Rams Look to Resume Fast Starts

Posted Dec 20, 2012

As Rams receiver Chris Givens fielded the opening kickoff deep in his own end zone last week against Minnesota and made the decision to bring it out rather than taking a knee and starting at the 20, he took off hoping to ignite a quick start for a team stuck in the mud in the early going of games in the previous three weeks.

Alas, Givens was dropped at the Rams’ 12.

“It was too deep (to return),” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “He needed to stay in the end zone. It’s just that that field didn’t give us a good start, didn’t give us good field position.”

Slow starts have been a depressing and common theme for the Rams over the course of the past month and Givens’ short return was a harbinger of the fourth in a row for a team that earlier in the year was among the league’s best at putting points on the board in the early going.

In fact, over the first 10 games of the season, the Rams had scored at least a field goal on their opening possession in seven of those games.

Over the past four weeks, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction as the Rams have not scored a single point in the first quarter. On 10 possessions, they have punted 10 times.

While earlier in the year, the Rams found themselves wondering how to close games, they now seem to have found a way to finish but are searching for an earlier jumpstart.

“We are definitely surprised by that,” left tackle Rodger Saffold said. “And then we were trying to figure out how to finish games so the focus transitions to finishing games and then we started having these last second wins and everything like that. It’s hard to try to focus on the whole thing because it’s three hours of football. I think that what we are starting to learn is that finishing games just comes from heart, will, determination. But if we execute at the beginning and continue to have the passion at the end, we could win games. That’s why this team is still learning how to win.”

Indeed, the Rams have been able to come up with ways to pull off victories late in games, mostly through many of the intangibles that Saffold suggests. That the Rams are 3-1 over the past four games is somewhat surprising considering the struggles they’ve endure in the opening 30 minutes.

To wit, over the past four games, the Rams in the first half have been outscored 60-21 while winning the second half 63-18.

So what, exactly, has changed down the home stretch?
Fisher points to some of the basics of any successful offense.

“Convert third downs,” Fisher said. “Avoid a holding penalty in the first drive. Hard to convert a third-and-20 in the first drive of the game. We get a sack or we come out with a first down, things are going good and we get a sack. It’s just those kinds of things that we have to avoid. We’ve got another challenge again this week. We’re playing the team that’s top, I think top in the league, in rushing defense. So, we’re going to have to, obviously, find a way to run the football and then make some plays down the field.”

In the first half of the past four games, the Rams are just four-of-25 on third-down conversions, a rate of just 16 percent success.

Eliminating penalties and sacks would be helpful in converting more third downs and Saffold adds that having more success picking up yards on early downs would go a long way toward creating third downs that would be easier to pick up.

“I feel like it just comes down to those first downs, a little bit on the third down, sometimes we have third and manageable and we won’t convert and we need those conversions early on to get a score,” Saffold said.

Jumping out to an early lead is particularly important against teams like the Vikings last week and the next two opponents in Tampa Bay and Seattle, teams that boast strong running games that are best neutralized by staying on the sideline.

Additionally, falling behind like they did against Minnesota allows defenses to ratchet up the pass rush and forces the Rams to be more one-dimensional as they try to create a comeback.

“Eventually we will get them and we turn it on and we are the team with momentum,” Saffold said. “But like you saw on Sunday when you are that far behind, it’s hard to come back.”

A SHARED RECORD: With 91 rushing yards Sunday against Tampa Bay or even spread out over the final two games, Rams running back Steven Jackson will become just the sixth back in league history to go over 1,000 rushing yards in eight consecutive seasons.

Jackson reached the 10,000-yard mark last week against the Vikings and made it a point to mention how much it means to him to be consistent over such a long period of time. Likewise, Jackson made it a point to send some thanks to the many linemen, tight ends, receivers and fullbacks that have blocked for him over the years.

While those milestones have special meaning for Jackson, they also mean plenty to those whose job it is to open the holes for him.

“It’s very important,” Saffold said. “He’s done a great job and he’s battled time and time again so we want to give it to him but that’s our goal. We try to get as many yards in the running game as we can so as long as they keep giving us the run plays we are going to try to execute those.”

PROTECTING SAM: Rams quarterback Sam Bradford has been hit and harassed far less than he was in 2011, at least on a per game basis.

So far this season, Bradford has been sacked 35 times in 14 games, which is actually one less than he was in just 10 games last season.

After the Vikings got to him four times last week, Bradford has now been sacked in 30 consecutive games. That’s a streak the offensive line and Bradford would like to see come to an end sooner than later.

“If you don’t get sacked in a game then obviously that means protection’s good, the ball got out quick, guys on the outside won,” Bradford said. “It’s a team effort to eliminate sacks. That’s something that we work towards each week. And yes, if we can play these next two games with no sacks, then that would be awesome.”

INJURY REPORT: The Rams had quite a few adjustments to the injury report Thursday as a pair of players dealing with illness returned and two more were upgraded from Wednesday’s status.

Cornerback Bradley Fletcher and defensive end Robert Quinn returned to practice on a full-time basis after missing Wednesday with an illness.

Linebacker James Laurinaitis (back) and center Scott Wells (knee) were upgraded from not practicing Wednesday to limited on Thursday.

Running back Steven Jackson (illness) and cornerback Cortland Finnegan (thigh) did not practice for the second day in a row.