brown blocked Field Goal is unacceptable and really was the difference in the final drive; needing only three points instead of a TD is a big difference. Mike Hoomanawanui needs to secure the inside before looking outside. Tom McMahon will be kicking some ass this week, and doesn’t tolerate simple mistakes of technique. Coverage units were solid! GRADE: C-
Coach Spagnuolo put the keys in the hands of his Rookie quarterback and felt good about what he saw I’m sure. Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur and Defensive Coordinator Ken Flajole did a good job overall. Both were highly aggressive in their approach to game planning and executing. Once the team got behind and had to pass, had no choice in leaving the balance they established in the first half. Ken cut the defense loose, attacking the pocket at will. Keep in mind, you live and die by the blitz! Trust me Coach will be working on clock management this week in practice two minute drills and in meeting sessions with his staff – a 21 second run off with two timeouts is not acceptable, leaving a young quarterback high and dry. SJ39 is the key and main focal point to ball control offense, shortening the game and keeping the opponents off the field. A well balanced offensive attack is very important for the success of the Rams future and Sam Bradford. This team believes their head Coach and it is glaring. GRADE: C+