National Football League

Stalter’s Game Notebook: Rams-Bears

+ Over the past seven games, the Rams have slowly built an identity on offense. Coming into the season, everyone thought that this would be a pass-first team that spread opponents out and would throw to set up the run. The Rams themselves believed that. But since the win over Jacksonville, it’s clear that Jeff Fisher has gotten back to his roots offensively, and it’s worked. Thanks to the emergence of Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham, this team is pounding the ball between the tackles and allowing the running game to set up the pass. While they may have waited too long to figure out who they were (at least when it comes to making a serious run at the playoffs), credit Fisher and his staff for changing the team’s philosophy on the fly and getting positive results.

+ Over the past two years we’ve criticized this regime for the draft selections of Brian Quick and Isaiah Pead, and rightfully so. Those two were supposed to be part of the Rams’ core for years to come and, while they still may be, they’ve looked more like role players than impact performers. But while the Rams seemingly whiffed on Quick and Pead, they’ve struck gold with Stacy (a fifth-rounder) and Cunningham (an undrafted rookie free agent). Stacy is a cornerstone running back, capable of getting tough yards between the tackles and gaining yards after contact. And Cunningham, if he can stop putting the ball on the ground, provides the Rams with a nice one-two punch to go along with Stacy in their backfield. In today’s NFL, teams can benefit from finding running backs in the middle or late rounds, as opposed to investing a first-round pick on a position that’s no longer a premium. Stacy and Cunningham have emerged as luxuries that came well after the first 32 picks in the draft.

+ While Cunningham deserves the game ball for his 109-yard effort vs. the Bears, credit must be given to the Rams’ offensive line, which continues to open gaping holes in the running game. While pass protection has been an issue at times, the Rams have been consistent with their run-blocking. As Micheal Young and Carey Davis pointed out to me in the postgame show on Sunday, the holes have been there since Week 1. It just took Stacy and Cunningham’s decisiveness to prove it.

+ Kellen Clemens completed just 10 of 22 passes for 167 yards with one touchdown, but his impact measured well beyond the stat sheet. He flashed his mobility inside and outside of the pocket on several occasions on Sunday to help extend plays and/or drives. If there’s one criticism that many people have about Sam Bradford, it’s that he often resembles a statue inside the pocket. But Clemens has a nice feel for pressure and slides to open areas when he knows that defenders are on top of him. He’ll never be a reliable starter because his career completion percentage is just above 50 percent (51.9). But he’s proven more than capable of running Brian Schottenheimer’s offense, and it’s no coincidence that the Rams are 2-0 in games in which he doesn’t turn the ball over. To think that the Rams could be in the middle of a four-game winning streak had he protected the ball better against Seattle and Tennessee…

+ While there’s still room for improvement, we’re starting to see Schottenheimer’s creativity slowly come out. The play design on Tavon Austin’s 65-yard touchdown run on the first drive of the game was fantastic. Normally on a play like that, the quarterback will pitch the ball and continue to his right, which would freeze the defensive end. But on that specific play, Clemens pitched the ball and went left, which is the direction the Rams wanted the Bears to think the play was going. With nobody left to hold the edge against, Chicago defensive end Shea McClellin crashed hard down the line and Austin had nothing but daylight in front of him to the outside. Granted, Tim Jennings gave horrendous effort from his cornerback position, as he graciously moved out of the way while avoiding a block from Lance Kendricks. But Chris Givens executed his block on Chris Conte perfectly and Austin Pettis delivered the block of the day while springing Austin down the sideline. It was a perfect combination of play design and execution, and the touchdown set the table perfectly for the rest of the game.

+ Austin became the first player in NFL history with a 95-yard plus punt return touchdown, an 80-yard plus reception for a touchdown and a 65-yard rushing touchdown in the same season. He may have had issues with drops in the first half of the year, but we’re watching a player grow in front of us. His confidence is starting to reach the same peak it was at West Virginia, and as soon as Schottenheimer designs more ways to get him in open space, Austin will become the weapon that everyone imagined he would back in April.

+ Jared Cook hasn’t lived up to the hype that surrounded him this offseason, but he seems to have a nice rapport with Clemens, especially inside the red zone. His touchdown reception against the Bears was similar to the one he had against the Titans. In fact, it was in the same spot of the end zone. Clemens also threw a fade to Cook on the team’s second drive of the game following Matt Forte’s fumble, and the play drew a pass interference call to help set up Stacy’s rushing touchdown. Cook might not be utilized in the manner that everyone thought coming into the season, but at least he’s made an impact in two of the past three games.

+ Josh McCown did a great job of getting the ball out of his hand quickly throughout the day, which helped nullify what the Rams could do from a pass-rush standpoint. But Robert Quinn proved how dangerous this team is when it has a lead in the second half. If the game wasn’t dead already, he put an exclamation point behind the win with his strip/sack/fumble for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. His monster season continues.

+ The roughing-the-passer penalty on Michael Brockers was ridiculous. Brockers didn’t hit McCown in his head. He didn’t go low. He hit him right in between the “1” and the “2” on McCown’s jersey, which is exactly what a defender is taught to do. How can the league justify that hit as a penalty? Quite frankly, the NFL is fortunate that that play didn’t turn the entire game around, because it certainly could have. With 97 chances at the goal line, the Bears finally scored on a Michael Bush 1-yard touchdown run to cut the Rams’ lead to 27-21. Had the Rams gone three-and-out instead of marching down the field to score, the Bears would have had an opportunity to take the lead. Then the league would have had two games in the past two weeks decided on “questionable” calls. (The first being the Ahmad Brooks roughing-the-passer call on Drew Brees, of course.) Instead, the Rams wound up blowing the Bears out and the play winds up being a footnote. Again, the NFL should consider itself fortunate.

+ Win or not, the tackling needs to get better. There were way too many missed tackles among the linebacker corps and secondary. You can blame the short practices and lack of contact throughout the week if you want, but other teams aren’t missing as many tackles as the Rams are on a weekly basis. It’s a problem. In fact, it’s my only real gripe in a 42-21 victory.