By Rams Nation's Mike Franke
Position by position:
* QB: If “The Terminator” can become governor of California, then Kurt Warner, another relentless offensive machine, should think about running in Missouri. Warner was a beyond-sharp 13-of-15 for 125 yards in one half of play, for a Warner-of-old QB rating of 123.6. He went 6-for-7, including 16 to Marshall Faulk to beat a London Fletcher blitz, on the first TD drive. He tied the game at 14 with a SWEET TD pass to Faulk. Warner dropped the ball right over the LB’s shoulder and into Marshall’s hands. Pretty vintage Kurt. Kurt and Marshall are clicking, Kurt read the field extremely well and threw accurately, with NO interceptions again tonight. Warner even scrambled twice for 18 yards, the second time faking Fletcher onto his butt. Warner’s lone minus was that he held the ball much too long on two of his sacks. Funny how Warner hasn’t wound up for a long pass yet this preseason, but as soon as Marc Bulger (9-15-139) gets in, it’s bombs away, including a 66-yard TD to Kevin Curtis early in the 3rd, although that pass was well underthrown. Bulger hit Shaun McDonald for 22 on 3rd-and-13 on the Rams’ FG drive, and came back in with 2:00 left to guide the Rams 50 yards to the Bills 18 before the offensive line fell to pieces for the final time. Kirk Farmer didn’t get much of a chance to pass even though the running game wasn’t getting anywhere behind him. But Warner’s second turnover-free night should give fans great reason to feel confident.
* RB: A healthy Marshall Faulk is going to take this team a long way, kind of like tonight, which saw him tally 11 rushes for 43 yards and 7 catches for 60 more in only one half of play. He’s the same player as ever; Warner’s go-to guy, a patient runner and a big factor in TD drives. Faulk ran on the Rams’ first four plays and showed he’s ready for the workhorse role. Twice, including his 6-yard rushing TD, he went up the middle where the play was designed to go, then patiently bounced it outside to the right for a nice gain. He had a 16-yard catch and a 10-yard run leading up to that TD and scored a 2nd TD receiving. The NFL’s best all-around weapon is getting warmed up for some strikes. Rough night for Arlen Harris, 18 rushes for 18 yards, behind almost no blocking. A key sequence of the game came in the third when the Rams couldn’t score from the 1. Harris had two rushes for -1 down there, but again, no blocking. Brian Natkin got most of the work at fullback, with mixed results. He certainly doesn’t blast anybody like James Hodgins did.
* WR: Beyond Faulk’s seven catches, the Rams really spread the ball around. Two each for Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Shaun McDonald. Mike Furrey caught a clutch 15-yarder during the Rams’ final drive. But the receiving star was again Kevin Curtis. For the second straight week, he turned a CB absolutely inside out en route to a long catch, this one a 66-yard TD in the 3rd. He left the game with reportedly a strained calf muscle, but Curtis runs routes so well he is clearly the #3 receiver and is going to give nickelbacks trouble all season long. Those who want to criticize Troy Edwards (3-18) for taking too long to get up after his second catch of the final drive should get the wind knocked out of them sometime. Edwards also drew an interference penalty in the end zone in the 3rd, and I wouldn’t call him dead just yet in the last-WR-in race.
* Offensive line: Little did I realize that by halftime of this game I would be BEGGING the Rams to put John St. Clair back in at LT. Grant Williams was five kinds of awful out there, getting whipped by Aaron Schobel – Aaron Schobel? – repeatedly and getting his QB killed. Even St. Clair doesn’t get flat out beaten as often as Williams did. What ever impressed the Rams so much about this guy? And if he’s off because he’s still injured, then why even play him? Andy McCollum had some rough moments, also nearly getting Warner killed once, but his play looks farther along. St. Clair played center all game. Warner bobbled a couple of snaps, but they can’t have worked together much. The reshuffled line appeared discombobulated at times by CONSTANT Buffalo blitzing, although the first time Warner was sacked, the blitz was picked up pretty well. The second time, Kurt held the ball way too long, and the blitz wasn’t picked up well. The third sack was all Williams. Good news, though, from the solid right side of the line, where Adam Timmerman was a dominating run-blocker. The second-string line was pathetic. They rarely opened any room for Harris to run at all. Travis Scott’s lost-in-space blocking nearly led to a safety late in the 3rd, and Robert Haws got whipped twice for sacks, including the game-ending sack/fumble. And St. Clair committed a crucial illegal use of hands penalty to move that drive backward after it got to the Bills 18. But the starters look OK as long as they can come up with somebody to fill that LT position competently. Hmmm….
* Defensive line/LB: The defense did absolutely nothing but watch the Bills go up 14-0 the first two drives. There was no pass rush AT ALL, so Drew Bledsoe got all day to throw and picked apart the Rams’ young secondary. Travis Henry broke off runs of 19 and 20 yards, although the second was called back by penalty. As usual, Jamie Duncan (starting for injured Robert Thomas) got tied up easily by just about any blocker and was not a defensive factor. The run didn’t get stopped at all except for a good play by Grant Wistrom to stop Henry for -4 from the Rams’ 4. Lovie Smith got caught blitzing in the first as WR Bobby Shaw beat Pisa Tinoisamoa for a TD. Pisa’s fast, but that’s probably still not a great matchup. Pisa left the game in the 2nd with a sprained left ankle. The defense rebounded somewhat in the 2nd. Tommy Polley picked off Bledsoe to end one drive, and the defense followed that with two more quick stops to get the Rams in the game. The pass rush got better, but no Ram registered a sack for the night. Kerry Collins is going to look awfully good (again) Week One if the pass rushers don’t pick up their game. Jimmy, no, it’s Teddy now, Kennedy, has pretty much drowned my high expectations for him. He got manhandled again and finished the game without a tackle. He badly overran Joe Burns’ winning TD run at the point of contact. So I’ll crank my expectations way back for now and hope he bounces back like the defense did in the 2nd quarter.
* Secondary: Unlike last week, a far-from-promising performance from the secondary tonight. Eric Moulds beat Travis Fisher over and over, including a 16-yard TD to put the Bills up 14-0. He gave the Rams’ lead CB a ton of trouble, even getting physical with him successfully. Moulds caught 9 for 115 in under three quarters, my God, what will T.O. do to Fisher, who also blew a good half a dozen tackles? Jerametrius Butler fared better against Josh Reed, but blew a couple of tackles himself. Shane Walton was pressed into action after Kim Herring broke his left forearm on the opening kickoff, and had a very rough evening, also blowing a mess of tackles. He should have broken up an inexcusable 28-yard completion to Reed that set up an end-of-first half FG attempt (missed). DeJuan Groce didn’t impress at all, getting beaten a lot and especially abused by a #14-wearing scrub WR for Buffalo’s 3rd TD. Shades of Taje Allen at the end of the Detroit game in ’99. Nick Sorenson was the only DB who had a decent night, intercepting a tipped pass late in the game. He’s way ahead of Steve Bellesari, who had an INT, but foolishly lateralled it badly to Walton. Lucky they didn’t lose the ball. Bellesari’s special teams play was poor to boot, so he could be battling with Walton for a roster spot. Some battle, judging from their terrible tackling on Burns’ TD run. NFL-quality tackling needs to be a focus for this secondary in coming days. Lucky thing the Rams have a 35 in the hole.
* Special teams: Special teams loses the game for the second time this August, as the Bills had punt returns of 27, 37 and 34 yards in the second half. I’ll take heart that there were a lot of scrubs out there that won’t be around on Monday. And in fact, Courtland Bullard WHACKED the returner at the end of the 27-yard return to get the Rams the ball back. The next play was Curtis’ TD. Bullard and Scott Shanle played well on STs; write Shanle’s name down on the roster sheet in ink. The kickers were disappointing. Owen Pochmann did all the kicking and once again was only ordinary on kickoffs. Sean Landeta looked like Ray Guy last week; this week he just looked like an older version of Mitch Berger, putting two punts into the end zone and plonking a couple of 34-yarders. Harris had 18- and 27-yard punt returns in the 2nd quarter.
* Coaching/discipline: I guess we can count Mike Martz among those goofball coaches who go all-out to win preseason games. How else to explain putting Marc Bulger back into the game with 2:00 left, after Bills coach Gregg Williams put Alex Van Pelt back into the game to get his team the lead? If Martz was that intent on winning the game, he should have had Farmer throw more earlier in the 4th, instead of dooming Harris to a series of unsuccessful rushes. That was an unnecessary risk to take with Bulger. Williams really showed his stripes as a Jeff Fisher disciple, with the Van Pelt move and blitzing the Rams on damn near every play. They’ve faced each other once, and I’m guessing Martz and Williams already don’t like one another. Lovie Smith needs to get in his defense’s face a bit; the starters really seemed to take the night off. There was a lot of terrible tackling, and the Bills beat a rare Lovie blitz for their first TD. The schedule, three games in 10 days, certainly doesn’t help, but the defense’s execution is really dropping off.
* Waiver bait: The Rams web site has 83 players on the current roster, counting Orlando Pace. The player limit is 65 by Tuesday, with NFL Europe exemptions for James Broyles, Todd Howard and Robbie Robinson. So the minimum that can be voted off Rams Island is 15: WRs Dedrick Dewalt, Desmond Kitchings, Steve Battle, Michael Coleman (leaving 7 WRs), QB Greg Zolman, DE Roderick Stephen, LB Jason McWilliams, RTs Robert Haws, Curry Dawson and Matt Anderle, C John Romero, FBs Maurice Rodriguez and Chad Kuhns, K Owen Pochmann and RB Leon Johnson are my nominees.
* Upon further review: The crew led by the verbose Ron Winter did well until they completely BLEW an OBVIOUS block in the back that set up Buffalo’s 37-yard punt return on the 4th. I’ll still give them a pretty-good grade. Excellent call on Polley’s fumble after the first INT, and the pass interference calls were good. Nate Clements hammered Torry on the shoulder well before the ball got there on the call in the 1st.
* Cheers?: Congratulations to two-bit UHF station WRBU for the WORST Rams preseason broadcast EVER, as the ENTIRE first quarter was the victim of technical difficulties, suffering from what looked like a bad horizontal-hold problem. Jackie Slater’s stupid telestrator sure worked, though. You know, Jackie, if you circle EVERYTHING, people are going to stop paying attention. Over on radio, Curtis’ TD occurred during a commercial break. So no matter where you went, including the Internet, where a game broadcast was harder to find than certain members of the Hussein family, live coverage of tonight’s game was the pits.
* Who’s next?: YOUR Governor’s Cup goes back on the line Thursday night when Dick Vermeil brings the Chiefs to town. The Ram offense should have the opportunity to keep humming against a dreadful K.C. defense that I just don’t see as much improved over last year. But that’s moot if the left side of the Ram offensive line can’t get settled. That’s something to focus on Thursday, as well as the starting defensive line, which seems to have taken a couple of weeks off after a super outing in Oakland. The young, banged-up secondary is sure to be tested by Trent Green and company, so it’s time to step up. Key roster battles appear to be #6 WR, #3/4 DE, fullback and safety. There’ll be a lot to watch in what should be a good offensive shootout like tonight’s. Some players will have their dreams dashed, some players’ dreams will come true, and the fans will start dreaming about the start of the regular season and * real * games.