Rams-Packers: Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

Steve Spagnuolo has a lot to chew on in the aftermath of the Rams 36-17 loss to Green Bay. The Rams are 0-3, and have given up more than twice as many points as they’ve scored on the season. Is there any reason why we shouldn’t expect a complete collapse to 0-and-16?

Well, here’s three right off the top of my head, the positive signs from today’s loss to the Packers, as well as three more things that can be coached up and improved:

  1. Steven Jackson is getting on track. He was a factor in the running game as well as the passing game, and got 32 touches on offense. Of those 32, 20 went for 3 yards or more — and often much more. He was a playmaker on an offense that badly needs one, even with the defense stacked against him.
  2. Kyle Boller presents a realistic option at quarterback, unlike Trent Green. So realistic that many fans are ready to give Marc Bulger an extended vacation — 13 games worth. While I won’t jump on that bandwagon, the dropoff from Bulger to his backup shouldn’t be that steep. However, Boller should get a head slap from every Rams player (and Deacon Jones for good measure) before every game. He seems to loosen up after taking — or initiating — contact on the field. His touchdown throw to Fells came immediately after throwing a lead block on a cutback by Steven Jackson.
  3. Rams fans are ready to cheer — for the defense, at least. I was able to attend the game, and was pleasantly surprised by the hearty showing by St Louis fans even with a strong contingent (about 20-25%) of Packer fans. The stadium got good and loud when the Packers had the ball, especially when Rodgers dropped back into shotgun. Green Bay made just enough mistakes — a couple penalties and mis-timed passes — that could be attributed to the “12th man” to encourage the fans to keep going. Then strong drives in the second and third quarters kept the fans in the game until late. One of the important missions of the Rams’ rebuilding is to rebuild a home field advantage. Today was a good start.

Three factors that can (hopefully) be improved by this still-learning coaching staff:

  1. Pass rush, pass rush, pass rush. Whether it’s through the blitz, or by some sort of light switch going off for defensive linemen like Chris Long or James Hall under the tutelage of Spagnuolo, the Rams have to generate pass rush. As the Green Bay Press Gazette points out, the Rams were repeatedly victimized by deep passes on 1-on-1 press coverage. However, that coverage works if someone gets to the quarterback before he can take advantage. The entirety of the Rams’ pass defense depends on getting to the quarterback. The run defense is solidly in place — if a pass rush comes, we’ll see many more close, winnable games.
  2. Third down play-calling. For a “west-coast offense” no matter what variation or spin you put on it, there’s no excuse for running out a pass play on third-and-three, or third-and five, with no checkdown option, no receiver just past the sticks. Receivers running deep clear-outs, but not getting open, has no practical purpose unless someone creeps open underneath. Preferably a big body with soft hands. We also saw zero slants, something the Rams have used well. (Losing Robinson hurst most here.) The Rams were 4-of-14 on third downs, but 0-for-7 in the second half. Not good enough in a game that had winnable moments.
  3. Game & sideline management. By eyeball witness accounts, Spagnuolo has reached for the red flag once in three games, but has yet to throw it, even on devastating and highly questionable plays going against his team. Notably, the second Rams turnover in their own red zone in two offensive plays came well after the whistle should have blown. Even if Spags loses the challenge and a timeout, the time it takes to review at least gives his defense a chance to regroup. First half timeouts are made for moments such as these. Clock management in the two-minute drill could also have been a serious issue, as two plays in the middle of the field were allowed to bleed a full minute off the clock, with the Rams holding timeouts as though they could be exchanged for points at halftime. Fortunately, a touchdown pass with 8 seconds left made this moot.

To be honest, there’s not much panic in this corner of the Rams fan universe. We didn’t expect a 3-0 start, but we do expect the Rams to improve and start winning games in short order. This team can still finish the year in better shape than last year’s team, if they can keep building on the slow and steady improvements we are seeing week to week.