Rams inept, but NFC West is on their side

September, 20, 2011
9/20/11
2:11
AM ET
Sam BradfordNick Laham/Getty ImagesSam Bradford and the Rams had too many miscues and could not finish drives deep in the red zone.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The St. Louis Rams played Monday night like a team that could afford to snooze through the early portion of this 2011 NFL season.

They played like a team from the NFC West, where 7-9 was just fine in 2010 -- and again might get a team into the playoffs. All four teams face-planted in Week 2.

The New York Giants weren't much better and were flat-out worse for stretches. How the Giants could nonetheless leave MetLife Stadium with a 28-16 victory remained a minor mystery. There were others, such as: What were the Rams thinking with four minutes gone in the second quarter?

Facing third-and-8 on the national stage, the Rams threw a backward pass to a 29-year-old running back with two reconstructed knees and a 6.9-yard career receiving average. Sam Bradford hurried the throw against pressure, Cadillac Williams misplayed the ball and the Rams were slow to realize there was a game going on. Giants linebacker Michael Boley was on his way to a 65-yard touchdown return when the Rams realized the play was live.

This was the best the Rams could come up with on third down?

Coordinator Josh McDaniels makes the offensive play calls, but head coach Steve Spagnuolo was the one available afterward. I thought this play, more than any other, had captured the Rams' ineptitude on this night. The details weren't fresh in Spagnuolo's mind, but he suspected the team had called another play in the huddle, adjusting against the blitz. But as Bradford revealed a bit later, the screen to Williams was indeed the call in the huddle and "the only place" the Rams were going with the football.

"It was a designed screen to Cadillac," Bradford said. "They were bringing someone off that edge, and I hurried and tried to get it around the guy and in doing that threw it backwards. I just can't do that. In hindsight, I probably should have called timeout."

It was that kind of night for the Rams. Questionable planning met poor execution, producing a second consecutive defeat to open the season. There were stretches when receiver Danario Alexander and tight end Lance Kendricks, two of the Rams' most productive players when targeted early Monday night, were parked on the sideline.

Alexander caught three passes for 122 yards and a touchdown. Kendricks caught a 26-yard pass up the right sideline on a third-and-5 play in the first quarter, but the Rams targeted him only three more times. Billy Bajema replaced Kendricks in the team's two-tight end package for an extended stretch, and Bajema was the one unable to handle a third-down pass early in the fourth quarter when the Rams still had a chance. It's possible that Bajema, as a veteran, was better equipped to help in protection against the Giants' frequent blitzes.

Bradford continued to struggle against pressure, as young quarterbacks often do. He has added protection calls to his responsibilities this season while digesting McDaniels' offense. The way last season ended and the way this season has begun proves that the long-term expectations for Bradford are exactly that: long-term expectations. The short term is what coaches call a process and sometimes a painful one.

Michael Boley
Andrew Mills/US PresswireMichael Boley capitalized on Sam Bradford's mistake and took a fumble back for a 65-yard score.
Game charting by ESPN Stats & Information produced alarming evidence that Bradford and the Rams aren't yet able to make defenses pay for coming after the quarterback. They'll need more time in McDaniels' system, upgraded talent, better health and continued growth from Bradford to make opponents respect them.

The Giants either forced Bradford from the pocket, affected his throwing motion or had a defender bearing down on him directly 14 times in 49 drop-backs. Bradford failed to complete any of his 11 pass attempts in these situations. The Giants hit him five times.

Going back to 2010, Bradford has the NFL's lowest completion percentage, 28.6, among players with at least 50 attempts when under such duress.

Against the Giants, Bradford completed 22 of 35 attempts for 331 yards and a touchdown when freed from such harassment.

"Sam got a whole bunch of yards," left tackle Rodger Saffold said. "We just have to continue to press through. We let him pick defenses apart, then we'll be just fine."

All was not lost. Bradford finally connected on some of the deep strikes the Rams have been talking about since McDaniels arrived during the offseason. Bradford completed 8 of 13 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown on passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield. He had never completed more than four such passes in a game previously, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The occasional spectacular plays, including leaping grabs by Alexander against overmatched defensive backs, weighed less in the end than the little mistakes that piled up throughout.

"Our problem is ourselves," receiver Brandon Gibson said.

No one could argue. The Rams' troubles in the red zone told much of the story. They managed three field goals on three trips inside the 10-yard line, a sure sign of imprecision. Injury-related personnel issues are clearly at work. Playing without Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson and 2010 leading receiver Danny Amendola has pushed Williams, rookie Greg Salas and others into prominent roles they're not ideally suited to handle.

Williams should have known better on the backward pass, but was anyone surprised to see Salas stare into the prime-time lights and blink while muffing a punt in only his second NFL game?

The Rams are 0-2 for a fifth consecutive season. Bradford's presence has allowed them to point confidently to the horizon, but that sort of thinking is best left to the offseason. There are games to be won now, and the Rams aren't playing well enough to win them.

There was Saffold's false-start penalty on a third-and-3 late in the second quarter. There was a penalty for having 12 men in the huddle on another third-down play. The defense handed first-and-10s to the Giants with penalties on fourth-and-4, first-and-20 and third-and-6.

No wonder Spagnuolo, the Giants' former defensive coordinator, got testier than usual when a New York reporter asked whether he was disappointed to lose in his return to New Jersey.

"I don't really care about the return thing," Spagnuolo said.

With no NFC West opponents on the schedule until Week 9 and the Baltimore Ravens coming after his young quarterback in six days, it was easy to see why.

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