The Rams saw any chance of playing important games in December go by the boards with their loss to the Titans on Sunday. Here are 10 takeaways from the Tennessee victory:
1. The Rams made their mistakes, and Tennessee took advantage. And when the Titans made mistakes, the Rams didn’t do the same. On the first drive of the game, the Rams committed three undisciplined penalties, and contributed 24 of the drive’s 68 yards and three first downs. The Titans scored a touchdown on that drive. On the Rams’ first drive, after they had moved to Tennessee’s 20, Benny Cunningham fumbled at the end of a six-yard run, giving away a scoring opportunity. With 44 seconds left in the first half, Cortland Finnegan intercepted Jake Locker at the 27, but the Rams went nowhere in three plays and Greg Zuerlein missed a 44-yard field goal. In the fourth quarter, Rodney McLeod picked off a Locker pass, giving the Rams the ball at their own 21. However, Clemens fumbled the ball back and Chris Johnson scored from 19 yards out to give Tennessee its winning margin. Every time the Rams were given an opportunity, they failed, and every time the Titans got one they capitalized.
2. While the questions for Jeff Fisher after pretty much every game pertain to the offense, only six teams have allowed more points than the Rams’ total of 226, or 25.1 per game. Fisher is a defensive coach, and has spent three premium picks on defensive players (Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, Alec Ogletree). Including what was inherited, the Rams have six first- or second-round picks starting on defense (Chris Long, Brockers, Robert Quinn, James Laurinaitis, Ogletree, Jenkins), along with two high-priced free agents (Finnegan and Kendall Langford). To have that kind of production for the kind of investment made in the product is disappointing. Even more disturbing is that the Rams’ defense played so well last year. In 16 games, they allowed 28 or more points just four times, but Sunday was the fifth time this year they’ve allowed 28 or more, with seven games left.
3. Much was made of Fisher’s feelings about this game against his former team, along with former Titans Finnegan, William Hayes and Jared Cook. But the guy who felt the best after this one was Gregg Williams. The former Rams defensive coordinator never coached a game with St. Louis, and after serving his suspension in the Saints’ bounty scandal was let go by Fisher and the Rams last winter. After not being given a second chance, he was likely the one who had the strongest feelings entering the game, and got the most satisfaction out of knocking off his opponent.
4. It happened later than it has in the past (it’s happened in September in St. Louis), but draft discussion officially became fashionable with the Rams’ loss to Tennessee. With a 3-6 record and road games at Indianapolis, Arizona, San Francisco and Seattle, and the Bears and Saints still on the home schedule, the NFL playoffs aren’t going to be a part of the St. Louis landscape for a ninth straight year. If the season ended today, the Rams would have the ninth or 10th pick, and then Washington’s choice which would be 10th, 11th or 12th. Scouts Inc. ranks the eighth-through-12th players they’ve evaluated as Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan, USC wide receiver Marquise Lee, Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosely and Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack. Ranked lower are Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Florida corner Loucheiz Purifoy. The Rams will have needs at cornerback, safety, linebacker, offensive line, wide receiver and quarterback. This might be another year to trade down and fill more needs.
5. One thing the Rams don’t need to set as a priority is running back. Zac Stacy is the real deal. After his 134-yard performance against Seattle, Stacy stepped up after a short week and carried 27 times for 127 yards and caught six balls for 51 more. He’s a dynamic, tough, consistent performer. The Rams do need a complementary back. Hopefully Daryl Richardson or Cunningham can ascend to the point where they can take some of the load off Stacy. Thirty-three touches is way too many. A good target would be about 20-22 touches. Mike Martz used to target Marshall Faulk for 18 touches. But one of the tenets of a good team is a Pro Bowl-quality running back, and Stacy has shown he has a chance to be that in his first month on the job. Fisher said that Stacy was the league’s third leading rusher in October, and had the most 10-plus-yard runs. Those are numbers that provide confidence for the future.
6. While Stacy is thriving, the top of the 2012 draft is shaping up as a bust-fest. First-round pick Brockers is a very good player, but has yet to be dominant this season except for the game at Houston. The Rams drafted him as a run-stuffer first, but coming into the game the defense was ranked 23rd against the run, an average of 116.1 yards per game. Their first second-rounder, Brian Quick, has 11 catches for 226 yards through nine games. He had 11 catches in his rookie year, too. The Rams wanted us to compare him to fellow second-round pick Vincent Jackson. In Jackson’s sophomore year, this is where he took off, making 22 of his 27 receptions in the final seven weeks before he broke out with 41 catches in his third season and 59 in his fourth. Isaiah Pead has now been inactive or a DNP in five of six games. It’s hard to imagine that he’ll ever have an impact. The other second-rounder, Jenkins, appears to be regressing. And fourth-rounder Chris Givens has caught just 26 balls through nine games – a far cry from what was expected after his great stretch run last year.
7. At halftime, Johnson had 52 yards rushing and the Titans had 67 as a team. At the end of the game, Johnson had 150 and the Titans had 198. In the fourth quarter, Johnson had runs of 24, 19 and 18 yards. He finished that quarter with eight carries for 70 yards, and the Titans as a team had 13 for 83 and two touchdowns, not including Locker’s kneel-down at the end. Either the Titans made adjustments to attack the Rams’ rush defense in the second half, or the Rams’ defense wore down. Either way, that’s not a good thing.
8. Kellen Clemens should be applauded for going 20 of 35 for 210 yards and a touchdown. Those are the numbers for which optimistic Rams fans should hope. I’m not going to question his effort or his ability to get the most out of what he has. The Rams need to build a team and a plan that allows them to win within the confines of Clemens’ play.
9. With four sacks against the Titans, the Rams are tied for second in the NFL with Buffalo, seven behind Kansas City. One of the keys to playing great defense is to get to the quarterback, and after tying for the league lead in sacks last year, it’s one aspect of the Rams’ team that is consistent.
10. Paid attendance was listed at 54,617, but the number of fans in the stands fell far short of that. The Rams have made spectacular strides in their game-day presentation, in treating ticket holders the right way, and making the Edward Jones Dome as attractive and user-friendly as possible. In honoring the military and, in partnership with Boeing, teaming up to provide 1,500 tickets to the USO of Missouri, the Rams did fantastic community work again on Sunday. Unfortunately, they’ve now fallen to 3-6 and have lost three of their last four home games. All the great ancillary work in the world can’t overcome losing games when trying to get fans back. Winning is the key, and it looks like it’s going to be next year, at least, before that happens.