Ram Predictions: 2009, October

Let’s revisit my previous prediction, for the Rams’ month of September. By my thinking, the Rams will stagger to an 0-3 start, scoring just 16 points per game, and giving up nearly 24. (Caveat … the Hollis Thomas signing may provide enough of an edge in a close game against the run-dependent Redskins to push the Rams to a victory.) Not much of an improvement over last year, potentially dampening the spirit of Rams fans (or players) who had dared to get their hopes up. However, this is where the importance of having a strong team culture, led by Spagnuolo, will be of critical importance. If you look at “Faith” as one of his four pillars, broadly defined it means “Faith in the program.” A bedrock that you believe in the direction of this team, even if the early results turn out negative. The month of October is where I believe we will see this faith rewarded.

Week Date Opponent LY: Record LY: Points 3Y: Record 3Y: Points
4 Oct 4 at San Francisco 49ers 7-9 339/381 19-29 956/1157
Rams games vs opponent, last three seasons:
Week 2, 2006: Lost 13-20 @ San Francisco
Week 12, 2006: Won 20-17 at home
Week 2, 2007: Lost 17-16 at home
Week 11, 2007: Lost 13-9 @ San Francisco
Week 11, 2008: Lost 35-16 @ San Francisco
Week 16, 2008: Lost 17-16 at home

The 49ers come into this game, having already played Arizona and Seattle in weeks 1 and 2, and having traveled to Minnesota in game 3. Especially following that Vikings game, they will be physically beat up, likely sporting a bruised 1-2 record, and looking for a soft, easy opponent to push around the home field. They won’t get one.

At least he has his own golden dome…

On offense, the Niners have been among the worst in the game for the past several years, until Mike Martz came in to town. While writing for TurfShowTimes, I ran a comparison of first-year offensive coordinators in 2008, and the much-maligned Martz actually scored among the highest in the league. He generated the most additional yards of offense (+67.1), and second-most points (+8.1). He used a lot of three- and four-wide receiver sets, leading to a mild bloom from receivers Josh Morgan and Bryant Johnson, and nothing less than a renaissance from Isaac Bruce. Expect the Jimmy Raye “ball control” Niners to be pleasingly predictable by comparison — hand off to Gore, hand off to Gore, incomplete pass, punt. Laurinaitis and Witherspoon should shine in this game, swarming to the point of attack and manning up on Gore, and forcing QB HillSmith into a series of long third-down opportunities.

Thanks to the (well-earned) reputation of Mike Singletary as a physical player, and the emergence of fourth-year middle linebacker Patrick Willis as a tackling beast, the 49ers could almost be seen as an emerging shutdown defense. But this masks over the fact that they’ve consistently allowed gobs of points per season. Their run defense is about league average, but their pass defense is porous. This is in large part because they have only one player — Justin Smith — with the ability to get to the quarterback, and in a constantly-shifting 3-4/4-3 defense, they couldn’t figure out where to line him up. In last year’s games, the Niners had to get creative with linebacker rushes to get to Bulger — sacking him seven times in nearly 90 dropbacks. With a much stouter Jason Brown at center, and blocking back Mike Karney in to protect, the Rams should be able to give Bulger a much better chance against this weak pass-rushing unit.

And that’s where this game may turn: in the mental battle between Bulger, his receivers, Pat Shurmur’s schemes, and perhaps the smartest corner in the division: Nate Clements. With Walt Harris gone for the season, Clements becomes the primary enforcer in the defensive backfield. Avery’s young legs and speed versus Clements’ technique and experience should make for a truly entertaining series of aerial jousts … with lots of openings underneath.

I’m not saying it will be a cakewalk, and it will depend on Steven Jackson breaking off a significant run or two — and prevention of turnovers by Bulger — but I see the Rams winning this game and making a statement in the NFC West. Final: 20-13, Rams.

Week Date Opponent LY: Record LY: Points 3Y: Record 3Y: Points
5 Oct 11 vs. Minnesota Vikings 10-6 379/333 24-24 1026/971
Rams games vs opponent, last three seasons:
Week 17, 2006: Won 41-21 @ Minnesota

The last time these two teams met, the Rams played like a team possessed. Cradling faint playoff hopes up until an hour before the snap, the team played as if this final game of the season was their playoff game. They won it, with Steven Jackson getting 142 yards rushing and scoring four touchdowns despite a Vikings defense that was stacked against the run — and hadn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 28 games.

Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson was a rookie then, and played like it that game, giving the Rams their first seven points on a Ron Bartell interception. The team has expressed little confidence in Jackson since then, loudly trying and failing to acquire Brett Favre this offseason, after benching him for much of last season in favor of gray-bearded Gus Frerotte. Even the Vikings Throne on our Fanball network is not so confident in #7:

This Vikings team has a chance to do something special… if they only had a Quarterback.

T-Jackson had perhaps his strongest games of his career in December of last year, rallying his team to three victories in four games, two against playoff teams. However, when they got to the playoffs against the Eagles, he wilted, misfiring on 20 of his 35 passes, including an INT that was returned for a touchdown.

If the Rams have a hope of beating the Vikings, it will be in coercing #7 to give the game away. With the pounding Adrian Peterson and the slashing Percy Harvin, one would think that the Vikings could likely win the game by simply handing off on every play. But NFL coaching hubris demands that the QB drop back under center and complete forward passes, and so the Rams’ opportunistic defensive backfield will get their chances.

In many ways, this matchup is like a redux of the previous week’s, against San Francisco — except that the Vikings have a defense that is proven to be good, not just trying to busy itself with an image of toughness. Indeed, if the Rams had not chosen Spagnuolo as their coach, they would likely have taken Vikings D-coordinator Leslie Frazier. The other difference? Adrian Peterson is a game-breaker; Frank Gore is no longer.

This game will not be decided early. And in a game where two running backs exchange haymakers, this one comes down to canny quarterback play. If the we get it from Bulger… Rams win, 23-20.

Week Date Opponent LY: Record LY: Points 3Y: Record 3Y: Points
6 Oct 18 at Jacksonville Jaguars 5-11 302/367 24-24 1084/945
Rams games vs opponent, last three seasons:

The Rams and the rest of the NFC West have a very tough draw this season, being matched up against the powerhouse AFC South, perhaps the most rugged division in football. But for the Rams, who haven’t won a game against the AFC since shutting out Oakland in December 2006, any matchup would be difficult.

And here, either the scheduling gods have a funny sense of humor, or suddenly every other team in the NFL is moving to a power-run based attack, and has an unstable passing game. Because this game marks the third in a row against such teams for the Rams.

Like last year’s Seahawks, everything that could go wrong did go wrong when it came to injury — in the Jaguars’ case, it was to their offensive line, critical to their tandem-rushing, ball-control passing attack. Without lanes to truck through, or time for David Garrard (decidedly not a running quarterback) to wait for his stumblebum receivers to get open, the offense shut down.

To remedy this, the Jaguars invested their first two draft picks in Eugene Monroe and Ebon Britton, and brought in Philadelphia’s Tra Thomas to reenergize their offensive line. Secondly, they released the steady-but-declining Fred Thomas (allowing the Patriots to scoop him up), making Maurice Jones-Drew the featured back. And finally, in news that Rams fans may already have heard, they signed a guy named Torry Holt.

Photo by Phil Coale - AP

Photo by Phil Coale - AP

This all adds up to a familiar refrain — a critical assignment for Ron Bartell to shut down their top receiver, while the interior of the Rams’ defense gets a lot of tackling practice. However, Garrard can actually play the position, unlike Tarvaris Jackson or [insert 49ers QB name], preventing the Rams from loading up the box with run-stuffing help. Jaguars walk in this one, 24-10.

Week Date Opponent LY: Record LY: Points 3Y: Record 3Y: Points
7 Oct 25 vs. Indianapolis Colts 12-4 377/298 37-11 1254/920
Rams games vs opponent, last three seasons:

If you thought the scheduling gods had a sense of humor, you were wrong. In the history of men and their gods, the higher powers routinely engage in a sort of ritualistic torture of their terrified supplicants. “We fear you, we believe in you, honest we do!” say the poor humans. And the gods reply, “Oh really, let’s test thy faith with some of this!” And WHAMMO! Droughts followed by plagues of locusts followed by marauding bands of villains.

Or, in this case, the Indianapolis Colts.

The Rams, in practice, have been trying a lot of different things with their defensive line. Against Peyton Manning, none of it will matter. There’s not much you can show him that he hasn’t seen before, and unless you are running the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 3-4, or unless the new Colts coaching staff makes him throw left-handed, you can count on him to carve you up. And his no-huddle offense puts a huge damper on the Rams’ ability to rotate defensive players in and out, meaning a guy like Hollis Thomas either gets over-extended and exposed, or sits for long stretches of the game.

The way to beat the Colts is by playing keep-away with long ball-control drives, and by scoring touchdowns in the red zone. The Rams were terrible at both things last season, and while we might expect some improvement, it won’t be nearly enough against this force of nature. Rams lose, 34-17, and drop to 2-5 on the season.