zac-stacy-tavon-austin-benny-cunningham-CHI-2013

Triple-threat running attack mauls Bears in a 42-21 win

It's safe to say that the Rams have found a new identity in their two-game winning streak. Perhaps better said, they've found an old one. 

After opening the season without a known commodity starting at running back, the Rams invested heavily on the perimeter to prepare for an aerial assault helmed by an efficient Sam Bradford. Bradford then averaged 45.5 passing attempts per game through the month of September, but only had 17 points per game to show for it. The Rams were a team that constantly found itself behind in games, throwing to catch up. Moreover, the team didn't have a single rushing touchdown in any of Bradford's starts. 

Against the Chicago Bears, though, the new-look Rams showed that they've perfected a much different approach. Backup Kellen Clemens dropped back to throw 24 times, and completed only 10 passes. But he handed off a total of 29 times to a dynamic trio of players in Tavon Austin, Zac Stacy, and Benny Cunningham, and got a total of 261 yards and three touchdowns out of them. The result, despite a series of officiating gaffes that kept Chicago momentarily alive, was a 42-21 blowout win. 

This follows a trend that started in a 38-8 demolition of the Indianapolis Colts before the bye. In that game, Kellen Clemens dropped back to throw only 18 times and handed off to running backs 37 times, getting 138 yards and a score. That's better than a 2:1 ratio in play-calling favoring the run. 

Nine completions = 38 points. Ten completions = 42 points. That's an eye-popping 4.2 points per completed pass over two games. 

While Bradford was quarterback, he completed 159 passes and his team scored 156 points, resulting in a very different math. No one will argue that Clemens has played the position better than Bradford, though. What we have here is not so much a quarterback controversy, but a controversy of offensive philosophies. 

What we also have is a two-game win streak and a 5-6 record that, but for some questionable red zone plays against Tennessee and Seattle, could be 7-4 and second place in the division. What we have is a team that has discovered its identity in the absence of its franchise player. 

Five Stars (because three isn't enough)

#1: Zac Stacy. Stacy set a trend for the game on the very first play from scrimmage, running behind Jake Long and Cory Harkey for an eleven yard gain against a Bears defense that has struggled to stop the run all year long. He continued with a strong first half of running (87 yards, 1 TD on 12 carries) that saw the Rams score on four of their six first-half possessions. Stacy's emergence as a bellcow back formed the foundation of this offensive transformation. 

#2: Benny Cunningham. Once again, Cunningham is able to finish what Stacy started. Held out of the second half with apparent concussion symptons, Stacy had to watch as Cunningham took the reins. That he did, with his first 100-yard game and first touchdown as a pro on 13 total touches. He made a couple of mistakes in pass protection, but otherwise showed himself to be a capable member of the rotation. 

#3: Tavon Austin. Austin touched the ball only five times (two on returns), and came away with 129 total yards and a touchdown. That is almost ho-hum after his 314-total-yard explosion vs the Colts, but it continues to show how dangerous he can be as a weapon. His low usage also underscores the lengths to which the Rams will go to protect their investment in their high draft pick. 

#4: Rams OLBs. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Alec Ogletree had the biggest consecutive plays of the first half by stuffing the Bears on 3rd- and 4th-and goal from the one yard line, as Marc Trestman decided to roll the dice down 24-14. Ogletree broke off his coverage as Josh McCown started scrambling toward the goal line, and met the QB in a jarring collision at the one. On fourth down, Dunbar successfully read run and surged through the offensive line to stuff Michael Bush for a loss before the play could even get started. 

#5: Robert Quinn. The Rams defensive line successfully shut down Matt Forte when he ran on conventional run plays (i.e. when McCown was under center), and repeatedly crashed the pocket against passing formations. However, the Bears invited this pressure and attempted to defeat it with quick passes and delayed handoffs. However, if you invite Robert Quinn into your kitchen all day long, don't be surprised when he feasts. He effectively ended the game with a strip-sack of McCown, which he scooped up and ran in for a touchdown and the game's final points. 

Just missing the cut: Jared Cook, Jake Long, Stedman Bailey, Isaiah Pead (!). 

LVPs

I don't like using the word "Goats" when my team is celebrating a blowout win, but there were some troubling performances nonetheless. 

#1: Chris Givens. Givens appeared poised for a breakout in the preseason, looking like a more complete receiver capable of winning on a variety of routes. However, he failed to come up with a catch on six targets today, the result of mental mistakes and a failure to play the game physically. He rounded off a post route and failed to get a shove on his DB on a key third down route, allowing the DB to defend the ball. That set up the Rams' only punt of the half. He also inexplicably failed to keep his feet down in bounds on a key sideline catch that could have set up a first-half ending field goal. 

#2: Brandon McGee. McGee, the rookie from Miami, really didn't belong in this game. But the Rams were forced to play "next man up" at cornerback after losing Cortland Finnegan for the season and Trumaine Johnson for the remainder of the game. He had am embarrassingly bad pair of penalties that set up and extended a crucial goal-line situation for the Bears. 

#3: Jerome Boger. The long-tenured NFL ref added yet another embarrassing game to his catalog, going extremely flag-happy in a vain attempt to "regain control" of a game that was never out of it. The spark was a mini-brawl between the Bears' Kyle Long and William Hayes that saw Kyle's brother Chris race in from the sidelines to break up. It was an unusual situation, but far from a crime against the NFL Shield. Boger's crew threw a series of increasingly frustrating borderline calls for the rest of the game, culminating in a heinous "roughing the passer" call against Michael Brockers on a perfectly clean hit on McCown. 

Signature Sequence

Photo via StLouisRams.com

The Bears spent fourteen minutes of clock time at the Rams' one yard line in the midpoint of the fourth quarter, thanks to a series of mishaps and misfortunes.

The Bears were put there after a blatant pass interference call on McGee, who simply grabbed ahold of Earl Bennett's jersey like a baby sloth and just held on for the ride. Another penalty by McGee (defensive holding, just as blatant) two plays later restarted the down marker. A touchdown pass two plays after that was nullified by an offensive holding call. Yet another called touchdown was overturned after a lengthy video review, and the ball was placed once again at the one. Then Michael Brockers came streaming through the pocket for what should have been a signature sack on third and goal, but again Boger's flag flew. 

"Roughing the passer." Automatic first down at the one. And after eight plays, the Bears finally punched the ball in. 

The Rams' response? Get mad, and take it out on the other team. In an eight-play sequence of their own, the Rams brawled down the field for 80 yards and an answering touchdown. Benny Cunningham racked up the first 31 and the last 30 of those yards, running through a series of yawning holes cleared out by his offensive line. And when it came to the last yard on the field, Cunningham laid out, Superman style. 

The play came under review, but there would be no doubt. And in a fitting coda, Isaiah Pead came out of his doghouse to score the two-point conversion and restore the Rams' 14-point lead. There would be no denying the Rams on the ground on this day, regardless of who ran it. 

The Rams have been winning with caveman football, beating two teams in the playoff picture. This will be a very different Rams team that lines up against the San Francisco 49ers than when they last met, on a Thursday night in September. It's easy to believe that these new-look Rams are looking forward to that rematch.  

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