13 Nov 2007
by Ned Macey
Before the season, a 37-29 contest between the Rams and Saints seemed like an eminently reasonable outcome. After eight games, however, the Rams were 0-8 and the offense was inept. They had not scored an offensive touchdown in their previous four road games. The Saints, meanwhile, had rebounded from a 0-4 start with four consecutive wins by a combined score of 122-67.
Unfortunately for the Saints, their pass defense is capable of making any opponent a powerful offense. By halftime, the Rams had 17 points and were on their way to 34-7 lead that not even their own incompetent defense could give away in the fourth quarter. The Rams finally had their full complement of skill position players on the field. The Saints' inability to generate a consistent pass rush allowed the Rams to make do with their ramshackle offensive line, and Marc Bulger had a field day with the Saints' substandard secondary.
The result was extremely disappointing for the Saints, who missed a chance to climb into a tie for first place in the NFC South. At a certain point, their poor pass defense is almost too big a liability, and nothing is being done to address it. The offense has made adjustments to help them overcome some early-season struggles, but they struggled blocking the blitz in the first half and were undone by just a couple of bad plays.
St. Louis has been built around its offensive skill players for years, but those players have been supported by the great Orlando Pace. The Greatest Show on Turf from 1999 through 2001 was exceptional, but the ensuing years have seen a great deal of mediocrity. They had their first very good offense since 2001 just last season when new coach Scott Linehan emphasized the running game and ball security. This year's offense, however, is far worse than anything Rams' fans have seen since the Tony Banks era.
The difference between last year's 8-8 team and this year's 1-8 team is exclusively offensive decline. The defense and special teams roughly match last year's poor units. The enormity of the offensive decline is largely the result of unimaginable offensive injuries.
Quarterback Marc Bulger has played with broken ribs that limited his effectiveness early in the season and caused him to miss several games. All-everything running back Steven Jackson injured his knee and has missed four full games. Isaac Bruce missed two games with a hamstring injury. Drew Bennett missed two games and battled leg injuries throughout. Torry Holt has missed no games but has a knee injury that is limiting his explosiveness.
Even worse have been the injuries crippling the offensive line. The most important injury was the Week 1 injury to Pace that knocked him out for the season, but his surrounding cast has also been decimated. Guard Mark Setterstrom started the first three games before being lost to injured reserve. Guard Adam Goldberg is also on IR. Center Richie Incognito has missed five games. Brett Romberg has missed two games.
Of the five starters on opening day this season, only two were active Sunday, and none played the same position. The right side of the line featured Brandon Gorin and Nick Leckey, both of whom were picked up after the season started.
Needless to say, the resulting offensive struggles are not too surprising. The question is whether this explosion against New Orleans portends great things for the future. The Rams did have their full complement of skill players for the first time all season. As Jackson slowly regains health, they should revert to a dominant position going forward, right?
The Rams cannot possibly be worse than they were in the first eight games, but this offense still has major problems. The line was unchallenged by one of the worst pass rushes in the league. The Saints still managed to sack Bulger four times, but many of these sacks came on blitzes, and the front four got very little push. Bulger, left with time in the pocket, picked apart a very poor secondary.
Those opportunities have been few and far between for Bulger this season. Coming off a career season, he has a total of five touchdown passes and eight interceptions. He has been sacked 22 times and hit innumerable others in just seven games. These hits led to the aforementioned broken ribs that rendered him painfully unproductive in Weeks 3 and 4. He got abused by the powerful pass rush of Seattle two weeks ago. He responded to play well against Cleveland, and their poor pass rush, last week. Two weeks of solid play in a row is progress, but may be providing false hope.
The truth is that Cleveland and New Orleans both have pass defenses that go beyond bad to some other level of awfulness. New Orleans is unable to generate pressure with their front four or cover with their back seven. That somewhat ties the hands of a defensive play-caller.
The Rams attacked all portions of the field. On early downs, they would go for comeback routes to the right side on Mike McKenzie. Against the blitz, they had backs and tight ends wide-open in the flat. They found Randy McMichael several times down the middle of the field against linebackers. On third-and-long, however, they always went the same way: at former Indianapolis cornerback Jason David.
The Rams faced a number of third-and-long situations, and they converted way too many of them with throws at David. Bulger converted four of his first five third-and-7 or longer situations, and all conversions came to David's side of the field. Scott Linehan is probably kicking himself that he called for a shovel pass on a third-and-16 in the first quarter instead of testing David.
The Saints came into the game with the second worst defense in third-and-long situations in the whole league. This problem will continue to haunt the Saints, but on some weeks, it will remain hidden. The Saints will likely win easily on those weeks, and people will reassert their opinion that the Saints are Super Bowl contenders.
The reason it will hide some weeks is the nature of third downs. If the Saints make a play on any third down, the drive stalls and forces a punt or field goal attempt. The Rams scored a total of 24 points on the four drives where they made long conversions. Had the Saints made a defensive play to stop any of the third downs, the Rams would have punted.
This difference is obvious when we consider the performance of the worst team in the league in third-and-long situations before Sunday: the Rams. In a 7-7 game, the Saints faced a third-and-14 at the Rams' 37-yard line. Any sort of positive yardage would lead to a field goal, and a conversion may end up in a touchdown. Instead, the Rams brought a blitz from the outside. Will Witherspoon sacked Drew Brees, forcing a punt. The next time New Orleans crossed midfield, they faced a third-and-9 but botched the snap, resulting in a punt.
Individual plays make a tremendous difference in a football game. The Saints offense generally had its way with the Rams but made too many crucial mistakes. Brees threw two terrible interceptions to receivers who were never open. He got an intentional grounding penalty when the Rams properly diagnosed a screen pass, forcing the Saints into one of the aforementioned third-and-longs. In the second half, the Saints failed on a fourth-and-1 carry at midfield. Those four plays and the messed-up snap ended the Saints' second through sixth drives.
The Rams defense certainly played a role in all of these stops, but the Saints buckled at the least sign of pressure. The Rams defense effectively made four or five plays the whole game, and that was enough to allow their offense to pile up an insurmountable lead. The Rams defense's struggles in prevent defense made the final score closer than it should have been, or this game would have strongly resembled the Saints' first four losses. In those games, early turnovers and failures to execute set up opposing offenses to destroy the Saints' suspect pass defense.
The poor pass defense will always leave opponents with a chance to match the Saints' sometimes potent offense. Without a consistent running game, the Saints are left at the mercy of their effective but highly volatile passing attack. In sum, they feature an at-times explosive offense but are not a very good football team.
The rest of their schedule includes only one game against a team with a winning record. That team is Tampa Bay, the main competition for the NFC South crown. That game is effectively a must-win for New Orleans, because the elements of Sunday's loss strongly suggest the Rams will not be the last bad team to beat them.
St. Louis has also featured an at-times explosive offense on a not-very-good football team for years. The return of the explosive offense got them out of the winless column. The offense will appear again from time to time when they face a poor opposing pass rush. That could be as soon as next week in San Francisco. Games against Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay, all at home, could bring out actual boo-birds rather than salutes to the iconic Bruce. The Rams should pull out a couple of wins down the stretch. Given their aging offensive core, the improved play hardly brings a tinge of excitement for the future.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
24 comments, Last at 16 Nov 2007, 12:31am by max