NFL Nation: Oshiomogho Atogwe

The secondary is the part of the defense the Washington Redskins most needed to address this offseason, and address it they have. One day after signing safety Brandon Meriweather to a two-year contract, the Redskins have agreed to terms with former Vikings cornerback Cedric Griffin.

The Redskins have been talking with many different options for their secondary. Earlier this week, it was reported that they were planning to host former Giants cornerback Aaron Ross for a visit Friday, and it's possible they still are. The signing of Griffin could indicate that they have the third cornerback they sought, but it could also mean something else. Griffin is big and physical enough to play safety. The Vikings discussed moving him to safety last year when he struggled so badly at cornerback that he ended up benched late in the year. And with Meriweather likely slated for the LaRon Landry strong safety spot in the secondary, Griffin could be looked at as a candidate to replace recently released free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe.

That decision may not even have been made yet. Griffin adds a physical presence to the secondary wherever he plays and however much he plays. He comes in on a one-year, $2.5 million deal, so it's not a major commitment. If he can handle cornerback, maybe they use him there. If he can handle free safety, maybe that's his role. But Mike Shanahan has been preaching the need for depth all over the roster, and whatever role he ends up playing for the Redskins, Griffin helps with the depth on defense.
John Keim of the Washington Examiner first reported, and ESPN 980 radio in Washington has since confirmed, that New York Giants cornerback Aaron Ross will visit with the Washington Redskins on Friday. ESPN 980 also reports Ross will visit with the Bengals on Thursday, so there is some competition for his services. But this information, plus Adam Schefter's report that the Redskins are bringing in safety Brandon Meriweather for a visit, makes it clear that the Redskins are intent on upgrading their secondary.

The Redskins feel good about their defensive line, and if they re-sign London Fletcher (which they'd like to, but by the way still haven't), they feel great about their linebackers. But the secondary remains an issue. Safety might be the bigger problem, with O.J. Atogwe released and LaRon Landry almost certain not to return. But they checked in on cornerback Eric Wright before he signed with Tampa Bay, and now they're apparently looking at Ross.

Some will speculate that the addition of a veteran corner like Ross could mean the Redskins are planning to deal or cut DeAngelo Hall, and that could well be the case. But it's also possible — likely, even — that the Redskins believe it's important to have more than two good, starter-quality cornerbacks. And if they added Ross to the mix with Hall and Josh Wilson, they'd feel better about their cornerback rotation in 2012 than they did in 2011. Mike Shanahan has repeatedly stressed depth as the Redskins' biggest issue, and cornerback is one of the most vital positions in today's NFL. Depth there isn't a bad idea.

For Rams, why Mikell and not Atogwe?

August, 10, 2011
Matt from Nashville, Ill., wonders why the St. Louis Rams were willing to shell out millions for one safety (Quintin Mikell) and not for another (Oshiomogho Atogwe), particularly with Atogwe having played for them already.

Mike Sando: This is one of the rare cases where the Rams got slightly older and considerably more expensive at a position by replacing someone once considered a core player. Your question is a logical one.

The Rams see Mikell as a better fit for their defense. Atogwe was best as a ball-hawker under the previous coaching staff. His interceptions were down from 13 over the 2007 and 2008 seasons to five in two seasons under Steve Spagnuolo. The Rams' current staff is looking for stronger play against the run. I also suspect the Rams see Mikell as an ascending player despite his age. Mikell is 30, but he is entering only his fifth season as a starter. He has missed only five games in eight NFL seasons.

I noticed our Scouts Inc. evaluation on Mikell bumped up his player grade from 71 to 86 Insider in free-agent reports available to Insider subscribers. A player grading in the 80s "has abilities to create mismatches versus most opponents in the NFL" and is a "feature player who has an impact on the outcome of the game" and "cannot be shut down by a single player" while playing consistently from week to week.

Grades in the 70s reflect "good starters" while grades in the 80s are for "outstanding" ones. Atogwe's grade for last season was 76. Insider

The Rams liked and appreciated Atogwe. They named him their franchise player and paid more than $6 million to him under that designation. They were willing to pay that price on a one-year basis when they did not see superior options in the market, but they were not willing to pay that over the course of a long-term deal.

Atogwe is nine months younger than Mikell. Mikell has played two additional seasons, but Atogwe has been a starter longer and did not appear to be ascending within the Rams' scheme.

The Rams' most recent contract with Atogwe called for an $8 million bonus. The team released him to avoid paying that bonus. Mikell's deal includes a guaranteed $8 million bonus. The team is making a statement that Mikell is an impact player, not just a good one, and a better one than Atogwe for their system.
The St. Louis Rams' four-year agreement with Philadelphia Eagles safety Quintin Mikell gives them a player they know well.

Coach Steve Spagnuolo coached the Eagles' defensive backs from 2004-06, when Mikell was still establishing himself in the NFL. Mikell, 30, gives the Rams a proven safety after watching longtime starter Oshiomogho Atogwe sign with the Washington Redskins.

Mikell has started all but one game over the last three seasons. The Rams, strong in rushing the passer last season, could stand to upgrade their run defense this offseason. Mikell is strong against the run and an aggressive tackler, according to an Insider report from Scouts Inc.

The Rams got strong play from Fred Robbins and James Laurinaitis up the middle last season, but their run defense was not particularly strong overall. Darren McFadden (145), Michael Turner (131) and Jamaal Charles (126) topped 100 yards rushing against them. The Rams allowed 113 yards rushing per game, which ranked 17th, and 4.48 yards per carry (22nd).

The Rams still need help on defense at outside linebacker and defensive tackle. New Orleans Saints veteran linebacker Scott Shanle, 31, has indicated a visit to the Rams could be an option. Barry Cofield, who played for Spagnuolo when both were with the New York Giants, would make sense as an option on the defensive line.

Kiper mock 5.0: Thoughts on Rams

April, 28, 2011
Mel Kiper's fifth mock draft Insider for 2011 provides the foundation for discussing how NFC West teams might proceed this offseason.

I'll continue with a look at his plans for the St. Louis Rams, who hold the No. 14 overall choice.

14. St. Louis Rams: Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois

Kiper's give: A selection I'm sticking with from the previous mock, Liuget is a relentless player who displays leverage, power and the ability to locate the ball well against both the rush and the pass. ... I also can see the Rams going for an outside linebacker at this spot. If they're that intent on a pass-catcher with their first pick, the Rams could also trade off the pick.

Sando's take: Kiper, NFL Network's Mike Mayock and St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat reporter Jim Thomas all have Liuget heading to the Rams with the 14th pick. Another analyst, Rob Rang, recently had Liuget going to the New York Giants at No. 19. In other words, there's a consensus building that Liuget fits the sort of defense Steve Spagnuolo brought to the Rams from the Giants. The thinking appears sound. Liuget does appear to fit better than some of the other defensive line options, including J.J. Watt. Rams fans will be watching closely to see whether receiver Julio Jones falls out of the top 10. If that happens, would the Rams stay in the 14th spot or move up for a shot at giving quarterback Sam Bradford needed help? The Rams have been fairly predictably in past drafts, in part because they were picking so early and had such obvious needs. Their needs go beyond receiver and the defensive line this year. They could use a change-of-pace running back, a starting guard, a starting outside linebacker and help for a secondary that lost safety Oshiomogho Atogwe this offseason. No single need is great enough to force their hand at No. 14.
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. ranks NFC West defensive lines in this Insider piece posted Monday. I've listed the teams alphabetically while offering a few thoughts of my own, each punctuated with what to watch for from Williamson:

Arizona Cardinals: They have the best young talent across the board with Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and the emerging Dan Williams projected to start in 2011. I'm with Williamson in thinking the 2010 season was an aberration for this group. Dockett played hurt. Williams, as a rookie, faced an adjustment period. The Cardinals should expect improvement up front. Dockett expressed frustration during the season when his injured shoulder would not let him fight through double teams as effectively. He's a hard worker and should come back strong. New coordinator Ray Horton is adapting his system to fit some of the Cardinals' existing terminology, but the key is whether Williams builds on a strong finish to 2010 and whether Campbell bounces back from a down season. What to watch for from Williamson: strong thoughts regarding what's in store for Campbell.

St. Louis Rams: Chris Long's development has accelerated since moving to the left side. Some other key members of the line will decline in the near future. Will it happen in 2011? That is not known. Fred Robbins and James Hall defied their age last season. Robbins had a career-high six sacks last season at age 33. Steve McMichael, John Randle and Warren Sapp are the only defensive tackles since 1990 to hit that number in a season at 34 or older. It's a bonus if the Rams' older linemen continue to defy the odds, but it's not something the team should bank on. What to watch for from Williamson: how he sees George Selvie and Gary Gibson fitting into the rotation.

San Francisco 49ers: Williamson graded them lower than I would have anticipated, based mostly on Aubrayo Franklin's uncertain status. Using the franchise tag for Franklin last season allowed the team to keep him at a palatable salary number. I see some parallels between Franklin's situation and the situation the Rams encountered with Oshiomogho Atogwe. Both have been franchise players, but neither was a Pro Bowl performer. Their teams used franchise tags on them out of convenience, not because they viewed either player as indispensable. Replacing a solid safety such as Atogwe is easier than replacing a solid nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme. The 49ers might need to draft one. What to watch for from Williamson: where he ranks Justin Smith among linemen in the division, and what might be in store for Ray McDonald.

Seattle Seahawks: Health will be a key variable after Red Bryant, Colin Cole, Brandon Mebane and Chris Clemons battled through or succumbed to injuries last season. There is also the detail of re-signing Mebane, who could become a free agent. Williamson ranks the Seahawks' defensive line higher than I would have anticipated, to the point that he sees no reason for the team to address the position in the first round of the draft. I could see the team looking to use one of its choices for another player in Bryant's mold -- a big, top-heavy defensive tackle with the ability to serve as a run-stuffing defensive end opposite Clemons. Bryant, a fourth-round choice in 2008, is coming off his second ACL surgery since 2006. What to watch for from Williamson: where he sees Clemons fitting among the top pass-rushers in the NFL.

Draft Watch: NFC West

March, 10, 2011
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Arizona Cardinals

Quarterback stands out as the most obvious need for the Cardinals after Arizona suffered through a rough 2010 season with Derek Anderson, Max Hall and John Skelton under center. Acquiring a veteran passer in free agency or trade would clear the way for Arizona to focus on other areas in the draft. But if the labor impasse continues through April, the Cardinals will face more pressure to find one in the draft.

Beyond quarterback, the Cardinals need fresh talent at outside linebacker to improve their pass rush and perimeter run defense. They need help at offensive tackle, where Levi Brown hasn’t played to his status as the fifth player drafted in 2007. Their starting interior offensive linemen are without contracts for 2011, so that area is another concern.

Arizona does not have a starting-caliber tight end. Inside linebacker is another position needing attention.

San Francisco 49ers

Quarterback, cornerback and outside linebacker rank among primary needs for a team that has invested five first-round picks in its offense since 2006, including three over the past two drafts.

David Carr is the only quarterback under contract to the 49ers for 2011. Starting cornerback Nate Clements will not return under his current contract. Will Alex Smith come back for another year?

While San Francisco’s front seven has been strong, the team hasn’t had a player reach double digits in sacks since Andre Carter had 12.5 in 2002. That was also the last time the 49ers posted a winning record. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio likes to build around a pass-rusher and a cover corner.

Nose tackle could become another concern. Starter Aubrayo Franklin played last season as a franchise player. The balloon payment Washington paid to Albert Haynesworth pumped up the projected franchise value for defensive tackles, making it prohibitive for the 49ers to name Franklin their franchise player for a second consecutive season, should the designation exist in a new labor agreement.

St. Louis Rams

The Rams are set at quarterback and picking late enough in the first round -- 14th overall -- to let the draft come to them. They’re in position to benefit when a highly ranked player falls unexpectedly. They should not feel pressured to reach for a position even though they do have needs.

It’s important for the team to arm Sam Bradford with a more dynamic outside receiving threat. Injuries severely weakened the position last season. Front-line talent was lacking at the position even when most of the Rams’ wideouts were healthy.

Defensive tackle and outside linebacker jump out as two additional primary needs. Finding a defensive end to develop behind James Hall would also make sense. Landing a right guard in the draft would solidify the offensive line while letting 2010 starter Adam Goldberg back up multiple positions. The team also needs safety help after letting Oshiomogho Atogwe leave. Finding a change-of-pace back to supplement Steven Jackson's contributions might count as a luxury.

Seattle Seahawks

Quarterback will be a primary need if the Seahawks fail to re-sign Matt Hasselbeck. The position needs to be stocked for the long term even if Hasselbeck does come back for an 11th season with the team.

Restocking the offensive line must take priority no matter what happens at quarterback. The Seahawks’ running game has disappeared in recent seasons, putting too much pressure on the rest of the offense. Drafting left tackle Russell Okung sixth overall a year ago was a start. Seattle needs to find answers at both guard spots and probably right tackle (assuming Max Unger returns from injury and takes over at center, as expected). Adding Robert Gallery in free agency could take off some pressure in the draft. Gallery played under Seattle's new line coach, Tom Cable, in Oakland.

The cornerback situation needs attention. Marcus Trufant’s salary jumps significantly, raising questions about how the team will view him coming off an inconsistent season. Another corner Seattle chose in the first round, Kelly Jennings, is without a contract and lacks the size Seattle prefers at the position.
Oshiomogho Atogwe's contract agreement with the Washington Redskins, reported by Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, leaves the St. Louis Rams weaker in the secondary.

That is the bottom line.

ESPN's Adam Schefter says the deal is for five years and $26 million. It's unclear how the contract is structured. Atogwe's previous deal with the Rams wound up paying him $4 million. His new deal surely represents an upgrade even though players often don't see all the money in a long-term deal.

Unusual and unfortunate circumstances negatively affected negotiations between the Rams and Atogwe. The team named him its franchise player following the 2008 season. Atogwe played the 2009 season under terms of the one-year, $6.34 million franchise offer. He became only a restricted free agent following the 2009 season, however, as the labor agreement upped requirements for unrestricted free agency in an uncapped year.

This was an unfortunate step backward for Atogwe.

The Rams took advantage of the RFA designation by making the lowest possible offer. Rules required them to up that $1.226 million offer to $7 million or let Atogwe become a free agent last June. The Rams opted to let Atogwe become a free agent. They liked him, but not at the $7 million price. The timing made it tougher for Atogwe to find a suitable deal. He re-signed with the Rams.

At the time, Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. thought Atogwe would have been better off joining a superior defense elsewhere on a one-year deal and re-marketing himself. Instead, Atogwe came back to the Rams and played well at times, but he did not stand out.

Atogwe has built a reputation for forcing turnovers, but his production in that area has fallen off even while the Rams have improved on defense. He had three interceptions in 2010 and two the previous season after collecting 13 in 2007 and 2008. Jim Haslett, the Rams' defensive coordinator during Atogwe's ball-hawking years, is coordinating the Redskins' defense. Perhaps Atogwe will fit better there.

I think the Rams would have liked to have brought back Atogwe, but they never valued him as a sideline-to-sideline force. They never valued him the way the franchise designation said they valued him. For them, the tag was a convenient way to keep him for a year, not a sign they valued him at that price over a long-term deal. Throw in the unusual RFA situation last offseason and this negotiation wasn't as easy as it should have been.

The Rams will miss Atogwe, but their fans should be happy for him, too. Atogwe handled himself more professionally than I can recall another player handling himself under the circumstances. He practiced with the team as a franchise player even though he hadn't signed the $6.34 million tender. He was a team player all the way.

Atogwe headed to Washington?

February, 21, 2011
The Washington Redskins will host safety Oshiomogho Atogwe today, according to Howard Balzer of St. Louis' ESPN 101. Atogwe was released by the Rams because they didn't want to pay him an $8 million bonus. For now, he's exploring his options. And you'd have to think the Cowboys would also be interested in taking a look at Atogwe.

"This is an opportunity for me to explore other options," Atogwe told Balzer. "It doesn't mean the Rams aren't still an option. A door has been opened so I can really see if this is where I'm supposed to continue to be, or if I am supposed to go elsewhere. It gives me and my family more options to make a decision."

Atogwe, 29, had the best season of his career while playing for Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett while he was with the Rams in 2007. The safety had eight of his 22 career interceptions that season. It's also worth noting that Atogwe is engaged to the daughter of Vikings linebackers coach Mike Singletary. And the Vikings are in desperate need of help at the safety position.

Players such as Atogwe and Shaun Rogers are getting their own version of a free agency period. And given all the uncertainty surrounding the labor negotiations, they'd probably be wise to strike a deal before March 4.

Franchise tags and the NFC West

February, 11, 2011
As promised, a look at the franchise and transition tags in relation to the NFC West in 2011:

  • [+] EnlargeAubrayo Franklin
    Bob Donnan/US PresswireThe 49ers used the franchise tag on Aubrayo Franklin in 2010.
    The NFL says the tags remain in place to help teams restrict potential free agents, but the league also says there won't be free agency without a labor agreement. The NFL Players Association says the tag will not matter without an agreement. Both sides could be right. Teams planning to use the tag lose nothing by designating franchise and transition players just in case.
  • The collective bargaining agreement says teams can designate franchise and transition players beginning 22 days before the new league year. That period began Thursday. The period closes at 4 p.m. ET on Feb. 24, identified as the eighth day preceding the first day of the new league year.
  • The collective bargaining agreement requires the league to provide the NFLPA with information to calculate franchise and transition values by position "no later than February 1 of each League Year during the term of this Agreement." The agreement does not expire until March 4.
  • The NFLPA usually provides these franchise and transition values to reporters as part of a broader information packet during Super Bowl week. The information packet did not include those figures this year.
  • The San Francisco 49ers named nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin their franchise player last season. Doing so again would guarantee him 120 percent of his 2010 salary or the average of the five highest salaries at defensive tackle, whichever is greater. Albert Haynesworth's inflated 2010 salary drove up the average enough to make franchising Franklin seem impractical. The 49ers would have to offer him nearly double the $7 million he received last season.
  • The high price for defensive tackles makes it very difficult to envision the Seattle Seahawks using the franchise tag for Brandon Mebane. The team previously used the tag for kicker Olindo Mare. His contract is expiring again.
  • The 49ers wouldn't have to lay out nearly as much if they chose to use the franchise tag for safety Dashon Goldson. I've heard nothing to indicate the 49ers plan to go that route. The team has a new coaching staff, so it's difficult to know how San Francisco values certain players.
  • The St. Louis Rams' Oshiomogho Atogwe does not become eligible for the franchise tag if the Rams release him to avoid paying an $8 million bonus due Feb. 21.
  • The franchise tag for linebackers could again fall around $10 million. It's tough to envision the 49ers paying that much for Manny Lawson.
  • The Arizona Cardinals presumably would not use the franchise tag for receiver Steve Breaston. They value him, but using the tag for Breaston would move his salary past the $10 million average for teammate Larry Fitzgerald.

I've reached out to the NFL and NFLPA for additional information. In the meantime, Brian McIntyre's projections could be helpful.

Wrap-up: Rams 36, Broncos 33

November, 28, 2010
Thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 36-33 win against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium in Week 12:

What it means: The Rams moved into a first-place tie with Seattle atop the NFC West at 5-6, but they hold the tiebreaker after beating the Seahawks in Week 4. By beating Denver, the Rams have finally claimed the breakthrough road victory they needed. They had to sweat it out, but could it be any other way for this team? The Rams will need to win another game on the road this season to reach 8-8. The way this division is shaping up, however, they might be able to win it at 7-9. Getting this victory to begin a three-game road trip takes off the pressure heading into a Week 13 game at Arizona. The Rams have to like their chances against the Cardinals and in the division overall.

Big Revelation: The Rams' recent production increases at tight end were not a mirage. Billy Bajema caught two first-half scoring passes. Fellow tight end Mike Hoomanwanui caught a touchdown pass of at least 25 yards for the second week in a row. The Rams' injury issues at receiver remain a limiting factor. That's why it's important for the team to develop its tight ends into receiving threats. That appears to be happening. Wide receiver Danario Alexander also bounced back from knee surgery with four catches for 95 yards.

What I liked: Rookie quarterback Sam Bradford passed for 308 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. He now has 11 TD passes and one INT since leading receiver Mark Clayton landed on injured reserve.

What I didn't like: The Rams had to sweat out a victory that seemed like a done deal in the second half. The Broncos outscored the Rams 20-3 in the fourth quarter. The Rams still need to learn how to finish. At least they won this time.

Hero: Safety Oshiomogho Atogwe returned to his ball-hawking ways by forcing a fumble to set up a key second-half touchdown as the Rams pulled away.

What's next: The Rams visit the Cardinals in Week 13.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 23, Rams 20 (OT)

November, 14, 2010
Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 23-20 victory against the St. Louis Rams in Week 10:

What it means: The 49ers remain very much alive in the NFC West after winning for the third time in four games. The 49ers also have a new starting quarterback after Troy Smith, though ragged for much of the game, repeatedly made huge plays, including in the clutch, to lead a fourth-quarter comeback victory. There's no way 49ers coach Mike Singletary can justify going back to Alex Smith in the short term. Troy Smith exploited an injury-depleted Rams secondary, particularly when he had time to throw. San Francisco finally won a game it absolutely had to win. This one should build confidence. The Rams, meanwhile, fell to 0-4 on the road heading into a tough Week 11 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons. This was another blown opportunity away from the Edward Jones Dome for the Rams.

What I liked: Smith continued to give the 49ers life at quarterback. He is not always pretty. Sometimes he holds the ball too long. But he's not afraid to make things happen, and that separates him from injured starter Alex Smith. Troy Smith has restored the big-play element to the 49ers' offense. He completed 17 of 28 passes for 356 yards, one touchdown and a 116.7 rating. He took five sacks, but was a big play waiting to happen.

What I didn't like: The 49ers appeared poorly coached throughout the game, wasting timeouts and committing costly penalties. They made negative plays even immediately following those wasted timeouts. This performance was far too sloppy, particularly for a team coming out of its bye week. The Rams, meanwhile, showed again they cannot close out road games against flawed opponents. They badly need another front-line target for quarterback Sam Bradford, who completed 30 of 42 passes for 251 yards, one touchdown and a 94.4 rating.

Injurie(s) of note: The Rams lost starting left tackle Rodger Saffold to an ankle injury. The 49ers' left tackle, Joe Staley, hopped off the field with an apparent left leg injury after the winning touchdown. He came out of the game previously and struggled holding up in protection while playing hurt. Anthony Davis, the 49ers' right tackle, also appeared to get hurt during the game, although he stayed on the field.

Hero: Joe Nedney's 29-yard field goal to win the game wasn't particularly heroic, but imagine if Nedney had missed? Making this field goal saved the 49ers' season.

Critical Call: Officials flagged Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe for a 22-yard pass-interference penalty on the 49ers' winning drive. Troy Smith threw toward the middle of the field in desperation while he was about to be sacked. Tight end Delanie Walker ran through Atogwe on his way to the middle of the field.

What's next: The Rams return home to face the Atlanta Falcons. The 49ers face the Tampa Bay Bucs at Candlestick Park in Week 11.

Defeats like this one troubling for Rams

September, 19, 2010
Fred RobbinsJed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesFred Robbins' roughing the passer penalty was one of five personal fouls that contributed to an undisciplined game for St. Louis.
OAKLAND, Calif. -- The St. Louis Rams couldn't beat their former backup quarterback Sunday.

They were too busy beating themselves.

"I had not seen or felt that this was an undisciplined football team, but how can you not think that way after a game like that?" coach Steve Spagnuolo said.

The Rams' 16-14 road defeat to the Bruce Gradkowski-led Oakland Raiders had to be especially troubling for Spagnuolo and the Rams' leadership. New owner Stan Kroenke is watching closely for signs of real progress. Not progress imagined through the shrinking margin of defeat. Real progress measured through wins and losses.

Performances like the one St. Louis put forward Sunday -- five personal fouls, 210 total yards and only 19 offensive plays in the second half -- will not be good enough in the final evaluation. These are the sorts of self-inflicted defeats against bad teams that get people fired if they persist over the course of a season.

Fortunately for the Rams, the team still has a run of winnable games ahead: home for Washington and Seattle, then road games against Detroit and Tampa Bay sandwiched around a home game against San Diego.

But if the Rams cannot beat a team as flawed as the Raiders after controlling much of the first half, who are they going to beat? If they cannot beat Gradkowski, a player the former Rams regime released in favor of Brock Berlin, are they going to beat Donovan McNabb? Matt Hasselbeck? Shaun Hill?

Not playing the way they did at Oakland.

It's just tougher to take these Rams on faith after the first two weeks of this season. They're 0-2 against Derek Anderson and Gradkowski.

They led Anderson and the Arizona Cardinals 13-10 in the fourth quarter a week ago, but lost. They led the Raiders 7-3 at halftime Sunday, but lost. It's tough going from your own 6-yard-line to the other team's 5 without getting points, but the Rams pulled it off.

"This is just where we don't know yet how to put a game away," running back Steven Jackson said.

Jackson said he's seeing good things in practice during the week, but the Rams aren't carrying it over to the games.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesRookie quarterback Sam Bradford was sacked three times in his first six dropbacks.
The Rams ran the ball effectively early and protected rookie quarterback Sam Bradford with smart screen passes to Jackson against all-out blitzes. Bradford completed his first seven passes for 98 yards and a 7-yard touchdown, the first of two scoring passes to Mark Clayton. But Bradford took three sacks in his first six dropbacks, including a head-scratcher on third-and-goal from the Oakland 5 late in the first quarter. What would have been a chip-shot field-goal try turned into a 36-yarder from the right hash. Kicker Josh Brown hit it straight, but right -- his second miss (one was blocked) in two games the Rams have lost by a total of six points.

Bradford knew he should have gotten rid of the football to avoid the sack. The Rams had scored a touchdown in a similar situation during preseason, tempting Bradford to wait for a receiver to break open across the back of the end zone. Live and learn.

"That's on me," Bradford said.

There's no sense of panic in the Rams' locker room. The players I spoke with sounded accountable. Years ago, Jackson probably would have made headlines with his mouth following a defeat as maddening as this one. He has matured and embraced more of a leadership role.

The Raiders began loading the box to stop the run after the Rams enjoyed early success, Jackson explained. OK, a reporter acknowledged, but isn't that where a team simply needs to find another way? The question tempted Jackson.

"I think -- how do I answer this?" he began. "I think if they take one thing away, that you have to find another way to make what was working work again. I don't know if that makes any sense."

It does. I'm not sure what else the Rams could have done to get the run game going. I charted their offensive personnel use during the game and noticed that Bradford completed all four pass attempts from the Rams' base offense -- all in the first half. The Rams also ran effectively from this personnel, especially early, but they ran only two snaps of it after halftime, in part because they fell behind. Injuries to tight ends Daniel Fells and Billy Bajema could have affected the Rams' options as well.

"If I knew exactly what happened, then hopefully it would not have happened," center Jason Brown offered.

Bradford showed remarkable poise despite taking some hard shots, including once when the Raiders high-lowed him on a third-and-8 play in the third quarter. Bradford did lead the offense on a three-play, 59-yard scoring drive after rookie cornerback Jerome Murphy picked off Gradkowski with 4:15 remaining in the game.

"We went into our 2-minute mode, hurry-up," Bradford said. "To go down there and score like that and give ourselves a chance to win the football game was nice, but it was just too little, too late."

Bradford began the drive with a 16-yard strike to Danny Amendola. Jackson then dropped a pass that would have gone for a loss, most likely. It was second-and-10 when Bradford threw accurately for Clayton near the right pylon. Officials ruled Clayton out of bounds initially, but guard Adam Goldberg protested vehemently, even touching the dirt where Clayton's feet had come down. Spagnuolo challenged the play and prevailed. The score was 16-14 with more than 3 minutes remaining.

If only the Rams had made that 36-yard field-goal try. If only officials hadn't flagged Ron Bartell and Oshiomogho Atogwe for personal fouls earlier in the second half (both penalties sustained Oakland scoring drives). If only veteran defensive tackle Fred Robbins hadn't unnecessarily shoved Gradkowski after a second-and-9 incomplete pass with 3:03 remaining, preventing the Rams from getting the ball back one last time.

If only, if only, if only.

"It's very frustrating and very upsetting," Jason Brown said of the 0-2 start. "We know we are right on the cusp. We know we are a good football team. There are just a couple more things that need to come together."

NFC West: Injury situations that matter

September, 8, 2010
Arizona: Inside linebacker Gerald Hayes enters the season on the physically unable to perform list. The Cardinals will need rookie Daryl Washington and St. Louis Rams castoff Paris Lenon to hold up against Steven Jackson. On offense, the Cardinals might need their depth at running back. A knee injury kept Beanie Wells from practicing Wednesday. Wells plans to play. Missed practice time can be important for a young running back, especially when that running back is trying to win the coaches' trust across situations. Whether Wells practices Thursday could be important. The Cardinals can count on Tim Hightower in protection. Hightower is going to start whether or not Wells is available. Receiver Larry Fitzgerald participated fully in practice Wednesday, as promised, after using most of the exhibition season to recover from a knee injury. The Cardinals gave linebacker Joey Porter the day off, but he's expected to start.

St. Louis: A knee injury has sidelined veteran safety James Butler, who was limited in practice Wednesday, but the Rams have pretty good depth at the position as long as Craig Dahl and Oshiomogho Atogwe remain available. Jackson's surgically repaired back hasn't been an issue through training camp. He's added upper-body muscle and weighed 244 pounds. The Rams look healthy on paper, but eight of their current players finished last season on injured reserve (receiver Laurent Robinson, Atogwe, cornerback Bradley Fletcher, snapper Chris Massey, tight end Daniel Fells, guard Jacob Bell, defensive tackle Gary Gibson and defensive end C.J. Ah You). How well will those players hold up in their first regular-season games back?

San Francisco: Ahmad Brooks, arguably the 49ers' best situation pass-rush threat, is still recovering from a lacerated kidney. He will not play against Seattle. Receiver Michael Crabtree (neck) missed every exhibition game, but rust wasn't a problem for him when reporting deep into the season a year ago. This game also marks tight end Vernon Davis' return to live action following the knee injury he suffered during the first exhibition game. Continuity was a point of emphasis on offense for the 49ers this offseason, but quarterback Alex Smith hasn't enjoyed much game action with Frank Gore, Crabtree and Davis this summer. Throw in a hostile environment with two rookie offensive linemen and the 49ers face some challenges.

Seattle: The Seahawks will play their first regular-season game under Pete Carroll without the first player Carroll drafted. Russell Okung would have been the starting left tackle. Expect the Seahawks to help Okung's replacement in pass protection. They might need to help both tackles at times. That could affect tight end John Carlson's opportunities as a receiver. Seattle was probably going to use two tight ends more frequently anyway. That makes more sense with Okung sidelined. Chester Pitts could start at left tackle, but he's better suited to guard and hasn't played since suffering a knee injury in Week 2 last season. Pitts was limited in practice Wednesday. Tyler Polumbus could start at left tackle Sunday.
A quick look at four prominent NFC West players with notable contract situations for 2010, and how those players fit with their teams:

Arizona Cardinals: Matt Leinart

Leinart's contract carries a $2.485 million base salary this season before ballooning in value for 2011.

The Cardinals could easily justify that 2010 salary even if Derek Anderson went into the regular season as the starter. Releasing Leinart would carry no ramifications for the Cardinals because there is no salary cap.

Leinart's deal calls for him to earn at least $7.36 million in salary and $5.5 million in bonus money for 2012, however, and the Cardinals would not pay that money unless Leinart became a franchise quarterback -- something that appears unlikely given recent events.

St. Louis Rams: Oshiomogho Atogwe

The collective bargaining agreement turned Atogwe from a franchise player last offseason to a restricted free agent this offseason.

The unusual predicament gave the Rams two options: offer $1.226 million to Atogwe or guarantee him nearly $7 million. The Rams gambled some by taking the cheaper route.

Atogwe eventually signed a one-year, $4.1 million deal that can be worth $31.6 million over five years if the Rams pay an $8 million bonus to Atogwe after the season. Atogwe becomes a free agent if the Rams decline to pay the bonus.

This was the best Atogwe could do under the circumstances (beyond the tough labor restrictions, he was also recovering from shoulder and hernia surgeries). At least the Rams got to keep him for 2010.

San Francisco 49ers: Michael Lewis

The 49ers have added youth and speed at safety over the past couple seasons.

The team still values the toughness and leadership Lewis provides, but his $4.1 million salary for 2010 was a bit steep. Lewis accepted a new deal featuring a $1.7 million salary for 2010 and another $400,000 in bonus money. The final two years of his previous deal -- 2011 and 2012 -- were torn up.

Lewis becomes a free agent after the 2010 season. This was potentially his last season with the 49ers, anyway. The team drafted safety Taylor Mays in the second round this year. Reggie Smith has also developed into a potential contributor at the position.

Seattle Seahawks: Leroy Hill

A domestic violence plea agreement and one-game NFL suspension created a gap between Hill's paper value and his actual value to the team.

The sides reached a compromise this offseason. Hill accepted a 2010 salary reduction from $6 million to $2.125 million and the Seahawks wiped out the remaining years on his contract. Hill received a $60,000 roster bonus and he can earn another $300,000 in incentives.

Hill's new deal more accurately reflects his value to the team. It acknowledges that his off-field issues compromised the status his previous deal reflected.




Sunday, 2/2