Despite losing quarterback Sam Bradford and offensive tackle Jake Long to season-ending injuries, as well as having to overcome a 1-4 start, the Rams had an opportunity to get their season back on track vs. the Cardinals last Sunday in Arizona. A win would have only lifted their record to 4-5, but victory would have also provided a glimmer of hope for a beleaguered fan base. Instead, as they’ve done many times in 2014, the Rams managed to mangle a potential victory with a mind-boggling performance in the second half.
You don’t get to 3-6 without dealing with a plethora of issues, and three of the Rams’ biggest problems this season have involved missed opportunities, a limited offense and the knack for allowing the big play. Right on cue, three plays in the team’s 31-14 loss to the Cardinals provided a microcosm of the Rams’ 2014 season.
Play 1: The Missed Opportunity.
Early in the second quarter, the Cardinals faced a third-and-5 from their own 39-yard line while trailing the Rams, 7-0.
It’s here that linebacker Alec Ogletree makes a subtle mistake that leads to a key first down for Arizona, but also arms him with the experience in order to make an impact play later in the game.
On that third-and-5 play, the Cardinals come out in the spread with two receivers stacked on each side of the formation and Carson Palmer alone in the shotgun. With John Brown and Jaron Brown stacked to the field side, Jaron Brown runs a skinny post up the seam and John Brown runs a 10-yard out.
Ogletree, who showed blitz pre-snap, drops into coverage as Mark Barron blitzes off the edge. Ogletree has curl-to-flat responsibilities, but doesn’t get deep enough in his drop, and Palmer threads the needle to Jaron Brown for a 15-yard completion and a first down.
Had Ogletree been familiar/recognized the formation, he may have been able to drop into the passing lane and forced Palmer to either hesitate or perhaps throw to a covered receiver. It’s the type of play that a linebacker with more experience may make after watching film all week. Instead, the completion leads to a first down for the Cardinals, who eventually tie the game at 7-7 to cap off that same drive.
That said, later in the game Ogletree would make an adjustment in coverage that took potential points off the board for Arizona. With 4:48 remaining in the third quarter and the Cardinals trailing 14-10, Arizona faced a third-and-11 at the Rams’ 15-yard line. At the very least, the Cardinals were in position to cut into the Rams’ lead to one point with a field goal. But anyone who understands Bruce Arians’ philosophy knows that he wants six points despite the challenge that the down-and-distance provides.
The Cardinals line up in a 3×2 spread with three receivers bunched to the boundary and two receivers lined up field side. Running back Marion Grice lines up as the outside receiver on the boundary side, but motions back to the line of scrimmage. Once that happens, Barron (who was lined up over the slot receiver) shows blitz.
At the snap, Barron blitzes off the edge as Ogletree replaces him in coverage. Recognizing the blitz, Palmer immediately picks up his hot route, which is Grice. What he doesn’t see is that Ogletree, who, unlike earlier when he failed to recognize the routes based on the formation, reads the play perfectly and steps in front of Grice for an easy interception.
Ogletree returned the gift 44 yards to Arizona’s 45-yard line, but that’s where the missed opportunity takes place for the Rams. Instead of getting points off the turnover, Lance Kendricks is flagged for an illegal blindside block on a first-down pass play to Jared Cook that would have put the Rams inside the 10-yard-line. The Rams couldn’t overcome the adversity of the penalty, and the drive eventually stalled at the Cardinal 47-yard-line.
Had the offense scored (or if Ogletree beats Palmer up the sideline for a pick-six), maybe the Rams distance themselves enough heading into the fourth quarter to win the game.
Play 2: A Knack for Giving Up the Big Play.
The Rams’ defense was sensational on Sunday. The same pass rush that showed up in Santa Clara the week before was present in the desert as Robert Quinn, T.J. McDonald and other St. Louid defenders hammered Palmer throughout the day. Had the offense been more productive, the Rams could have improved to 4-5 on the season because the defense certainly played well enough for the team to win.
That said, just as it did in losses to Dallas, Philadelphia and San Francisco, the Rams’ defense couldn’t avoid the big play. And unfortunately for the Rams, that play helped the Cardinals take a lead that they would never relinquish.
With just over eight minutes remaining in the game, Drew Stanton leads the Cardinals into St. Louis territory after he was forced into the game due to Palmer’s knee injury. Trailing 14-10, Arizona now faces a first-and-10 following a 26-yard completion to John Carlson to the Rams’ 48-yard-line.
The Cardinals come out with two receivers lined up to the field side and one receiver to the boundary. Andre Ellington is the lone back, and Carlson takes a wide split from left tackle Jared Veldheer but is otherwise attached to the line.
The Rams, meanwhile, show blitz with Ogltree lining up over right guard Paul Fanaika. But at the snap, Ogletree backs into coverage and Barron once again blitzes from the nickel on the opposite side of the formation. As Barron blitzes, McDonald cheats up in order to cover Larry Fitzgerald, who was lined up in the slot. Now the Rams are in a Cover-3, with Rodney McLeod the deep safety and the corners, Trumaine Johnson and E.J. Gaines, covering outside the hashes.
Stanton runs play-action, but is forced into the pocket because William Hayes gets a rush off the edge (opposite of Barron, who Carlson picks up).
Meanwhile, John Brown, who lined up outside of Fitzgerald on the field side, runs a 9 route to the end zone but takes the route inside before bending slightly back outside to keep Johnson outside the numbers.
The play breaks down when McLeod takes a poor angle around the 15-yard line while jumping Brown’s route. Had he continued to keep depth, he would have had an opportunity to make a play on the ball. Instead, Brown gets past him and makes an incredible diving catch for a touchdown to give the Cardinals a 17-14 lead.
Besides the end result, of course, the most disheartening part of that play if you’re a Rams fan is that Eugene Sims was a split-second away from crushing Stanton after spinning off of a Veldheer block. Had Stanton hesitated for a half-second, the play results in a sack for Sims instead of a game-defining score for the Cardinals.
Play 3: A Limited Offense.
All things considered, Austin Davis has played beyond expectations this season while stepping in for the injured Bradford. He hasn’t set the league on fire with his play, but he did start games in which the Rams won three games, including victories over the Seahawks and 49ers. Keep in mind that he was coaching high school football when the Rams re-signed him last year following Bradford’s first ACL injury. (He also wasn’t guaranteed a roster spot this year and, had Bradford not been injured a second time, probably wouldn’t have made the 53-man roster for 2014.)
That said, the book is officially out on Davis, whose play has regressed over the past three weeks. Defensive coordinators know that if they can confuse Davis by disguising pressure, he’ll panic while staring down the rush. Instead of cycling through his progressions, stepping up in the pocket and making confident throws, he’ll look to break the pocket at the first sign of trouble. And when he does make throws, they’re usually to his first or second read.
One of the other big issues for Davis is a lack of arm strength. This is nothing new, as that was one of the knocks on him coming out of Southern Miss in 2012. As a starting quarterback in the NFL, you have to be able to complete the 15-yard out, or else your offense is going to be limited. Davis illustrated this point while trying to lead the Rams back from a 17-14 deficit midway through the fourth quarter on Sunday.
With 7:31 left on the clock, the Rams face a first-and-10 from their own 25-yard line. They come out in an off-set I with receivers Tavon Austin and Kenny Britt lined up to the left of the formation, and Chris Givens as the lone receiver to the right.
Austin comes in motion toward the line of scrimmage and, at the snap, runs a crossing pattern that results in him being wide open as Patrick Peterson (who was in man-to-man coverage on Givens) runs into safety Rashad Johnson, while Givens takes his route inside the numbers. But instead of an easy completion to Austin, Davis looks off Britt (who was double-covered on a deep route) and throws a horrendous pass that Peterson easily intercepts near midfield.
There are three telling factors about this play. One, Davis has trouble seeing the field because if he could, he would have seen that Austin was wide open. Two, Davis doesn’t have the arm strength to complete the deep out because if he did, he may have still been able to get the pass over Peterson and to Givens for a big completion. Three, the Rams’ offense is struggling so much right now that even when things break their way (i.e. Peterson taking out his own teammate in coverage), they still can’t seize the moment.
The end result is frustration, which has become a common emotion following Rams games this season. Yes, they have a pair of signature wins against the Seahawks and 49ers. However, the one thing that continues to elude them is consistency.
Case in point: With their loss to the Cardinals on Sunday, the Rams are now 6-11 under Jeff Fisher following victories.