NFC West: St. Louis Rams

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- With two games to play in the 2014 NFL season, the St. Louis Rams defense is playing as well as any unit in the league.

After something of a sluggish start, the Rams defense has raised its level of play in the past eight games. But because of that slow start, the ranking don't necessarily reflect how far that group has come.

Before the season is finished, that's something they're hoping to rectify.

[+] EnlargeDrew Stanton, Aaron Donald, Alec Ogletree, Eugene Sims
AP Photo/Tom GannamAfter recording just one sack in their first five games, the Rams defense has 36 sacks in their last nine.
"I think personally being in the top 10 or being in the top 5 for us would be great, especially with how young this defense is and the teams we’ve beat," defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. "It would be a great confidence booster for us going into next season."

In terms of overall defense, the Rams are tied for 11th in the league in yards allowed per game at 339.9. Reaching the top 10 is a reasonable goal considering that the No. 6-ranked Jets are giving up 329.8 yards per game and the others between the Rams and Jets are even closer to the Rams' number. Making the top 5 would take a more Herculean effort since No. 5 Buffalo is yielding just 313.4 yards per game. If the Rams can get there, it would be the the first time since 2001 they've finished in the top 10.

Of course, yards allowed per game isn't necessarily even the best measure of a defense. The Rams are also tied for 12th in the league in points allowed per game at 21.2. Were it not for the points allowed by offensive turnovers or special teams, they'd already rank near the top of the league. They still have a chance to break into the top 10 there, also, as No. 8 New England is just 1.2 points ahead of them.

Considering the fact that the Rams have not allowed a touchdown in 12 quarters, they would seem to have a realistic shot of reaching that top 10 also. Over the past eight games, the Rams have given up 15.1 points per game, second fewest in the league in that span.

"It would be a great thing to say that nobody scored a touchdown on us the rest of the season," safety T.J. McDonald said. "That would be great. The rest is just playing good ball, playing consistent ball, play physical like we know how and execute the plan for the week."

After posting the most combined sacks in the NFL over the past two seasons, the Rams would need record-setting performances to reach the top of the league this year after the slow start in which they had just one through the first five games. They now have 36 on the season, which is tied for 10th in the NFL. Detroit is fifth and has 39 so the Rams have a shot to shoot up that chart as well.

Even if they don't the Rams need to have two more sacks than Buffalo the rest of the way to have the most in the league in that category over the past three years combined.

While they'd much rather be making a move toward the postseason, the Rams defense at least has manufactured something to strive for in the final two weeks.

"That’s not a bad way to go," end Robert Quinn said. "The defense is playing great, even field goals are kind of unacceptable for us. That’s just how our defense wants to be, be stingy out there, give up no points and try to give our offense the most opportunities possible. We know throughout the year we shot ourselves in the foot and everybody had their turns but overall we stuck together as a team and trying to finish the year strong."

Giants vs. Rams preview

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
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video When: 4:05 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis TV: FOX

The St. Louis Rams and New York Giants have both been eliminated from playoff contention and neither enters Sunday's matchup with much to play for.

But neither team has looked like it is ready to close up shop for the rest of the season, either, which could make this at least a mildly interesting game for the football diehards.

ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano discuss Sunday's game:

Wagoner: Dan, I'm sure you're getting a lot of questions about Odell Beckham Jr., but let's be real, he's going to be the most exciting player on the field Sunday. What is it about him that's allowed him to have such success, and is he as fun to watch up close as he is from a distance?

Graziano: Nick, I don't want to overstate the case here. But what we're watching with Beckham on a weekly basis (a daily one, in fact, when you take into account his practice antics) is a player gifted with such raw athleticism that he stands out on a field whose other occupants are also world-class athletes. He's impressive in all facets. He runs great routes. He has great hands. He plays bigger than his 5-foot-11 size would indicate, because he has the ability to outjump defenders and locate the ball in the air before they do. He has the blazing speed you've seen. Really, from a raw talent standpoint, he's the total package. What he's doing is even more incredible due to the facts that he missed all of training camp and the first four games of the season with a hamstring injury, and that he and Victor Cruz played only two games together. Eli Manning is targeting Beckham pretty much all the time, and it's working. Expect to see a lot of him.

The Rams' defense has allowed a total of 12 points over its past three games. What's behind the surge?

Wagoner: There are plenty of reasons for the surge, up to and including taking advantage of a bit of a break in the schedule in terms of opponents. But make no mistake: The Rams' defensive surge is real. They held the high-powered Broncos to seven points, the fewest since Peyton Manning took over at quarterback. The intangible part of it is the defense has finally gotten comfortable with Gregg Williams as coordinator and vice versa. Williams now knows the best way to deploy his players and they now know what is expected of them. That's manifested into a defense that's doing a bit of everything well. The Rams had a disappointing performance last week in stopping Arizona's run game, but their better efforts start with stopping the run. When the Rams stop the run consistently and force opponents into second- and third-and-long, their vaunted pass rush can be as good as advertised. It doesn't hurt that end Robert Quinn and tackle Aaron Donald form one of the most dynamic inside out duos in the league, either. But really, they're getting better performances across the board with the defense.

While we're on defense, I noticed that since Week 7, the Rams and Giants rank first and third in the league in sacks, respectively. What's been the cause of the uprising from New York's pass rush?

Graziano: The Giants had 19 sacks in their first 11 games of the season and have picked up 22 in their past three games. A lot of that has to do with their opponents -- Jacksonville, Tennessee and Washington. But in terms of what they're doing to take advantage of the matchups, they're getting contributions from all over. Jason Pierre-Paul has six sacks in those three games, but rookie defensive end Kerry Wynn is making a contribution. Rookie linebacker Devon Kennard, who was NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 14, has been a factor in the pass rush. Second-year defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins is up to seven sacks for the season. The Giants are getting a variety of help in the pass rush, which is especially important with defensive ends Mathias Kiwanuka and Robert Ayers among the 22 Giants currently on injured reserve. They'll blitz a linebacker or a safety or a cornerback in key times. Basically, since the schedule turned around for them, they've been taking advantage of their matchups at a high level and in a variety of ways.

I know the quarterback situation has been a muddle, but why do the Rams still have so many unanswered questions at the other offensive skill positions? Receiver and running back?

Wagoner: Well, I think they've at least finally settled on Tre Mason as their primary ball carrier for the future, though I suppose we thought the same thing last year at this time with Zac Stacy. Mason's not getting the vast majority of the snaps right now because he's still not up to speed in pass protection, but if and when that happens, his snap count will only increase. In the meantime, he's the first option running the ball and Benny Cunningham is next in line to handle the dirty work. I think Mason will be the main guy going forward, but judging the Rams' recent knack for drafting running backs earlier than expected, maybe that should be considered a year-to-year proposition until they go with the same guy for two consecutive seasons. At receiver, they seem to have finally settled into using Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. If Brian Quick comes back from a devastating shoulder injury and they re-sign Britt, they should be pretty solid. I'd argue they could still use a true No. 1 guy like the Giants have with Beckham, but it's not the pressing need it was coming into the season. They just need to find someone who can more consistently get them the ball.

Sticking to quarterbacks, what do you make of Eli Manning at this point in his career? He's obviously had great success but also some clunkers. With so few decent quarterbacks around, there's no way the Giants would look elsewhere at that position, is there?

Graziano: No way. Other than the horrible five-interception game against the 49ers in Week 11, Manning has operated the new offense smoothly and efficiently in the first year under new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. He's protecting the ball well, making good decisions, relying on shorter, higher-percentage stuff than he did earlier in his career. Considering they have four wide receivers and three running backs on injured reserve, and that the offensive line has struggled all year to protect him, I think Manning's doing fine and is among the very least of their problems.

As for quarterback, what do you expect them to do this offseason? Bring back Bradford? Move up in the draft? What?

Wagoner: At this point, the expectation remains that the Rams will try to bring Sam Bradford back at a reduced rate with incentives built in, and spend a high draft pick (first three rounds) on a quarterback. I've been writing that for the past month or so and I stand by the assertion until I hear something different. Of course, that still depends on how big the pay cut would be and whether Bradford's representation wants to explore the market. Even with his injury issues, he could become a hot commodity in such a quarterback-needy market. Moving up sounds good on paper, but I'm not sure they have the ammunition or the desire to make such a move. They could also look to bring Shaun Hill back as a backup option for Bradford and/or the new draft pick. Either way, it's the one thing holding this team back from being a legitimate playoff contender. The only problem is that it's also the most difficult problem to fix.
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams defensive back Lamarcus Joyner has been a healthy scratch for the past few weeks after recovering from a groin injury that had forced him to the sidelines.

When Joyner returned from that injury, though, his spot as the team's primary nickelback had been handed to fellow rookie E.J. Gaines. And with safety Mark Barron more involved in the defense, Joyner has been relegated to the pregame inactive list.

For a player who started 40 of a possible 55 games at Florida State, including all but one during his final three seasons, sitting on the bench has been an adjustment.

[+] EnlargeLamarcus Joyner
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriLamarcus Joyner was injured at Arizona on Nov. 9. He is healthy now, but is still on the sideline.
"It’s an odd feeling," Joyner said. "We all have setbacks, but I’ve had worse adversity that I’ve had to make it through in my life, so I look back to that -- I fall back to that to help me get through what I’m going through now. But it’s definitely a strange feeling."

Perhaps the strangest part for Joyner is that it's not really something he did or didn't do that has left him on the bench recently. Before the season, the Rams projected Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson as starters with Joyner, the team's second-round pick in May, as the nickelback.

But Johnson suffered a knee injury in the third preseason game and Jenkins has been slowed by a knee issue of his own. Those ailments created a spot for Gaines, the team's sixth-round pick, to step in and play.

Gaines has been something of a revelation for the Rams with 67 tackles, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. A strong argument could be made that Gaines is shaping up as one of the draft's biggest bargains.

Upon the return to health of both Johnson and Jenkins, Gaines had already established himself as capable of handling any role while Joyner was battling his groin injury.

"[Gaines is] a guy that whether he’s in the middle, inside, outside, he’s a good cover guy," safety T.J. McDonald said. "Wherever he’s at, he’s a good player."

The Rams have settled in on their defensive backs in recent weeks with Jenkins and Johnson on the outside and Gaines in the nickel. They've also kept all five of their safeties active with Barron, McDonald and Rodney McLeod playing a lot on defense and Maurice Alexander and Cody Davis working on special teams.

Marcus Roberson, St. Louis' third rookie cornerback, also has been a healthy scratch. Although Joyner acknowledged the strange feeling of standing on the sideline not in uniform, he said he's doing what he can to be a good teammate until his turn comes up again.

"I will support my team’s success. We’ve been doing really good as a defense, which makes me happy for the guys that are out there, for the brotherhood, so all I can do is show my support and do the best I can do with whatever I can help with," Joyner said.

In eight games this season, Joyner has 32 tackles with a pair of pass breakups. He'd had his share of struggles but appeared to be coming into his own a bit before suffering the injury early in the Rams' Nov. 9 loss to Arizona.

"I did pretty well," Joyner said. "I had a lot I needed to improve. We all see what’s on TV but when you go in the film room, you see a lot of mistakes and errors that you made."

Whether Joyner will be active for either of the team's final two games remains to be seen, but it's safe to say he still factors into the team's plans moving forward. Jenkins and Johnson are both set to become free agents after the 2015 season and the Rams' level of interest in retaining one or both won't be revealed for a while.

Gaines has done enough to earn a long-term role of his own, but it's possible that his long term future is on the outside, with Joyner handling nickel duties.

"I’ve got a future to look forward to," Joyner said. "I’m going to get better on the field and I’ve got a bright future to look forward to. That’s what I’m going to do."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The San Diego Chargers announced Tuesday evening that they will remain in San Diego for the 2015 NFL season.

In making the announcement via a statement from Mark Fabiani, the team's point person on stadium efforts and special counsel to Chargers president Dean Spanos, the Chargers made it clear that they are still working toward finding a solution to stay in San Diego for the long haul.

[+] EnlargeQualcomm Stadium
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe Chargers' announcement that they will remain in San Diego next season is good for the prospects of the Rams staying put at least another season too.
"Today, the Chargers are making the same announcement that the team has made each year since 2007: The team will not be exercising the lease termination clause and will keep working to find a publicly acceptable way to build a Super Bowl-quality stadium in San Diego," Fabiani said in the statement. "Calendar year 2015 will constitute the team's fourteenth year of work on a San Diego stadium solution."

That announcement and the proclamations from Fabiani left many St. Louis Rams fans hoping and wishing for something similar or at the very least a declaration that the team would stay put in 2015 to come from owner Stan Kroenke or one of his proxies. While that hasn't happened -- at least not yet -- there are plenty of signs pointing to no team moving to Los Angeles in 2015. That includes the Rams.

Why? Well, the theory goes that the Chargers wouldn't so boldly and outwardly forfeit their leverage on the Los Angeles situation without some sort of knowledge that nobody would be moving to Los Angeles in time for the 2015 season. San Diego has long claimed that about a fourth of its season-ticket holders come from the Los Angeles and Orange County areas and that another team moving into the city would be detrimental to its business.

Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times offered similar thoughts in a column Tuesday night. And the New York Times reported earlier this week that the chances of a team moving in 2015 had "dimmed."

In that report, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was quoted as saying that nothing was imminent on the Los Angeles front. Which brings us to the question of timing on the Chargers' statement. In connecting those dots, one would think that San Diego received strong signals that the league would not allow anybody to head to Los Angeles in 2015. Hence Tuesday's announcement.

How that was conveyed still remains unclear at this particular moment but reading the tea leaves here shouldn't be that difficult. Could Rams owner Stan Kroenke or Raiders owner Mark Davis still file for relocation in February? Sure, but it seems increasingly clear that the NFL is and will continue to control this process. Going rogue against the league has been done before but would seem unnecessary given that the Los Angeles market would still be in play beyond next year.

As for St. Louis, Dave Peacock and Bob Blitz, the task force appointed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, continue to work on possible proposals for an NFL stadium. In the New York Times report, it was mentioned that Peacock met with Eric Grubman, the league's point person on Los Angeles, recently.

And for what it's worth, the Rams have already begun accepting deposits for 2015 season tickets on their website.

There remain plenty of unknowns when it comes to the Rams' long-term future in St. Louis and though there may be a bit of short-term clarity forthcoming, it's best to buckle up and remember that it's all far from over.

Rams need to look at O-line personnel

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
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ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner talks about the team playing younger offensive linemen to assess their talent level.

QB snapshot: Shaun Hill

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
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A quick observation of quarterback Shaun Hill and how he played in the St. Louis Rams' 12-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 15:

Hill
After helping the Rams to wins in three of his first four starts since returning to the top job, Hill struggled mightily against Arizona's stout defense. Hill didn't get much help in the way of protection as the Cardinals pressured him on 28 percent of his 43 dropbacks.

True to its personality, Arizona brought the blitz on 48.8 percent of those dropbacks and got to him for two sacks. But whether it was the Cardinals' blitz or the simple threat of it, Hill was skittish as the pocket around him broke down repeatedly. The right side of the offensive line, in particular, was mostly overmatched by Arizona's front.

Against Arizona's standard pass rush -- four rushers or fewer -- Hill was 8-of-18 for 123 yards with two sacks and an interception. He finished the game 20-of-39 for 229 yards with no touchdowns and an interception for a QBR of 22.4. That's his lowest QBR as a starter for the Rams.

Despite the struggles of the Rams' offense, St. Louis had an opportunity to win the game in the fourth quarter. Hill missed receiver Stedman Bailey on third-and-3 at the Arizona 43. What should have been an easy completion for a first down and probably more fell incomplete, and the Rams' drive died a play later.

"He [Bailey] had running room," coach Jeff Fisher said. "He had a lot of space if he catches that ball. It’s a high throw, Shaun missed him, but that was a potential big play for us.”

 
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Last week, we took a cursory look at St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald's case to be the Defensive Rookie of the Year, with strong words of support from coach Jeff Fisher.

Donald notched his fifth sack in as many games on Thursday night against Arizona, giving him eight on the season. He leads all rookies in that category and is tied for third among all defensive tackles in that category. According to Pro Football Focus, Donald's 33 "stops" (plays that are considered an offensive failure including sacks) is tied for the most among defensive tackles and, for what it's worth, his grade of 32.4 overall is also first at the position.

[+] EnlargeAaron Donald
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsAaron Donald leads all rookies with eight sacks.
Clearly, Donald already has a compelling case to win the award but that doesn't mean he's guaranteed to win it. That's especially true considering that Donald doesn't play a position where it's easy to rack up big statistics. I would argue that makes what Donald has done even more impressive but simply looking at raw numbers could work against him.

With that in mind, here's a look at some of Donald's competitors and how they have performed:

San Francisco LB Chris Borland -- He was a tackling machine at Wisconsin, and he has been one for the 49ers since stepping into the starting lineup. Borland has 99 tackles, a sack, a fumble recovery, two interceptions and two pass breakups all while playing fewer snaps than the others listed here. He's also chipped in on special teams. He's a stout run defender but hasn't offered much in the way of splash plays or pass rush. He's going to be a headache for the Rams in the NFC West for years to come, but he probably doesn't have the overall resume to win the award.

Baltimore LB C.J. Mosley -- Mosley is a big, physical tackling machine with 117 stops, three sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, two interceptions and five pass breakups. Mosley has been excellent against the run and solid rushing the passer and been a major boon to a Baltimore defense that has undergone a major makeover in the past two seasons. He's probably the leader in the clubhouse right now because he has been so consistent over the course of the entire season.

Oakland LB Khalil Mack -- In terms of pure numbers, Mack probably falls short to the others listed here but, like Donald, numbers don't tell the whole story when it comes to the rookie out of Buffalo. Mack has 68 tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble and three pass breakups. Mack is already the best player on Oakland's defense but that hasn't meant much for a team that has struggled as much as the Raiders. He's a dominant run defender and has created plenty of pressure even when it hasn't resulted in sacks. He might be the favorite among those who closely watch the tape, but his numbers might not stack up when it's all said and done.

Minnesota LB Anthony Barr -- Barr's resume bears a striking resemblance to Mack as he has posted 70 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two pass breakups and a touchdown. In fact, Barr has probably had more splash plays than the others listed here, but he also hasn't been quite as consistent. He has been just OK in coverage and his run defense has been about average, but it's important to note he's doing it as a 4-3 outside linebacker.

Right now, this race is probably too close to call with the final two weeks offering everybody a chance to make a strong closing argument. Donald and Borland have played fewer snaps than the others, which could work against them in terms of sample size but for them considering their production per snap.

If Donald can get a sack in each of the final two games to finish the year with one in each of the final seven games and get to 10 on the season, it could be enough to earn him the award.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Before the season started, the St. Louis Rams set out to be a physical, grind-it-out type of team capable of lining up, powering up and running right at opponents.

Fourteen games in, that approach hasn't materialized, and it's come back to bite the Rams on multiple occasions, including Thursday night's 12-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

And nowhere has the Rams' lack of power running been more evident than their feeble attempts to get the tough yards that keep the chains moving. In the loss to the Cardinals, the Rams had a couple of key third- and fourth-down situations and came up empty on all of them.

On their first drive, the Rams had third-and-goal at Arizona's 1 but running back Benny Cunningham was stopped for no gain, leaving the Rams to settle for a field goal. With that in mind in the fourth quarter, the Rams decided to eschew the run on third-and-goal at the Cardinals' 1, which led to an incompletion and, once again, settling for a field goal.

For the season, the Rams are converting 54.5 percent of their third-and-1 opportunities, tied for last in the NFL. On third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 this season, the Rams are averaging just 1.09 yards per carry, which is the worst output in the league in those situations.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher makes no bones about his team's need to improve when it comes picking up the tough yards, especially on the ground.

“We’ve got to get better at it," Fisher said. "We need to be able to line up and say, ‘Here we come. This is what we’re running. Stop it.’ We’re not there yet.”

Because of the Rams' struggles running in short-yardage situations, they actually haven't been bad throwing it in those spots. On third-and-1 and fourth-and-1, the Rams are averaging 9.33 yards per pass attempt, seventh best in the NFL, and have a total QBR of 82.4, which is fourth best in the league.

But now that the Rams have enough evidence of struggling in those spots, opposing defenses are looking for the pass more, which explains why the Cardinals were all over the third-down play at the goal line in the fourth quarter and quarterback Shaun Hill essentially had to throw it away.

"They’re loading the line of scrimmage as far as the run game’s concerned," Fisher said. "We thought our best opportunities were doing just what we did. We didn’t make plays. We have to do much better there."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians is known for his gruff exterior and brutal honesty.

It's been considered one of the reasons that it took him so long to get a head coaching job. But Arians won't hesitate to let you know where he stands, so it shouldn't have been a surprise when he didn't mince words in his postgame news conference after the Cardinals beat the St. Louis Rams 12-6 on Thursday night.

Arians
Arians
Arians' comments rankled some Rams fans who felt like he needlessly took a couple of shots at the Rams. Did he need to do that? No, probably not. But I also don't think he was trying to do anything but get his 11-3 team the respect it deserves.

I wrote a little about this in the Ram-blings on Friday morning, but I wanted to revisit in light of some of the anger I've seen from Rams fans. Here's the comments from Arians with my take on each:

Arians quote: "I love it when nobody says that you will have a chance to win," Arians said. "There is an 11-3 team, and a team that is always 8-8. You figure it out."

My thoughts: Arians is understandably upset by the lack of respect his team is getting. They are leading the NFC and entered Thursday's games as underdogs. Obviously that isn't the Rams' fault, but Arians was making a larger point here that whenever his team wins, there's always an excuse for how it happened instead of credit being given. And, really, Arians is being generous. The Rams haven't had more than seven wins since 2006 and have only been 8-8 twice since 2003. However, Jeff Fisher has a long history of mediocrity on his coaching record, including five .500 finishes while coaching the Houston/Tennessee franchise. Maybe Arians could have made his point in a different way, but he was speaking truth here and his overall point about being an underdog to a team that was 6-7 entering the game while his team had 10 wins and a victory over the Rams is valid.

Arians quote: "Everybody wanted to say how great their defense is, but I think they saw a good defense tonight and it was in red and white," Arians said. "I am very proud of our guys."

My thoughts: This was a little bit more head-scratching. Arians' offense only mustered 12 points and had just 274 yards of offense. The Cardinals defense did outplay the Rams' defense but it's not like the Rams defense was any sort of slouch. Again, this seems to go back to Arians' perception of a lack of respect. The Rams defense was getting a lot of credit going into the game, credit it earned beyond the scope of a two-game shutout streak (this is the same defense that completely shut down Denver's high powered offense) but the point Arians clearly wanted to make was that his defense deserves some attention, too.

All things considered, this is all relatively harmless. If you were one of those laughing last week when Fisher had some fun at Washington's expense with his coin-toss captains and then doubled down when asked about it the next day, you can't then complain when another coach tosses a mostly accurate barb in your direction.

Arians and the Cardinals have done an amazing job of overcoming injuries, suspensions and all sorts of adversity this season and should be commended for it. If he wants to get his guys a little more love, more power to him.

Besides, the NFC West already has plenty of fun rivalries, so why not add one more? It's a safe bet that Fisher will store Arians' comments away for when the teams meet again in 2015. He's probably even already picked out No. 88 Lance Kendricks as one of his coin-toss captains.

W2W4 revisited: St. Louis Rams

December, 12, 2014
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Looking back at three things to watch from the St. Louis Rams' 12-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday night:

1. Sacking Stanton: The Rams pass rush had been rolling entering the game, but the Cardinals found the recipe to help slow them down. St. Louis finished with just one sack, though it was able to generate pressure plenty of other times to force incompletions or flush quarterbacks Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley from the pocket. Still, with the Cardinals working with a banged-up offensive line, it was a letdown performance for a Rams defense that had 13 sacks combined in the previous two weeks.

2. Big-play chances: Quarterback Shaun Hill had been pretty good throwing down the field since becoming the starter again, but he struggled mightily against Arizona. Hill was 4-of-13 on passes traveling at least 10 yards in the air against the Cardinals, with no touchdowns and an interception (a late heave) while averaging 7.9 yards per attempt. In Weeks 11 to 14, Hill had been completing 50 percent of such passes with an average of 13.9 yards per attempt, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The inability to hit on some big plays, while the Cardinals landed a few, set Arizona up for a couple of field goals. The Rams' inability to do it left them trying to scrap for every yard.

3. Stick to the formula: The Rams have found success this year when they don't turn the ball over and/or win the turnover battle. It had been a simple formula as they were 4-0 going into Thursday night when they don't have any giveaways and they had not lost a game when they had a positive turnover differential. That theory held true against Arizona, but not in the way the Rams would have wanted. Running back Tre Mason coughed up a fumble in Rams territory that led directly to one of the Cardinals' field goals. On the other side, the Rams missed a few golden opportunities to get a takeaway of their own, including a near-miss of an interception by cornerback Janoris Jenkins and a forced fumble the Rams were unable to come up with. It was minus-two, including Hill's late heave, but it was enough to help tip the scales to Arizona.
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ST. LOUIS -- After two weeks of playing in the flyweight division, the St. Louis Rams stepped back up in class Thursday night at the Edward Jones Dome. But they didn't stop at middleweight or welterweight along the way. They jumped directly into a heavyweight slugfest.

And for four quarters, the Rams mostly stood toe to toe with the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals. Ultimately, the Cardinals landed about three more punches on their way to a 12-6 decision that once again proved that when the Rams play good teams, they have next to no margin for error.

[+] EnlargeMichael Floyd
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonArizona's Michael Floyd got the better of Rams CB Janoris Jenkins on several key plays Thursday night.
"Playing this team, you know that they have got a good defense," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "So typically you go into a football game and you say, 'Hey, we have got to hold a team to under 17 points.' But I have been raised under the thought process of my coaches in college and even here that if we get six, we've got to hold them to three. They made more plays than we did tonight. I think our defense played well, but we didn't play well enough to win this football game."

That statement isn't limited to the defense. Facing an Arizona defense that has been among the best in the league this season, the Rams' offense sputtered throughout most of the game and mounted a charge only in the waning moments. By then, it was too late. But it was too late because of three plays that went Arizona's way and provided the Cardinals with nine gift-wrapped points.

After jumping to an early 3-0 lead, the Rams got a stop and had the ball with a chance to extend their advantage. Instead, running back Tre Mason coughed up a fumble after he failed to secure the ball, giving the Cardinals prime field position at the Rams' 27.

"There's really no excuse for a fumble," Mason said. "I'll never give an excuse for a fumble, no matter how it happened. That's my job as a running back to hold on to the ball."

The defense was up to the task of holding Arizona to Chandler Catanzaro's 23-yard field goal, but those points gave the Cardinals an instant shot of momentum. The kick also ended the Rams' streak of 86 unanswered points dating to the Nov. 23 loss to San Diego -- 144 minutes, 41 seconds of game time.

On a night when the Rams were unable to get a takeaway, it was the game's lone turnover. Every cliché about the importance of turnovers is on the money with this team: The Rams are 4-0 this season when they don't have a giveaway and are winless when they have a negative turnover differential.

"You credit the defense from the standpoint of sudden change going out there and getting the field goal," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "But when you turn the ball over deep in your territory like that, they're going to get points. That was unfortunate for us. And then we just didn't get our hands on balls."

While the Rams' defense was again able to keep an opponent out of the end zone, it also had a couple of costly hiccups, the type of big-play miscues that resulted in six more points for Arizona -- the final margin of victory.

Cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who has been no stranger to being on the wrong end of big plays, allowed a 49-yard completion to receiver Michael Floyd in the second quarter and was later flagged for defensive pass interference that covered 36 yards.

Both plays put Arizona in St. Louis territory. Though the defense again kept the Cardinals out of the end zone each time, Catanzaro had two more field goals following those plays. Those six points plus the three after Mason's fumble directly led to nine points. Considering that the Rams scored six, that was the difference in the game.

"I should have made the play; it's over with," Jenkins said. "It's frustrating, but at the same time, you can't point fingers. You've just got to move on to the next week."

Guided by Shaun Hill, the Rams' offense has proved capable of getting the job done against lesser opponents, but a division foe with a passion for blitzing was too much for offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer & Co. to overcome. The Rams mustered just 280 yards of offense, only 69 on the ground, and were 4-for-15 on third down.

Once the Cardinals increased their lead to 12-3, it seemed the Rams would need points from their defense or special teams to close the gap.

"We kept saying it," Laurinaitis said. "It's our goal every week, regardless of the game, to score on defense. We put those standards on ourselves. We didn't get that play. That's the difference. They got a fumble, and we didn't get one. It's the little things, and it just seemed like they got it today."

It's a refrain that's become all too familiar in St. Louis, where the 6-8 Rams now face the certainty of an 11th straight year without a winning record.

 
ST. LOUIS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the St. Louis Rams' 12-6 loss against the Arizona Cardinals:

Fisher
Taking the points: With 6:10 to go in the game, the Rams found themselves facing a fourth-and-goal at Arizona's 1. It was the first real sign of life for the offense since its opening drive and the Rams trailed 12-3 at the time. Rams coach Jeff Fisher had a choice to make: take the field goal, make it a one-possession game and try to get a stop on defense or go for it knowing that you might not get so close to pay dirt again.

Fisher chose the former, and given a little time to think about it, he had no regrets about doing so.

"We needed points," Fisher said. "If I go for it on fourth-and-goal at the 1 1/2 and don't get it, we're in trouble. We needed points, so we elected to get the points there and use the timeouts and the two-minute warning and you get a solid field position change down by six."

Britt's encouragement: As you'd imagine, the Rams' locker room was a somber place but for anyone wondering receiver Kenny Britt's place on the team, you need only to see what he was doing after the game. With downtrodden teammates hanging their heads, Britt walked one by one to each locker and offered a hug and some words of encouragement to every teammate.

Getting it right: Fisher has been known to direct his ire at officials after some brutal calls have gone against his team this year but he didn't have any beef with the late Janoris Jenkins interception that was overturned after a replay review. Jenkins said he thought he had it and that the ground can't cause a fumble, but Fisher said from his perspective it's a call the officials got right.

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

December, 11, 2014
Dec 11
11:35
PM ET

ST. LOUIS -- A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 12-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals at the Edward Jones Dome:

What it means: The Rams' mini-streak of two wins and their shutout streak of more than nine quarters came to an end in a game whose result guaranteed that another Rams streak will continue. Of course, the one that will live on isn't nearly as appealing for the Rams and their fans. In dropping to 6-8 on the season, the Rams guaranteed that they will once again come up short of a winning record. They haven't had one of those since 2003 and need to win their final two games to finish 8-8. The Rams' defense did what it could to keep the team in the game, but it had a pair of costly hiccups that led directly to points for the Cardinals. Of more concern was an offense that did next to nothing aside from its first possession and had a fumble that set up Arizona's first field goal. Simply put, the Rams aren't good enough to overcome turnovers on offense and big plays allowed on defense against good teams.

Stock watch: Down -- The offense: There was plenty of discussion about the Rams' defensive success the past two weeks being tied directly to facing struggling opponents like Oakland and Washington. The reality is it was the offense that was providing the smoke and mirrors. With a top defense in town, the Rams looked like they had never seen a blitz before and mustered only 280 yards for the game. Running back Tre Mason coughed up a fumble that gave Arizona points. And, until a 38-yard completion to Stedman Bailey with about 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the Rams didn't have a first down in the second half.

Shutout streak ends: The way the Rams' defense and Arizona's offense had played entering the game, it was fair to wonder how or when somebody would score some points against the Rams. So, it was no coincidence that the first points they allowed in more than nine quarters came as a direct result of Mason's fumble in Rams territory. The streak ended after 144 minutes, 41 seconds, and the 86 unanswered points the Rams scored during it is the most by a team during a shutout streak since the Buffalo Bills also had 86 unanswered in 1992.

Game ball: The defense -- The margin for error was next to none for this group and it had a couple of costly mistakes, but it's unrealistic to expect it to pitch shutouts every week. The defense kept the Rams close despite getting next to no help from the offense. The Rams will lament the near misses for takeaways, namely a late fumble by Arizona running back Kerwynn Williams and two potential interceptions that went through the hands of cornerback Janoris Jenkins. But you can't blame a group that limited an opponent to 12 points.

What's next: The Rams wrap up the home portion of their schedule on Dec. 21 against the New York Giants before closing the season with a trip to the Pacific Northwest to take on the Seattle Seahawks.

Cardinals vs. Rams preview

December, 11, 2014
Dec 11
8:00
AM ET
When: 8:25 p.m. ET, Thursday. Where: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis. TV: NFL Network.

A lot has changed for the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals since they last met Nov. 9. Little more than a month later, both teams are employing different starting quarterbacks and seem to be trending in opposite directions.

It’s probably too little too late for the Rams to make the playoffs, and the Cardinals will probably find a way to hang in and make the postseason, but either way it should make for an interesting matchup.

Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss discuss Thursday night’s contest:

Wagoner: Obviously, things have changed a lot since the last time these two played. The Cardinals have had a couple of losses, not that there's any shame in losing a game or two after starting 9-1, but do you still see this team as a real contender?

Weinfuss: It really depends on the day. But for the most part, I do. I think this defense is good enough to carry Arizona deep into the playoffs, especially with how well the pass rush has developed during the past five games. However, that won’t be enough in my opinion. The special teams hasn’t been consistent all season and the offense doesn’t look up to speed. Arizona is hoping that kicker Chandler Catanzaro got his misses out of the way Sunday, when he clanged two kicks off the goal posts. The kick return game is ranked 32nd in the NFL despite a better showing by Ted Ginn Jr. against the Chiefs. That has led to poor starting field position, which is the last thing this offense needs right now. Drew Stanton has been good at times but then he’ll quickly show why he hasn’t been a starter in this league before. He has been playing with fire lately, coming too close to throwing interceptions for Bruce Arians' liking. As long as he doesn’t turn the ball over, Arizona will continue to contend.

This is some run the Rams are on right now, even though they’ve beaten up on the Raiders and Redskins. How much stock are they putting in 76-0 and 13 sacks in two games? Are those two stats a product of their opponents, or has the Rams’ defense finally become what so many of us in the media expected it to be?

Wagoner: Let’s be clear, there’s no doubt the Rams feasted on a couple of bad opponents. That is part of the equation, but my contention is that it’s a small part. The Rams of old didn’t used to dominate teams that many would view as inferior. Just a year ago, the Rams took Seattle to the wire on "Monday Night Football" then turned around and lost at home to Tennessee. So while you can count the quality of opponents against them, it’s a disservice to the job the defense has done because it’s not just been the past two weeks. This defensive run has gone back much further. As one small example, the Rams have kept three of their past four opponents from even taking a snap inside their 20-yard line. Two of those opponents were Washington and Oakland. The other? The Denver Broncos. The Rams have proved they can play with any team in the league, especially on defense. They are right now what we thought they would be and maybe even a little bit better.

Both teams have changed quarterbacks since the previous meeting. Arizona by injury, St. Louis by choice. Now that Drew Stanton knows he's the man for the rest of the season do you think it has helped him because he doesn't have to wonder when he'll be replaced? Or has it exposed weaknesses?

Weinfuss: In response to your first question, I think that knowing he's that man has gone both ways. Here’s why: It has helped him because he knows, going forward, the responsibility is on his shoulders and all the work he’s putting in in practice and all the time he’s spending with receivers will pay off in the long run because he knows he'll be the one making the throws. But at the same time I get the sense that he played a little looser knowing he wasn’t going to be relied upon to be out there every week. He could play a little freer knowing he was the short-term solution instead of the long-term answer. There’s definitely an added stress knowing you’re in charge of a team’s playoffs hopes -- especially one that had potential to end in a Super Bowl run. I think parts of Stanton’s game have been exposed, such as his inconsistency, because there’s more of a sample size for teams to study.

The Rams have won three of their past four with Shaun Hill at quarterback. He’s averaging more yards per attempt, has a higher touchdown-to-interception ratio and has a higher passer rating than Austin Davis. What has it been about Hill the second-time around that clicked for the Rams’ offense?

Wagoner: The formula really isn’t that complicated and nobody can attest to that more than the Cardinals. Hill has had zero turnovers in those three Rams victories. He turned it over in their lone loss to San Diego, including a back-breaker at the goal line near the end of regulation. When Hill takes care of the ball with the defense playing the way it is, the Rams are well-positioned to win. It’s a relatively small sample size, but Hill has never had three consecutive starts without a turnover in his career. If he can do it against Arizona, that would make it three in a row. The other thing that he has done well is take advantage of opportunities to throw deep when they’ve come up. Hill has a QBR of 98 when throwing 15 or more yards down the field. The combination of ball security and hitting big plays when the chances arise has been the biggest difference between Hill and Davis.

I see the Cardinals have shuffled the offensive line a little bit. With the Rams' pass rush firing on all cylinders at the moment, do you see this offensive line being in a good spot to slow them down?

Weinfuss: Parts of it, yes. I think the interior of the line could struggle. Because of an injury to right guard Paul Fanaika, former left guard Ted Larsen moved to the right side while Jonathan Cooper made his much-anticipated return to the field at left guard. Cooper is still trying to figure out his way on the offensive line after not playing last season and sporadically this year. But he’s fresh and he’s quick, so as long as he can stay in front of Michael Brockers he could be OK. But the Cardinals’ tackles have been playing very well lately, which will make Thursday’s matchup between them and Chris Long and Robert Quinn among the most exciting on the field.

These two offenses are quite similar -- almost identical in some categories -- but turnovers, both forced and made, have become the difference. How does the Rams’ offense cut down on turnovers to make sure they can keep this game close?

Wagoner: They’ve done it by making the change at quarterback. Seriously, that has been the biggest difference. They are 4-0 this year in games they have zero giveaways and they haven’t lost a game when they’ve had a positive turnover margin this season. Conversely, they’ve lost every game in which they’ve had a negative turnover differential. The games where it has been a draw on turnovers have gone either way. I know pointing to turnovers is cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason: Because it’s true. If you remember the costly turnovers in the first meeting, one was a deep throw by Davis that he didn’t get enough on. Hill has more arm strength, and when he misses on deep balls, it’s usually an overthrow. He’s also more aware and adept at handling pressure, something Davis struggled with. In winning three of their past four, the Rams are plus-8 in turnover margin. If they are to beat Arizona, they’ll need that trend to continue.

Rams-Cardinals: Matchup breakdown

December, 10, 2014
Dec 10
4:00
PM ET
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A look at three individual matchups to keep an eye on when the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals meet at 8:25 p.m. ET on Thursday.

Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers vs. Cardinals left guard Ted Larsen/Jonathan Cooper

The Cardinals are banged up on the offensive line with Fanaika dealing with an ankle sprain since Week 13 and far from a certainty to play this week. If Fanaika is out, the normal left guard Ted Larsen will replace him on the right side forcing Cooper into the lineup. In fact, it's probably a better bet that Cooper will make his second consecutive start. Cooper was the highly-touted guard prospect from North Carolina in 2013 who missed the season with a knee injury and has still be working his way to the starting lineup. Against Kansas City last week, Arizona coach Bruce Arians said Cooper was 'OK' but mentioned that he'd been pushed backwards about 10 times.

In Brockers, Cooper (or Larsen) would be drawing the most favorable matchup of any of the Cardinals offensive linemen. That's not to say Brockers is a pushover so much as it's better than having to deal with the likes of Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald. But Brockers has played much better in recent weeks, particularly against the run and he's a big, powerful sort who could give the athletic but smaller Cooper some issues. The Cardinals are going to have their hands full upfront but their line has been much improved in 2014. Brockers versus Fanaika or Cooper isn't the draw of other matchups upfront but it could be an important one in determining the outcome.

Rams cornerback E.J. Gaines vs. Cardinals receiver John Brown

The Rams defense is playing so well right now that it seems the only way to really beat them is to get a big play. Well, few players in the league have a knack for the big play like Brown. The Rams found that out first hand in the first meeting between the teams when Brown made a spectacular diving catch for a 48-yard touchdown that was ultimately the game winner. Brown has made a habit of those big plays in his rookie season though his production has tailed off a bit since that big catch against St. Louis.

The Rams, meanwhile, are getting much better production out of their secondary lately in part because they're finally healthy. With Trumaine Johnson back, the Rams have been using Gaines as the starter at left cornerback but kicking him inside in the nickel. That's where Gaines could see plenty of Brown this time around. Brown beat safety Rodney McLeod for the touchdown in Arizona but Gaines is a reliable cover type who hasn't allowed many big plays this year.

It's unlikely the Rams can continue to pitch shutouts but if they want another one, they'll need Gaines to be on point against Brown.

Rams tight end Jared Cook vs. Cardinals safety Deone Bucannon

I wanted to avoid repeats from the first matchup here but I'm making an exception for this one considering Cook's success against the Cardinals in that meeting. Cook had two catches for 84 yards and a touchdown in that game and Arizona continues to struggle to cover tight ends consistently.

Even before that, Cook had a big game in the 2013 season opener when he torched Arizona to the tune of seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns. He would have had three scores if not for an amazing play by Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu to force a fumble just before Cook crossed the goal line. Regardless, Arizona was one of the worst teams in the league last year defending tight ends which led directly to the selection of Bucannon.

Bucannon has been used primarily in the nickel and dime for the Cardinals but has flashed the potential to help in a variety of ways. He had his first career fumble recovery in Week 8 against Philadelphia and has 39 tackles and two passes defended so far in his rookie season. With Mathieu out because of a thumb injury and cornerback Antonio Cromartie battling an ankle issue, the Cardinals figure to have some question marks in the secondary. That could mean any plans to help slow Cook might have to be altered to help elsewhere.

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