Spotlight on the rookie: Brandon Gibson

Two games into his debut, and we're in love with Brandon Gibson. He is a tough, physical player who attacks defensive backs on his routes. He plays with an edge, but has the soft hands to bring in balls from a variety of angles, and the stop-and-go moves to make something happen after the catch — all essential qualities for a stumbling "throw-it-short-of-the-sticks-and-pray" kind of offense. But the sudden reliance on the kid is staggering.

Has any young player ever joined a team midway through the season, caught his first career pass with that team, then in only his second game become the primary target in the passing game? Gibson was targeted 17 times yesterday, more than Donnie Avery, Danny Amendola, Steven Jackson and Randy McMichael combined. And yet, he only came down with 5 catches.

These are Brandon Marshall-type numbers, which would be great if our quarterback could feed him the ball accurately enough to create a game-changing Brandon Marshall type of play. Here is a detailed look at Gibson's day on Sunday, the good, bad and ugly of it.

- Penalty on Gibson, 12th man in the huddle. Not an auspicious start, but we put this on the coaches as much as on the player, making sure the personnel know their assignments. Of course, it's hard to blame Gibson for being confused when his spot in the slot was taken by Billy Bajema…

1. 3rd and 7, ARZ 22: Incomplete. Gibson lines up on the left sideline and runs a short dig route, coming back hard to a spot ten yards from the LOS. However, the defensive back Bryant McFadden makes a brilliant play, coming back to the ball as Gibson got his mitts firmly on it, and wresting it away. Bulger had time to sit in the pocket and wait for the play to develop, then delivered the ball on target. No fault on this one.

2. 2nd and 5, STL 25: Complete for a first down. Gibson was Bulger's second read, after a playfake and a look to the right. With pressure coming from behind, Bulger again finds Gibson coming back toward him after running ten yards and stopping on a dime. The throw gets there — barely, as the ball wants to dart to the outside. Gibson extends completely over, against his body's momentum, and makes a sure-handed grab for the first down.

3. 3rd and 4, STL 41: incompete. This one's on Bulger. Three receivers (Gibson, Avery, Fells) cross in front of the first down stripe, with SJ floating out to the right flat (covered). With puh-lenty of time, he scans the field, and sidearms it right into Darnell Dockett. Moreover, Gibson not only had a man behind him ready to make the tackle, but was well in front of the sticks. Meanwhile, Bulger has a clear passing lane to Fells who was wide open for the first down and more, but just misses it.

The offense to this point is doing a good job of creating makeable third downs, but they aren't getting made. The two first downs for the Rams in the first quarter came from Gibson's catch #1, and an 11-yard Steven Jackson run. It's only 7-3, but the Arizona offense has already gotten into second gear, making big gains running and passing. The Rams offense simply did not hold up its end of the bargain.

END FIRST QUARTER.

4. 2nd and 12, STL 41: Incomplete. Again, poor throw by Bulger. It's a simple crossing route that starts two steps past the line of scrimmage. Gibson has drawn Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in coverage, a compliment of sorts. With no pressure, Bulger whips a throw high and behind Gibson, who gets fingertips on it but can't bring it down… and the Rams are lucky the subsequent tipped ball wasn't returned for six. After the play, Bulger stares down his receiver, shrugs his shoulder pad, and looks toward the sideline … no mea culpa, nor any constructive advice for the young player.

5. 3rd and 17, STL 36: Complete for a first down! Making up for his poor throws, Bulger executes here with a nice whole-body pumpfake, shifting his feet as though he is throwing short, then finding Gibson in front of two defenders after making a double move. Bulger puts it high, and Gibson goes up and gets it for a 22-yard gain. More impressive, even after taking a helmet to the kidney as he lands, he instinctively twists his body and falls forward for the extra yard. Perhaps this hit was the reason he spent most of the rest of the drive on the sideline, though, getting a breather.

Unfortunately, this suddenly promising drive stalled at the 22, as Steven Jackson should have had a first down on a 3rd and 1 carry, but a terrible spot went unchallenged by the Rams sideline. On replay, he clearly was within inches of the stripe, yet the ball was placed a full yard back. Even if they challenge and move the ball forward, it makes a sneak possible. However, rather than challenge the officials, the Rams coaches put it on their players to go and earn that yard on fourth down … and they didn't get there.

6. 3rd and 1, STL 20: Complete for a first down. So far each of Gibson's catches has earned a first down. That in itself is impressive. This one was a rare timing play that worked, as the cover man was playing off, Gibson squirts diagonally toward the sideline and turns around to find the ball right in his mitts. First down and steps out of bounds to stop the clock.

7. 2nd and 1, STL 35: Incomplete. Bulger and the deep sideline pattern are simply not friends. He slings the ball without stepping into it, and sails it well over Gibson's head. Gibson was well covered, and was jousting with the DB, Michael Adams, the whole way down the field. A perfect throw nets a big gain, but Bulger just doesn't make that throw any more.

Bulger wraps up yet another unsuccessfull two-minute drill by badly underthrowing Daniel Fells on a seam route, giving Adrian Wilson such an easy grab one wonders if he was the intended receiver.

END OF THE FIRST HALF, Rams down 21-3.


8. 2nd and 9, STL 3: Complete for a first down! Bulger is starting to look pretty good on his rollouts, maybe picking up something from practicing with the fleeter-footed Kyle Boller. In this case Gibson lines up right, jams upfield and stops short of the sticks as Avery comes around in motion and jets downfield, drawing coverage away. Bulger finds Gibson, who makes a very nifty move to get the first down plus a few more.


9. 2nd and 4, STL 20: Incomplete. Blame this on the protection. Darnell Dockett was given a free pass into Bulger's backyard (the right tackle on the play never engaged him, turning inside to seal the DT). When he turned to throw to his right, Dockett was thisclose. He just reached out his paw and Bulger's would-be pass turned into a dying quail. If this was a planned protection, then that's on Bulger for play-faking to Jackson, when an actual handoff away from this unprotected rush would have led to a first down and more.

10. 2nd and Goal, ARZ 3: Incomplete. This is a timing pattern, the first of many misfires in this second half between quarterback and receiver. It's supposed to be a fade route, and Bulger rainbows the ball into the corner of the end zone, throwing it while Gibson is stutter-stepping trying to shake off his man. The timing just isn't there, as Gibson should have started his break a move earlier. I put this one on the rookie, as the ball fell into a perfect spot where only the receiver would have had a chance.

Of course, this was the fateful sequence where Spagnuolo — perhaps remembering the unsuccessful tries at a single yard on 3rd- and 4th-and-1 in the first half, or the three Jackson runs on this drive totaling 1 yard — put his guts on the shelf and sent in the field goal unit. 21-6. Blech.

END THIRD QUARTER

The Rams' next drive was a 12-play monstrosity covering a mere 44 yards … a ponderously slow death march that mercifully ended in a touchdown. It deserves its own analysis, but the Gibson plays give us an informative microcosm of the dysfunction at hand.

11. 2nd and 7, ARZ 41: Incomplete. Another timing pattern, another miss. Why the Rams switched into these set of timing-dependent play calls with the rookie, and never switched out when it became obvious they weren't working, mystifies me. Bulger sets up with plenty of time, and throws the ball toward the out, with Gibson supposed to turn to the sideline and find it. Instead, Gibson falls down. (The ball wasn't particularly well thrown, either, shallow and wide.)

12. 3rd and 7, ARZ 41: Incomplete. Would you believe, same play? Except this time the Cardinals bring 6 on a big blitz, Bulger rushes the throw and it goes over Gibson's inside shoulder (darting between him and the defender) as he stops and turns outside. Looking at this play on replay, I'm convinced that this is on Bulger, who panicked and threw a beat or two too early. Even with the big blitz, he didn't have a rusher in his face as the offensive line formed a picture-perfect pocket.

One could argue that the receiver should have recognized the blitz and changed the route, but we can't know that for sure. Either way, assuming Gibson ran the right route — a route he'd been running successfully all game — the play would have worked as designed but for the poor throw.

-  4th and 7, ARZ 41: Incomplete, but a penalty draws a first down. DB Michael Adams tries to jam Gibson, who fights through it and completes his route, a slant, but can't bring in the pass in traffic. In fact, the ball hits him in the face. But fortunately, the refs bail him out by throwing the laundry — something that almost never happens on desperation fourth down plays, especially for rookie receivers. I guess contact as egregious as this early in the route can't go unflagged.

This would be the first of three fourth-down conversions on this drive, when Spags had apparently had enough of going the "safe" route. Good for him, but it makes you wonder if he wanted that decision back a drive earlier.

13. 3rd and 6, ARZ 21: Incomplete. Again, Bulger misfires, one play after not seeing Donnie Avery wide open on a deep post that would have been an easy score. Gibson does the flag dance again, to no avail. Terrible throw inside with penty of time, on a simple square in. Even though it takes Gibson multiple steps to make his cut, Bulger is watching the whole time before he makes his throw. Not a great route, but this one is on the QB.

Fortunately, the Rams are bailed out by a brilliant throw and catch between Bulger and Danny Amendola to the 1 yard line. This is one I'm not going to try to capture — you simply have to watch it.

- 1st and 10, ARZ 13: Incomplete / no play. A trapped ball on a wide throw was erased by a mystifying personal foul on Adam Goldberg. (Mike Sando offers the referee's explanation.)

14. 2nd and 20, ARZ 23: Complete! A very nice play, with Gibson making a beautiful snare in stride, then fighting not only for extra yards, but to get out of bounds upright and stop the clock. However, this catch ended with some unnecessary theatrics.

The kid plays with evident passion, but that's no excuse for seeking out a couple of mild red-shirted Cardinal fans sitting front row and talking trash to them, with your team still down eight. Especially in context of the very next play…

15. 3rd and 4, ARZ 7: Incomplete. Ohhhhhhhh. This was the play, the back-breaker for the Rams. Eleven times out of ten in the NFL, this is a catch. Gibson beats his man, runs to the precise spot where the faded ball is dropping down, ball is arriving right into his belly … and he drops it. He flat out dropped it. These were the tying points, the big play he was just jawing about, and he dropped it.

The next play, a fourth and 7, was a debacle. They try to run the same play with Avery, who is simply incapable of beating his man outside. If they had run a slant here, crossing up the coverage, maybe you have something. If they had called time out to draw up a higher-percentage make to get a fresh set of downs, that would have been a good idea, no? Ugh. Talk about shooting yourselves in the foot. This was a double-barreled shotgun blast.

16. 3rd and 17, STL 19: Incomplete. Put this on the choke-slam by Darnell Dockett two plays earlier, but quarterback wasn't anywhere near receiver on this desperation heave down the left hash.

GAME OVER.

Sixteen "official" targets, plus two more passes that were wiped away on penalties. That's a busy day's work for young Mr. Gibson. The question now is whether he and Bulger can get, and stay, on the same page.

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