Rams-Saints: A Real Loss

One team came to the Edward Jones Dome with a +129 points differential, the other with a -144. This was, on paper, a matchup of one of the very best and very worst teams in the NFL, a game that should have been over at halftime. And the short story was that the better team won. But the story within the story was that this underdog team, a team of unknown and misbegotten players, played like stars and gave the better team all they could handle in a 28-23 loss that wasn’t over until the game’s last play.

It’s a game that Rams fans — especially those who sold out the Dome and showed up loudly — can be proud of. But at the same time, this is the first loss of the season that came without major back-breaking mistakes, goofy penalties, careless turnovers. This game was a “real” loss, not a giveaway.

The game we just watched was an honest contest decided by tactics, by a host of key plays and play calls. It makes for a fun week ahead, dissecting the game and its individual performances. But three plays stuck out to me right away:

Q1: Usama Young intercepts Marc Bulger in the end zone
The Rams had just cashed in one of the game’s key plays, an interception by Oshiomogho Atogwe that gave us downhill field position, and were driving toward sure-fire points. The Rams line up in an odd two-TE, two-RB formation with Burton the lone WR. Burton and both TEs fly toward the goal line, while Karney floats out into the right flat, completely uncovered. Bulger had completed each of his passes on the drive, and could have had a sure first down with a pass to his fullback, but went aggressive. He led Burton beautifully into the end zone … but didn’t see the safety coming over in support.

The Rams went into the first half tied 14-all, but could, and should, have been ahead. The bigger loss, though, was that Burton went down on the play — apparently bitten by the turf monster. He was already clutching his knee as Young cut in front of the pass, so even if the safety hadn’t come over, Burton would likely not have come up with it. Coming into the game, he was our leading pass catcher. Now, word is that he is likely out for the season. That’s a big loss within a big loss.

Q2: Shurmur hands the game to Jackson
WIth the Saints offense on track, and up 14-7, the Rams make it into the fair side of the 50 on a nice grab by the emerging Brandon Gibson. A run by SJ and catch by Billy Bajema later and the Rams are set up on the 29. This was a make-or-break drive in terms of staying with the Saints, and keeping the active crowd into the game, and Shurmur put away the playbook and gave the reins to Jackson, Karney, and the offensive line. Seven runs later, and Jackson is in the end zone, riding behind a punishing pair of blocks by Jason Smith and Mike Karney.

Q4: Drew Brees throws a TD to Robert Meachem over Quincy Butler
The TV crew in today’s game, “Best Damn”‘s Chris Rose and former Ram Trent Green, were pretty unremarkable. But Green had a good observation on this play, pointing out how Quincy Butler made a decision early in the route to jump inside the receiver and trail him, hoping for a chance to intercept, or at least make a play on the ball. Here’s how close he came:

Per ProFootballFocus, Quincy Butler’s debut as an NFL starter against the Lions couldn’t have gone better: 5 targets, 0 completions, and 1 pass defended. This week’s stat line won’t look quite so pretty, though on the whole I thought he played pretty well.

There are any number of additional plays and calls we can get into in the days ahead … for example dissecting the play-calling and decision-making on the Rams’ crucial two-minute drill to end the game, or the emerging play of Chris Long (who had two sacks and a QB hit to lead the Rams in that department) and WR Brandon Gibson. Or Donnie Avery’s two-touchdown performance, the first of his career.

That’s the glory of watching a real NFL team. Even if we end up watching a real loss.