The Rams haven’t had a winning season since 2003, but they can reach 8-8 for the third time since that season with a win in Seattle next Sunday. The game against Tampa Bay gave the Rams a chance to finish at .500, and here are 10 takeaways from that 23-13 win.
1. After their 1-3 start and then their most recent two-game losing streak at San Francisco and Arizona, it looked like a long shot for the Rams to get to .500 and improve their 7-8-1 record over last season. Going 5-3 at home after starting 2-3 was impressive, especially the wins over division-leading (at the time) Chicago and New Orleans. Winning in the NFL starts at home and in the division. Last year, the Rams handled the NFC West. This year, they started a run at home. They need to do both to make the playoffs and succeed in the postseason, but finishing over .500 and heading into next season with a three-game home winning streak is a good start.
2. We came into this game expecting the Tampa Bay offense to struggle. But when a NFL offense is held to 59 rushing yards on 23 carries and passes for only 158 yards, the defense is doing something special. This was the sixth time in the last eight games that the Rams have allowed 83 or fewer yards rushing, including opponent outputs of 44, 18, 61 and now 59 yards. While the pass defense remains a work in progress, the overall defense has allowed three or fewer touchdowns in six consecutive games, giving up one, three, two, three, two and one in those six. Slowly but surely, this defense is getting better.
3. Robert Quinn set the Rams’ all-time sack record with his 16th, 17th and 18th of the season. I often talk about how bad the 2009 first round of the draft was, but the 2011 first round is at the other end of the spectrum. Cam Newton, Von Miller, Marcell Dareus, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones, Aldon Smith, Tyron Smith and J.J. Watt were taken ahead of Quinn. Of the 13 players taken before Quinn, only Tennessee with Jake Locker, Jacksonville with Blaine Gabbert, Minnesota with Christian Ponder and Detroit with Nick Fairley are likely to be unhappy with their picks that preceded Quinn. But at this point, he’s the top defensive player of an incredible bunch that includes not only Miller, Peterson, Aldon Smith and Watt, but Corey Liuget, Ryan Kerrigan and Muhummad Wilkerson. Take a look at the 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL. I can’t even figure out who’s second-best. The gap between Quinn and whoever that might be is Grand Canyon-like. And, it was cool to see William Hayes and Chris Long recognize Quinn’s accomplishment by carrying him off the field.
4. With eight tackles, half a sack and two forced fumbles, Alec Ogletree had another big-play day. Ogletree now has 1.5 sacks, an interception return for a touchdown and six forced fumbles. He’s a big-play machine for the Rams who is just scratching the surface of how good he can be.
5. Coming into the game, the Rams had been 5-0 when winning the turnover battle, and 1-8 when they were even or lost in that department. With each team getting two turnovers on Sunday, this was only the second game (Arizona was the other in the opener) in which the Rams were even, yet won the game. Turnover ratio is the key to success in the NFL, and since the first quarter of the season, when the Rams went minus-1 in the first four games, they’ve done a much better job, getting to plus-10 with one game remaining.
6. The efficient Kellen Clemens didn’t throw the ball downfield against Tampa’s tough secondary, and had a long completion of just 28 yards, but was incredibly efficient in completing 16 of 20 passes for 158 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. This was a quintessential Clemens game, and he played it to perfection.
7. Our 101 ESPN analyst and Steelers Super Bowl champ Carey Davis thinks the Rams have a No. 1 receiver in Stedman Bailey. He caught three passes for 44 yards and also had a touchdown run on a reverse against Tampa Bay. I’m not ready to anoint Bailey yet, but he does appear to be a well above-average receiver. As I watch the way Tampa Bay uses Vincent Jackson, I wish the Rams would utilize Brian Quick more. They have to see if he’s capable of being a No. 1. To make complementary parts like Tavon Austin, Austin Pettis and Jared Cook perform to their highest level, the Rams need a true No. 1 receiver to carry some coverage away from those guys. It would be nice to know before the draft if Bailey or Quick is that guy. I’m sure the coaches know what they have, but we don’t.
8. The Seahawks have 12 wins, San Francisco has 10 pending its Monday night game with Atlanta, and Arizona now has 10. If the Rams can get to 8-8 playing in this division, with their starting quarterback being lost in game seven, it’ll be a major accomplishment.
9. The Seahawks will be motivated next week after their loss to Arizona, so the Rams will have their hands full. The Seahawks will want to bounce back from the loss, they’ll want to clinch home field and the NFC’s top seed, and they’ll want to put the Rams in their place after the Rams have played them tough for three straight games. The final game of the season will likely be the toughest of the year for the Rams.
10. Jake Long’s torn ACL is devastating on a couple of fronts. First, he had played really well at left tackle for the Rams and was a huge part of the ascent of the running game. Getting hurt at the end of December probably will render him unavailable for the first few games of 2014. But the ramifications of the injury extend farther. The Rams likely will have to do everything in their power, including using the franchise tag, to keep Rodger Saffold in case they need him at left tackle to start next year. They may not have thought about it, but I was thinking of having Saffold at guard in place of Harvey Dahl to start next season. Now they can’t sacrifice Dahl in a salary cap move as easily. I’m sure their financial plans for the offseason changed dramatically with Long’s injury, simply because they just don’t know when he’ll be back.
If the Rams beat Seattle, Jeff Fisher will have won more games in two years than the franchise had won in the previous five combined. The arrow is pointing up. Regardless of the Seattle outcome, the Rams have had an impressive season under the circumstances given to them, and should have an interesting offseason of personnel work trying to catch up to Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona.