The Rams finally won a second consecutive game on Sunday in Washington, becoming only the fifteenth team since the merger to turn in back-to-back shutouts in a 24-0 whitewash of the Washington Redskins. Now the Rams have a chance to get to .500 on Thursday when they host Arizona, despite numerous setbacks during this 2014 season. With that, 10 takeaways from a winning Sunday in Landover, Maryland…
1) On some levels, it’s amazing what the defense has done. When you think about the fact that the Rams set a record for the fewest sacks through five games (with one), it is remarkable that they are now tied for seventh in the NFL with 35 sacks. With 34 sacks in their last eight games, the Rams pace over their last half-season is 68. The 1984 Bears have the all-time record with 72 sacks.
The Rams back-to-back shutouts are also historic, as they became the fifteenth team since the merger to record shutouts in consecutive games. Jeff Fisher’s 2000 Titans turned that trick…as did the two best defenses of the last 45 years, the 1985 Bears and the 2000 Ravens. Notably the two teams to record THREE straight shutouts are the 1970 St. Louis Cardinals and the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers. This defense appears to have turned the corner toward living up to its hype.
On the turnover front, the Rams have fifteen takeaways in their last seven games, after recording just seven in their first six contests.
2) The quarterback again exhibited strong game management. Shaun Hill once again handled the game exceptionally well. With this defense, the key is to not turn the ball over. Sure enough, Hill was 16-22 for 213 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Since re-entering the lineup four games ago, Hill has thrown just two interceptions, not coincidentally in his only loss at San Diego. Hill is showing what a QB that doesn’t throw interceptions can do while the rest of the team lives up to what Jeff Fisher wants. If they run the ball and play defense, it’s just a matter of winning the turnover battle. If the Rams win that, they win the game.
3) The Rams were able to overcome a bad day by the kicker. Whatever happened to Greg Zuerlein as he missed an extra point and two field goals wide right was troubling. The Rams were able to overcome it, and Fisher was able to pass it off and express his confidence in Zuerlein after the game, but you sure wonder what happens when the Rams get into a big game. At this point in his career, he hasn’t had to kick in a game that had major implications for the Rams. Hopefully he’ll be able to work through some of his inconsistency before the Rams reach that point of regularly playing big, meaningful games.
4) Jared Cook is holding on to the ball. After leading NFL tight ends in drops last season with eight, Cook has only three this season. On Sunday, he was targeted five times and caught four passes, including two for touchdowns. Cook is evolving into the weapon the Rams thought they were getting when they gave him a five year, $35 million contract before the 2013 season. Using him down the seam like Hill did for Cook’s first touchdown was the ideal use of the big guy, who leads the team in receptions with 41.
5) They’ve finally figured out how to use Tavon. Finally, in the last three games, the Rams have gotten away from running Austin into the line, between the tackles. It seemed logical to utilize him on the perimeter with jet sweeps and smoke screens, but that didn’t happen much in the first half of the season. His use in the offense appears to be affecting Austin’s confidence as a punt returner, too. From the day he was drafted, Austin has had the ability to be a game changing weapon. But the Rams had some problems figuring out how to deploy him. In the last four games, Austin has three touchdowns and has utilized his speed to set the Rams up in good field position numerous other times.
6) The offensive line still presents protection issues. Hill was sacked four times and was under siege for much of the afternoon. The Rams have allowed 39 sacks this season, and just six teams have allowed more. Certainly, there have been issues with the quarterback hanging onto the ball too long, and not all sacks are the fault of the offensive line.
But against Washington, there were too many instances in which Hill didn’t have time to make a play. Greg Robinson is still learning, sure. But at right tackle, Joe Barksdale appears to have trouble with 3-4 outside linebackers, and Davin Joseph and Scott Wells aren’t as stout as the best linemen in the game. They need to be a little bit more rugged for this offensive line to reach the level of Baltimore, Cincinnati and Philadelphia.
7) The Rams had to have Johnny Hekker throw, and he was great at it. When the Rams signed punter Hekker to a six year contract extension on Friday, the headline of their release read “PUNTERS GET PAID LIKE PEOPLE, TOO-Rams sign NFL’s completion percentage leader to six-year extension.” So of course they had to use him as a passer right away. Hekker’s pass to Cory Harkey for a two point conversion in the third quarter was perfect. He has completed all three of his pass attempts this season (with Sunday’s being on a two point conversion) and has a perfect 158.3 career passer rating. Hekker is a great part of the team, and signing him was a smart move on the part of the franchise.
8) Jeff Fisher has really coached this team up. Fisher hasn’t used being the youngest team in the league as an excuse for its inconsistency, and I don’t think it IS an excuse. That being said, this team is playing much better as the season unfolds. Clearly, they are being coached at a high level. They remind me of the 1986 Buccaneers, who won five of their last six to finish 6-10, then started out 5-0 the next year on their way to the playoffs. Or the 2002 Panthers, who won four of their last five to get to 7-9, then began the next year 5-0, and went 11-5 and to the Super Bowl. That’s the sort of trajectory I see for the Rams down the stretch and next year.
9) The Rams can get to .500 despite a decimated roster. The Rams can get to the .500 mark on Thursday with Arizona in town. This despite losing quarterback Sam Bradford, left tackle Jake Long, and top receiver Brian Quick. If the Rams are ever able to stay healthy, they have a chance be a scary proposition in the NFC West and in the NFC overall in years to come.
10) For fans of the draft, the Rams have messed up your choice. There are five teams in the NFL with just two wins. If the draft were held today, St. Louis would hold, at best, the twelfth selection. And with as hot as the defense is, you kind of figure they’ll have more than the six wins they currently have. The thing to think about is the first .500 season here since 2006, and worry about the draft after this season is over.