Do you believe in moral victories? If so, there was a lot to like in the St Louis Rams' spirited 20-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. If not, then the NFL Draft starts on April 25th and you can busily set yourself to playing armchair GM to get us to the next level.
The positive signs of growth were on display for the Rams today. They went toe to toe with a team that had steamrolled its opponents over the month of December. (Final month tally for Seattle: 5-0 record, +138 point differential.) They brought the fight to Seattle in their vaunted home stadium, quieting the legendary 12th man for long periods of time.
However, the pains associated with that growth were also on display, as a mountain of penalties from Jeff Triplette's crew nearly buried the young Rams, and wonky feet by both of their rookie kickers put the team .
That wasn't what beat them, though. They were out-talented by a Seahawks team that is three seasons into its rebuild, with remarkable rookie Russell Wilson escaping a jailbreak blitz to launch the Seahawks into scoring position on its go-ahead drive, and Richard Sherman making a spectacular break on Sam Bradford's final throw of the game to seal it.
We'll have more time to reflect on this game and on the season. Quickly, though, here are three signs of growth, and three painful moments from my immediate recollection.
1. Chris Long and the Rams pass rush sacked Wilson 6 times, taking a share of the NFL lead.
While rushing only four players on most downs — one of our pregame keys — the Rams put a massive load of pressure on Wilson and the Seattle offensive front, shutting down the NFL's most potent offense over the last month. Long tallied three sacks on his own, and Robert Quinn, William Hayes and Jo-Lonn Dunbar got to the QB as well.
Unfortunately, that pressure didn't get home on key drives in the third and fourth quarter, as Wilson showcased his trademark escapability to set up scoring drives.
2. Sam Bradford looked poised and protected behind a makeshift offensive line.
Paul Boudreau gets the positional coach MVP award for his work this season, which was capped by an offensive line featuring its tenth new starter of the season, right guard Chris Williams. Bradford had time to work in the pocket all game long, making hay from five-wide, no-protect formations.
Seattle's defensive backs did a good job taking away Sam's deep options, but he had a good (if not great) day throwing the football, capped by an Austin Pettis catch in the back of the end zone to give the Rams an early lead. The Rams offensive gameplan revolved around #8 today, and he held up well. Clearly, acquiring and coaching up weapons for this offense will be a priority this offseason.
3. Steven Jackson looks far from done, but his backups got significant work.
Pregame discussion featured an epic debate about Steven Jackson's future in a Rams uniform, questions that Jackson seemed ready to put to rest. Jackson got only eleven carries on the day, averaging nearly five yards per carry, and added seven catches on seven targets in the passing game, finishing just shy of 100 total yards on the day.
However, he also rested for significant stretches, which gave Isaiah Pead (21 yards on 5 carries) and Daryl Richardson (14 yards on four touches) time to do work. Pead seemed to benefit from the time more than Richardson, a reversal of early season trends. None of these backs took the game on their shoulders and put it away, which leaves a lot of questions to be answered this offseason, but it's becoming easier to see a scenario in which Pead grabs a significant share of a platoon.
1. The rookie kickers struggled on the day.
The Rams took a big risk by cutting veterans Josh Brown and Donnie Jones in favor of a pair of rookies, and in the early going that decision looked brilliant. Hell, without 58- and 60-yard field goals from Greg Zuerlein, and a touchdown pass off a fake FG from Johnny Hekker, the Rams don't beat Seattle in their first matchup.
But both have been shaky commodities in the second half of the season, and both struggled a little today. Zuerlein missed a 50-yarder that he would have called a "gimme" in September, and Hekker failed to pin Seattle inside the 20 yard line on any of his punts. A 33-yard punt from his own 9 yard line set up Seattle's game-opening score.
That's a six-point swing in a seven-point loss. Not a killer, but setbacks from the feet in a game of inches are never good. However, both have bright futures with more work on their techniques.
2. The Rams continue a trio of inexplicable trends.
Our defense forced two more fumbles today, and recovered neither. That put an exclamation point on a bewildering trend: the Rams forced 17 fumbles on the season, and receovered only four, a crazy low 23.5% recovery rate.
Meanwhile, the Rams continue to pick up foolish pre-snap penalties on both sides of the ball. We'll have to wait for Mike Sando's penalty watch for the final season tally, but eight of the Rams' 13 penalties on the day came before the snap. That's forty easy yards to an offense that wasn't getting any other help from our defense.
Finally, the Rams continued to lose the field-position battle. They came into the game with the worst average starting field position in the league, per Football Outsiders drive stats. Their average starting point is their own 23 yard line. Out of ten drives today, only three started beyond the 23, and their only "good" field position (starting point: their own 41) came courtesy of a botched onside kick call by Pete Carroll.
3. Craig Dahl…
Not sure I need to say more, other than that an athletic free safety has to be very, very high on the Rams' draft board in April. Very high.
— Wynnde (@wynnde13) December 30, 2012
Earmuffs, Craig. It might get nasty in the offseason.