Ram Predictions, 2009: September

Note: post reformatted to include all three September games. Ancient Roman soothsayers used to slice open sheep and read fortunes from their entrails. As I put on my mystic hat and stare at the guts of the Rams — last year’s leavings mixed with this offseason’s portents — I can’t say I like what I see. I’m overall pretty optimistic about the prospects for the Rams, who are beginning what looks like a significant turnaround. But the scheduling gods have not been kind. September looks like it’s going to suck a little bit.

Week Date Opponent LY: Record LY: Points 3Y: Record 3Y: Points
1 Sept. 13 at Seattle Seahawks 4-12 294/392 23-25 1022/1024
Rams games vs opponent, last three seasons:
Week 6, 2006: Lost 28-20 at home
Week 10, 2006: Lost 24-22 @Seattle
Week 7, 2007: Lost 33-6 @Seattle
Week 12, 2007: Lost 24-19 at home
Week 3, 2008: Lost 37-13 @Seattle
Week 15, 2008: Lost 23-20 at home

You can see from these results, just how badly the Rams have fared in the emerald city in recent years. It used to be, Mike Martz made a specialty of going up to Seattle and embarrassing Mike Holmgren, culminating in a glorious three-win campaign in 2004 that included a wildcard playoff win in the supposedly fearsome confines of the NFL’s Loudest Stadium (TM). Since then? They’ve flat out owned us. Eight consecutive wins, most of them of the easy “send ’em home early” variety.

Now, I firmly believe that — due to their age, injury history, and lack of personnel for the kind of dominant run game that Coach Mora wants to run — the Seahawks are actually as bad as they looked last season, and are slated for a basement finish in the division. However, they ran the Rams off the field last season with their underwhelming double-backup duo of Julius Jones and TJ Duckett, and the Rams have done little to beef up their defensive line. If the Rams’ follow the pattern of the 2007 Giants, it will take a few weeks for the players to truly “get” Spagnuolo’s pass-rushing scheme, and Hasselbeck’s cranky spine should still be capable of holding his giant shiny head up in Week 1, blinding the Rams’ defense and allowing him to tear the asshole out of Tye Hill or the rookie Bradley Fletcher, or whoever our 4th and 5th defensive backs turn out to be.

Patrick Kerney will likely be out or operating part-time following offseason surgery, but they have this young unknown terror on the defensive line, Brandon Mebane, who will put the rebuilt offensive line (and Bulger’s confidence in same) to the test. The good news, though, is that the Seahawks’ run defense is little better than ours, and Steven Jackson has enjoyed many a good day against the Hags.

I don’t like it. But I see a 30-17 Seahawks final here, and a double-shot of delayed gratification for Rams fans, who want both to see their team on the rise, and Seattle on the decline. It will happen. Just not in Week 1.

In Week Two, Coach Spagnuolo faces off against a doubly familiar opponent: the NFC East’s Washington Redskins, running an offense eerily similar to the scheme that Pat Shurmur wants to install.

Week Date Opponent LY: Record LY: Points 3Y: Record 3Y: Points
2 Sept. 20 at Washington Redskins 8-8 265/296 22-26 906/982
Rams games vs opponent, last three seasons:
Week 16, 2006: Won 37-31 at home
Week 6, 2008: Won 19-17 at Washington

This one is a tough one. All the reasons I have for tearing down the Rams’ chances in Week 2 against Washington — the effectiveness of the Redskins’ run-based West Coast offense, the brute force of Clinton Portis in that offense, the stifling Redskin defense, the incredibly hot start the Redskins got off to in the first half of last season — were all working full steam against the Rams in Week 6 of last year. And yet, the Rams won that game, their first of the season.

This should have been known as the OJ Atogwe game, in that the first half ended with a dramatic 75-yard fumble recovery and return that scored the Rams’ only touchdown on the day. It was almost known as the Richie Incognito game, after the big lunkhead took a ridiculously poorly timed 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty — after third down maybe a dozen seconds left, with his team in field goal range to WIN THE GAME. But it became known as the Josh Brown game — he who kicked 51- and 49-yard field goals to open and close the scoring for the Rams, and two others in between.

This game will likely be another closely-fought affair, and will feature a battle in the trenches for the ages: Albert Haynesworth versus Jason Brown, with supporting appearances from Bell, Incognito, and Karney to be sure. Haynesworth and Brown met last year in a seismic 13-10 game between the Titans and Ravens. Haynesworth’s squad got the better end, holding Willis McGahee to 64 yards on 22 pulverizing carries.

The Redskins haven’t done much to improve on offense from last season, and if anything should be more vulnerable to the same kind of letdown they suffered at the end of last season, now that Portis’s biological clock is rapidly ticking toward doomsday, and the offensive coaching staff betrayed a complete lack of faith in Jason Campbell. (Running backs at age 28 tend to simply stop working like they used to.) Moreover, Ron Bartell completely smothered Santana Moss, their most dangerous receiver, to the tune of 2 catches for 22 yards, and if anything the Rams’ defensive backfield is more talented and more capable now.

However, on defense, the Redskins have added pass-rushing terror Brian Orakpo, who could make his presence immediately felt with the Rams’ offensive line occupied with the Skins’ front four. He could become a difference maker.

As VanRam at the TurfShowTimes discussed, there are a lot of similarities between the 2008 Redskins rebuild under Jim Zorn, and the 2009 Rams offensive rebuild under Pat Shurmur. Both coaches fall from the Andy Reid coaching tree, and both want to install a hybrid power-running quick-passing West Coast offense. The advantage here goes to the Redskins, though, who will be in their second year digesting the system.

This is a game the Rams could win, with as many lucky bounces as they had in their matchup last season. If it comes down to another field goal battle, this one could… could… wind up 12-10 Rams. However, if a fresher-legged Portis and a mean-streaked Haynesworth and Orakpo wreak as much havoc as I think they can, it will end up 13-12 Redskins. And that’s my pick.

Aaron Kampman, wreaking havoc Continuing to stir the guts and say the sooths, with an analysis of our Week 3 opponent, the Green Bay Packers.

Week Date Opponent LY: Record LY: Points 3Y: Record 3Y: Points
3 Sept. 27 vs. Green Bay Packers 6-10 419/380 27-21 1155/1037
Rams games vs opponent, last three seasons:
Week 5, 2006: Won 37-31 at home
Week 15, 2007: Lost 33-14 at home

The last time the Rams hosted the Packers, we were doubly shamed: We lost early and ugly, thanks to lopsided field position all game long; and, the stands were FULL of migratory Packers fans who turned the Dome into Lambeau South. That was two years ago, in what should have been Favre’s crowning glory.

A lot of people will look at last year’s Packers team and their unimpressive 6-10 record, and the relatively unproven Aaron Rodgers, and simply conclude that this team isn’t very good. However, the Packers may have been the single-most unlucky team of the season, if you compare their ability to outscore opponents (+39, 6th best in the NFC) with their record.

At the root of their terrible luck? An 0-7 record in games decided by four points or less. If you want to argue that such a team “hasn’t learned how to win,” evidence suggests that teams like this pick it up pretty damn quickly. Here’s a quote from FO’s analysis:

It’s extremely hard for a team to go 0-7 in games decided by four points or less; only two teams have done it in the last 25 years, and these two teams (the 1994 Panthers [sic] and the 2001 Titans) improved their record by a combined 11 games.

Of these two teams, the 1995-96 Panthers (assuming those are the teams FO meant to cite) are an interesting comparison, as they became the fastest expansion team to reach the playoffs. Their improvement hinged partially on the rapid maturation of their young quarterback, Kerry Collins. Aaron Rodgers’s performance last season was actually far better than even Collins’ second-year heroics: more touchdowns, higher completion percentage, higher quarterback rating. So he isn’t the problem.

However, the Panthers’ immediate legitimacy and eventual run to the playoffs was fueled primarily by coach Dom Capers’ stifling defense, which ranked second in the league in points allowed in 1996 — a staggering achievement for a second-year team.

Now Capers has been hired to transform the Packers’ defense, and he is doing so by loudly insisting on a switch to the 3-4. Capers has had an immediate positive impact on nearly every defense he’s coached. However, as Adam Burnett of the Packing Cheese blog points out, the success of this switch depends largely on Aaron Kampman.

What does this mean for the Rams? You have two teams in transition, defensively. However, one is working with a talent base that was +39 in points scored last season, while the other was an execrable -233. I’d give the nod to the Packers here, in a 28-20 Green Bay win that should feature some eye-popping offensive plays mixed in with some impressive defensive efforts on both sides.

Yes, sadly, I am predicting three season-opening losses for the Rams in September. The talk radio airwaves will all have to be run on a 10-second delay to prevent all seven of George Carlin’s seven dirty words from appearing in each broadcast, as Rams fans gnash teeth, rend hair, and volunteer to burn their PSLs as though they were draft cards.

But patience is the word of the day. Just as Spagnuolo preached to his new defensive players after the 2007 Giants’ disastrous first two games, we must be patient and trust the system.