Bad pass protection.
That about covers things from the Rams’ perspective in wake of their 34-28 loss to the Eagles last Sunday, doesn’t it? St. Louis finished with 10 penalties resulting in 82 yards. It had a blocked punt that resulted in a Philadelphia touchdown not even a minute into the game.
The Rams had a breakdown in pass protection that led to another score for the Eagles, as well as a Zac Stacy fumble and yet another blown coverage assignment in their defensive backfield (second time in two games).
Each week, I like to take a look at three plays that helped define the Rams’ wins and losses. It’s unfortunate that the Rams couldn’t pull off a dramatic come-from-behind victory on Sunday, because I could have focused on Brian Quick’s 8-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter or Austin Davis’ 30-yard strike to Kenny Britt that looked like it was drawn in the dirt of a neighbored sandlot.
Instead, the plays that defined the Rams’ loss to the Eagles were their penalties, and dropped passes, blown coverages, bad pass protection and missed opportunities.
Simply put, this team isn’t good enough to consistently shoot itself in the foot and still expect to win. It was great seeing Davis put together another strong performance and players like E.J. Gaines put forth strong individual efforts. But it’s maddening to watch this team continue to make familiar mistakes in familiar spots every week.
The results won’t change until the Rams change their ways.
Play 1: The blocked punt.
Chances are you hadn’t even found the favorite groove in your couch before the Rams trailed, 7-0. That’s because after three straight incomplete passes (an odd trio of calls given the team’s supposed identity and Sunday’s opponent), Eagles special teamer James Casey blocked a punt that was scooped up by Chris Maragos and returned instantly for a touchdown.
As ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner pointed out in his game recap, the punt team counts defenders from the outside in. That’s so it’s clear that at the snap, each player knows who he’s supposed to block so there’s no confusion. But confusion is exactly what ensued.
Before the snap, several Eagles shifted to give the Rams a different look. One of the players involved in the shift was safety Earl Wolff, who went from double-teaming the gunner on the boundary side to rushing off the far right edge.
You can see Ray-Ray Armstrong pointing at Wolff a millisecond before the ball is snapped.
The Eagles have now loaded up the left side of the Rams’ formation, although St. Louis still has enough numbers to account for Wolff. But at the snap, Cory Harkey blocks to his left while center Jake McQuaide blocks the defender to his right, leaving a wide-open gap for Casey. And because Eugene Sims helps McQuaide double-team Bryan Braman at the snap, and because Daren Bates is left to block two defenders to the right of Sims, Trey Burton also shoots through his gap untouched.
The last line of defense is Chase Reynolds, who now has to decide to block either Casey or Burton, who according to Wagoner was Reynolds’ assignment on that play. Reynolds blocks Burton, and Casey blocks the punt.
From the film, it would appear as though the confusion came when the Eagles shifted pre-snap. That sent off a series of blown assignments along the Rams’ line and contributed to the Eagles taking a 7-0 lead with 14:37 still left in the first quarter.
Play 2: Sack, strip, fumble, touchdown.
Trailing 20-7 in the third quarter, the Rams force the Eagles to punt from Philadelphia’s 39-yard line. The Rams take over with a first-and-10 from their own 11-yard line and, immediately, disaster strikes.
The Rams come out in an off-set I formation with Harkey lined up at fullback in front of Stacy in the backfield. Quick and Britt are split out wide on opposite sides of each other, while tight end Lance Kendricks lines up attached to the right side of the line of scrimmage.
The Eagles countered by bringing six defenders into the box and showing blitz with their two edge rushers. But at the snap, they only bring the four down linemen as the two edge rushers drop into coverage.
Left tackle Jake Long fires out of his stance but sets up too wide as Trent Cole makes a move inside and heads right for Davis.
The hit jars the ball loose from Davis’ hand and, despite a failed attempt to secure the ball while he’s on the ground, Long watches helplessly as Cedric Thornton takes the gift away and rolls into the end zone for a touchdown.
Long may have gotten his feet too close together and thus couldn’t get the right positioning when Cole broke inside. But what’s interesting is that Cole beat Long as the left tackle was trying to shuffle to his right. It’s been fewer than 10 months since Long tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee, so it’s not inconceivable that he’s less than 100 percent right now. In fact, nobody should be shocked if Long weren’t completely healthy. Adrian Peterson won the MVP award a year after tearing his ACL and MCL in December of 2011. But he was the exception to an otherwise devastating injury.
I’m not making excuses for why Long failed to protect Davis on that play, but it’s entirely possibly that his mobility will be tested in certain situations. That said, Long played well vs. the Bucs and Cowboys, so maybe it was simply one bad play with a disastrous ending.
Play 3: The drop.
After T.J. McDonald makes a great play to tackle Darren Sproles for a loss on third-and-6 at the St. Louis’ 44-yard line, the Rams take over on their own 7 with 1:47 remaining in the game. Davis immediately hits Quick on a 43-yard pass play that pushes the ball to midfield. Following a check-down to Benny Cunningham that nets two yards, the Rams face a second-and-10 from Philadelphia’s 48-yard line trailing 34-28 and needing a touchdown to take the lead.
The Rams come out in a spread formation with three receivers to the right (Jared Cook, Tavon Austin and Austin Pettis from inside to outside) and one to the left (Quick). Davis is in the shotgun, while Cunningham is the lone back to the quarterback’s left. At the snap, Pettis runs a dig, Austin heads to the flat, Cook runs a post and Quick runs a drag. Cunningham also leaks out of the backfield and heads into the flats opposite of the three-wide .
Two defenders eventually jump on Quick’s route, which is great for the Rams because Pettis becomes open just as he breaks toward the middle of the field. With the corner trailing behind the route and the single-high safety too deep to make a play on the ball, Pettis is wide open for what would have been a 20-plus-yard play. But the pass is slightly behind Pettis, who can’t hold on for the catch. Even though Davis didn’t hit him in stride, Pettis has to make that catch, especially given the situation.
The Rams would fail to advance the ball past their own 47 and wound up turning the ball over on downs to essentially end the game. Had Pettis secured the catch on that second-down play, there’s no guarantee that the Rams would have completed the comeback. But the failed play was a microcosm of the entire day, which was filled with too many missed opportunities for a team that is now 1-3.