There isn’t much left to say about the Rams’ 22-7 victory over the Broncos that hasn’t already been said.
Even if you thought the Rams would live up to their reputation of playing up to their competition, you didn’t anticipate what transpired last Sunday. You couldn’t have.
The Rams not only defeated the Broncos, they came within one blown defensive coverage of shutting Peyton Manning out. We’re talking about total domination of a team that played in the Super Bowl last year and is viewed as one of the favorites to get back to the title game this season.
But after dissecting what happened last week, I’m more interested in what happens next. There’s been one thing that has eluded the Rams this season, if not during the three-year era under Jeff Fisher and Les Snead: consistency.
As impressive as the win over the Broncos was – and it was impressive – this is the same team that had already beaten the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks and defeated the 49ers on the road. But what followed those victories were a 34-7 blowout in Kansas City and a 31-14 loss to the Cardinals in which the Rams held a lead heading into the fourth quarter. Following a win earlier this season against the Bucs, the Rams returned home to lose 34-31 to the Cowboys after taking an early 21-0 lead.
Even after dominating the Broncos last week, why should anyone believe that this week will be different and the Rams will collect a victory in San Diego? We’ve bought into the notion that this team has turned the corner before, only to be left disappointed. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 27 times, well, shame on me.
But I do think this time is different. I do think the Rams will go on the road, beat the Chargers and win back-to-back games for only the fifth time under Fisher. The reason is fairly simple: They’ve re-discovered their identity.
One thing that I and many observers of this team failed to realize in training camp, when we were hyping up the addition of Gregg Williams, is that it would take time for his players to adjust to his scheme and for him to adjust to his personnel. Looking back, it was naive to believe that Williams was going to step one foot inside Rams Park and Alec Ogletree was going to be a difference-maker having never played in that defensive scheme before. Or that the timing was going to be perfect between James Laurinaitis and Robert Quinn when they ran twists like a week ago to fool Manning. Or that T.J. McDonald was going to be so comfortable playing in a new system that there would be entire games or halves where he was the best player on the field.
Three weeks ago, however, things clicked for Williams and his personnel. The linebackers are relentlessly attacking the line of scrimmage on run plays instead of being caught up in blocks at the second level. The blitzes are finally getting home instead of being a half-second too late. McDonald is thriving as an in-the-box safety who can be physical both against the run and in the flats in coverage. Quinn, Aaron Donald and the rest of the defensive line are generating consistent pressure, which has masked some of the issues that the Rams were having in the secondary.
In other words, the Rams are finally winning games on their biggest strength: their defense. We thought this unit was good enough to carry the team at times with Sam Bradford out, and while it took a few months for that prophecy to take shape, the moment is finally here.
Now, can they keep this up? Defensively, I think they can. But perhaps the most important question is whether they can duplicate the success they had offensively last week.
Brian Schottenheimer has been a lightning rod for criticism based on his play-calling and game plans over the years. But you have to tip your cap for the way he utilized Tre Mason against the top run defense in the NFL last week. I’ve seen the Rams try to use play-action without first establishing the run (the equivalent to putting the cart before the horse), as well as trying to run power over and over again without the interior of their offensive line getting a good initial push (the equivalent of running your head into a brick wall over and over). At the end of the day, players making plays is what wins games. But players can’t make plays if their coordinators and coaches aren’t putting them in enough situations to succeed.
Against the Broncos, Schottenheimer called his best game of the year. He used stretch runs, traps, counters, draws and even a veer or two in order to utilize Mason’s strengths as a runner.
He also gave his leading rusher 29 carries, which won’t work against every opponent because Mason won’t be able to hold up to the pounding. Still, it definitely worked against a Denver defense that had allowed 47.8 yards rushing in its previous six games.
Once the Rams did establish the run and the Broncos started to cheat up with their linebackers and safeties, Schottenheimer effectively mixed in play-action. That set up wider passing windows for Shaun Hill, who did an outstanding job not turning the ball over and also connecting on some deep passes. Hell, Hill’s 63-yard bomb to Kenny Britt in the first quarter came out of the pistol formation. Who would have thought we’d ever see Schottenheimer use Hill out of the pistol? But he did and, to his credit, it worked.
Thus, if that defense, that running game and that offensive play-caller show up again this week in San Diego, then you will see the Rams finally discover what it takes to be consistent. And you know what? I do think all three components will be on display against the Chargers. For the first time following a Rams win, it feels as though even they know what they’re capable of. This doesn’t mean that they’re going to win out and go to the playoffs. But at the very least, the hope for more consistent efforts may finally be on the way.