My hope for the Rams against Chicago was to see a second consecutive well-played game. We certainly saw that in a 42-21 win. Kellen Clemens didn’t throw an interception, the Rams didn’t fumble, and they committed only six penalties (really five, we’ll get to that in a minute) – with only one offensive penalty, against Scott Wells for illegal hands to the face. That’s the sort of performance that will allow any team to win – in any venue. Jeff Fisher and his staff have done an amazing job of reinventing a team during the season, and now they’re two games behind Arizona and 1 ½ games behind behind San Francisco (pending Monday night’s game vs. Washington) for the final wild-card spot in the NFC. And with that, 10 takeaways from Sunday’s win over Chicago.
1. I was somewhat surprised that the Rams were as balanced as they were, running the ball 29 times and dropping back to throw 24. Chicago came into the game ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing defense, and the Rams appeared to have their way with the Bears’ front seven. Brian Schottenheimer has found his stride as a play-caller. The Rams had eight possessions (I don’t include the end of the half or the end of the game here) and scored on six of them – four touchdowns and two field goals. They scored touchdowns on their first three possessions. When you only punt twice in a game and don’t turn it over, you’re doing something right.
2. I loved the early creativity. The misdirection on Tavon Austin’s 65-yard touchdown run was brilliant. Then the Rams threw a fade to Jared Cook on their second possession that caused a pass interference call and set up the second touchdown. Then they used a variation of the old 90-flip play to Benny Cunningham in the third quarter that picked up 13 yards. All in all, it was a very creative, fun game plan.
3. The officiating of Jerome Boger’s crew was horrendous. It’s hard to understand how the No. 1 league in America has such incompetent officiating. In the second quarter, Bears quarterback Josh McCown was called for intentional grounding on an incomplete pass, and fullback Tony Fiametta was called for a facemask infraction on Jo-Lonn Dunbar. After the play, a scuffle resulted in Chicago guard Kyle Long kicking at a Rams defender and getting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. What should have resulted was the Rams declining the grounding call (which occurred during the original play) and taking the facemask. Then, the action after the play should have been penalized, with Kyle Long getting penalized and disqualified from the game for kicking. As it was, referee Boger, who was standing right there, said he didn’t see a kick from Long. The officials forced the Rams to decline the penalties that happened during the play and to take the unnecessary roughness, with Long continuing to play. What should have been a 3rd-and-37 from the 17-yard line turned into a 3rd-and-22 from the 32. On the next play, an illegal contact penalty against Brandon McGee nullified all of that, and gave Chicago a first down.
4. Rams punter Johnny Hekker continues to amaze. Neither of his two punts were returned for yardage, and he finished with an average of 48.5 yards, gross and net. He completely neutralized Devin Hester, which isn’t easy to do. Hester did have a 62-yard return for a touchdown called back by a holding penalty on Craig Steltz, but any Ram fan doesn’t have any sympathy for that.
5. The Rams won despite losing two of their key young players. Zac Stacy has quickly become the MVP of the Rams’ offense, and he left with a head injury (aka concussion) late in the first half and didn’t return. Fellow rookie Cunningham came on and rushed for 109 yards on 13 carries. That was a major-league replacement job by Cunningham. Johnson left after being pummeled by Earl Bennett late in the first quarter and didn’t return. With Cortland Finnegan on injured reserve, the Rams used Janoris Jenkins and rookie McGee as their main corners, and held Chicago to 17 receptions for 181 yards in the final three quarters.
6. The atmosphere was not unlike the old Mizzou-Illinois football openers at the Dome. Sixty-six thousand were on hand, and it was probably half Bears fans and half Rams fans, just like Cards-Cubs during the summer. The team that’s doing the best is going to have the more vocal support. It was fun, and the tension in the building when Chicago got to within 27-21 was palpable. This was one instance (of many) where the advent of cheap airfare, Amtrak and Stubhub contributed to a great atmosphere. Life is such in sports now that fans are going to travel to their team’s games, and the St. Louis-Chicago trek is an easy one. From a Rams player’s perspective, it must have been fun to watch all of those Bears fans trudge out of the dome late in the fourth quarter, getting ready for a long trip home.
7. If the NFL is going to fine Ahmad Brooks of the 49ers for his sack of Drew Brees because it was too close to his neck, they should take a look at Bears tackle Jermon Bushrod’s hold of Robert Quinn in the fourth quarter. Quinn was nearly decapitated. If the NFL is truly concerned about player safety, then they should try to preserve the good health of a premier defensive end like Quinn, too. That hold was much more violent and dangerous than Brooks’ on Brees.
8. While Quinn was outrageous with a sack, a forced fumble, a recovery for a touchdown, one tackle for loss, a pass defensed and four tackles, Alec Ogletree had a huge day, too. Once again the rookie linebacker was all over the field, with pressbox stats crediting him with 11 combined tackles and a pass defensed. He is a beast.
9. How can a team like Chicago get down to the four-yard line, 1st and goal, and have these four plays?
1-4-SL 4 (9:14) J.McCown pass incomplete short right to M.Bush.
2-4-SL 4 (9:08) (Shotgun) J.McCown pass incomplete short left to A.Jeffery.
3-4-SL 4 (9:04) (Shotgun) J.McCown scrambles right end to SL 1 for 3 yards.
4-1-SL 1 (8:20) M.Bush left tackle to SL 5 for -4 yards.
Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett are on your team, and none of them see the ball on four plays inside the four-yard line? Too cute, Marc Trestman. Thank you.
10. OK, it happened to us. In a span of nine (!) red-zone snaps for the Bears leading to their final touchdown: 1-incomplete pass with pass interference; 2-running play for no gain; 3-incomplete pass with defensive holding; 4-run for minus-2; 5-TD pass nullified by holding; 6-13 yard TD pass reversed by replay to 12 yard pass to the one; 7-sack, roughing the quarterback; 8-run for no gain, 9-one-yard TD run. One of the plays, a penalty, resulted in the worst call I’ve ever seen in a football game. Michael Brockers turned in the perfect form-tackle sack. He didn’t hit McCown with his helmet, he saw what he hit, he hit his target hard enough to cause a fumble – yet was called for roughing the quarterback.
What has this league come to? It was a clean hit. Boger, who is incompetent, said that Brockers led with the crown of his helmet. He did not. Since the NFL fines and suspends players for mistakes, officials should be held to a high standard, too. If an entire crew who should have an eye on the ball and the quarterback can’t understand what a clean play is, then they should be suspended or fined. It was a grievous error that could have cost the Rams the game, as the Bears scored to make it 27-21 two plays later. If the league fines Brockers, they should just shut it down. And if they find that Brockers didn’t rough the quarterback, then we shouldn’t see Boger’s crew. It’s as simple as that.
Great job by the Rams. It’s wonderful that they’ve not only won two in a row, but played two fantastic games in a row. The Rams have scored 80 points in their last two games. In 2011, it took seven games for them to reach 80 points. In 2009, there wasn’t a two-game stretch where they scored more than 40. The last time the Rams scored 80 points in a two-game stretch came in games 14 and 15 of the 2001 Super Bowl season, when they beat Carolina 38-32 and Indianapolis 42-17. This club is on a roll. I’ll be intrigued to see what happens next week at Candlestick.