Shane Gray provides special Rams commentaries on 101sports.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShaneGmoSTLRams.
St. Louis Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens posted a robust 140.6 quarterback rating against the Indianapolis Colts via two touchdown passes, no interceptions, 247 yards and a 56 percent completion rate.
In terms of passer rating, it doesn’t get much better than 140.6, regardless of whether your name is Clemens, Drew Brees, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.
For his career, Clemens’ rating stands at just 65.3. Sunday’s showing marked the first time he finished a game with a mark above 95.7.
In his three starts since the season-ending knee injury to Sam Bradford, Clemens has steadily upgraded his play, as the numbers below show.
In start one, Clemens ended with a pedestrian 36.8 rating against the Seattle Seahawks. Last week, he tallied a respectable mark of 84.2 vs. the Tennessee Titans. As mentioned above, that number skyrocketed to a blistering 140.6 against Indianapolis.
St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher was quick to acknowledge that Clemens is bettering his play and doing a lot of things that often go unnoticed to help the Rams offensively.
“Yeah, he’s improving,” Fisher said. “You can see our third down efficiency is getting better. Both of (WR) Tavon’s (Austin) touchdowns were third down plays. He’s keeping drives alive and he’s doing a good job in the run game too with the checks. He has a really good understanding.”
“He encourages guys,” Fisher added. “One thing, in the huddle – the call’s made and as the huddle’s breaking, and on the way to the line of scrimmage – he’s with the young guys out there. He’s always offering reminders – remember this, this, this, that – and it makes it a little easier on guys, especially the young guys.”
In Clemens’ eyes, a big factor in his successful transition is the exceptional level of support he has received from his teammates and the coaching staff.
“Not every backup quarterback that is forced in a starting role gets the same reception that I’ve gotten from this football team,” Clemens said. “So I’m really blessed to be in the position that I am because from the offensive line, the wide receivers to the defense, to the coaches, the specialists, everybody has elevated their play since Sam (Bradford) went down and has really supported me. So that’s as good of a situation as you could ask for.”
Even though St. Louis starting running back Zac Stacy failed to make it three straight 100-yard outings after gaining 62 yards on 24 attempts, the Rams’ run game rolled thanks to a major assist from Stacy’s fellow rookie, Benny Cunningham.
Cunningham – filling in for the injured Daryl Richardson – notched 72 yards on just seven carries.
In total, St. Louis gained 140 yards on the ground via 37 rushes and a 3.8 per-carry average.
Of note, Stacy tacked on another rushing touchdown after producing two last week.
However, all was not well with the run game, as the Rams fumbled in the red zone and lost possession for a second consecutive game. Last week, Cunningham was the culprit, while this week Stacy’s miscue stopped a savory drive.
For that, a perfect grade was lost.
One might be hard pressed to find a wide receiver corps deserving of a solid assessment after a game that culminated with the unit amassing but four receptions. However, the Rams’ receivers managed to be the exception to the rule after grading out well following their outing in Indy.
Although only tallying the previously mentioned four receptions, those four catches generated a profound impact in totaling 192 yards on a 48-yard average, with two grabs going for long touchdowns. When considering this took place on a day when the rushing game racked up 140 yards and the defense dominated, the output here was more than enough to help ensure offensive success.
The clear star was rookie Tavon Austin, who had a breakout day with two receptions, 138 yards and two pass-catching scores. He now has 33 catches and four receiving touchdowns on the year. He would have another TD if not for a 63-yarder being called back against the Carolina Panthers, as Fisher pointed out.
“Well, go to Carolina – he got open and it was called back because of tripping and then we had him open last weekend and we missed him, so he’s getting open,” Fisher said of Austin. “Obviously, (QB) Kellen (Clemens) made a great throw on the deep ball and then, of course, on the shallow cross on third down. In his case (Austin), run after catch is a huge threat.”
Austin’s teammates, including linebacker James Laurinaitis, were thrilled so see him bust out with a breakthrough performance.
“I felt bad for him because he’s had a lot of explosive plays that have been called back. I know he’s been frustrated because of it,” Laurinaitis said. “It was good to see him rewarded, and good to see that highlight reel today.”
Although the unit’s four-catch count was certainly not a number a team hopes to see often, the story of this unit’s day cannot accurately be summed up by only analyzing the number of receptions secured.
With the Rams running it 37 times, the blocking work done by receivers for the ground game was critical to the offense’s overall success. Fisher insists that his receivers are more than willing to continue to take on their increased load in the running game.
“What’s important to them is us having a chance to win ballgames, and if it’s going to require them to block, then they’re going to block,” Fisher said. “We don’t have those ‘I want the ball’ guys, they all want the ball. But they understand that whatever it takes to win is what we’re going to do. And if they have a 10 catch day or no catch day, as long as we’re in the football game it’s OK.”
It was a quiet day for St. Louis tight ends, with Jared Cook snaring one pass for 17 yards and Cory Harkey generating 14 yards on another.
Lance Kendricks missed the contest due to injury, but, according to Fisher, will practice with a cast this week and has at least some chance of returning after the bye week to face the Chicago Bears.
Like the aforementioned receivers, this unit gets extra credit for its stellar work in clearing space for the run game.
The offensive line did another nice job Sunday in protecting the quarterback and consistently providing room for backs to make plays on the ground.
The unit gave up just two sacks and two total hits on Clemens – both by Robert Mathis – and cleared enough space for Rams runners to attain 140 yards.
The line’s quality effort came with tackle Rodger Saffold making his first career start at guard in place of the injured Harvey Dahl. According to Fisher, Saffold was kicked inside in an attempt to put the best collection of offensive talent possible on the field together.
“We discussed it real early last week and felt like that would be a good option,” Fisher said. “He’s (Saffold) playing really well coming off the injury and then would get an opportunity to play at tackle and kind of alternate with Joe (Barksdale), and he was playing well. And Joe’s playing good, so we felt like let’s put the best guys out there.”
It was a dominant day for the defensive line, a unit that has been one that has been a bit more inconsistent this year than almost anyone anticipated.
As has become the norm, defensive end Robert Quinn led the way, this time with two sacks and four quarterback hits. He now leads the NFC with 12 sacks.
Fellow bookend Chris Long chipped in with a sack of his own along with a couple of pressures.
Starting defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford each had a key tackle for loss that helped set the tone for a run defense that enjoyed a dream day that concluded with the Colts gaining just 18 rushing yards on 14 carries.
Rotational DT Jermelle Cudjo and versatile defensive lineman William Hayes each added pass deflections, with Hayes also pulling in his first career interception.
Finally, backups Ernie Sims and Matt Conrath each notched a quarterback hit, giving the unit an impressive total of seven.
With all the pressure that was generated up front, it was the stout run defense that Long feels was the foundation to their success.
“As a defense, we’re looking at two out of the last three weeks we’ve played the run well, and you see what happens when we play the run well,” Long said. “That’s the way we should be built. That should happen every week. Anything less can be pretty disappointing and unacceptable. That’s why we get down when we give up over 100 yards, which we’ve done way too much. We just need to keep pounding away, trying to get our run defense shored up, and today was a good day as far as that’s concerned.”
Middle linebacker Laurinaitis put another good game on his resume, leading the St. Louis linebacker corps with eight tackles, an interception and a pass deflection.
Rookie Alec Ogletree chipped in with five tackles, and he, too, garnered a pass deflection.
Veteran backup Will Witherspoon also contributed to the team’s four interceptions with a late pick in the contest’s final quarter.
The only blemish on the performance was the fact that Indianapolis backs and tight ends managed 16 receptions for 212 yards, a staggering figure on most days but a deceptive number in this case because much of the damage came when the Rams dropped into more conservative coverages late in the game when playing with a huge lead.
Thus, while that will be considered, it will not be factored significantly in the following mark.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck had a performance that culminated with lots of yards but marginal yields and limited overall results. His output was hurt by some good coverage that resulted in three picks and his own accuracy issues that led to missing a plethora of open targets early in the action.
On the day, Luck went 29 of 47 (62 percent) for a touchdown, three interceptions and a quarterback rating of just 65.3, his lowest of the season and well shy of his yearly passer rating of 80.1.
Luck was pulled late in the blowout and replaced by Matt Hasselback, who went two of five in mop-up duty.
The secondary’s only major gaffe came by Janoris Jenkins, who gave up a huge 65-yard catch to T.Y. Hilton after getting burned when guessing incorrectly and attempting to jump what he thought would be a shorter route than what materialized.
Cornerback Trumaine Johnson nabbed an interception, his second of the season.
Collectively, it was a very good day for the defensive backfield.
As a whole, the youthful secondary is solidifying and continually making progress at both corner and safety.
(Safety) Rodney (McLeod) and the safeties are improving as they play more and more each week,” Fisher said. “(Corners) ‘Tru’ (Trumaine Johnson) and ‘Jenks’ (Janoris Jenkins) are battling outside and getting better each week and with their technique and carrying over what they’re doing on the practice field into the game.”
In recent weeks, the St. Louis special teams have dramatically turned it around after stumbling and bumbling through the early part of the season with countless penalties that continually rendered the return game lifeless while negating several sizeable returns and a touchdown.
Against the Colts, everything came together as Austin reeled off three big returns, including a 98-yard gem that was never more than two yards off the sideline’s edge that went the distance.
Austin totaled 145 yards on four punt returns and added another 27 on a kickoff runback.
Kicker Greg Zuerlein was one of one while converting from 32 yards, and punter Greg Zuerlein averaged almost 49 yards on five attempts.
In short, the special teams got things done beautifully in Indiana.
St. Louis entered the game as 10-point underdogs before winning the game at Indy by 30 on a 38-8 final score.
The club was well-prepared, ready to go and dominated the action in all three phases of the game. It was a near-perfect day for St. Louis, and the coaches deserve to be graded as such.
The win improved the Rams’ record to 4-6 and kept them on the fringes of the NFC wild-card chase. They now will enjoy the bye week while making initial preparations for a home clash against 5-4 Chicago.