In a season that's been filled with low points, the St. Louis Rams may be about to hit rock bottom.
Saddled with a three-game losing streak and the likelihood of having to start a third-string quarterback who's never played in an NFL game, the Rams head to CenturyLink Field to take on a Seattle Seahawks team that enters this Monday night NFC West clash on an upswing.
Injuries have ravaged St. Louis during a thoroughly disappointing campaign in which the long-suffering club was expected to contend for a playoff spot, with perhaps the most notable one a serious ankle sprain to promising young quarterback Sam Bradford that's kept the 2010 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year sidelined for a total of three games and very doubtful for Monday's tilt. Veteran understudy A.J. Feeley, who filled in for Bradford in last week's 26-0 loss at division champion San Francisco, has all but been ruled out as well after fracturing his right thumb during the contest.
As a result, a national audience will probably be introduced to Tom Brandstater, a 27-year-old who's bounced around with five different organizations since being taken in the sixth-round of the 2009 draft by Denver and was out of football until being re-signed to the Rams' practice squad on Dec. 2. Journeyman Kellen Clemens was brought in on Wednesday to presumably serve as the backup for this Week 14 matchup.
"Yeah, obviously it's exciting," said Brandstater of the possibility of playing on Monday Night Football. "It would be a dream come true. I never thought this would be the stage, but if it is I'll be as excited as can be. And the good part is I know that my teammates have my back if I do play and we're going to go out there and try to win."
That may be a task easier said that done for the 2-10 Rams, as the Seahawks have been playing their best football of the season over the last month. The 2010 NFC West title-holders have won three of their last four games, which includes a 24-7 throttling of St. Louis on the road in Week 11, and are coming off a 31-14 victory over underachieving Philadelphia on Dec. 1.
Seattle's surge has been keyed by running back Marshawn Lynch, with the physical fifth-year pro having eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark in four of the team's past five outings and racked up a season-best 148 yards and two scores against the Eagles.
The Seahawks also got a very efficient showing from inconsistent quarterback Tarvaris Jackson in the Philadelphia game, with the offseason addition completing 13-of-16 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions, while the defense intercepted the Eagles' Vince Young four times in the rout.
"We've been trying to throw this game for some time now," Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said. "We've thrown it out there for a month now. It's been a month solid of playing in the same style. This was cleaner than the other games, and maybe that's a step forward for us."
The only time Lynch was held under 100 yards over that five-game stretch came in the Nov. 20 meeting with the Rams, with the former first-round pick managing 88 yards on 27 carries. However, St. Louis is last in the NFL in run defense, surrendering a troubling average of 157.8 yards per game on the ground.
Seattle will attempt to improve on a 3-3 home record this season in Monday's bout as well as keep its faint playoff hopes intact. Though claiming the NFC West is out after the 49ers wrapped up the division with last Sunday's shutout of the Rams, the Seahawks do stand two games back in the conference Wild Card race with four to go.
The Seahawks own a 16-10 advantage in their overall regular-season series with St. Louis and have bested the Rams in 12 of the last 13 meetings between the teams, including the above-mentioned win at the Edward Jones Dome last month. Seattle also clinched its most recent NFC West title with a 16-6 home triumph over St. Louis in Week 17 of the 2010 season and have topped the Rams at CenturyLink Field in each of the last six years. St. Louis last prevailed in Seattle in a non-playoff setting on Oct. 10, 2004, earning a 33-27 overtime verdict, but did hand the Seahawks a 20-3 defeat in the Gateway City last season.
St. Louis did win on the road in a 2004 NFC First-Round Playoff game against Seattle, a 27-20 victory that stands as the only postseason encounter to date between the franchises.
Carroll is 2-2 lifetime against the Rams, with the first loss coming while at the helm of the New England Patriots in 1998. St. Louis head coach Steve Spagnuolo has a 1-4 record versus the Seahawks and is 1-2 when going head-to- head with Carroll.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
While Brandstater has never thrown a pass in an NFL regular-season game, he should at least be well versed in the Rams' offense after having played under coordinator Josh McDaniels in 2009, when the latter was then Denver's head coach, and having spent a good portion of this season on the practice squad. Plus he couldn't be much worse than the other two quarterbacks have performed in 2011. St. Louis is dead last in the league in scoring (11.7 ppg) and 31st in total yards (284.0 ypg), and mustered a paltry 157 yards and 10 first downs under Feeley's direction against the 49ers last week. The Rams do possess an elite running back in three-time Pro Bowl selection Steven Jackson (832 rushing yards, 27 receptions, 5 total TD), but the powerful veteran has been kept to 64 rushing yards or less in three straight games working behind a tattered offensive line that lost its third regular for the season when left guard Jacob Bell was placed on injured reserve with a knee sprain this past week. The group has also permitted a league-high 43 sacks, including five of Bradford in last month's setback to the Seahawks. Top receiver Brandon Lloyd (51 receptions, 4 TD) did come down with five catches for 67 yards and a touchdown in that showdown and gives Brandstater a reliable target in his expected debut, while second-year wideout Danario Alexander (17 receptions, 1 TD) is averaging 18 yards per catch in an injury-plagued year.
After feasting on a backup quarterback its last time out, a Seattle defense that's compiled eight interceptions over the past four games should be licking its chops at the possibility of facing the untested Brandstater. Cornerback Brandon Browner (42 tackles, 4 INT, 16 PD) had two of the team's four picks of Young in the win over the Eagles, and both he and rookie counterpart Richard Sherman (39 tackles, 2 INT, 10 PD) have improved as the season's gone along to help solidify a young secondary that limited Bradford to just 181 yards and a 50 percent completion rate (20-of-40) in the Week 11 meeting between the teams. End Chris Clemons (33 tackles, 8 sacks) was also a force in that contest, sacking Bradford three times and forcing two fumbles, and the Rams' makeshift line will have to account for the whereabouts of the Seahawks' best pass rusher. Seattle also held Steven Jackson to a harmless 42 yards on 15 carries and field one of the better run-stopping units in the league, with opponents averaging only 3.7 yards per rush attempt on a stout front seven anchored by nose tackle Brandon Mebane (38 tackles) and linebackers David Hawthorne (78 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) and Leroy Hill (75 tackles, 3 sacks). Hawthorne helped seal the Philadelphia game with a 77-yard interception return of Young in the fourth quarter.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Seattle had one of the worst rushing attacks in the NFL over this season's first half, but the offense has undergone a dramatic transformation in that area as of late. The Seahawks are averaging a healthy 141 yards per game on the ground over their last five games, with Lynch (854 rushing yards, 20 receptions, 9 total TD) responsible for most of the damage. The hard-charging back has amassed 591 rushing yards over that span and carried the ball at least 22 times in each of those tests, and he's scored a touchdown in eight consecutive games as well. Lynch's emergence has eased the burden on the often- erratic Tarvaris Jackson (2255 passing yards, 10 TD, 12 INT) and a reworked front line that's allowed 39 sacks, the third-most in the league, and also had a third opening-week starter go down to a season-ending injury when left tackle Russell Okung tore his pectorals against the Eagles. The receiving corps has been in a constant state of flux as well, but undrafted rookie Doug Baldwin (38 receptions, 2 TD) has turned into a pleasant surprise and second- year man Golden Tate (20 receptions, 3 TD) had his best game of the season in Week 13, catching four Jackson passes for 47 yards and a touchdown.
Lynch could be in for another productive evening when going up against a submissive St. Louis defense that's enabled opponents to rush for over 125 yards eight times this season, with three of those foes surpassing 200 yards in a game. Making matters worse, the Rams may be without starting defensive tackle Fred Robbins (23 tackles, 1 sack) for Monday's battle due to a back injury, which could place additional pressure on leading tackler James Laurinaitis (102 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) and Chris Chamberlain (53 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) to make plays. St. Louis will get back hard-hitting strong safety Darian Stewart (61 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT), who came through with eight tackles and a sack in last month's loss to Seattle, from a concussion that kept him out of the San Francisco game, and that should help stabilize things somewhat. The defense's star has been fourth-year end Chris Long (28 tackles, 12 sacks), with the former No. 2 overall draft pick putting together a Pro Bowl-caliber season while generating nine sacks over the last six games, while rookie first-round choice Robert Quinn (15 tackles, 5 sacks) has gotten to the quarterback four times during that stretch. Those two will need to be bringing the heat consistently to help protect a depleted secondary that's without three of its top four cornerbacks due to injuries.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Seattle offense has rebuilt itself around the hard running of Lynch over the course of this season's second half, and that figures to be the game plan once again this week in a matchup with the NFL's worst run defense. It's absolutely essential for the Rams to prevent the Seahawks' catalyst from going ballistic, and holding Lynch in check would allow St. Louis to utilize its strength of pressuring the passer against an offensive line that hasn't been very good in protection.
Although Spagnuolo is holding out hope that Bradford can play, the odds of the Rams sending out their franchise quarterback in a relatively meaningless game appear long. That means Brandstater is going to have to show himself to at least be a serviceable option, and getting Steven Jackson untracked would certainly help the cause as well. That'll be a difficult assignment, however, considering St. Louis' problems up front and the Seahawks' usually solid play in defending the run.
Playing at home against a two-win team likely starting a third-string quarterback with no experience, the Seahawks have a game that's made to order here as long as they don't cripple themselves with mistakes. Seattle is 3-2 this season when committing one turnover or less but 2-5 when having two or more giveaways, so it's important that Tarvaris Jackson makes good decisions like he was able to do against Philadelphia.
The decimated Rams would have been hard-pressed to come away with a victory in a venue in which they've experienced little success over the years even if Bradford managed to suit up, and there's practically no chance of that considering the deplorable state of the team's offensive line. Shutting down the league's lowest-scoring team should be no sweat for a Seattle defense that's been performing well in recent weeks with Brandstater at the controls, and Lynch stands a good chance of adding to his string of dominant games against a porous St. Louis stop unit. The Seahawks won't need to get fancy to keep their playoff dreams still plausible with another win; a workmanlike effort would do just fine.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 24, Rams 3