by Ben Muth
The St. Louis Rams played the division-leading Arizona Cardinals close for most of the game this past Sunday before three straight turnovers from a now-benched quarterback in the fourth quarter ended any chance at a win. The Rams were able to hang around mostly because of what they did on one side of the ball. St. Louis played well on defense and had one nice drive and one big play on offense. A big reason the offense struggled (and with apologies to Austin Davis, probably THE big reason they struggled) was a poor performance from the offensive line. The line looked out of sync and overmatched all game, and frankly looked outclassed by Arizona's front seven.
Things were bad for the offensive line from the first drive, when the Rams went three-and-out. Let's start with the second play of the game, because it does a nice job of illustrating how putrid St. Louis was on the backside of zone plays all game long.
Since the Cardinals were living in a Bear front for most of the game (a head-up nose tackle and 3-techniques over both guards) the backside really starts with center Scott Wells (No. 63). Like everyone else, Wells had a poor game. In the play above, Wells blocks his guy (the backside inside linebacker), but does so at the expense of his right guard Davin Joseph (No. 69). Look at how skinny Wells gets to avoid any contact with the nose tackle. I understand wanting to avoid high-low blocks, but refs will almost always allow you to throw a stiff arm on your way to the second level. There's no need to dip and rip.
It's very possible that this was what the Rams game-planned: release the center to the second level quickly and hope the backside guard can cut-off/cut block the nose tackle with no help. If that's the case then the blame falls on Joseph, or more accurately, the coaching staff.
At this point pretty much everyone in the NFL should know what Davin Joseph can and cannot do. If your game plan relies heavily on Davin Joseph cutting players aligned head-up on the man next to him, you're gonna have a bad time. In his nine-year NFL career Joseph has never been a guy who can move quickly enough laterally to make that block, and asking him to do so is like asking your dog to cook you dinner.
Joseph misses the cut block (he doesn't come close to getting his head in front of the playside quad like you want) but his man doesn't even make the tackle. Right tackle Joe Barksdale (No. 72) is just as bad as Joseph on the backside. He doesn't get a great first step, he almost steps right underneath himself, and he never comes close to covering up or cutting off the 3-technique. Frankly, he doesn't look particularly interested in trying.
A lot of St. Louis' problems up front can be attributed to Wells and Joseph just not working very well together. Considering Joseph started the season for the Rams, his complete lack of chemistry with Wells is a little surprising. Even when Wells tried to offer more help to Joseph, things went poorly.
Here, Wells engages the nose tackle fully, so Joseph doesn't try to cut him. The issue is that Wells looks like he's trying to escape the entire play (he never really squares up on the nose tackle, just tries to rip through his shoulder), thinking Joseph will over take the block. Joseph, though, is trying to shove the nose tackle completely on to Wells. Different style of combo block from the first play, but it's the same result of a 330-pound nose tackle in the hole.
There's a good chance that this play wouldn't have worked even if Wells and Joseph were on the same page. Joseph's first step is horrible and it puts him behind the block for the rest of the play. He actually loses ground with that first step, which is pretty inexcusable for a nine-year veteran. Also of note, Barksdale fails to get his head inside and cut off the 3-technique again. It cannot be stated enough how brutal the Rams were on the backside.
Joseph had trouble working with Wells in the running game, but he had trouble working with anyone in the passing game. Take this play from early in the first half.
The Rams look like they're in some sort of man scheme (notice both offensive tackles pinch inside at the snap; that wouldn't happen in any slide scheme), with the five linemen responsible for the two down defensive linemen and the two stand-up inside players. The backs are responsible for the two stand-up edge players. So St. Louis has five guys for four potential rushers.
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Joseph immediately slides away from the only down lineman near him at the snap. That creates more space that Barksdale has to close as he slides inside against the defensive tackle. I understand that Joseph is worried about the two inside linebackers (in name only; one of those guys is actually a defensive lineman), but they're off the ball. Joseph needs to stay put and provide body presence for his tackle. As long as he has his eyes in the right spot, he should be able to get inside to any blitzer that comes. But he drifts inside and allows a space through which the defensive tackle can work.
Because the Football Gods are just, the blitz actually comes outside of Joseph as the 3-technique (No. 93) and the Mike (No. 50) are running a stunt. That means that Joseph would have been in great position to pass off the stunt if he had not drifted away at the snap. Joseph tries to redirect outside but Campbell has already started to split the double team before Joseph really even commits to it. The result is a sack followed by a punt (this was on a third down).
Joseph showed no prejudice when deciding in which direction he was going to overslide. Here, the Rams are half-sliding to the right, so Joseph knows he has help inside. Now, no one has advocated more for oversetting someone a little bit when you know you have help, but there's a difference between oversetting someone and flying outside of them immediately at the snap. That difference is between making sure you get to use the help assigned to you, and not screwing over the guy trying to help you.
A good indicator that you have overdone your overset is when you stop sliding outside and do a 180 back inside and end up staring at the quarterback. It's a bad play from Joseph (you can't get beat inside THAT quickly even if you have help), and this was another consistent problem for the Rams. I've never seen a team so intent on turning double-team situations in one-on-one blocks. Here's Joe Barksdale doing the same thing to Joseph that Joseph just did to Wells.
I mean, good lord, is that terrible. This was on a third down too, so I don't think it was the right time to try the world's worst jump set. I understand wanting to be aggressive and throwing a changeup of a pass set occasionally, but this is just bad ball. Barksdale is crossing his feet over, he's reaching instead of punching… this is as bad of a football play as you'll see in the NFL. This may be worse than the guy who got trucked by Connor Barwin on Monday night. The Rams managed to turn a 5-on-3 advantage into three one-on-one blocks and a sack. (The only time two offensive linemen are engaged with one defensive lineman at the same time is a hand check from Joseph on the nose tackle right off the snap). That's almost impossible.
You may have noticed that the left side of St. Louis' line has been conspicuously absent from this column. That's because they generally played much better than Wells and the right side of the line (meaning decent), but their hands aren't clean either.
Once again the Cardinals are in a Bear front, and once again there's a breakdown up front for the Rams. This time it's Rodger Saffold at left guard (No. 76). He had been struggling to reach 3-techniques for a lot of the first half (hence why so many runs were cut back into the poorly blocked side) and he overcompensated here. He's way too wide on his approach and the 3-technique (Calais Campbell, who had a monster game) beat him inside easily for a tackle for loss. I should point out that even if Saffold makes the block, the Wells & Joseph Combo Block Comedy Hour once again fails, so this play wasn't going anywhere.
And finally, just so everyone gets to roll in the mud, we go to the rookie left tackle Greg Robinson (No. 79) in the fourth quarter.
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Woof. The bad part about this is that the Rams actually have this one blocked up except for Robinson. The game was essentially over at this point, so it's not as back-breaking as Barksdale giving up a sack to knock the Rams out of field goal range, but it's still bad football.
And that pretty much sums up the game. Austin Davis' three turnovers were killer, but the Rams had no business being in that game to begin with. The crazy thing is I've seen this Rams unit play well in the past, but this was as bad of a performance as I've seen since I started writing this column almost five years ago. It'll be interesting to see if this offensive line can rebound back to "adequate" moving forward.