Bradford, Rams take a step back against the Cowboys

AP Photo / LM Otero.

There are nice ways to play off preseason losses. But after the Rams’ first string offense and defense fell apart against an undermanned Dallas Cowboys team, playing without Demarcus Ware or their top three pass-catchers, being nice just isn’t realistic. Jeff Fisher’s new team regressed to a lot of bad habits that they retained from the Steve Spagnuolo era: poor positioning and poorer tackling on defense, and a complete inability to handle the pass rush on offense.

The latter breakdown falls on Sam Bradford, who saw his preseason stock plummet in a woeful 6-17 performance that was somehow both better and worse than the numbers suggest. On the positive side, Bradford did make a number of good plays – just not as many as he did a week ago. But on the negative side, Bradford again showed a susceptibility to fall apart mentally and mechanically in the face of a pass rush, an achilles heel that NFL teams will be happy to continue to shoot arrows at. 

It’s nearly impossible to grade this game without comparing to the previous week against Kansas City’s vanilla defensive set. Bradford looked like an All-Pro in that game, making four outstanding plays and no negative ones in his 16 snaps. This week, though, Sam’s game grade takes a significant tumble. Here is my per-snap breakdown. 

Down Play Grade
Possesion 1, down 3-0
1-10 Slant to Gibson for 14 yards +
1-10 Pass incomplete to Kendricks +
2-10 Handoff to Pead
3-7 Sacked by Hatcher (Ojinnaka blown block) ~
Possession 2, down 10-0
1-10 Play-fake, corner route to Kendricks for 26 yards ++
1-10 False Start – Richardson
1-15 Handoff to Pead
2-15 Handoff to Pead
3-13 Pass incomplete to Kendricks. Good target and set, but throw comes out a hair late. Kendricks gets blasted on play.  ~
Possession 3, down 17-3
1-10 Handoff to Richardson
2-5 Bradford incomplete to Steve Smith. Terrible footwork. -
3-5 Bradford sacked by Sean Lee. Amendola failed to recognize blitz. (Breakdown below.) ~
Possession 4, down 17-3
1-10 Pass incomplete to Gibson. Terrible footwork, jerked the throw over his head. -
2-10 Pass complete to Amendola. +
3-6 Pass incomplete, hit as thrown. Amendola, primary read, couldn’t escape jam and broke off his route. ~
Possession 5, down 17-6
1-10 Handoff to Richardson
2-6 Handoff to Richardson
3-1 Pass incomplete to Steve Smith. Again Ojinnaka gives up the rush, Sam fails to slide in pocket to create space. No plant, throw is wildly off line. -
4-1 Fake punt, Matt Daniels runs for 30
1-10 Pass incomplete to Richardson (drop). Escaped rush, slipped and threw off balance, but should have been caught. ~
2-10 Screen pass to Richardson. Perfectly timed, thrown. +
1-10 Handoff to Richardson. Bradford falls down on handoff. Again footwork is way off. ~
2-7 Handoff to Richardson
1-10 Play-fake to Richardson, throw to Steve Smith. +
2-3 Pass incomplete to Pead. Pressured, throw sails. ~
3-3 Pass incomplete to Amendola (drop). Penalty – offsides on Dallas ~
1-Goal (9) Pass incomplete to Pettis in end zone (drop). Great play call, fantastic set and back-shoulder pass. Pettis turns, puts his hands on the ball but can’t come down with it. Difficult athletic play, but has to be made.  +
2-Goal (9) Pass complete to McNeil. Smith was primary, but ran a terrible route and got swallowed up. ~
3-Goal (5) Pass incomplete to Richardson. Could have thrown McNeil open in the middle, but Richardson crossed in front. Sam locked on RB. More difficult throw, smaller window, batted away. -
4-Goal (5) Pass incomplete to Steve Smith (batted away). Nobody open, Bradford failed to extend play with his feet. -

As you can see from these grades, Bradford wasn’t alone in the Rams’ struggle to defeat the pass rush ginned up by Rob Ryan and the Cowboys. His receivers failed to bail him out on several occasions, as an examination of Sean Lee’s game-turning sack shows.

The setup: Rams face a 3rd and five, down 10-3 after Isaiah Pead’s second consecutive strong kickoff return gives them good starting field position. Rams set up with three WRs, 1 TE (McNeil) and 1 RB (Pead) lined up alongside Bradford.

Lee-sack-1

After the snap: The Cowboys rush six men from their seven-man front, including Sean Lee (50) lined up over McNeil and Orlando Scandrick (32) covering Danny Amendola in the slot. McNeil releases off the line without getting a chip on Lee.

Lee-sack-2

Plus 1 second: Sam is targeting Danny as his primary read. “Separation” isn’t a problem, as no one is covering him, but field awareness is. Instead of recognizing the blitz and turning his head toward the QB to become a ‘hot’ read, Danny continues steaming up the field. Sam has a blocker (admittedly a poor one in Pead) to pick up Danny’s man, and the throw could be made right here to pick up the first down.

Meanwhile, Barry Richardson has already gotten his QB hit by turning toward the wrong man.

Lee-sack-3

Plus two seconds: Bradford breaks his gaze from Danny’s back (no hands there) and turns toward his secondary target, McNeil. However, McNeil shows the same lack of situational awareness as Amendola, rumbling downfield with his nameplate facing his quarterback. At this point, even with Isaiah Pead able to chip his man, Bradford is already sacked. In turning his head, at least, he is able to see Lee coming.

Meanwhile, Brian Mattison is somehow blocking two Cowboys, while Barry Richardson is blocking none.

Here’s the play in real time, in animated GIF form (thanks @squick3n), so you can show how quickly this play falls apart.

Sean Lee sack

The play was a breakdown on multiple fronts around Bradford, so we can’t call it his fault. However, it had a disastrous effect on his mechanics and makeup, as his footwork got very fishy over the next two drives.

This is the reason that Bradford gets lumped in with Blaine Gabbert when NFL analysts (good ones even, like Greg Cosell) break down his game. After a nightmarish season of getting the tar knocked out of him, Bradford is a rehab project. A talented one, as we see when he has time to throw, but a rehab project nonetheless. His pocket presence is not what it should be, and if the timing of a play breaks down, Bradford’s learned tendency has become to bail out on the play – either by throwing the ball before his receiver comes open, or by accepting the inevitability of the pass rush coming at him, and turtling to protect himself. 

Is this a reason to give up on Bradford? No. But these tendencies must be unlearned before he can fully untap his potential, and become the consistent pocket passer that the Rams need him to be. And in the meantime, expect Steven Jackson and the Rams running game to get leaned on heavily through Bradford’s rehabilitation process.

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