Shane Gray provides special Rams commentaries on 101sports.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShaneGmoSTLRams.
After consecutive disappointing interdivisional outings on the road against the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens bounced back with a big game Sunday vs. the then-10-3 New Orleans Saints.
Back home in the Edward Jones Dome, Clemens completed 70 percent of his passes (14 of 20) for 158 yards, two touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 126.7.
Not coincidentally, Clemens got his game back as the Rams’ ground game reverted to robust form after a two-week hiatus. Like most quarterbacks, Sam Bradford’s backup benefits when equipped with a strong running game.
Clemens’ teammates, including defensive end Chris Long, are appreciative of the efforts the eight-year veteran continues making.
“Kellen’s been great,” Long said. “It just proves to have a good backup (quarterback) is such an important thing in this league. He’s played great for us. He hasn’t turned the ball over a lot. He hasn’t tried to do too much. He’s just done a good job being tough and showing that spark that we need to kind of get those wins.”
If it weren’t clear already, rookie Zac Stacy – whom ESPN’s Todd McShay touted as the 2013 NFL draft’s best running back in regard to vision and patience – was a bona-fide steal as a fifth-round selection.
On Sunday, Stacy posted another stellar outing, racking up 133 yards rushing on 28 attempts. His effort included an explosive 40-yard score that showed he has a little more breakaway speed than many have given him credit for.
Stacy’s 106 first-half ground yards were the most by a St. Louis runner since Steven Jackson ripped off 107 against the Atlanta Falcons late in the 2008 campaign.
After his work against New Orleans, Stacy is now just 146 yards shy of 1,000 rushing yards.
Following the game, quarterback Kellen Clemens shared his thoughts on what makes the former Commodore so effective on the ground.
“The thing about Zac is that he understands blocking schemes,” Clemens said. “He’s obviously talented. He’s very strong. He’s built to run forward, he runs behind his pads well, and he never takes negative runs. If it’s there, he hits it. If it’s not there, he creates a hole and it gets us two. So it’s easy to dial up runs as an offensive coordinator when you have that type of a mentality coming from your backfield.”
On Monday, Rams head coach Jeff Fisher was asked if he had seen enough from Stacy to anoint him as the team’s back of the future. Not surprisingly, Fisher wasn’t quite ready to go there just yet.
“I think we’ve got a good group of backs,” Fisher said. “We’ll discuss needs when the season’s over, but I think based on what we’ve seen in the production from that position I think we have a good group of running backs for the future.”
As has been typical of late, the overall production from the wide receiver corps was not high (seven receptions for 98 yards), but key plays were made at crucial times that helped extend drives.
Veteran Austin Pettis had three big third-down catches for first down and led the way with four receptions totaling 41 yards.
Rookie Stedman Bailey continued his recent surge of contributions, posting two catches for 26 yards while adding six yards via a running play.
Chris Givens only managed one reception, but that reception went for 31 yards on a drive that culminated with Stacy’s 41-yard touchdown jaunt.
In the end, while this group failed to stuff the stat sheet, they made enough plays to assist the offense as a whole in finding success.
Week 15 was a great one for the St. Louis tight ends, as they did a fine job clearing lanes for the run game while collectively generating a pair of touchdowns via the air.
Tight end/fullback Cory Harkey showed off his vastly underrated catch and run abilities on a spectacular 31-yard touchdown early in the first quarter. Later in the game’s opening quarter, Lance Kendricks got loose in the end zone for a score of his own.
Interestingly, neither aforementioned touchdown reception came from primetime free-agent addition Jared Cook, who continued his up-and-down 2013 season with just one reception for eight yards.
As for Harkey, the second-year UCLA product is turning out to be a true find as an undrafted free agent and is a very solid multifaceted weapon for the offense.
“Well, Corey’s been really very reliable in the run game, and also very reliable as a receiver out of the backfield and down the field at the tight end spot,” Fisher said. “He’s very patient. He understands what to do and he made a big play for us today. It’s good to see.”
On Harkey’s dazzling catch-and-run score, more than a few heads were turned by the 6-4, 260-pounder’s overall talent level and athleticism.
“The thing about Cory that gets overlooked sometimes is how strong he is,” Clemens said.
“There were a couple of guys in looking at the replay who had the chance to try to get him out of bounds, but he’s solid. He works his tail off in the weight room. He is a great, great guy. He’s a great guy to have on this football team.”
Simply put, it was a grand afternoon for the offensive line, which thrived both in regard to run-blocking and pass protection, as it opened up some nice holes on the ground and kept Clemens clean to the tune of zero sacks.
Of note, Rodger Saffold slid back to right guard with Joe Barksdale back in the lineup at right tackle.
It is becoming crystal clear that Saffold – a longtime left tackle before taking over at right tackle this year – is at his best at guard, as he continued to dominate at the position against the Saints.
One would have to assume that Rams decision-makers are taking note and considering plans to free up the cash needed to lock the free agent to-be up long-term.
Fisher offered up words of strong words of endorsement for the veteran offensive lineman following this week’s action.
“It’s impressive to watch him play,” Fisher said. “He’s done a great job – run game, pass protection, athletically, pulling. He’s doing most of the pulling in that run scheme and he’s blocking very affectively.”
It was a banner day for the defensive line, which not only held the Saints to just 3.1 yards per carry and 61 total rushing yards, but compiled four sacks of quarterback Drew Brees.
The unit’s star was once again defensive end Robert Quinn. The third-year pro, still just 23, had two sacks, a forced fumble, a tackle for loss, four quarterback pressures and three quarterback hits. On the year, Quinn who now has 15 sacks, a touchdown and a mind-boggling seven forced fumbles.
Fisher is one of many around the league beginning to tout Quinn for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
“I don’t know of any other defensive player that’s playing as consistently as well as he is,” Fisher said. “There’s a lot of good defensive players in the league, but I definitely believe he should be considered for that. Ask Drew Brees.”
According to fellow end Chris Long, Quinn has no peer when it comes to rushing the passer.
“Rob, in my opinion, (is) the best pass-rushing defensive end in the league. He’s had just a tremendous season. I think he’s got 15 (sacks). He needs to be up for Defensive Player of the Year, in my opinion. He makes everybody better around him.”
Quinn, for his part, showed humility in assessing his own performance, crediting others for much of his production.
“It’s never just a one-man show,” Quinn said. “It’s the other D-linemen getting pressure and the back seven covering, so every sack I get is a credit to the rest of the defense.”
First-round rookie outside linebacker Alec Ogletree is looking every bit like the player St. Louis hoped he would be getting when taking him in the first round of this spring’s draft.
On one play, Ogletree not only showed his exceptional athleticism, but put on a vivid display of his increasing awareness and understanding of the pro game when absolutely blowing up a well-designed screen pass for a sizeable loss.
According to Rams in-house stats, Ogletree led the entire defense with 13 tackles this week.
Overall, the St. Louis linebacker corps did an exceptional job both in run support as well as pass defense. Most notably, the Rams held Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham to just two receptions and 25 yards.
While they did give up a lot of catches and passing yards to New Orleans running backs (17 for 139), none of those went for scores.
Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis added both a tackle for loss and a pass deflection, as well as a great open-field tackle to stop the Saints shy of a crucial would-have-been third-down pickup.
This much-maligned unit came to play this week, holding Brees and the Saints’ passing attack to just one passing touchdown while creating two turnovers.
While New Orleans’ seven-time Pro Bowl quarterback did manage to amass 393 passing yards, over 150 of those came in the game’s final quarter in a furious comeback effort.
Rookie safety T.J. McDonald reeled in his first career interception, while cornerback Trumaine Johnson added his third pick of the year.
Corner Janoris Jenkins also had a strong outing. During one drive, he broke up not one but two potential touchdown tosses.
“He’s definitely improving, no doubt,” Fisher said in regard to Jenkins. “Now, he doesn’t have the four interception returns for touchdowns that he had last year, but play-in and play-out, week-in and week-out, he’s definitely improved significantly over last year.”
After a rocky and tumultuous start this fall that was flooded with penalties and other miscues, the St. Louis special teams have really settled in of late.
In this one, the various units played a major role in securing a Rams win.
Early in the game, kicker Greg Zuerlein popped up a near-perfect onside kick that was recovered by St. Louis and led to a field goal and one less offensive possession for New Orleans.
Punter Johnny Hekker averaged 41.8 yards on four attempts and placed two inside the Saints’ 20-yard line. Zuerlein continued his fabulous campaign, going for two of two on field goals. He is now 22 of 24 on the docket.
The Rams’ field-goal defense did an amazing job in pressure, blocking two field goals and contributing to two short missed attempts by New Orleans kicker Garrett Hartley.
The unit’s only blemish came when allowing a late Saints onside kick recovery.
“Our kickoffs, our field goals, our punting, the fact that we affected one, if not two, field goals with our rush was really a contributing factor in this game,” Fisher said. “Unfortunate that we got a bad bounce on the onside kick, but we stole a possession with a surprise onside kick (of our own) earlier.”
St. Louis performed well in all three phases Sunday and was able to pull off a major upset of the now 10-4 Saints. All units appeared to be well coached up and certainly were armed with game plans that were good enough to assist in generating success.
This is the type of victory that the Rams can build upon moving forward into the 2014 season.