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Rams 2011 Season Preview, Part 2: Games 5-8

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Week 6:
Rams at Packers

To be the best, you have to beat the best (Part II)

GB Off, 2010: 24.2 ppg (10)
GB Def, 2010: 15.0 ppg (2)

Last meeting: Packers 36-Rams 17 (Week 3, 2009)

After a rough and tumble ride and a 2-2 record through the first four games of the 2011 Rams season, the team gets an early breather with a Week 5 bye. There will not be much time for relaxation, though, with the toughest part of their schedule immediately on tap, starting with a trip up to Lambeau field to play against the defending Super Bowl Champion Packers.

Contrary to popular opinion in these parts, it is possible to beat Green Bay. Even in Green Bay. It just isn’t easy. However, before they found their groove last season, they were beaten by Chicago, barely escaped with a two-point win against the Lions, were beaten by lowly Washington, and beaten again by a middling Miami team.

The common thread in each of these losses? Pressure on the pocket from all angles, but particularly from a potent speed end. The Bears’ DE Julius Peppers, Redskins’ OLB Brian Orakpo and Dolphins OLB Cameron Wake combined for 5 sacks and 8 QB hits in those three games. When the Rams last played the Packers, defensive ends Long and Little gave chase, but just didn’t have the legs to get to Rodgers as he sprinted backwards or bootlegged into a comfort zone from which to launch impossibly accurate strikes deep down the field.

Enter Rams rookie Robert Quinn, the wildcard in this matchup. Five games into the season, Quinn will start to have the timing of the defense down, and has the pure speed to get to even the most mobile QBs. Wake and the Dolphins held down the Packers’ prolific offense by pitching a near shutout on third downs, allowing only 3 conversions in 13 tries. This will be Quinn’s role to play.

Of course, holding down the offense is only part of the equation, as the Packers’ defense is among the most sophisticated and most disciplined in the league, presenting a difficult matchup for any quarterback, let alone one starting his 21st career game.

Prediction: Loss

Brennan: “Aaron Rodgers and the Packers depth at receiver is too much for the Rams thin cornerback position. Steven Jackson has a good game but can’t do enough for the win.”

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Week 7:
Rams at Cowboys

On a mission to mess with Texas, and forget the Alamo, too.

DAL Off, 2010: 24.6 ppg (7t)
DAL Def, 2010: 27.2 ppg (31)

Last meeting: Rams 34-Cowboys 14 (Week 7, 2008)

You have to give Dallas a mulligan for last season. Tony Romo was dating an evil superstarlet, and she cursed him into breaking his collarbone. Also Wade Phillips was suddenly really terrible as a head coach and he had to go. Did you see the team give up on him? I know I did. We all did. But wow, that Jason Garrett really whipped them into shape, didn’t he? You watch out, America’s team is back.

Does that about sum up the national consensus on the Cowboys from the sports media empire? Did I miss anything? Who is Tony Romo dating these days, anyway?

The Cowboys are the perfect team to try and explain via pseudo-trends: curses, hubris, attitude, and the ineffable “will to win.” When in fact, if you look beyond the all-Pro players on offense (Romo, Witten, Austin) and defense (Demarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff), this is a team full of holes. The patchwork offensive line has a lot more patches, after the Miami Dolphins raided the roster, and the defense seems little improved from the unit that gave up more points than anyone but the woeful Broncos.

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The impression that the Cowboys’ defense got miraculously better after Phillips was fired is based on two games, inspired performances both, against the inconsistent Giants and a Lions team getting by with a backup quarterback. After those two games, the D in big D lay right back down and gave up 30 points a week, more consistently and flatly than before. Without a major influx of new personnel, the team is simply hoping that new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can make something happen here.

In short, this is a team the Rams can attack. And the key matchup might be identifying the D’s most potent weapon, pass-rush demon Demarcus Ware, and running a combination of Brit Miller and Steven Jackson right down his throat, opening up Bradford’s deadly play-action passing game. The return of Mark Clayton from the PUP also provides a boost.

Prediction: Win

We were split on this prediction, but I see this as a very winnable game over a very fickle and emotionally fragile Dallas team. The Rams will simply be the better team on the field.

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Week 8:
Rams vs Saints

To be the best, you have to beat the best (Part III)

NOR Off, 2010: 24 ppg (11)
NOR Def, 2010: 19.2 ppg (7)

Last meeting: Packers 36-Rams 17 (Week 3, 2009)

Nowhere will the impact of Josh McDaniels on the Rams’ offense be felt more than in these marquee matchups, against the best teams with the most confounding defensive schemes. The Saints’ Gregg Williams, McDaniels’ defensive counterpart in this matchup, is a master of creating unpredictable looks, and blitzing from any point on the field on any given down.

Sam Bradford, taking responsibility for calling his own protections for the first time, was blitzed repeatedly by the Titans in the preseason. He was able to avoid the kind of serious punishment suffered at the hands of the Vikings a year ago, but the confusing array of looks completely disrupted the offense’s rhythm in what should count as the first team’s only “loss” of the preseason.

Most importantly, the Rams’ crew of young receivers will have to show equal discipline, making the same reads as Bradford against the Saints’ elegantly disguised coverages, and knowing when to break off routes early and become the “hot” receiver, or when to go long to turn the opponents’ defensive gamble into a backbreaking big play.

It is a lot to ask of a veteran team, let alone one so young and so new in this system. I think we’ll see a lot of sparks, but not quite a flame.

Prediction: Loss

Tim: Rams fight hard, but come up short. Brennan: Saints use the same strategy as the Packers and spread the field to take advantage of the Rams. Mark Ingram has a solid day and St. Louis can’t keep up.

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Week 9:
Rams at Cardinals

The NFC West schedule starts out with a trap game.

ARI Off, 2010: 18.1 ppg (26t)
ARI Def, 2010: 27.1 ppg (30)

Last meeting: Rams 19-Cards 6 (Week 13, 2010)

So far in this season preview, we’ve taken a pretty optimistic view of what could go right in a number of these games. It will certainly take a strong performance to beat both the Giants and the Cowboys on the road, for example. In this case, though, we have to look at what could go wrong.

After the first seven games of the season, the difficulty rating of the Rams’ opponents drops significantly. On paper. But as they enter the NFC West division race, they could be looking up in the standings to an Arizona team whose opening schedule is significantly easier. The key to the Cardinals’ fate? The chemistry between new quarterback Kevin Kolb and primary threat Larry Fitzgerald. Facing Carolina, Washington and Seattle to start the season? I didn’t retain much from high school chemistry, but that looks like a catalyst to me.

Fitzgerald faces an old nemesis on the Rams roster in cornerback Ron Bartell, who Fitz has called the toughest cornerback matchup in the league. Says Bartell, “When the ball is close or Fitzgerald’s just getting it, I try to play through his hands and into his helmet. He’s got the best hands in the league by far, so you want to be physical on his hands.” Whatever Bartell is doing is paying off as Fitzgerald has fewer receptions against the Rams than any other NFC West opponent over the last three years.

While the Cardinals’ offense is trending up, the defense is trending steadily downward. But the exploits of a few playmakers like Adrian Wilson or rookie Patrick Peterson can make up for the weakness of the rest of their unit and turn this game around. Again, this is a pick that we are split on as a group, but I can’t help fearing a letdown in this game that the Rams should win.

Prediction: Loss

Derek: “Back on the road for the 3rd time in four games the Rams struggle in seeing Kevin Kolb for the first time. Larry Fitzgerald perhaps the top WR in the league controls the game for Arizona.”

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