Same plot line, same ending
Jim Thomas, St.Louis Post-Despatch, published 24 September 2007|
Rams struggle in the red zone. Commit costly turnovers. Are in position to take control of the game, but can't. Defense plays well enough to lose.
It's like reading a different book three weeks in a row, but the plot is the same, and the story always ends the same way: a defeat for the Rams.
"That's the most depressing thing about it," tight end Randy McMichael said. "You always want a happy ending to a story."
But three weeks into the 2007 season, there have been no happy endings for the Rams. Just defeat, frustration and injury. They were 24-3 losers Sunday to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, falling to 0-3 for the season.
The Rams' slogan entering the season was "I Believe."
But after another numbing loss, a change might be in the works: "I Believe What Can Go Wrong Will Go Wrong."
After losing five costly fumbles to Carolina and San Francisco, the Rams didn't lose a single fumble Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. Instead, they threw interceptions. After throwing his first 89 passes of the season without one, quarterback Marc Bulger threw three in the final three quarters Sunday. Two squelched potential scoring drives, including one in the end zone.
For most of the last decade, the one sure thing on Rams special teams has been place-kicker Jeff Wilkins. But Wilkins missed field-goal attempts of 42 and 43 yards Sunday. In 158 regular-season games with St. Louis, it was only the sixth time Wilkins had missed two field goals in the same game.
Yes, the running game got fixed. Steven Jackson rushed for 115 yards on 30 carries Sunday, nearly matching the combined total of the first two games. But the Rams' passing attack was so conservative it all but assumed the fetal position.
Bulger threw for only 116 yards, and the longest pass play of the day was an 18-yard gain by Torry Holt. This came one week after the Rams had seven pass plays of 20 or more yards against San Francisco.
"We threw it downfield last week, and our quarterback almost didn't make it into the locker room," coach Scott Linehan said, a reference to the many hits Bulger absorbed against the 49ers. "We want to continue to do that (throw downfield), but we had to protect somewhat — had to protect the timing of plays. So we didn't expose some matchup issues. I felt it was the right thing to do, and I still do."
Maybe so. But the Buccaneers were surprised not to see the Rams try to stretch the field.
"I really thought they would try to go down the field more with their talented receivers," said Bucs defensive end Kevin Carter, a former Ram. "The one thing I was surprised about is they didn't go downfield more," Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "Because that's kind of what their passing game is known for — the real deep digs, the deep comebacks."
Not on Sunday.
"The game plan was to run the ball," Bulger said. "If they would've brought nine guys to the line, we were going to try to run the ball."
Even so, the Rams had plenty of chances to get into the end zone.
On third and 3 from the Tampa 35 early in the second quarter, Bulger threw his first interception of the day on a short sideline pattern to Isaac Bruce. Bulger actually was trying to throw the ball away. But Bucs safety Jermaine Phillips somehow managed to get the ball and get two feet down before falling out of bounds.
Wilkins missed his first field goal, wide left, after a drive stalled at the Tampa 24 later in the second quarter. With just under 6 minutes remaining in the third, trailing 10-0, the Rams had a first and goal from the Tampa 10. But Bulger's pass to Drew Bennett was intercepted by Phillip Buchanon in the end zone. Bennett thought Bulger was throwing a fade pattern to the back of the end zone; Bulger thought Bennett would come back for the ball five yards deep into the zone. Thus, the ball was underthrown.
Later in the third quarter, after a drive stalled at the Tampa 25, Wilkins' 43-yard attempt clanged off the right upright, no good. Early in the fourth quarter, with the score still 10-0, safety Oshiomogho Atogwe recovered a fumble at the Tampa 33. The Rams advanced to the Bucs' 7 before the drive stalled, with Wilkins kicking a 25-yarder for the Rams' only points of the day.
So in five trips to the Tampa 35 or beyond, including two journeys into the red zone, the Rams managed three measly points.
"The score doesn't indicate it, but we were right there," Linehan said. "Missed opportunities again. I know it sounds like a broken record."
The Rams may indeed be "right there" as Linehan suggests. But there are no medals for coming close in the NFL. You either win or lose, and so far the Rams have been losers three times. "We're on our butt right now," Bulger said. "We've got to get up, we've got to get ready for Dallas. Simple as that. We've got to come closer as a team because we're going to get a lot of scrutiny, and deservedly so. We're not doing our job right now."