1. Dominating the news right now is the protests and rioting happening in Ferguson. What is the current status of things over there and how much effect do you see it having on the game?
I guess I'm not getting any softballs. . . I'm not exactly the on the ground expert with real-time updates or anything. I'd just generalize it to say that the disruptions of the legal protests that took place early on this week are done. There wasn't a single arrest from St. Louis County police or the Missouri Highway Patrol last night. So I didn't ever see it having a big effect on the game, desperate attempts for pageviews from PFT aside. I'd also point out that there have been protesters at Rams games, and more notably at the baseball Cardinals' playoff games, for more than a month. So while the scope of things may have changes, the facilities have been dealing with this for a while.
2. Does Aaron Donald have a weakness? Has anyone this season been able to keep him from dominating the line of scrimmage?
Well, he's not a power DT. You can try to overwhelm him if you can isolate him and just drive him out of the play. The problem is that he's just so squirmy, it's tough to get him locked up where you can use those kinds of skills. So there have been times that he's not dominating, but that's often because teams are scheming away from him, especially toward the right side of the line where Chris Long would normally be (and might be finally on Sunday after being out for months since being injured in week one). If you watch him, he's not going to drive people back. He just gets around them...with ease.
3. Shaun Hill ended last week with what looked to be an incredibly stupid interception when the Rams could have at least tied the game against the Chargers - a moment Raiders fans were none too happy about. Is that just par for the course for Hill or was that unexpected?
Well, we haven't really gotten a par for the course from him since he's only played two and a half games, with that half coming in week one. I'd say it like this - a 34-year old career backup isn't going to explode out of nowhere to become a top tier QB. So while it might have been unexpected given what he had done over the course of the Chargers and Broncos games, you'd be foolish not to expect the traits that rendered Shaun Hill a second-rate QB to surface every now and then. The bigger problem is that the Rams will have to go through all of 2014 with Shaun Hill and Austin Davis as their starting quarterbacks. That's just not a situation you want as an NFL franchise.
Building off the end of that last answer, it's largely avoiding the pitfalls of the QB position. In those three wins, the Rams averaged just 160 passing yards. We don't have a threatening passing attack, so it's chiefly about not making huge mistakes in that aspect. Then you just have to turn the game to the defense and running game and make it happen. Once you get into those kind of tempo-driven field position battles, the running game's importance gets amplified.
The Rams' pass rush negates deep passes and the shell can close out the sidelines forcing everything into the middle, so one mistake (a drop, a route short of a first down) can end a drive very easily. The Denver game was a key example as their offense was depleted by injuries and the fill-ins couldn't help Peyton Manning make plays, going just 4-12 on 3rd down. Then you leave it to the running game, and in the Rams' three wins, they've been very clean in keeping the lid on the opposing ground game. Marshawn Lynch had 53 yards on 18 carries, Frank Gore had 49 on 14, and C.J. Anderson picked up just 29 on 9. So that's barely above 3 yards per carry allowed between those three wins. When the defense is keeping that side stuffed up, Tre Mason has to step up. He has. In the three wins, he put up 263 on 66 carries. So getting just a shade under 4 yards per with that volume keeps the opposing offense off the field, allows the QB (regardless of who it is) to take advantage of otherwise-concerned defenses in timely situations and puts the Rams in position to take advantage of kicker Greg Zuerlein.
That's the plan. It just hasn't worked well enough against teams who weren't in the conference championships in last year's postseason...what a world.
5. Early in the season, the Rams pass rush was not near what it had been previously. What that simply a case of Chris Long being out or is it more than that? Have they gotten back on track?
It was more than that. Having Chris Long out hurt, but the Rams are DEEP on the defensive line. Part of it was offensive gameplans just avoiding the rush by getting the ball out really quickly. If you saw the Chargers game, that was the MO again. The Rams only allowed Rivers to work the middle of the field and the flats...though he did that pretty well. But it definitely felt like more of the early season opposing gameplans where teams are making sure the ends don't have much of an impact by getting the ball out before they could even turn the corner; the Rams had three sacks, but all came from interior pressure as Rivers stepped up into the pocket. Plus, the Rams overblitzed early. It was a bit of an avalanche effect where as we couldn't get pressure, Def. Coordinator Gregg Williams was dialing up heavy blitzes to just throw bodies at the line. The problem was, those blitzes would come two, three series into the game when the QB was already in rhythm and had the slants, digs and outs already felt out.
Things have returned to the mean, and the rush isn't an issue anymore. I think the bigger concern is that they still don't have a great answer for when teams scheme for it. Whether that means you have to pull a safety down to the second level or let the linebackers front the ball instead of the man, the Rams need to find a suitable approach for 2015. It's a comfortable way to start things, but it lets some of the less explosive offenses off the hook (see: Kansas City, Minnesota). The quality of the depth chart on the defensive side should have allowed the coaching staff to have figured out something more dominant even in Long's absence this season.
My answers to his questions will be posted shortly.