The St. Louis Rams (4-6) will travel to Paul Brown Stadium to take on the Cincinnati Bengals (8-2) Sunday. It’s a must-win scenario for the Rams, who are looking for anything positive to cling to.
According to Odds Shark, the Bengals are 10.5-point favorites and that’s probably fair. St. Louis has dropped each of its last three games. Two of those games—Minnesota and Baltimore—were road losses that came down to last-second field goals. But even so, the Rams have been beyond pitiful in the month of November.
The offense continues to disappoint on a weekly basis. The lack of run support for Todd Gurley is aggravating, while the passing attack has less razzle-dazzle than a backyard game of flag football. Not to mention, the once-vicious St. Louis defense suddenly appears vulnerable. Surrendering 37 points to the struggling Chicago Bears two weeks ago was the undisputed low point.
The Rams are a very bipolar team, so it’s not totally out of the question for St. Louis to suddenly show up on Sunday and turn some heads. It’s just not something we should count on, given the past three weeks.
If St. Louis wishes to be competitive in Cincinnati, it’ll require an excellent game plan. Here’s what to look for:
Offensive Game Plan
If the Rams want to finally improve their offensive production, the passing game has to take off. There’s no way around it. The current St. Louis passing attack makes the Tebow-led Broncos look like the "Greatest Show on Turf."
It comes down to quarterback play. Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com reports that Case Keenum will likely sit due to concussion symptoms, which once again puts Nick Foles in the driver’s seat.
In Week 1 against Seattle, Foles completed 66.7 percent of his passes, averaged 11 yards per attempt, passed for 297 yards and had two touchdowns—one rushing, one passing. Since then, Foles has yet to exceed 200 yards in a game. He has not been the same since his four-interception performance against Green Bay in Week 5.
Whether it's some unknown injury, a lack of confidence or some other mental roadblock, Foles has not been playing up to his potential. The offensive line and receivers deserve a healthy portion of the blame, but Foles has not been getting it done. The first step to igniting the passing game is lighting a fire under Foles.
Maybe being benched and having a week off will do him some good. If Foles has a chip on his shoulder, St. Louis needs to capitalize on that early in the game. Several deep or intermediate passes in the opening quarter, if successful, could do wonders for the passing game and, by extension, the entire offense.
Second, the Rams must set up their two top playmakers—Todd Gurley and Tavon Austin—for success.
Austin had just two offensive touches in Baltimore last week and has only seven combined the past two weeks. Considering he is one of only two competent weapons on a team that's challenged offensively, that's completely inexcusable.
The Rams need to get Austin the football, and it doesn't matter how. Even plays that lack creativity—lining him up in the backfield to run up the gut—is still better than nothing. He needs touches.
Also, St. Louis has to find a way to ensure Gurley is successful.
Gurley has a touchdown in each of his last three games, yet he's been held under 100 yards each time. He's earning every yard he gets. The lack of blocking up front has prevented the opportunity for big, game-changing plays.
Whether the answer is utilizing tight ends or a fullback in run blocking, St. Louis has to open things up for Gurley. If he is not rolling on all cylinders, the Rams' offense will certainly stall.
If Gurley and Austin are successful and Foles is not a liability, the Rams will win the game. It's as simple as that.
Defensive Game Plan
The Rams typically execute a “bend-don’t-break” philosophy on defense. Lately, the St. Louis defense has not been itself. The unit is bending and breaking like crazy.
Before recent weeks, the Rams had been quite good at preventing back-breaking plays. All of a sudden, St. Louis is getting torched.
The Rams gave up yardage in chunks against Chicago. Short passes turned into 80-yard-plus touchdowns for Zach Miller and Jeremy Langford. Langford and Jay Cutler also ripped off runs of 23 and 26 yards, respectively, which is totally uncharacteristic of the St. Louis defense.
Baltimore also managed to pick up yards in chunks. Crockett Gillmore caught a 46-yard pass, and Justin Forsett had an 18-yard run early in the game. If not for his first-half injury, Forsett and the Baltimore run game would have continued its success.
Whatever is causing the big plays—Robert Quinn’s injury, James Laurinaitis’ sudden decline, Mark Barron no longer making the same impact—it has to stop. The defense has to tighten up. If not, Cincinnati’s backfield combo of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard will be a nightmare. The thunder-and-lightning approach will wear down the St. Louis defenders.
As for the passing game, it mostly comes down to Janoris Jenkins against A.J. Green. Jenkins has been a shutdown corner for St. Louis this season, but this week will be especially challenging. The 6’4” Green has a physical advantage over the 5’10” Jenkins, so Jenkins will have to rely on his speed and quickness to ensure he’s always in a good position.
Additionally, the pass rush will have to thrive. The Bengals are 1-2 when Andy Dalton is sacked more than three times, so it’s important for the Rams to get after him.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Quinn is still questionable with a hip injury: "QB Keenum (concussion), DE Quinn (hip/back), CB Johnson (thigh) all questionable for Cincy. Quinn and Johnson did not practice."
Quinn missed the Baltimore game, and it’ll be hard to bring the full fury of the pass rush without him. If Quinn can play this Sunday, he and Aaron Donald should provide more than enough pressure.
If the Rams can limit big plays, shut down Green and harass Dalton, the defense should be in good shape.