Rams Rewind 2009: Game 2, Rams at Washington

Week 2: Rams (0-1) at Redskins (0-1)

Sept 20, 2009 12:00 CST
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Week Date Opponent LY: Record LY: Points 3Y: Record 3Y: Points
2 Sept. 20 at Washington Redskins 8-8 265/296 22-26 906/982
Rams games vs opponent, last three seasons:
Week 16, 2006: Won 37-31 at home
Week 6, 2008: Won 19-17 at Washington

Bringing this game up, I can’t help but want to have it back. And I’ll bet the coaches would love to have it back too. You can see the team start to gel in this game, start to play strong Spagnuolo-brand football, then fall back apart. If the coach had had more time to impose his discipline on the team, perhaps they hold on to win.

On the other hand, perhaps no other game’s outcome this season was more affected by a single coaching decision. We picked on the Rams’ critical fourth down decisions in depth in a post back in September, so there’s no need to harp on the subject. But I can’t help but wonder how a win in this game — which was very much in reach — might have changed the outcome of the season. I’m not talking about launching an 8-game winning streak and partying like it’s 1999, but just the act of winning — of “learning how to win” at an earlier stage in the season would have been an important building block in the process of rebuilding the Rams.

So we have to look for smaller victories instead. And the untold story of this game was the play of the Rams defensive line, especially in the red zone. Cliff Ryan had a monster day, stacking up the middle of the line and keeping the Redskins from turning their short fields into touchdowns. Chris Long and Leonard Little were all over the field (though rarely in the quarterback’s face). Washington badly wanted to play smashmouth offense, running Clinton Portis behind fullback Michael Sellers, but they got stuffed repeatedly… that is, until the brutal clock-eating drive to finish the game.

Sadly, the Rams offensive line was not able to hold up their end of the bargain, as Bulger was hit often and hard, Steven had little room to operate in the running game, and again penalties prevented the Rams from shifting into gear.

photo by John McDonnell-The Washington Post

More observations after the break:

  • The book was out early on the Rams’ defense. After watching Seattle’s John Carlson consistently rip up the seams in Week 1, the Redskins clearly game-planned the same approach. Of their first fifteen plays, five were completed passes to their big tight end Chris Cooley. On the fifth, the Rams didn’t even have a man to cover him. Adjustments? What are those?

photo by Jonathan Newton/Washington Post

  • Laurent Robinson was ready to go into beast mode before he got hurt. No other Rams receiver in 2009 showed the ability to catch the ball away from his body like Laurent Robinson. He grabbed everything from every direction in this game. And the fade route that he caught for the game’s only touchdown was beautiful in its simplicity.

    Ironically, they tried the exact same play (also on a goal-to-go from the 3) to Brandon Gibson, who was even wearing Robinson’s #11, in Week 11 against Arizona. But Bulger threw the ball just a shade high — to a place where the lankier Robinson (or Bulger’s old pal Torry Holt) could probably have reached it. It was the perfect play call, but Gibson just couldn’t quite get there.

  • Will Witherspoon was a big part of our red zone defense on this day. Laurinaitis seemed to be too eager to shoot gaps, often plowing right into a lineman in an effort to get into the play. But Witherspoon played better in space, getting physical against crossing routes and being generally disruptive. On the Redskins’ first goal-to-go drive, he stopped Portis from dragging Atgowe into the end zone from the 5 on second down, then knocked Devin Thomas completely off his route on third down, and recovered to stay with the receiver and get a tip on the incoming pass.

    However, the same traits that worked well for Spoon in the short field — being patient, reading the quarterback, and playing close to the line — often worked against him in the vast middle of the field. There, he often seemed a step slow, especially when trying to stay with a receiver running vertically.

  • Richie Incognito was way overrated as a run blocker. He’s strong and he runs in a straight line, but has no balance, can’t maintain his blocks or stay with his linemate, and shows little recognition of what the defensive rush is trying to do. Too often a run play to the right ended after two or three yards, with Incognito on the turf underneath the runner. And in pass protection, working mostly against Washington’s “other” defensive tackle, Cornelius Griffin, he was a liability plain and simple.

    On the other hand, Jacob Bell was able to erase Albert Haynesworth, even when singled up on him, and Brian Orakpo was held without a sack, working mostly against fellow rookie Jason Smith in the first half, and Adam Goldberg in the second. And Incognito did actually get a nice block in on Jackson’s big 61-yard run. (Jackson deserves the bulk of the credit, though, breaking through a tackle attempt from the hard-hitting Chris Horton right in the hole.)

  • The offense worked best in no-huddle. Not only is this a good tactical move against the big lazy slob Haynesworth, who took a bunch of plays off and was a non-factor for much of the game, but it also established a semblance of rhythm for Bulger and the offense. The short crossing patterns and screens and delayed handoffs tend to be a lot less effective if you give defenses a full breather — or a penalty timeout — to position themselves aggressively. A big indicator of the Rams’ success this season will be evident in preseason, in how quickly Bradford picks up the no-huddle timing.
  • Even if he isn’t an adept run-tackler, OJ Atogwe brings an element of danger to the Rams’ defense that would be sorely missed. Watching these first two games, it’s clear that Atogwe has the best head in the Rams’ pass defense. After years of playing the backfield, he has developed very nice instincts in the passing game, and still has a burst of catch-up speed to be able to look in at the quarterback without getting caught out of position. People call him a “ball-hawk,” but that’s not quite fair. The secret to his game is sniffing out the quarterback’s reads from the snap, and positioning himself in passing lanes to give himself the opportunity to take those peeks and make the plays that he makes. Would I love it if he brought the lumber like Louis Delmas? Yes, yes I would. But watching him get dragged two or three extra yards on a tackle doesn’t offend me as much as it might if he wasn’t able to make up for it with a brilliant play later.
  • On the other hand, Ron Bartell played lead-footed even when he was healthy. In a recent P-D story by Bill Coats, Bartell admits to playing with an extra weight on his back — the burden of expectation after signing a big contract extension in the offseason. The Redskins converted several inexcusable third-and-longs, looking in Bartell’s direction seemingly every time. He was the target of a lot of abuse from Rams fans this last year, and the team desperately needs him to return to his 2008 form.

This will be seen as a game that got away, but should also be seen as the kind of game the Rams are being built to win. We aren’t going to win a lot of shootouts, but if we can continue to make our red-zone defense stand up like this, the Rams stand an excellent chance of winning games in bunches.