It’s never good to get shredded like the Rams’ defense did by Peyton Manning in Saturday night’s first half at Sports Authority Field. It is good, however, to man up in the red zone and allow just 10 points among the 49 plays that Denver ran. Not only that, but the Rams scored seven themselves on one of those plays, so the Rams came away with a win in that regard, and a victory in that their No. 1 units beat Denver’s 20-10 in the two quarters they played.
I don’t remember a team running that many plays in a first half. Back in Super Bowl XXXIV, the Rams ran 45 first-half plays against Jeff Fisher’s Titans and scored only nine points. But Manning and the Broncos looked like the University of Oregon with their tempo and efficiency.
Fisher was pleased that the Rams could hold Manning and the Broncos to 33 percent (1-3) in the red zone. Fisher has coached a lot against Manning when they were both in the AFC South, so the Rams coach understands that “oftentimes when you play Peyton Manning, we look at it as field goals are wins for the defense, and so we were able to do that.”
Keep in mind that the Rams didn’t do anything exotic against the Broncos, so Manning was able to pile up four third-down conversions in nine opportunities against the least sophisticated defense he’ll see. Fisher doesn’t seem worried about his third-down defense. “It’s not where it needs to be, but we’ve said we’re kind of holding some things and hope that that’ll help increase our third-down efficiency once the regular season starts.”
My takes from the rest of the game:
*Fisher said that because of the injury to Rodger Saffold, the Rams weren’t even really trying to run the ball. “Our anticipation was that Rodger would only be able to play a couple series. He surprised us and himself and played the whole first half, so that allowed Sam to stay in,” Fisher said. “We tipped towards the pass, as opposed to the run in the game. That’s why we really didn’t get the run game going.” I hope that’s the case. The Rams haven’t gotten any push from the middle of their offensive line this preseason. If they don’t have at least a semblance of a running game, opposing teams will pin their ears back and come after Bradford.
*I like Austin Pettis as a red-zone performer, but he simply doesn’t have the speed and ability to separate vertically. Bradford had seven incompletions, and three of them were passes in Pettis’ reach and he couldn’t shake coverage. The Rams need to get Brian Quick into the game and let him get experience. There are going to be mistakes, like the one Chris Givens made on not turning around on a sight adjustment with the Broncos blitzing. Those are things, as coaches say, that can be fixed. But this team needs to get some mileage out of Quick’s physical abilities.
*For all of our wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Rams’ poor tackling in the first two games, it was really good in this one. In fact, I don’t remember a moment in the first half, with the starters in there, where I thought “he should have made that play.” I’ve definitely thought that in the first two games, against Cleveland and Green Bay.
*Like everyone else, I loved the performance of Alec Ogletree. While I really liked the effort and hustle in stripping and recovering Ronnie Hillman’s fumble in the second quarter, I liked his ability to find the ball and defend the pass better. His breakup of a Manning pass intended for Andre Caldwell in the end zone was picture perfect, and his interception of a Manning pass late in the half was a big-time play. The touchdown was icing on the cake.
*I believe Rodney McLeod should start at safety. Fisher won’t go there yet, saying, “Typically, guys don’t lose their jobs because of injury, but we’ll just re-evaluate it when ‘Stew’ (Darian Stewart) comes back.” The problem the Rams have is that Stewart has been injured for the better part of Fisher’s tenure as head coach. McLeod is reliable and durable, and can play.
*Special teams on Saturday were spectacular. The only Ram non-touchback kickoff return was by Benny Cunningham for 33 yards. Tavon Austin had the 81-yard punt return that set up the first Rams TD, and averaged 52 for his two returns. Johnny Hekker was amazing, hitting three punts for a 53-yard average and no returns, with two inside the 20. And Greg Zuerlein hit 35- and 58-yard field goals, with all of his kickoffs going for touchbacks. That was a Super Bowl-quality special teams performance.
In 1999, the Rams turned things around instantly, and many fans jumped on board and just assumed that good football entailed winning by 21 or more points every week. Dick Vermeil heard the complaints when the Rams would win by four touchdowns and people would say, “Well, they really didn’t play that well.” DV always pointed out that the other team is trying to win, and that they get paid, too. Many of those people are still observers, and don’t understand the concept that no team is perfect, and of building a team through a process. That’s what the Rams are doing now. This is going to be a fun journey starting on Sept. 8 vs. Arizona.