Danario Alexander: Inside a game-changing performance

St. Louis Rams wide receiver Danario Alexander catches a 46-yard pass during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010, in St. Louis. The Rams won 25-17. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) Do the Rams have a legitimate deep threat in Danario Alexander? Consider this question answered.

Midway through the second quarter, up 9-7 but trying to shake the cobwebs on offense after consecutive three-and-outs, Pat Shurmur went back to his passing game to move the chains, and with a 3rd and 4 on the doorstep of the red zone, he dialed up that most elusive weapon in the Rams’ arsenal — the deep ball.

However, Danny Amendola never got clean separation from Nate Clements in the slot, and slowed to half speed at the five as the ball sailed unmolested into the end zone. It was an ugly play that left Rams fans discontented, even as Josh Brown kicked away to briefly extend the lead to 12-7.

ottoman89
Bradford throws a beautiful deep pass, but his receivers constantly lose the ball in the air.
RossMiles
@RamsHerd @ottoman89 I have been trying to tell @Daniel_Doelling & @TurfShowTimes this is why we don’t go deep! Our WR can’t cope!

A disheartening sequence sent the Rams into the tunnel down 14-12, and set Rams fans all a-twitter. This long-simmering debate came to a head: should Pat Shurmur even bother dialing up deep passes with these receivers? Leading the dissent was old-school Rams tweeter @RossMiles, with @ottoman89, @Daniel_Doelling, @TurfShowTimes and good old @RamsHerd chirping in debate. But one Rams player was yet to have his say: Danario Alexander, who chipped in a game-changing performance. 

After the break, RamsHerd provides a play-by-play breakdown of the true impact of Danario’s season-high 40 snaps. 

The rookie receiver with the five knee surgeries has been in and out of the lineup, in and out of the gameplan, to the point that we wonder whether he’s an X-factor to his own team. But from the first play from scrimmage, Bradford and Shurmur put #84 in heavy rotation — and not only as a targeted receiver, as the Rams ran often from 4-WR sets. I’ve numbered ‘official’ plays that DX lined up in, and highlighted where his contribution, directly or indirectly, led to a successful Rams play.

    — DRIVE ONE: Game tied 0-0 —

  1. P1: (Shotgun) 8-S.Bradford pass short left to 84-D.Alexander to SL 38 for 9 yards — A perfectly executed bubble screen with blockers swarming to the left to attack the Niners’ soft zone coverage in their base defense. Easy money, but clearly taking advantage of the Niners’ expectation of a game-opening run play.
  2. R1: S.Jackson right guard to SL 43 for 5 yards — DX lines up wide left, becomes a blocker against Shawntae Spencer.
  3. R2: S.Jackson right guard to SL 45 for 2 yards — DX and Shawntae engage with spirit, wide left.
  4. P2: S.Bradford pass incomplete short right to L.Robinson — DX lines up wide left and sprints down field, off camera, drawing deep coverage.
  5. P3: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short middle to D.Amendola to SF 46 for 9 yards — DX runs the same pattern as the previous down, but draws Patrick Willis over to his side, camping out underneath in Bradford’s passing lane. Bradford simply throws to the hole Willis left, hitting Amendola for a first down.
  6. P4: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short left to S.Jackson to SF 40 for 6 yards — DX breaks the jam and releases outside, drawing pursuit. Steven Jackson slides neatly into this hole and picks up easy yardage.
  7. (No play): D.Amendola pass deep right intended for D.Alexander INTERCEPTED / Penalty: Defensive pass interference. — DX lines up wide right and runs a pure fly route, beating both the ten-yard cushion of the backpedaling CB and the deep safety help. Amendola’s ball is badly underthrown, but Nate Clements was so badly beaten that he heedlessly plows into Alexander, who has stopped to come back for the ball. An ugly play, but one that was made possible by DX’s pure speed.

  8. R3: S.Jackson up the middle for 1 yard, TOUCHDOWN. — DX lines up wide right, but this is all SJ39.
  9. — DRIVE TWO: Rams up 7-0 —

  10. P5: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass incomplete short left to D.Alexander — DX runs a simple hitch from wide left, but SS Reggie Smith sniffs it out easily and steps in front of it. A dangerous throw.
  11. R4: S.Jackson up the middle to SL 24 for no gain — DX wide left as part of 4 WR formation.
  12. (No play) Penalty, Roughing the passer. — DX wide left as part of 4 WR formation.
  13. R5: SJ 12 yards

    R6: Gibson 1 yard

    R7: SJ 2 yards

    (No play) Time out, SF — DX is back on the field wide left, and it appears the SF defense is out of alignment, or doesn’t have deep help ready.

    (No play) Penalty, False start on Daniel Fells.

  14. P6: S.Bradford pass short middle to K.Darby to SF 47 for 4 yards — DX is wide left, part of 4 WR set. Rams forced to punt.
  15. — DRIVE THREE: Rams up 9-0 —

  16. P7: S.Bradford pass short right to D.Amendola to SL 40 for 5 yards — DX is wide left, becomes a blocker as play goes right.
  17. R8: S.Jackson right guard to SL 49 for 9 yards — DX is wide left, part of 4 WR set.
  18. P8: S.Bradford pass short middle to B.Gibson to SF 10 for 41 yards — DX is wide left, part of 4 WR set. This route is all Gibson though, finding the soft spot in the zone.
  19. P9: (Shotgun) S.Bradford sacked at SF 23 for -13 yards (P.Willis). FUMBLES (P.Willis) — DX is wide left in 4 WR set.
  20. — DRIVE FOUR: Rams up 9-0 —

  21. R9: S.Jackson up the middle to SL 15 for -1 yards — DX is wide left, part of 4 WR set.
  22. P10: S.Bradford pass short middle to D.Amendola to SL 20 for 5 yards — DX is wide left in 4 WR set, but does not draw extra coverage.
  23. R11: S.Jackson up the middle to SL 24 for 4 yards. Rams forced to punt. — DX is wide left in 4 WR set.
  24. — DRIVE FIVE: Rams up 9-0 —

  25. R12: S.Jackson left tackle to SL 17 for 1 yard — DX is wide left in 4 WR set, halfheartedly engages in downfield block that is never needed.
  26. R13: S.Jackson left guard to SL 13 for -4 yards — DX is wide left in ’11′ personnel.
  27. P11: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short middle to D.Fells to SL 24 for 11 yards — DX is wide right bracketing two slot men. Rams forced to punt, not forced to tackle.
  28. — DRIVE SIX: Rams up 9-7 —

    P12: BGib 19 yards.

    R14: SJ 5 yards

    P13: SJ 4 yards

    R15: Karney 2 yards

    P14: LRob 5 yards

    R16: SJ 1 yard

  29. P15: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass incomplete deep left to D.Amendola — DX lines up wide left, runs a “decoy” square in, drawing double coverage and springing Amendola … except that Amendola can’t separate from a clutching Nate Clements, and can’t appear to find the ball or get top top gear. Weird play all around leads to a Rams field goal.
  30. — DRIVE SEVEN: Rams trail 14-12 —

    P15: Incomplete to BGib

    P16: Amendola, 5 yards

  31. P17: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass incomplete short middle to D.Amendola — DX lines up wide left, gets jammed pretty heavily toward sideline in single coverage. Rams forced to punt.
  32. — DRIVE EIGHT: Rams trail 14-12 —

    R17: SJ nada.

    R18: SJ nada. End of half.

So far this season, Danario’s game-high snap count was 29. As you can see, he already racked up 23 plays in the first half alone, and was on the field for several more that were negated by penalty. Also notable, the Rams built an almost perfect split between called runs and passes in the first half, and dominated time of possession. But for Bradford’s fumble (guilty of trying to flick the ball away, rather than protect and take the sack), the Rams would be well ahead in this one … but might not have gotten so aggressive in the second half.

    — DRIVE NINE: Rams trail 14-12 —

    P18: BGib drop … no nicer way to put it.

  1. P19: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short left to B.Gibson to SF 32 for 9 yards — DX lined up slot right in empty backfield set.
  2. P20: SJ 9 yards

  3. P21: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short left to D.Amendola to SF 13 for 10 yards — DX lined up wide right in 4 WR set.
  4. R19: SJ 1 yard

    P22: Incomplete. Terrible decision, almost intercepted.

  5. P23: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass incomplete short middle to D.Amendola. — DX lined up wide left, draws single coverage. Rams get FG.
  6. — DRIVE TEN: Rams lead 15-14 —

  7. R20: S.Jackson right tackle to SL 7 for no gain — DX wide right in what looks like jumbo ’13′ personnel.
  8. P24: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short middle to D.Fells to SL 13 for 6 yards — DX solo wide right in ’11′ personnel.
  9. P25: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short left to L.Robinson to SL 30 for 17 yards — DX lines up solo wide left in ’11′ personnel, again drawing man coverage. The Niners usually prefer to play zone with their secondary, and if they had, DX’s man would have passed him off after five yards and been in perfect position to snuff the pass to Laurent Robinson, crossing from the right slot. As it was, not only did no one pick him up off the snap, Robinson had acres of space to run after the catch.
  10. P26: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short left to D.Alexander to SL 38 for 8 yards — DX lines up wide left, runs a simple hitch outside the numbers to shake his man. Perfectly timed route and pass.
  11. P27: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short left to D.Alexander to SF 45 for 17 yards — DX lines up solo wide left, runs a ten yard curl, and now the Niners try to play an underneath zone in addition to the man coverage on top. But Steven Jackson breaks to the left flat, forcing Patrick Willis to try and defend two routes at once, defending neither. DX finds the perfect soft spot between four defenders, grabs the pass and muscles upfield for YAC.
  12. P28: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short right to D.Amendola to SF 36 for 9 yards — DX lines up solo wide left, draws man coverage.
  13. Penalty: Offensive Pass Interference — DX lines up solo wide right, runs a hitch to clear out the coverage, then with his back turned to the defender, tries to “box out” his man like a basketball player as SJ catches a swing pass. However, the referee decides that Alexander became a blocker before SJ caught the pass … a curious judgement call, as contact was minimal and clearly this was the design of the play. It led to a hilarious segment where a side judge tries, but cannot properly explain the rule to Justin King and several other clearly perplexed Rams on the sideline.

    P29: S.Bradford pass short right to D.Amendola to SF 40 for 6 yards

    P30: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short right to K.Darby to SF 45 for -5 yards. Rams punt.

    — DRIVE ELEVEN: Rams lead 15-14 —

  14. P31: S.Bradford pass short right to D.Fells to SL 35 for 11 yards — DX lines up wide left as part of ’21′ personnel.
  15. P32: S.Bradford pass incomplete deep right to B.Gibson

  16. R21: S.Jackson right tackle to SL 38 for 3 yards — DX lines up wide left in 4 WR formation.
  17. P32: Amendola 3 yards on 3rd and 7. Rams punt.

    — DRIVE TWELVE: Rams lead 15-14 —

  18. P33: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short right to D.Alexander to SL 34 for 2 yards — A repeat of the game opening play, only Daniel Fells misses a key block.
  19. P34: S.Bradford pass short right to D.Alexander to SF 49 for 17 yards — DX lines up wide left in ’12′ personnel, runs a half-speed hitch by the sideline, then takes hits from four different players to get ten yards after the catch. A monster play.
  20. P35: S.Bradford pass deep left to D.Alexander ran ob at SF 3 for 46 yards — By this point, the Rams have the vaunted 49ers’ defense completely out of sorts. They try a half-hearted delayed blitz from the right side as DX lines up wide left and runs a pure “go” route, blowing past Shawntae Spencer’s jam attempt. The safety on that side of the field is inexplicably looking into the backfield, where he has a great view of Bradford’s perfect pocket. The ball finds Alexander forty yards down the field, and but for a fraction of his heel on the sideline, he walks in for a touchdown.
  21. P36: (Shotgun) S.Bradford pass short right to L.Robinson for 3 yards, TOUCHDOWN

    — DRIVE THIRTEEN: Rams lead 22-17 —

  22. R22: S.Jackson right guard to SF 10 for 2 yards — DX lines up wide left in ’12′ personnel, becomes a blocker.
  23. R23: S.Jackson right tackle to SF 9 for 1 yard — DX lines up wide left in ’11′ personnel, runs a quarter-speed slant.
  24. R24: (Shotgun) S.Jackson left end to SF 10 for -1 yards — DX lines up in the left slot and tag-teams with Goldberg to throw a second-level block. Too bad Jackson gets stuffed at the line. Rams kick a field goal for the game’s final points.
  25. — DRIVE FOURTEEN: Rams lead 25-17 —

    R25: Jackson, 3 yard loss.

    R26: Gibson, 14 yard end around.

    R27: Jackson, 2 yard gain.

    R28: Robinson, 5 yard loss.

    R29: Jackson, 3 yard gain. Rams punt, leave 1:06 on the clock, which the defense takes care of nicely. GAME OVER.

Note: somewhere in this mess I’ve apparently miscategorized a pass as a run, as Bradford ended up with 37 attempts, and the Rams totaled 28 carries.

In the final reckoning, we can see just how valuable the legitimate deep threat of Danario Alexander was, as he forced the Niners to change their base coverage, creating holes for the underneath passing game to work in. He also has the ball skills and big play sixth sense to be able to take advantage when Bradford and Shurmur felt like gambling.

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