Shane Gray provides special Rams commentaries on 101sports.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShaneGmoSTLRams.
St. Louis Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens – coming off three consecutive positive games, including two solid starts (vs. the Tennessee Titans and Chicago Bears) and a spectacular one (at the Indianapolis Colts) – fell flat Sunday in a key NFC West showdown against the San Francisco 49ers.
On the day, Clemens went just 19 for 37 (51 percent) for 218 yards, a touchdown, an interception and a rating of 67.2.
Although Clemens generally struggled with accuracy throughout the game, he wasn’t helped by a bevy of dropped balls that seemingly could have been caught.
According to St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher, even though Clemens admitted that he was erratic, targets have to pull in passes that are within reach.
“You want to see the guys make the tough catch,” Fisher said. “I appreciate Kellen taking responsibility for it, but guys are out there, they’ve got to make the catch. So, there was a little of that. Balls were a little off target a little bit, but they still should be made.”
So while Clemens undoubtedly struggled, his numbers could have been at least a little better if not for a plethora of drops from several players, including multiple drops from both tight end Jared Cook and wide receiver Chris Givens.
On the other hand, Clemens’ statistical totals could have been even worse than realized if not for garbage-time completions and a touchdown pass to close out the game’s final drive.
Clemens’ outing was clearly was a significant step back and should serve us a reminder to all within Rams Nation that, while a very solid backup with terrific moxie and enough talent to help you win a few games in reserve, he is not an acceptable long-term answer under center.
After an inauspicious start thanks largely to a lack of open running lanes, Rams running backs eventually got things going for a combined 96 yards on just 21 attempts (4.6 per carry).
Starter Zac Stacy led the charge with 19 rushes for 72 yards. Impressive backup Benny Cunningham tacked on an additional 16 yards on just two carries, including a quick-hitting and explosive 13-yard dash up the middle.
What with the failures of the air attack, one could justifiably question the play-calling that forced St. Louis to get away from a reasonably successful ground game in a relatively close contest.
When healthy and fully-stocked with the likes of defensive end Aldon Smith and middle linebacker Patrick Willis, as they were Sunday, the 49ers’ run defense is as tough as they come.
With that considered combined with a pitiful passing game, this unit performed as well as could be expected.
Due in large part to several dropped passes, it was a disappointing day from a Rams receiving corps that seems to be regressing in many ways of late.
The lone bright spot was the continued emergence of third-round rookie wideout Stedman Bailey, who set the pace for St. Louis receivers with three receptions totaling a unit-high 46 yards. Particularly for a first-year player, Bailey’s route-running and quickness out of breaks is notable.
Brian Quick was able to reel in three catches for 41 yards, including a garbage-time touchdown.
Tavon Austin – while nabbing four passes – posted a mediocre outing overall in attaining just 25 receiving yards and dropping a tough-but-catchable throw. His attempt at a pass off of an end-around was at least good for some well-needed laughs, though.
Austin Pettis continued a trend of limited production, posting just one reception for 11 yards in spite of benefitting from increased snaps. (He participated in 28 offensive plays as compared to just 10 in Week 12.)
It was a pretty ho-hum day for St. Louis tight ends.
Cook topped the stat board both for the good (three receptions for 49 yards) and the bad (at least two bad drops).
Tight end/fullback Cory Harkey continued his stellar run-blocking work even on an afternoon where the run game came back to earth. The second-year UCLA product has been one of the team’s most pleasant surprises this season, and his future looks even brighter considering his all-around size, athleticism and underrated pass-catching and route-running abilities.
The offensive line has been one of St. Louis’ better positional units in recent weeks, but the outing at San Francisco equated to a slight regression in performance.
For example, the work in the ground game was far from abysmal, but it was also far from reaching the level of what had been done in recent weeks when the Rams’ rushing attack was absolutely robust. On Sunday, the robust numbers reversed somewhat with the run game averaging a still-solid 4.4 yards.
The pass-blocking was similar in that it wasn’t bad, but wasn’t up to the standard set in recent weeks.
Against the 49ers, quarterback Clemens was hit seven times and sacked on three occasions.
The San Francisco front seven is still one of football’s best when healthy, and they showed that prowess this week in making a recently great-looking offensive line look relatively average on Sunday.
The St. Louis defensive line got after Colin Kaepernick to the tune of four sacks.
Uncharacteristically, defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long were quiet, and it was the defensive tackle position that was due credit for the vast majority of the team’s pass-pressure success this week, with Michael Brockers collecting two sacks, Kendall Langford one and swingman William Hayes yet another.
The front four (and front seven as a whole) played well against the run, giving up 83 yards rushing on 30 attempts. San Francisco starter Frank Gore managed just 42 yards on 15 rushes.
The only real negative was a couple of offside penalties assessed to this unit.
Rams rookie outside linebacker Alec Ogletree generated another strong effort with 10 tackles and a tackle for loss.
Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis continued playing well with nine tackles, including one behind the line of scrimmage.
Veteran outside ‘backer Jo-Lonn Dunbar added a couple of tackles for loss and tacked on four takedowns in total. Dunbar earned a bogus personal foul penalty for barely hitting Kaepernick as he slid to the ground.
The only slight blemish for this unit had to do with 49ers tight end Vernon Davis getting loose for four catches, 82 yards and a touchdown. However, a good chuck of that production could accurately be pinned on the fault of the linebacker corps due to coverage considerations.
The St. Louis secondary struggled immensely vs. San Francisco in a variety of ways.
When the unit wasn’t getting burned by Anquan Boldin to the tune of nine catches for 98 yards, it was struggling to avoid costly penalties, with cornerback Trumaine Johnson drawing two penalties and fellow corner Janoris Jenkins earning a flag of his own for holding.
In addition, the defensive backfield struggled to contain both wide receiver Michael Crabtree (68 yards on two receptions) and aforementioned tight end Davis (four catches for 82 yards and a score).
The safeties fared a little better, with Rodney McLeod recovering a fumble and T.J. McDonald adding five tackles, a pass deflection and a tackle for loss.
This unit continues to underwhelm too often, and it is looking more and more obvious that secondary help will be an early-round consideration for the Rams in the 2014 NFL draft.
One of the biggest gaffes and most impactful plays of the contest came on a fake punt that came up just a few feet shy of likely going for big yardage and perhaps a game-changing first down.
As it was, it may have been a game-clinching stop for San Francisco, which put the nail in the coffin by turning the failed fake into a touchdown.
The kicking game continued to excel, with punter Johnny Hekker averaging 48.8 yards per attempt (and netting virtually the same) and kicker Greg Zuerlein nailing both field-goal tries.
Unfortunately, linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong was unable to corral a muffed punt that would have given the Rams possession and a great scoring opportunity deep in 49ers territory.
It wasn’t as if St. Louis lost on the road to the Washington Redskins or Minnesota Vikings, for example, but the performance wasn’t as crisp as expected from the Rams, who were coming off consecutive convincing wins to two teams that entered the action in first place in their respective divisions (Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears).
St. Louis was plagued by first-half penalties – seven for 60 yards. The Rams ended the game with 11 infractions totaling 105 yards.
Offensively, the air attack was largely a no-go from the beginning, but offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer stayed with it while only handing it to his running backs 21 times in a close affair.
On special teams, the ineffective fake punt proved terribly costly as it resulted in a quick game-sealing touchdown for San Francisco.
All in all, it was a disappointing day in the Bay Area for a team that entered the action still in the fight for an NFC wild-card berth. Indeed, the Rams’ bark was much more vicious than their bite in this one.