Ram Predictions: 2009, November

The month of November should be football heaven… the air turns crisp, playoff races start to clarify, baseball is in the books and every able boy is outside getting tackled into fallen leaves. And just one week into the preseason, it feels very far away. But nonetheless, we press on with our Rams 2009 predictions, and imagine a major turning point in the Rams’ season.

Reviewing our previous predictions for September and October, we find the Rams at 2-5, scoring 119 points and allowing 162, riding a two-game losing streak to AFC foes.

Week 8: The Murder City Cup

Week Date Opponent LY: Record LY: Points 3Y: Record 3Y: Points
8 Nov 1 at Detroit Lions 0-16 268/517 10-38 956/1157
Rams games vs opponent, last three seasons:
Week 5, 2006: Won 41-34 at Home

Scott Linehan, Matt Stafford
Would you feel good about this image? (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

517 points allowed. In the last ten years, only two teams have earned 500 points — the 2007 Patriots and 2000 Rams. But only the 2008 Lions have been so generous as to give that many away.

All season long, the Rams and Lions’ defense circled each other like two turds in a toilet bowl of shame, each reaching a new low only to be circled by the other. The Rams got just a little less crappy in the last four games of the season, allowing the Lions to sink to the very bottom of the worst defenses of the last 15 years.

And so both teams made long-needed changes, to their executive trees as well as to their coaching staffs, and both teams ended up circling around high-profile defensive coordinators, with the Titans’ Jim Schwartz charged with the rebuild in Detroit. However, the rebuilding has taken a much different route up there.

Where the Rams hired up-and-coming coaches, promoting several successful young coordinators one rung up the ladder, the Lions filled the primary gaps around Schwartz with failed head coaches looking for redemption as coordinators: Scott Linehan and Gunther Cunningham. Ask Jim Haslett how that worked out.

Where the Rams invested heavily in big bodies, signing Jason Brown and drafting Jason Smith and James Laurinaitis, the Lions have brought in skill players like Matt Stafford, TE Brandon Pettigrew, and WR Dennis Northcutt. They raided other rosters for elder linebackers in Larry Foote and Julian Peterson, but did not make any significant upgrades to their deeply eroded offensive and defensive lines.

This game pits these two re-organizational philosophies against each other … and the Rams should emerge the clear winners, physically. As they did last season, the Lions will continue to struggle to generate pass rush or stop the run at the point of attack. I see a massive difference in possession time in this game — 10 minutes or more — in favor of St Louis. The only thing that can keep the Rams from turning this game into their first blowout of the year would be a continued red zone inefficiency. Even accounting for some field goals where we should have touchdowns, I see a pretty handy 27-14 Rams win, heading into the Bye week.

Week 9: Bye

Week 10: The Jim Haslett Memorial Bowl

Week Date Opponent LY: Record LY: Points 3Y: Record 3Y: Points
10 Nov 1 vs New Orleans Saints 8-8 463/393 25-23 1255/1103
Rams games vs opponent, last three seasons:
Week 10, 2007: Won 37-29 at New Orleans

Not Reggie Bush or Drew Brees

The Saints know they have a problem. Their passing game will be as good as ever this season, maybe better if Marques Colston and Reggie Bush stay healthy for 16 games. All they have to do is fix everything else.
Football Outsiders 2009 Almanac

There’s a strange symmetry going on here. Two years ago, the Rams were winless after eight games, and entered the bye week the hands-down worst team in the NFL. The week-long nap passed, and the Rams roared out against their former divisional opponents for a season-high 37 points. It was a dramatic performance, but its effects were unfortunately short-lived.

The loss dropped the Saints to an uneven 4-5, in what would wind up to be their first losing season since the Katrina season in 2005.

This season, the Saints are expected to be fully reloaded, and likely jousting with the Falcons as the class of the NFC South. In fact, this game follows two home games against two hard-running teams in Atlanta and Carolina, and immediately afterwards, they travel to Tampa. They won’t be able to afford a misstep against a rebuilding team like the Rams.

In short, this is a classic “trap” game. One that the Rams should have no business winning, but just might anyway.

Two factors will weigh heavily on this game: 1) the Rams’ blitz pickup, as new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is an aficionado of bringing the house; and 2) the rehabilitation of Donnie Avery (foot) and Laurent Robinson (career), as the Saints’ defensive backs can be beaten deep, for both big-play pass completions and untimely penalties. Having a bye week to rest up — and eight weeks of Saints’ game film to study — gives the Rams an edge in both categories. A third factor, one that can’t be gameplanned for — Reggie Bush on special teams — could overshadow both.

This game could swing either way, and will keep fans in their seats all the way to the finish. Let’s call it 31-30 Saints and keep our true optimism in our hip pocket.

Week 11: Re-Return of the Prodigal Son

Week Date Opponent LY: Record LY: Points 3Y: Record 3Y: Points
11 Nov 22 vs Arizona Cardinals 9-7 427/426 22-26 1145/1214
Rams games vs opponent, last three seasons:
Week 3, 2006: Won 16-14 at Arizona
Week 13, 2006: Lost 34-20 at home
Week 5, 2007: Rams lose 34-31 at home
Week 17, 2007: Lost 48-19 at Arizona
Week 9, 2008: Lost 34-13 at home
Week 14, 2008: Lost 34-10 at Arizona

Steve Breaston, Larry Fitzgerald

Thanksgiving week should be a homecoming, and this game counts: you’ve got the old football Redbirds for all the Jackie Smith old-timers, Kurt Warner for the Greatest Show generation, and three of the top receivers in football for your fantasy footballers and out-of-towners. Oh yeah, and the Rams.

This rivalry once was one that the Rams dominated — now they find themselves under the Cardinals’ bootheels. The good news is that the Rams have had time to gel as a team before re-opening this rivalry. The bad news is that, if Kurt Warner is still healthy by this time in the season, it won’t matter much. And that’s the big “if.”

Basically, this game comes down to the old maxim of the Greatest Show era — put more weapons on the field than the defense can contain. And matching up Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, and Anquan Boldin against our best three defensive backs creates mismatches all over the field. Ron Bartell is our best cover corner, and actually does a pretty good job on Fitzgerald — “holding” him to six catches and less than 100 yards receiving in each of last season’s games — but he can’t be everywhere. And Warner has a way of finding the Jonathan Wades and Tye Hills in the opposing defense.

However, if Warner can’t go — and it’s been 27 consecutive starts for #13, more than he’s had ever in the NFL — that makes Matt Leinert the distributor cap for this high-powered engine. And that gives the Rams a fighting chance.

Last year’s Arizona defense was particularly susceptible to power-running teams — until they got to the playoffs that is. Clancy Pendergast was fired, and linebackers coach Bill Smith takes the reins … but is not likely to bring a lot of new ideas.

The Rams’ beefed up run offense should make them about 10 points better in this matchup, but if Warner is a go, the Cards win 34-24. If not… well, let’s cross that bridge if we come to it.

Week 12: Seahags’ Revenge

Week Date Opponent LY: Record LY: Points 3Y: Record 3Y: Points
12 Nov. 29 vs 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 in Seattle
Week 7, 2007: Lost 33-6 in Seattle
Week 12, 2007: Lost 24-19 at home
Week 3, 2008: Lost 37-13 in Seattle
Week 15, 2008: Lost 23-20 at home
Week 1, 2009 (Predicted): Lose 30-17 in Seattle

Walter Jones (age 35, back troubles, knee that can’t be fixed), done. Marcus Trufant (bulging disk), done. Matt Hasselbeck (chronic back trouble, broken down protection), highly medicated. TJ Duckett (age 28), hitting the wall. Patrick Kerney, hobbled. Deion Branch, in the trainers room, again. Julius Jones, hitting the bench as he has in every season.

Ladies and gentlemen, cry not for the Seattle Seahawks as they enter the dark and lonely era that the Rams are just now emerging from. The era of Suck.

I point out these injuries and maladies not to gloat, but to show how predictable they are. And yet in their offseason moves, Tim Ruskell and the Seahawks organization has essentially glossed over them, rearranging deck chairs (exit Julian Peterson, enter Aaron Curry) while the Titanic is on a collision course.

By this point in the season, both the Rams and ‘Hawks might have pretty similar records — four wins or so against 7 losses — but will be heading in completely opposite directions. And finally, St Louis will be able to put an end to the reign of error that has seen them lose six consecutive (seven, if my Week 1 prediction holds true) to their hated rivals. But this is no time for sympathy, it is time for the Rams to put their cleats on Seattle’s throats.

Many pundits point to the emerging stable of quality receivers in Seattle, thanks to the signing of TJ Houshmandzadeh and the presumptive return to health of Nate Burleson. But these gains are almost completely nullified by the ultra-conservative, short-distance passing game that Jim Mora is installing, in support of a Falcons-esque run-dominant offense. The second major problem with this plan is an offensive line much like last years’ Rams, far too aged and on the verge of collapse (with Max Unger playing the role of Richie Incognito in “I can’t do this all by myself!”). The third problem was that Atlanta’s offense under Mora was repeatedly bailed out by Michael Vick’s sheer ankle-breaking athleticism. And even if he’s called upon to play the role, Seneca Wallace is no Michael Vick.

By this point in the season, the Rams’ offensive line will have been tested and hardened against much tougher opponents, to the point that running against Seattle’s 28th-ranked (and little-improved) run defense will feel like taking off leg irons. The lack of depth in any unit beyond the linebackers will give Bulger ample opportunity to reclaim a swagger that has been missing from his divisional matchups the last few years. And the Rams, once they get a taste for revenge, will drink deeply in what will become the season’s first laugher: a 34-6 Rams victory.

So wraps the month of November: begins and ends with a win over clearly inferior competition, and features two gutsy and improving performances in between. They aren’t in the playoff race unless Arizona seriously stumbles, but they are looking much more cohesive than in years past, and give St Louisans a reason to brave the winds of December and the prices of downtown parking lots, and fill the dome with blue and gold in the season’s last games.