Although controversial calls — or, in some instances, the lack thereof — have certainly marred the first three weeks of the NFL season, an objective look at each team's performance will show that this is probably the most competitive season the league has had in a while.
No one could have predicted the following tidbit before the season: only three teams (Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans) remain undefeated, while two have yet to earn a victory (Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints). This is a tribute to bottom-dwelling teams making improvements, while the upper-echelon organizations deal with the effects of attrition.
The St. Louis Rams currently sit at 1-2, but again, those who chose to objectively view each performance will surely see signs of a budding young franchise ready to make a move up in the division. As with every team, there are areas in need of improvement. Unfortunately for the Rams, the problems are much of the same they've dealt with in the past.
Here's what we can take from Week 3's loss to the Chicago Bears.
—It might sound a bit redundant, but if #RamsNation takes nothing else from this Sunday's performance, it's that head coach Jeff Fisher's defensive approach will keep the team in games late. Fisher's bend-but-don't-break philosophy hasn't eliminated the occasional big play, but has allowed the defense to make big plays of its own. Along with allowing only one offensive touchdown to Chicago, the Rams’ D gave the offense a chance to compete throughout the game
—Defensive end Chris Long recorded his first sack of the season in the third quarter. On the other side, Robert Quinn continued to get pressure in the backfield as Chicago gave more attention to Long, who worked inside on occasion. The tandem is a welcome help for the secondary in passing situations. With the return of rookie Michael Brockers in the middle (hopefully before midseason), the front line of St. Louis can wreak havoc on the division.
—It was a tale of two halves for the Rams’ secondary. The 5’10” cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins matched up against Chicago's 6’4” receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. However, instead of vet vs. vet and rookie vs. rookie, Jenkins was given the task of defending the more polished Marshall.
—In the first half, Jenkins was nearly flawless in coverage, playing through Marshall's hands on an early third down, but the rookie still showed inconsistency with tackling. Finnegan also shut down Jeffery, jumping with the much taller Jeffery to disrupt deep balls and playing an effective trail technique. However, the corners switched assignments as more passes came in the fourth quarter, which meant more catches for the heavily-targeted Jeffery on hitches and slants. After the game was pretty much decided with under five minutes remaining, quarterback Jay Cutler tossed a jump ball to Marshall for 34 yards at the expense of Finnegan, seemingly just for kicks.
—If you haven't guessed by now, the offensive line is currently (and retrospectively) the clear weak link of the franchise. St. Louis last made the playoffs in 2006. In each season following have spent very high draft picks on offensive linemen, only to to see them fade away or shipped out one by one. The Rams even addressed the issue in what seems like their first time truly testing the free agency market, signing Scott Wells from Green Bay and trading the New York Jets for Wayne Hunter. The current state of affairs looks no different. No one acquisition has proven to be a cornerstone to build around for the future, and the city anxiously awaits a vaccine for the injuries plaguing the line.
—The rookie kickers continued to impress Sunday. Greg Zuerlein not only nailed a career-long field goal from 56 yards, but he and punter Johnny Hekker effectively helped neutralize Chicago's stud returner Devin Hester. The future Hall-of-Famer was limited to only 123 yards on six total returns as Hekker kicked multiple 50-yarders out-of-bounds and Zuerlein pinned Hester deep in the endzone on kickoffs.
—Lance Kendricks had a bigger presence for the Rams, catching three passes and making a statement hit on Hester during a punt return. It seems the Rams want to get the tight end more involved in the passing game, but as with every other offensive goal, the line play must improve.
—Steven Jackson got the start at running back after missing practice all week while nursing a sore groin, completely disproving the rumor that last Sunday's benching was due to disciplinary reasons. He was spotted on the sidelines in the second quarter with what seemed like a heating pad applied (uniquely, I might add) to his groin.
—Sam Bradford suffered six sacks at the hands of the Bears’ defense, four of which were on third downs. Bradford seemed to revert back to the mindset he developed over his first two stressful, injury-riddled seasons. Playing in an often porous pocket, Bradford grew content tucking the ball and taking the hit in the second half rather than attempting to get the ball away as he did in the first.
—The mark of an elite passer is one that will stand in the pocket until the last minute and take a couple of shots in the chin to make sure the ball gets to the right receiver. Although offensive line play has plagued the entire unit's production and consistency, Bradford won't come close to entering that category until he learns this rare ability.
—Interesting tidbit: The Rams gained more yards in the first six minutes of the third quarter (83) than they earned in the entire first half (58).
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