Part of the beauty of the NFL is its unpredictability. From week to week, you never know what might happen. But the 2013 Rams, who entered the season as the NFL’s youngest team, seem intent on taking this to the extreme.
They began the season as passing team; now they’re a running team. They’ve lost a pair of games by 24 points but won games by 30 and 25 points. They’ve stopped the run, then gotten gashed the next week. They were plus-7 in takeaway-giveaway differential in wins over Jacksonville and Houston, followed by minus-5 in losses to Carolina and Seattle.
To summarize, one week the Rams are busting mirrors; the next they’re dancing in the locker room.
Coach Jeff Fisher agreed with the up-and-down premise Monday, but only to a point.
“Yeah, every week’s a challenge,” Fisher said. “Yesterday, our defense against the run if you take the quarterbacks’ rushes away, the running backs had a total of 1 yard rushing.”
Actually, it was 2 yards, but you get the point. Colts QBs Andrew Luck and Matt Hasselbeck combined for 16 yards rushing on five carries and scrambles. Meanwhile, four Indy running backs combined for a mere 2 yards on nine carries.
All told, the Colts were limited to 18 yards rushing, the fourth-lowest total allowed by the Rams in franchise history.
“Granted, the game got out of hand and they didn’t have the attempts in the second half,” Fisher said. “But what you want to see is you want to see consistency. I don’t want 200 yards this week and 1 yard next week ...”
Which is basically what has happened in seven days’ time. A week ago against Tennessee, the Titans put up 198 yards rushing against the Rams and a previously struggling Chris Johnson ran circles around the defense with 150 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries.
Johnson, by the way, went back into struggling mode this week against Jacksonville with 30 yards on 12 carries for 2.5 yards a carry.
Even with the maddening inconsistency, Fisher says the Rams are improving on nearly a week-to-week basis, even in the three games since Kellen Clemens has stepped in at quarterback for the injured Sam Bradford.
“We’re seeing it,” Fisher said, starting with the defense. “I think you look at our end play, the linebacker play. Rodney (McLeod) and the safeties are improving as they play more and more each week. ‘Tru’ (Trumaine Johnson) and ‘Jenks’ (Janoris Jenkins) are battling outside and getting better each week with their technique and carrying over what they’re doing on the practice field into the game.”
After a 1-3 start, the team is 3-3 since the Rams radically re-tooled their offense following the Thursday night loss to San Francisco, and it could easily be 5-1.
“Since Carolina and losing Sam, we’re throwing the ball to the end zone two weeks in a row to win and to tie,” Fisher said.
That was a reference to the last-second losses to Seattle and Tennessee games, two games that the Rams let slip away.
“And then we come back here (vs. the Colts) and we just kept playing,” Fisher said. “Guys are working hard playing and practicing, and feel like we can match up against anybody.
“So ups and downs from wins and losses? Yeah. But from effort and execution, it’s consistent, it’s steady, and I think we’re seeing improvement.”
Since the 35-11 embarrassment against the 49ers on Sept. 26, the Rams have improved from 23rd to 17th in total defense, and from 30th to 19th in rushing defense. On the other side of the ball, they’ve gone from 30th to 26th in total offense and from 32nd to 22nd in rushing offense. Obviously, the deeper you go into a season, the more difficult it is to improve such team rankings.
And in the always-underrated category of takeaway-giveaway differential, the Rams were minus-1 after four games; they’re plus-6 since then.
On special teams, the flurry of early-season penalties has dropped off noticeably as the season has progressed. A telling snapshot Sunday came on Tavon Austin’s 98-yard punt return for a score. Linebacker Alec Ogletree approached the back of pursuing Colts punter Pat McAfee well downfield. But at the last instant Ogletree put his hands down. A few weeks ago, the hands stay up and it’s a blocking in the back penalty and no touchdown.
There was however, one obvious special teams glitch at the very start of the game when running back Isaiah Pead picked up a 15-yard penalty on the game-opening kickoff. For taunting. On a touchback. Go figure.
“Yeah, he just went by (the return man) and said something,” Fisher said. “I think the officials, they were going set the tone early. Sometimes you see that, it’s not called. It happens all game long. This officiating crew was adamant about taunting and those kinds of things. So they were on top of everything to say the least.”
So even in the afterglow of a 30-point victory, there’s plenty to work on. It would be foolhardy to say the Rams have arrived because 10 games in, the 2013 season has been a journey of equal parts progress and crash-and-burn.
What to expect next time out, Nov. 24 against Chicago? Well, Matt Forte could run for 20 yards against the Rams. Or 200.