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Sean McVay

Sean McVay

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Rams scored only one touchdown in Sunday’s 34-13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, but it really didn’t matter. They finished the regular season as the NFL’s highest-scoring team, one year after finishing as the NFL’s lowest-scoring team.

“Man,” Rams left guard Rodger Saffold said, “that’s amazing.”

Really, though, it’s historic.

The Rams are now the only team in the Super Bowl era, which began in 1966, to go from last to first in scoring from one season to the next. The only other team throughout history to accomplish that feat was the 1965 49ers, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau. The Rams went from averaging 14.0 points per game in 2016 under Jeff Fisher to 29.9 points per game in 2017 under Sean McVay, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history.

“It’s amazing,” Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson said. “It’s a blessing.”

The Rams finished with an 11-5 record and remained the No. 3 seed in the NFC despite resting their starters and dropping the finale. They’ll now host the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday (kickoff is set for 8:15 p.m. ET on NBC) and can advance to face the Minnesota Vikings on the road in the second round with a win.

The Rams ended a 12-year playoff drought largely because their offense finally caught up to their defense.

It started with McVay, the 31-year-old who is already considered one of the game’s sharpest offensive minds. He brought with him a slew of talented coaches, including offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, who previously worked with Matt Ryan; quarterbacks coach Greg Olson, a longtime offensive coordinator; and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, who helped the Buffalo Bills become the NFL’s best rushing team over the past two years.

Then sixth-year general manager Les Snead added all the right pieces, including left tackle Andrew Whitworth, center John Sullivan and three standout receivers — Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Through all that, Jared Goff made significant strides as a second-year quarterback, enough to be named a first alternate for the Pro Bowl. And Todd Gurley re-established himself as a premier running back, enough to be considered for the MVP award.

“The mentality that we have now has been pretty much a complete 180 from the year before,” said Saffold, in his eighth year with the organization. “I expected success, but going from worst to first, that’s amazing to me.”

“Sean, like any player would say, came in, and he set the expectations and the bar for how this team should be producing,” Rams left guard Jamon Brown added. “It’s not a shocker that we stand first in the NFL in scoring.”

Many would disagree. The Rams weren’t just bad on offense last year, they were deplorable. And their offensive struggles date back much further than that. They finished each of their previous 10 seasons outside of the top 20 in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average and through that went eight years without producing a 1,000-yard receiver.

Then McVay came along.

True to form, McVay — the likely coach of the year — deflected credit. He noted that a lot of the Rams’ points have come from a Wade Phillips-led defense that forced 28 turnovers and a John Fassel-led special teams unit that featured the game’s most productive kicker, Greg Zuerlein.

“I thought our players did a nice job of being able to consistently play pretty well throughout the course of the year; coaches put guys in good positions,” McVay said. “We talk about points as being one of the most important factors, but for us it’s about winning football games and doing those things the right way. Next week is a great challenge, and I know we’re excited about that.”

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Los Angeles Rams

Los Angeles Rams

Recap

After coming off of a tough loss to the Minnesota Vikings, the Los Angeles Rams rebounded at home with a dominating performance against the hottest team in football, the New Orleans Saints, winning 26-20.

The game was not at close as the final score indicates, nor are the stats. Take away Saints RB Alvin Kamara’s 74-yard run for a TD and the final drive in garbage time, and the Rams would’ve won 26-6 by holding Sean Payton’s explosive offense behind QB Drew Brees to a mere 197 yards of total offense.

The Rams came away with a solid win against a quality team, unlike last week. In this game all phases of the Rams team, offense, defense and special teams, absent occasional inexplicable lapses, played well.

Even without WR Robert Woods being inactive due to injury, the other Ram players needing big games, WR Cooper Kupp and TE Tyler Higbee, stepped up. Neither two had the dropsy’s which affected them against Minnesota. Rookie WR Josh Reynolds took advantage of his opportunity and WR Sammy Watkins came through as the “go-to guy.”

Going down the stretch with just five games left, the Rams are poised to make their improbable run to the playoffs. By winning this past weekend, the Rams proved they could bounce back from a bad game. Credit for the Rams’ resurgence as a contender goes to Head Coach Sean McVay and his entire staff who kept the team focused after the beatdown from the Vikings a week ago.

As good as this victory feels now, there were still some glaring mistakes that have plagued the Rams throughout the season that have to be corrected sooner rather then later. With only five games left, the Rams don’t have a lot of time to fix these things. If the Rams want to be a participant in Super Bowl LI rather then among the other 30 teams watching at home, these things need to be corrected.
The Defense Can’t Give Up Big Running Plays

The Rams were on the verge of breaking the game wide open in the first quarter after opening up an early 10-0 lead. After the touchback, the Saints were on their own 25-yard line to start another series. All the defense had to do was get a stop to get the ball back on offense. Having scored on their first two drives of the game, the Saints would have been forced to alter their entire game plan if the Rams scored again.

Instead on 2nd and 9 from the Saints’ own 26-yard line, Kamara broke to the right and gashed the Rams’ run defense for 74-yard touchdown run.

This has not been the first time the Rams’ defense has allowed a RB like Kamara to change the momentum of the game when the Rams were on the verge of crushing their opponent. It happened with Jaguars RB Leonard Fournette. Once into the 2nd level, a missed tackle later and Kamara was deep in the Rams’ secondary down the sidelines virtually untouched, leaping into the end zone for the score.

How does this happen?

I’m not one of those observers who give credit to the opposing team for a job well done when a run play like that is executed. That’s just bad defense. I’d rather get burned on a well-executed pass play.

Defense is about going to wherever the football goes. Follow the ball and invariably a defender will find one’s self in place to make the tackle. It’s one thing if a single defensive player whiffs with an arm tackle or gets faked out of his shoes. You still have to ask “Where are the other 10 players?”

It can’t be Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips dialing up the wrong defense since no one schemes to allow a running back to waltz into the end zone. Something is not right and most likely it has to be in the middle with LBs Alec Ogeltree and Mark Barron sliding too far the wrong way. They can’t get caught overpursuing where they think the ball is going. It puts them out of position to make the play when it goes the other way. Slide, but don’t slide that much away from the middle. In addition, the safeties and corners, upon spotting the play develop, must at the very least make a play to slow down the running back rather then engaging in a vain arm tackling attempt to bring the runner down. By actually engaging the running back, it will slow him down as help is always on the way. It may go for big gain, but at least it won’t go for a touchdown.

Some will argue that this is being picky. I’m not one of those people.

This must be priority one for a Rams defense if the team is going to make any kind of run in the next five games or the playoffs for that matter. In tight games, as most playoff games are, one score can make the difference. Worse is the fact that the Rams have been prone to giving up these types of momentum-changing runs, which will kill them in the playoffs, if they get there–it’s horrible defense and inexplicable.

In the Saints’ game, another problem the Rams had was dropping sure interceptions. Corners and safeties are wide receivers without hands; nonetheless, a lineman can catch a ball thrown right to him.

There were at least three or four instances where the football thrown by Brees looked intended moreso for a defender then a Saints target, but Rams CBs Trumaine Johnson and Kayvon Webster dropped the rock.

Make the plays that you need to make that’s what you’re paid to do.
Take Advantage of Good Field Position

The Rams have the uniqueness of having one of the best, if not the best, special teams units in the league. When PR Pharoh Cooper puts your offense at or over the 50-yard line, the Rams offense must take advantage of the opportunity of getting at least one first down and just enough yards for a PK Greg Zuerlein field goal–even better if they can score a touchdown.

With 12:34 in the 3rd quarter and the Rams leading 20-10, Cooper got the Rams to their own 49-yard line. All the offense needed to do was go 15-yards and the ball would be in field goal range for Mr. Automatic. Watching the game from the confines of the Coliseum, Rams fans thought for sure this would be the moment that offense was going to put up six, or at worst three more points. Anything at that point would’ve really would’ve put the Saints behind the ball.

Instead, the Rams choked.

They went three and out. Worse, they lost eight yards on a pass to WR Tavon Austin due to Tavon being Tavon Austin. On third down, the Rams threw in the towel and ran the ball with RB Todd Gurley for a minimal gain and in came the punt team. Rather then coming away with the minimum FG, the Rams did nothing which kept the Saints in the game.

This was a clear blown chance. The Rams must take advantage of their special teams doing their job by putting their offense in the position to score points by doing just that moving forward.

One could also complain about the red zone offense not coming away with touchdowns, bnut this was a problem for New Orleans as well. That’s a push since both teams have good defenses.
The Penalties on Special Teams

The Rams’ special teams played terrific. Cooper, Zuerlein and P Johnny Hekker played up to expectations. Yet, there are some things that can make the special teams even better—staying away for the inevitable block in the back penalty.

This penalty is so often thrown on punt returns, fans expect it. The rule of thumb is this—if you can read the name of your opponent, don’t put your hands on him. Running beside him even a shoulder push will be called a block in the back depending on the referee’s angle of vision. Stay with him and screen oneself between him and where he’s going to—the ball.

Once the player tries to go through you, at that point you can block him. There’s nothing illegal about a shoulder shove, just remember depending on the angle of the referee its more then likely interpreted as a shove in the back when the defender flops onto the ground.

The reason this is pet peeve of mine is that the Rams’ special teams are really good. I don’t like to see great runbacks giving the offense good field position ruined by a silly block in the back which could been avoided, especially if the block is away from the play. One can easily blame the ref, but that will get you nowhere. You’re wasting your breath.

Finally, don’t block a gunner when he’s out of bounds. If you find yourself in the midst of a bunch of players, you’re out of bounds so stay away from the temptation to block in that area.

This was a quality win for the Rams and a very impressive one at that. Rams fans have to like what they saw Sunday.

Nobody’s perfect, but we’ll get there.