Sunday, December 25, 2011

Rams' offense looks anemic against Steelers

By Jim Thomas
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
December 25, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 24: Linebackers Lawrence Timmons #94 and James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers sack quarterback Kellen Clemens #10 of the St. Louis Rams in the fourth quarter of their game at Heinz Field on December 24, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH • So here the Rams are again — another Christmas, another season near the bottom of the heap in the NFL. When they won seven games in 2010, and came within a victory of the NFC West title, there was an expectation that the worst was behind this forlorn franchise.

Steven Jackson admits he thought that was the case.

"I was hopeful," he said. "I must admit that I did."

But after a 27-0 loss to Pittsburgh, the Rams flew home Christmas Eve with a 2-13 record. For the fourth time in five years the Rams will finish a season with three victories or fewer.

There wasn't much suspense Saturday at Heinz Field. In a black-and-gold sea of Terrible Towels, the Rams lost their sixth game in row in almost stereotypical fashion.

The defense was willing. But the offense? Well, it would have trouble scoring in a singles bar. Victims of a shutout for the second time in four games, the Rams had their best scoring chances end in missed field goals of 52 and 33 yards by Josh Brown.

Defensively, the Rams allowed three big plays: a 35-yard reception by Rashard Mendenhall, a 52-yard run by Mendenhall and a 46-yard reception by Mike Wallace. None were scoring plays, but they led to two touchdowns and a field goal by the Steelers, who improved to 11-4.

Starting in place of Sam Bradford at quarterback, Kellen Clemens came down to earth after his surprisingly good Rams debut last weekend against Cincinnati. He completed a mere nine of 24 passes for 91 yards and a 49.1 passer rating against Pittsburgh's No. 1-ranked defense.

"In the spirit of Christmas, they weren't very giving," Clemens said. "Very stingy on defense, the Pittsburgh Steelers today. They're an elite defense."

The Rams' longest pass play of the day went for only 17 yards, with a 22-yarder to Brandon Lloyd on the opening drive successfully challenged by Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, changing the call to an incomplete pass.

"There's a few throws I just should've hit," Clemens said. "A couple other throws where we had an opportunity and didn't convert. You can't leave opportunities on the table against a defense like that. And we did today."

About the only bright spots for the Rams were Josh Gordy's third interception of the season — and second in as many games — and Jackson's 103 yards rushing. In the process, Jackson became just the seventh player in NFL history with seven or more consecutive seasons with 1,000 yards rushing.

"That's awesome," left guard Jason Brown said. —"'Jack' works his butt off, runs his butt off. He deserves it."

But the Rams reached the red zone only once and the result of that was Brown's missed 33-yarder. If Brown makes both field goals, it's 13-6 Steelers early in the fourth quarter. It's a one-score game and who knows.

"We're saying the same thing over there (on the sideline)," coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "But unfortunately that didn't happen. Let's face it. That's an elite defense, and the points are going to be few and far between. So when you get it in there and you can get at least three, that's what you need. If it's 13-6 and it's a one-possession game ... you're just one play away."

Instead it remained 13-0, and when Pittsburgh punched in two touchdowns in the final 9 minutes of the fourth quarter, it became a 27-0 rout. The Steelers did this without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who rested his high ankle sprain with the playoffs in mind.

"Obviously, he's less than 100 percent, and it's our desire at this juncture to get him as close to 100 percent as we can for January football," Tomlin told before the game. "I felt like this week provided an opportunity to do that."

That was a polite way of saying: "Even with Charlie Batch at quarterback, we should be able to take care of the Rams."

That's pretty much what happened. Batch threw only 22 passes, with the Steelers relying more on Mendenhall (18 carries, 116 yards) and the running game than usual.

"I thought they would try to run the ball more," Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "I thought they would do a lot of counters, which they did. They're very similar to Arizona offensively, as far as what their run schemes are. Same coaching schemes."

That's because Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt came to the Cardinals from the Steelers.

Laurinaitis added: "That second game against Arizona, what hurt us was counters and stuff, and that's what (Pittsburgh) started doing. We stopped some of 'em; some of 'em we didn't."

So either the Rams just aren't good enough to play consistent run defense or they just don't learn from mistakes. As a team, the Steelers rushed for 169 yards. If the Rams give up 159 yards rushing in the Jan. 1 season finale against San Francisco, they will be the worst rushing defense in franchise history in terms of yards allowed.

The 2008 Rams of Scott Linehan and interim head coach Jim Haslett yielded a franchise worst 2,475 yards rushing; the 2011 Rams are at 2,317 yards after Saturday. But all things considered, the defense wasn't the problem. Once again, it kept the Rams in the game until the fourth quarter.

It's the offense, which is staggering through a season-closing stretch of facing six top 10 defenses over the final seven games of the season. With only the 49ers, and their fifth-ranked defense left to play, the Rams have been outscored 150-53 during the six-game losing streak.

"They schedule 'em; we gotta play 'em," Spagnuolo said. "It makes it tough for us, and yet our guys are still in there battling. And in the offensive line — we know all those issues there — it's been going on all year long. But I thought today they did a pretty nice job in helping Steven get those yards."

With zero points.

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