Friday, October 7, 2016

Los Angeles Rams Weekly

Los Angeles Rams 17, Arizona Cardinals 13

1. After leading the NFL in several major categories last season, Arizona's offense has begun this season in a malaise. Through four games, all 10 of Carson Palmer's first-quarter drives have resulted in punts, putting the defense behind the eight-ball. Rather than using the run and the short passing game to set up downfield strikes, the Cardinals have been forcing the deep ball in inopportune situations.

2. Arizona's offensive woes were due in no small part to a pressuring Rams defense led by Aaron Donald. The All-Pro defensive tackle generated 1.5 sacks and four QB hits, teaming with Eugene Sims on a high-low takedown that knocked Palmer out of a 13-10 game late in the fourth quarter. Donald and Robert Quinn have been as disruptive as any tackle-end tandem in football this season, setting the tone for a swarming defense that has bounced back in a big way from an embarrassing 28-0 shellacking in the season opener.

3. The Cardinals made it a point to get John Brown involved after the speedy wideout's role was deemphasized in September due to a concussion that sidelined him for the majority of training camp. Brown corralled 10 of a career-high 16 targets for 144 yards while Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd combined for eight catches and 98 yards on 14 targets. Unreliable at the point of the catch, Floyd has been as disappointing as any starting receiver this season.

Jeff Fisher has Rams riding high after victory over Cardinals. He sat in a folding chair a few feet from the showering area of the visitors' locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium, flashing the tiniest hint of a self-satisfied smile under his ubiquitous Highway Patrolman's mustache.

Jeff Fisher, perhaps the NFL's most maligned coach heading into the 2016 season, was doing his best to low-key the Los Angeles Rams' 17-13 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday afternoon, calling his team's third consecutive triumph after a putrid season opener "an under-the-radar win by a quiet team just going about its business."

It was a valiant effort -- until I asked Fisher what he'd told his pumped-up players before reporters had entered the locker room, and a man who has spent 22 years of his adult life as an NFL head coach finally stopped concealing the edge that has helped him connect with several generations worth of gridiron warriors and fessed up: "I told them, 'This was [the Cardinals'] Christmas present. We see them after Christmas [a Jan. 1 rematch at the L.A. Coliseum]. This was their Christmas present. We just gave it to them early, OK?' "

More specifically, Fisher's trash talk was a parting gift for a certain white-haired gentleman who, at the moment, was feeling pretty far from jolly. Certainly, after watching his highly regarded team fall to 1-3 and seeing his franchise quarterback suffer a concussion on a jarring fourth-quarter takedown, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians did not need to have insult added to injury. Yet Fisher did it anyway, because frankly, at that particular moment -- and I paraphrase -- he did not give a damn.

"Go back and see all the s--- Bruce said against us a couple of years ago," Fisher said, referring to Arians' comments following a 12-6 road victory over the then-St. Louis Rams in December of 2014. ("I love it when nobody says that you will have a chance to win," Arians had said. "There is an 11-3 team, and a team that is always 8-8. You figure it out.")

It's not hard to figure out why Fisher remains so perturbed by that particular taunt: The always 8-8 stereotype is one that has been used against him increasingly as he struggles to shake the Rams out of their recent pattern of perpetual mediocrity. It's true that Fisher has had his share of middling campaigns: In 10 of his 20 full seasons as the head coach of the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Oilers/Tennessee Titans and Rams, Fisher's teams have gone either 8-8, 7-9 or 7-8-1. In fairness, he also has posted a trio of 13-3 regular seasons, including one from the gritty Titans squad that fell a mere yard short in Super Bowl XXXIV -- but it has been 12 years since his last postseason victory, and the noise questioning his credentials has grown more deafening than a Metallica concert.

The outside world got a glimpse of Fisher's frustration when, in the season premiere of "Hard Knocks: Training Camp With the Los Angeles Rams" in August, Fisher referenced the "7-9 bulls---" he vowed no longer to tolerate from his players.

It was a stirring storyline -- until the relocated Rams headed north for their season opener against the San Francisco 49ers last month and soiled themselves on "Monday Night Football," suffering a 28-0 defeat in which they mustered only 186 yards of total offense.

At that point, it looked like Fisher would have trouble winning one game, let alone seven -- and that he might not make it past September. Instead, for the Rams and their suddenly swagger-drenched coach, it's Christmas in October, something exactly no one on the outside saw coming a few weeks ago.

"Hey, it's L.A." quarterback Case Keenum joked as he sat at his locker after Sunday's victory. "It's Hollywood. It's a storyline ... and it's not short on drama."

It certainly wasn't on Sunday, as the Rams pulled out a come-from-behind victory on the strength of a timely Tavon Austin punt return, a second Keenum touchdown pass to receiver Brian Quick with 2:36 remaining and a trio of fourth-quarter takeaways, the last a T.J. McDonald interception of a Drew Stanton Hail Mary as time expired. The Rams' defensive devastation was an all-day affair, as they forced five turnovers and knocked out Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, whose head slammed violently against the turf when he was sacked by L.A. linemen Aaron Donald and Eugene Sims with five-and-a-half minutes remaining.

And when it was over, for the second consecutive Sunday, the Rams had won a road game they had to sweat out until the final snap -- and, with a 3-1 record, remained tied for the NFC West lead with the Seattle Seahawks (a team they defeated in their lone home game of the 2016 season thus far), two games ahead of the struggling Cardinals and Niners.

To understand how the Rams got here, you have to go back to that abysmal opening night in Santa Clara. As Fisher trudged off the Levi's Stadium turf, he was being lambasted across the football-watching land -- partly because his team looked overmatched, and partly because Jared Goff, the rookie quarterback for whom his team made a blockbuster trade to draft with the first overall pick, was in street clothes while the unheralded Keenum ran (or, in that case, attempted to run) the offense.

We'll get to the Goff situation in a moment. First, let's appreciate the fact that Fisher resisted the compulsion to panic, and that his team responded accordingly.

"My mindset was really simple," Fisher recalled. "It was a Monday night game, and earlier that weekend, 15 other teams had lost ... and a lot of 'em were good football teams. That was the message to our team -- that we're just one of the 16 teams that lost our opener. I told them, 'We're a good football team.' We put it behind us as quick as we could."

Amazingly, Fisher seemed to be speaking the truth. And as the Rams prepared to host the NFL's first regular-season game in Los Angeles in more than two decades, they vibed off their coach's calm demeanor.

"Jeff's one of the better coaches in the league, in my opinion," said middle linebacker Alec Ogletree, who had seven tackles against the Cardinals. "He does a great job of taking care of his players, and of getting us prepared, and we love playing for him. We've just got to keep playing the way he wants us to play."

Added Austin, who likely would have scored Sunday's winning touchdown had Arizona's Ifeanyi Momah not dragged him down by the facemask to short-circuit a 47-yard punt return with 5:09 remaining: "After [the 49ers defeat], I definitely was shocked. That wasn't us. Looking back, I think we were just smelling ourselves -- thinking we had arrived without putting in the work we need to put in. One thing about Coach Fisher, he always calms us down and helps us fight back. That's where the mindset comes from that has allowed us to win these games."

Even after their 9-3 victory over the Seahawks at the Coliseum, the Rams still seemed shaky -- in two games, they had yet to score a touchdown, which amplified the calls from outsiders for Fisher to make the switch to Goff. Instead, the coach chose to make light of the Rams' offensive struggles, telling his players in a team meeting two days after the Seahawks victory, "I just unpacked one of the boxes from the move [to the team's temporary training facility at Cal Lutheran University], and guess what I found in there? Some touchdowns. They do exist!"

Later that day at practice, Fisher pulled the entire offense out of a drill and asked them to gather at the far side of one of the team's practice fields. "This is the end zone," Fisher deadpanned. "See, this is what it feels like."

Last Sunday, the Rams' air attack got untracked in a 37-32 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Keenum (18 of 30, 266 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) wasn't as prolific against the Cardinals, and with star second-year running back Todd Gurley (19 carries, 33 yards) continuing to struggle to find any semblance of running room, it took a full-team effort to vanquish the Cardinals (1-3), who have now lost as many regular-season games as they did in all of 2015.

In other words, the NFC West Crisis Watch has officially migrated east to the Valley of the Sun, while the Rams head back to Tinseltown riding high in advance of Sunday's home game against the Buffalo Bills. And while it's still possible Keenum could give way to Goff at some point this season, he remains the Rams' leading man -- at least in the eyes of the people who matter most.

"Here's what Case is to us: He's 6-2 in our last eight games," Rams general manager Les Snead said. "That's the definition of him."

And Goff, who was the team's second-string quarterback Sunday, says he's perfectly cool with Fisher's patient approach -- with a not-so-surprising caveat.

"As long as we're winning, I'm good," he said after Sunday's game. "We're 3-1, and I'm just trying to enjoy it."

For one thing, Goff understands that Fisher's preference for easing him into his lofty role is a philosophical one. This was the way the coach handled the early stages of the late Steve McNair's Titans career, with highly successful results, and Fisher says he will do what he believes is best for Goff's development and for the franchise's long-term interests, period.

"That's clear -- and it's been that way from Day 1," Fisher said. "Our rookie quarterback is making really good progress. Our rookie quarterback is a Case Keenum fan, and Case is a Jared fan. It's all good."

While Fisher and his assistants would like to see Goff reduce the amount of interceptions he throws against the scout team, they're convinced that if thrown into the fray immediately, he has the physical skill, instincts and intelligence to thrive. That said, they recognize that he is only 21, and that many successful quarterbacks -- including Palmer, now 36 -- benefitted by observing and learning in the early part of their careers.

So, even though No. 2 overall draft pick Carson Wentz has had a strong start for the Philadelphia Eagles, and other rookie quarterbacks have been effective in the first month of the 2016 season, Fisher has no qualms about playing the long game with Goff.

Said one Rams assistant coach: "Wentz turns 24 later this year. Goff is 21. This is a lot to take in for a 21-year-old. We said in our draft meetings, if you had to play a guy right away, you'd probably take Wentz, cause he played in a pro-style system and is older. The whole point with Jared is that he doesn't have to play right away. We love the kid."

Staying patient with the future face of the franchise would not seem to be the preferred approach of a man coaching for his job -- but Fisher, to his credit, doesn't seem to be especially stressed out by any of that. He declined to comment on his contract status, including the whispers that he and the Rams have already hammered out a multi-year extension that has yet to be announced, but he certainly exudes the confidence of a man who feels very secure about his present situation.

Fisher is the first to concede that his immediate past wasn't as fulfilling as it might have been: His first four seasons with the Rams -- and the first week of his fifth season -- were not without their share of 7-9 BS, or worse.

"I know what took place here from the day we walked in the door," Fisher said. "We took over a 2-14 team that was depleted. And we played six different quarterbacks. And now we're starting to get some stability, and we think we can take it a lot further."

And if Fisher's right? Well, Christmas in Tinseltown could be pretty festive this year, and January could be even better.

Practice Report 10/5: Offense at the Quarter Pole; Donald Remembers
After the first quarter of the season, the Rams have amassed a 3-1 record — despite not playing their best football. While Los Angeles has done better offensively over the last two games, players and coaches both acknowledge there is plenty of room for improvement as the team heads into Week 5 against the Bills.

“We’ve done some good things. It’s like coach said the other day, there’s some good things, there’s some bad things, there’s some things we need to correct,” quarterback Case Keenum said after Wednesday’s practice. “What’s exciting is we’ve found ways to win, and we’ve still got room to grow offensively in a lot of areas — myself included.”

Keenum has completed 55.4 percent of his passes for 825 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. Boras said he’s seen good things from the Houston product, and is looking for the quarterback to expand on those positive traits.

“He’s getting better,” offensive coordinator Rob Boras said. “He’s very cerebral, he’s getting us in the right plays, and he’s making plays. He’s making plays with his arm. He made some plays with his feet the other day as well. He’s extending plays for us. And I’ve talked about it many times, he’s a natural leader. And that’s one of the things [at] that position that is so critical to the whole offense’s success.”

It helps that Keenum has shown solid chemistry with wideouts Kenny Britt and Brian Quick. Britt has averaged just over 70 yards per game, with 18 receptions for 281 yards. The wideout has also dramatically improved his catch percentage (receptions over targets) from 50 percent in 2015 to 69.2 percent in 2016.


“I think both mentally and physically, it’s as good as I’ve seen Kenny,” Boras said. “His preparation out here, his focus — and it’s carried over. He’s playing extremely hard.

“He’s made plays for us in every game — and critical plays on third down, which has been our challenge as an offense to stay on the field,” Boras continued. “I think we’re all very pleased with where Kenny is and the arrow is pointing in the right direction.”

As for Quick, Keenum said Wednesday he’s been around to see a lot of what the wideout has had to overcome in the last three seasons. Because of that, it’s gratifying for the quarterback to be a part of Quick’s success.

“I remember Brian when I first came to the Rams — seeing Brian Quick and not really knowing about him until I saw him in person, and just to see the explosiveness that guy can make, and the big plays that guy can make,” Keenum said. “Then when he had got injured, obviously coming back, so I’ve seen kind of Brian in all ends of the spectrum. To see him getting back to a dominant level of football play has been really, really cool. I’m really excited to be the quarterback that’s throwing him the football.”


Plus, tight end Lance Kendricks has been a reliable target for Keenum, catching 11 passes for 128 yards.

“I just think Lance is one of those guys who’s going to continue to get better for us, and hopefully he’ll continue to make some plays down the field,” Boras said.

There is, however, still the issue of the Rams run game — which for a variety of reasons has not been as effective as the club would like.

“We’re taking a look at everything right now,” Boras said. “Obviously, we’re determined to get it right and get better.”

There are ways for Los Angeles to mitigate the issues, one of which is making plays on the outside with the its receivers. And running back Todd Gurley can also be one of those players who gets involved in the passing game, as he displayed in Arizona last week.

“Since he’s been here, we’ve always said that Todd has unbelievable ball skills,” Boras said. “Like any young player, he’s getting better, because it’s not something he was asked to do a whole lot at Georgia. But he has natural athletic ability, natural skills. And, obviously, any time we can get him in space, he can make things happen. So it’s obviously something we want to continue to build on.”

If the Rams can keep improving and get more consistency out of their offense, the club will have a good opportunity to stack more wins on its strong start to the season.

LIKE THE NORTH, DONALD REMEMBERS

Those of you who read this space are probably familiar with the fact that defensive tackle Aaron Donald went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2014 after recording 9.0 sacks, 32 quarterback pressures, 12 quarterback hits, and 17 tackles for loss.

Some of you may also remember that Rex Ryan — now the head coach of the Bills, but in 2014 the head coach of the Jets — took exception to Donald receiving the honor over New York defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.

“If it kept him out of the Pro Bowl because some guy had X-amount of sacks, and that guy can't hold his jock as a player, to be honest with you, I think that's kind of strange to me," Ryan said in Dec. 2014 via NJ.com.

If you didn’t forget those comments — and they sure were memorable — neither did Donald.


“Yeah, I remember them. I remember when I heard about it. And I didn’t forget about what he said,” Donald said Wednesday. “But, it is what it is. It ain’t no big deal to me. But I remember. I remember what he said. What did he say again?”

A reporter reminded Donald, “He said you couldn’t carry somebody’s jock strap.”

“Yeah, I remember that,” Donald replied, nodding his head.

“That’s kind of disrespectful to say,” Donald added. “But it is what it is.”

For his part, Ryan has been doing his best to walk back those comments as much as he possibly can.

“I’ve made a lot of dumb comments in my days, that’s probably right up there at the top,” Ryan said on his conference call with L.A. media on Wednesday. “But what it was, was I was disappointed. We had a guy — Sheldon Richardson had a great year, never made the Pro Bowl and one of our coaches had said, ‘This guy can’t hold his jock.’ So I go ahead and say it — I never even saw him play, but I knew he was a rookie, so rookies shouldn’t go to the Pro Bowl. So, anyway, after I’ve seen this kid play, I’m like, ‘Oh boy!’”

Oops.

“Mark that down as one of the dumbest ones — and I’ve had a couple of them, maybe one or two dumb ones, that one right there is right at the top,” Ryan continued. “But, obviously, he’s a great player.”

So great, in fact, that Ryan compared Donald to a Hall of Famer.

“He really is a fun player to watch and I love his effort,” Ryan said. “I guess the nearest thing to him is John Randle that I can remember — a guy with just explosiveness and power. Really a rare guy.”


So what did Donald think of hearing Ryan now feels his “jock” comment is one of the dumbest he’s ever made?

“He still said it,” Donald said.

But according to the defensive tackle, just because he remembers doesn’t mean he has some kind of extra motivation for this game.

“I’m just going to go play football — fly around and try to make some plays,” Donald said. “That’s all that matters.”

And when you have Donald’s track record, who needs extra motivation anyway?

EXTRA POINTS

— The Rams listed five players on their Wednesday injury report, four of whom were not available to practice.

Wide receiver Kenny Britt (thigh), safety Cody Davis (groin), defensive end William Hayes (ankle), and defensive end Robert Quinn (shoulder) did not participate in Wednesday’s session.

Defensive tackle Michael Brockers (hip) participated in practice on a limited basis.

— For the third time in the last 20 weeks, Donald has been named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week.

Donald amassed 1.5 sacks, forced a fumble, and had four quarterback hits in Los Angeles’ 17-13 victory over Arizona.

“It feels good,” Donald said. “Anytime you’re complimented for the work you do on the field, it’s a good feeling. But, I’ve still got a lot more work to do. And we won. So, [it’s a] big deal.”

The defensive tackle was twice named NFC Defensive Player of the Week in 2015. He received the accolade for his Week 1 performance in the Rams’ victory over the Seahawks after recording 2.0 sacks in the contest. Donald then received it again for his Week 14 performance in the Rams’ victory over the Lions, during which the defensive tackle recorded a career-high 3.0 sacks in one game.

— Finally, the latest episode of Between the Horns is up and available to download via SoundCloud or iTunes.

In this episode, I chat with D’Marco Farr about what worked in the Rams’ victory over the Cardinals, what the offensive line can do to improve, how Los Angeles will have to defend Buffalo on Sunday, and much more.

You can check out the podcast — which drops every Wednesday — in the embed below, and on iTunes by following this link here.
Linkin Park and YG Design Rams T-Shirts
For the first time ever, a select group of artists have joined forces with the NFL to represent their teams and cities by creating unique, official NFL gear. These limited edition shirts are perfect for Rams fans that are also Linkin Park or YG fans and will be available for a short time only and, after that, they'll never be sold again.

Linkin Park and YG have designed Rams themed T-shirts as part of the #MyTeamMyCity initiative. This project pairs musicians with their hometown NFL teams for a series of limited edition shirts.

Buy Official Linkin Park x Rams shirt: http://teespring.com/LP_NFL

Buy Official YG x Rams shirt: teespring.com/YG_NFL_white

Linkin Park, a rock band from Agoura Hills, California, is donating $5 per shirt to local non-profit organizations Music for Relief and TreePeople for tree planting in the Los Angeles community.

YG, a rapper from Compton, California, can be seen wearing a Los Angeles Rams Todd Gurley jersey in his hit music video "Why You Always Hatin?" featuring Drake.

Check out the full collection of artists & teams here: http://collabs.teespring.com/NFL/
PFW Matchup Breakdown: Buffalo Bills vs. Los Angeles Rams

The Buffalo Bills are well on their way to least popular team in the NFL as head coach Rex Ryan continues to insult his way through their schedule. But they’re also one of the toughest teams in the league to figure having won their last two after the firing of offensive coordinator Greg Roman which most analysts considered to be a big mistake.

Even if the QB was rookie Jacoby Brissett playing with a badly bruised thumb on his throwing hand, prior to last Sunday’s 16-0 whitewash no club had shut out the Patriots at home since 1993. Maybe the Bills are pretty good?

We’ll find out this Sunday as they travel coast to coast to take on the surprising Los Angeles Rams who feature one of the NFL’s worst offenses and one of its best defenses, which they’ve ridden to a three-game win streak after getting embarrassed and shut out on opening night at San Francisco. Particularly puzzling about the Rams has been the improved play of Case Keenum the past two weeks after the Rams opened the season with no touchdowns and just three field goals in their first two games and still managed to go to 1-1. The Bills will get Marcel Dareus back this week but what they’ll be able to do about the Rams Aaron Donald is anybody’s guess?

BUF 28TH OFF; LA 23RD DEF

BUF 7TH RUN; LA 17TH vs. RUN

BUF 31ST PASS; LA 23RD vs. PASS

BUF 16TH PTS; LA 9TH PTS ALLOWED

LA 31ST OFF; BUF 17TH DEF

LA 30TH RUN; BUF 13TH vs. RUN

LA 30TH PASS; BUF 17TH vs. PASS

LA 30TH PTS; BUF 6TH PTS ALLOWED

BUF T2ND TO/TA; LA T4TH TO-TA

BILLS coming off huge 16-0 shutout win on road over Patriots, outgaining New England 378-277 while limiting them to only 1-of-12 third-down conversions.

BILLS already have 13 sacks through 4 games (3 in Week 4) after managing a franchise-low 21 last season.

BILLS defense should be further fortified with star DT Marcell Dareus likely to be playing first game this season after serving 4-game suspension for violating NFL’s substance-abuse policy.

BILLS ILB Zach Brown had 18 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFLs and a FF in Week 4.

BILLS QB Tyrod Taylor had 27-39-246-1 TD-0 INTs (94.6 QB rating) and 5-28 rushing in Week 4.

BILLS converted 7-of-15 third downs in Week 4 after converting only 10-of-36 3 rd downs in first 3 games.

BILLS RB LeSean McCoy had 19-70 rushing, 6-38-1 receiving in Week 4.

Replacing injured Sammy Watkins as the No. 1 WR, BILLS Robert Woods had 7-89 receiving on 10 targets.

Check status of BILLS CB Corey White (suffered possible concussion in Week 4).

Surprising RAMS return home after 2 straight road wins, the latest being a 17-13 upset victory over Cardinals in which they registered a plus-4 TO differential (5 takeaways, only 1 turnover).

RAMS are off to best start since 2006, when they won 4 of first 5 games.

RAMS QB Case Keenum solidified starting QB job in Week 4 with efficient 18-30-266-2 TDs-0 INTs (111.2 QB rating).

RAMS WR Brian Quick (4-82) began scoring in Week 4 with 65-yard TD catch and finished scoring with game-winning TD catch with 2:36 remaining.

RAMS WR Tavon Austin’s 47-yard punt return set up Quick’s winning score.

RAMS RB Todd Gurley was limited to 19-33 rushing in Week 4.

RAMS DT Aaron Donald had 1 ½ sacks, 5 tackles, 4 QB hurries and a FF in Week 4.

RAMS CB Trumaine Johnson excelled in Week 4 with an endzone INT, 5 tackles and 6 PBs.


A satirical look at more than 75 years of Football's Rams history, combined with discussions of American Exceptionalism and almost 50 years of personal experience in the life of a Rams Fan. The history parallels and intertwines life to form a humorous, yet serious look at American HistoryWorld History, an American Footballteam, and Political Science.