National Football League

Stalter’s Game Notebook: Rams-Jaguars

+ The game didn’t start off very decisively for the Rams. In fact, until Matt Giordano’s interception return, you got the sense that you were watching the same team from the previous three weeks. There was the blown coverage on the Justin Blackmon touchdown, the penalties on special teams, and Sam Bradford had little feel for the pocket and was turning the game into another check-down fest. But as the game wore on, the Rams played a crisper game and they won a game that, for all intents and purposes, they should have won.

+ The Jaguars statistically have the worst run defense in the NFL, so the Rams still have a lot to prove in terms of being able to run the ball effectively. That said, for Zac Stacy to average 5.6 yards per attempt, rushing for 78 yards on 14 carries, was impressive. He was decisive with his cuts, kept a low center of gravity when he ran, and he displayed good balance and decent vision throughout the game. The run-blocking, specifically on the interior, was also very good.

The Rams haven’t had that kind of in-between-the-tackles production all season, so it was great to see Stacy make the most of his opportunities. Coming from Vanderbilt, he’s used to gaining those tough yards. It’ll be interesting to see what he and the entire Rams running game can do next week in Houston, where J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing are featured in the Texans’ nasty front seven. But for one week, it was great to see the Rams rush for 143 total yards, which is their highest total since putting up 173 last year at Arizona.

+ The Rams still have a lot to iron out with their passing game, but it was good to see Bradford compile a 105.3 quarterback rating, which was his highest of the season. The Rams are 7-1-1 in Bradford’s career when he posts a passer rating of 100.0 or better, which is another glimpse into how important it is to receive quality production out of your quarterback every week. He wasn’t very sharp in the first quarter, settling for underneath passes and showing little to no feel in the pocket. But he threw a couple of great passes the rest of the way, and not just the deep ball to Austin Pettis to put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter. He also displayed his accuracy on a sideline throw to Brian Quick in the first half and went through his progressions to find Pettis in the end zone right before halftime for a score. His best throw may have come earlier in that same drive, when he boot-legged to the left, only to find a defender in his face. Instead of panicking and trying to elude the defender, he stopped on a dime and threw a dart to Lance Kendricks for a 16-yard gain. He still throws way too many underneath passes, but at least yesterday we saw him take a couple of shots downfield and actually connect on one for the touchdown to Pettis. He also didn’t turn the ball over, which cannot be understated.

+ Pettis will never be universally considered a playmaker because he doesn’t have that top-end speed or yards-after-the-catch ability. That said, he’s come up huge several times in the red zone this season, where seven of his eight career touchdown catches have come from. He has a knack for sitting down in zone coverage and then moving until he finds an opening. That first touchdown catch he had yesterday was a perfect example of him being a zone-killer. He read the coverage, got to his spot and then slowly shifted toward the sideline in order to give Bradford a clear passing window. He’s been great on the goal line this year, and clearly he and Bradford have a nice rapport. Yesterday was also his first multi-touchdown game of his career.

+ How about Kendricks catching touchdowns in back-to-back games? He came up big a couple of times throughout the game, including on his 16-yard touchdown reception following a Jacksonville turnover in the second half. I don’t know what it says that he was targeted six times to Jared Cook’s three, but once this offense starts to fire on all cylinders, Kendricks will be a nice complementary piece off the line.

+ Special teams continue to be a major problem for this team. The unit committed another five penalties yesterday, including a hold that wiped out a long Tavon Austin punt return. They also got too cute on the punt that was blocked and gave up long returns to Ace Sanders and Jordan Todamn, although the Sanders punt return got called back due to a penalty. The Rams were even flagged on an extra-point attempt, which tells you how bad things have gotten in that area of their game. You would think that all of this would be correctable, but week in and week out, we’re seeing the same crap.

+ Just like the offense, there were plenty of positives and negatives to be drawn from the defense. You hate to see the blown coverage on the Blackmon touchdown so early in the game because it gave Jacksonville confidence that it can hang with you, but forcing three turnovers and forcing the Jaguars to go 1-for-3 in the red zone was key. Third downs have also been a major issue for the Rams on both sides of the ball this year, yet the Jaguars were 3-of-12 on third downs yesterday, which shows a marked improvement in that area.

+ One other area of concern coming into the game was the Rams’ run defense, but the team showed marked improvement in that area, too. After allowing DeMarco Murray to rush for 175 yards two weeks ago and Frank Gore to gain 153 yards last Thursday, the Rams surrendered only 96 total yards to the Jaguars yesterday, including 70 on 17 carries to Maurice Jones-Drew. Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers both played well, specifically when penetrating into Jacksonville’s backfield. The Jaguars started to run the ball effectively on their touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, but other than that, I thought the front seven played well.

+ James Laurinaitis had himself a day, too, the second in as many weeks. Not only did he lead the team in tackles with eight, but he came up with the big interception in the end zone after the blocked punt, and he made a couple of nice plays while sifting through traffic. He’s not a Patrick Willis-like thumper – that’s not his game. But what he’s been is great in coverage the past two weeks, and he’s starting to make more plays at two and four yards, as opposed to seven or eight. He looks like he’s getting more comfortable in Jeff Fisher’s scheme.

+ As usual, the pass rush was very good. The Rams came away with two sacks, but Blaine Gabbert was hurried into throws for most of the day, including on the Giordano interception return. Robert Quinn used his speed to beat the left tackle on the edge and nearly knocked the ball out of Gabbert’s hand before he threw it right to Giordano (thankfully). Chris Long also registered his second sack of the season, and Brockers finally notched his first sack of the season. Long also caused a fumble on his sack, although somehow the ball wound up bouncing to Jones-Drew outside of the pile, so the Rams weren’t credited with a turnover.

+ Here’s what was positive about the Rams’ secondary: The scheme was more aggressive and there was more big plays made on the back end, specifically Giordano’s interception return in the first quarter. Darian Stewart and Alec Ogletree also forced the fumble in the first half that led to immediate points, and Trumaine Johnson made an athletic play to knock down a Chad Henne third-down pass in the third quarter. Thus, as a whole, there were some nice individual efforts made in the secondary yesterday, and it was nice to see the cornerbacks playing closer to the line of scrimmage instead of in Cabo, which is where they’re normally lined up.

That said, the coverage breakdown on the Blackmon touchdown in the first quarter was bad, and both Blackmon and Cecil Shorts beat you for 27.2 and 14.8 yards per catch. I didn’t think Johnson or Janoris Jenkins played well overall, but that may be nitpicking, too. That was a tough route for Johnson to cover on the Jaguars’ fourth-quarter touchdown, and give credit to Shorts, as he made a nice play on the ball. Considering injuries have zapped the Rams’ depth, the secondary held up okay.

+ The Texans ran the ball well last night vs. the 49ers, and their defense played better than what the final score would indicate. The problem is that Matt Schaub is in the midst of the worst stretch of his career. He’s played like a first-year starter as opposed to a 10-year vet ready to quarterback a team to a Super Bowl. He’s made one boneheaded decision after another while staring down receivers and telegraphing passes. If you’re the Rams, you hope he starts again next week so that T.J. Yates, while not overly talented, doesn’t give Houston a shot in the arm. It’ll be difficult to run against the Texans’ stout front seven, and Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels and DeAndre Hopkins could give St. Louis issues in the secondary. But Schaub could prove to be the great equalizer as he’s playing himself out of a starting job.