The 3-3 Kansas City Chiefs and 2-4 St. Louis Rams, both coming off big divisional victories, meet for the Governor’s Cup this Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs won in San Diego for the first time in seven years last week when they beat the Chargers 23-20. The Rams, after losing 16 of their past 18 games to Seattle, beat the Seahawks 28-26 in St. Louis.
Here, ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Rams reporter Nick Wagoner discuss Sunday’s game.
Teicher: Nick, big win for the Rams last week, but they obviously put a lot into that game, and I wonder how much they’ll have in the tank for this week’s game, at least from an emotional standpoint. How do you think the Rams will respond against the Chiefs?
Wagoner: The Rams do and have lacked a lot of things this year, but in a general sense, effort and enthusiasm have been pretty constant. The only time they looked wholly unprepared was the beginning of their loss to Philadelphia, and even then they came back and had a late possession with a chance to win the game. The stunning thing was that one came out of the bye week. The Rams under Jeff Fisher have been a mixed bag. In 2012, they were great against NFC West division foes and not good outside the division. Last year was the opposite. This year, they haven't really had enough of a sample size to determine either way. But they went on the road and blasted Indianapolis a year ago, and they might have another performance like that in them. That's not to say it will come against the Chiefs, but the Rams under Fisher seem to find a game or two a year in which they play way above their means. It should also help them to get back on a normal schedule this week (St. Louis played last Monday night) and potentially get some guys healthy in the secondary.
I suppose I can simply redirect a similar question to you, but with the addendum that the Chiefs' win was probably more expected than the Rams', though they were on the road. The Chiefs seem to be getting some momentum, anyway, and have won three of their past four. What's been the key to getting it going a bit?
Teicher: It’s true the Chiefs put a lot into beating the Chargers. They had to win that game to stay relevant in the playoff race. Since they were coming off their bye, they had two weeks to rest and emphasize that game. But the Chiefs didn’t play much better in San Diego than they had in the previous several weeks. The Chiefs actually picked up their game starting with the Week 2 game against Denver. Ever since their miserable game against Tennessee to open the season, they’ve played fairly consistently. So, it’s the Titans game that stands out among their six this season. The Chiefs looked lost, unprepared to play. But that hasn’t happened since.
Give me a scouting report on Rams quarterback Austin Davis. What are his strengths and weaknesses?
Wagoner: Davis has mostly been a pleasant surprise, especially for a guy who didn't look like he had a chance to make the roster entering training camp. His teammates love his fire and enthusiasm, something that Sam Bradford didn't really bring to the table. One thing I like about him is you can see noticeable progress and improvement each week. For example, he found himself taking too many deep shots against San Francisco two weeks ago, missing easy, open completions underneath. So last week he took what the defense gave him, and though he averaged only 5.5 yards per completion, he had just three incompletions on his 21 attempts. And all of those short passes opened things up for him to make plays when the Rams needed him to at the end of the game. His mission now will be to find a healthy balance between taking shots and settling for checkdowns, but it's encouraging that he's able to notice something he needs to work on, be honest about it and then take steps to fix it. As for weaknesses, he's had a tendency to make a bad throw or two every week that turns into an instant six points for the opponent. Turnovers have been a serious issue for him, though he didn't have any against the Seahawks. He's got a good-but-not-great arm, and he sometimes gets caught locking onto a receiver without going through progressions. He's made strides in that area, but there's still work to do. But honestly, as third-string quarterbacks go, you can't ask for much more from Davis.
Sticking with the quarterback theme, the last time the Rams saw Alex Smith, they were knocking him out of a game in San Francisco in what became the official changing of the guard to Colin Kaepernick. That was in 2012. Since he's been in Kansas City, obviously he's become a key part of what they do. In what ways does he fit with what Andy Reid wants to do, and do you believe he's the right guy for the long term?
Teicher: Smith isn’t the most talented quarterback around, but he does fit well with what Reid is looking for. He is a mostly accurate passer who is mobile enough to frequently get out of trouble and extend a play either with a throw or run. Smith also has the intangibles that Reid likes. He’s liked and well-respected in the locker room. As for the long-term, Smith might not be the quarterback who will ever lead the Chiefs to a Super Bowl victory. But better alternatives will be difficult to find, and the Chiefs committed to Smith for the foreseeable future when they gave him a new contract. For the time being, they seem content to coach him up, make him the best player he can be and then build the rest of the roster around him.
Robert Quinn had 19 sacks for the Rams last year but has only one so far this season. The Rams as a whole have just four. What have opponents done to counter Quinn in particular and the Rams’ pass rush in general?
Wagoner: Well, the first thing they've done is not throw the ball much. In the first four games, the Rams were seeing almost nothing in terms of pass attempts against. That was partially because they couldn't stop the run and teams had no desire to take a risk throwing against the Rams' pass rush when they could hand it off and move the chains. Beyond that, teams have also been getting the ball out as quickly as possible. The Rams are now seeing the ninth-fastest release in terms of average time teams are taking to get the ball out, but that number has dipped a bit the past two weeks. San Francisco and Seattle had little success running the ball in traditional ways (with running backs), and that forced those teams to pass. The results haven't been pretty for the Rams, as they've allowed 656 passing yards in the past two games, so they can probably expect to see teams throwing it around a little bit more moving forward. That should create more pass-rush opportunities. They had three sacks in a span of five plays against the Seahawks and were in Russell Wilson's face for most of the day. The hope is that production will give them something to build on moving forward.
The Chiefs got off to such a great start in 2013 because of what they were getting done defensively, particularly in the pass rush. They again rank near the top in sacks per dropback. While the Rams have struggled to maintain their pass rush of a year ago, the Chiefs seem to keep the beat going. How do they do it, and has anything changed in terms of scheme or approach from a year ago?
Teicher: The Chiefs are actually blitzing less than they did last year. They have for the most part been getting the job done with their two edge pass-rushers, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, and their inside rushers, Dontari Poe and Allen Bailey. They’ve cut back greatly on the exotic blitzes they showed last year. While they haven’t been vanilla in their approach, they’ve more often been able to get pressure with skill than with scheme. The biggest change in the defense is that they’re giving up far fewer big pass plays than they did last year. One reason is that they’ve reduced their blitzing. But the safeties have also played well, much better than last season. One cornerback, Sean Smith, is also having a better season.