The St. Louis Rams begin their third year under head coach Jeff Fisher in the strongest division in football. The Rams finished the year 7-9, with highs and lows along the way. Three of their wins came 10+ wins teams Indianapolis, New Orleans and Arizona to highlight their potential, but with a 1-5 NFC West divisional record they need to up their game if they want to make the postseason.
Drawing on the invaluable experience they gained, there is excitement for 2014 with a few acquisitions, veterans Sam Bradford and Scott Wells coming back from injury, and new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. “Potential” is a dangerous word in sports and the Rams certainly have a lot of it. With balance and well-timed creativity, they can possibly exceed expectations and reach the postseason for the first time since 2004.
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1. Defensive Line
The 2013 PFF Dwight Stephenson Award runner-up was defensive end Robert Quinn who racked up an outrageous +74.6 overall grade last year. He ranked a very respectable third in run defense among 4-3 defensive ends, but was far and away the best pass rusher, earning a +62.3 grade in that department and topping the position group with a 15.3 Pass Rushing Productivity mark. Fellow DE Chris Long graded at +11.1 as a pass rusher, good for seventh, as the Rams excelled on the edge but lacked on the interior with all four of their defensive tackles grading below average. However, the additions of rookies Aaron Donald and Deantre Harlan and Alex Carrington (from Buffalo) offer hope for better interior pressure, making life for opposing quarterbacks very hard.
2. Defensive Genius
One of the best defensive minds in the game, Gregg Williams starts with a clean slate and must be excited to shape such a young defensive unit. Using a base 4-3 scheme, Williams faces a challenge to improve a defense that saw only four players finish 2013 with a positive grade. This is nothing new to him — in his past stints as defensive coordinator in Tennessee, Washington, and New Orleans, each ranked Top 4 in yards allowed and Top 7 in points allowed. His ability to construct successful defenses across three different franchises is a testament to how well he maximizes individual player skills.
3. Bradford’s Time
Quarterback Sam Bradford seemed to be on pace for a decent 2013 until he tore his ACL in Week 7. In his seven starts he graded at +1.9, bookended by a -5.7 game against San Francisco and a +5.7 game against Carolina and despite being a run-first team, Bradford had an above league average grade of +5.1 on first downs. Even though he has two years left on his contract, both he and the franchise are at a financial crossroads. The 2014 season is an audition for Bradford to showcase his skills.
4. Scott Wells
Coming back from injury, center Scott Wells earned a +3.4 pass block grading in 13 games, giving up the fewest QB hurries by all centers (four) and zero QB hits. Wells led the way in PFF’s Pass Block Efficiency Signature Stat (99.0), however due to his fractured fibula in Week 13 he only played 417 pass play snaps. At age 33, the senior member of the offensive line restructured his deal this past June, opening up just short of $4M in cap space over the next two years. A true team player, Wells brings stability and great maturity to a young offensive line.
5. Kickers Are People Too
Ray Guy’s enshrinement to the Hall of Fame is a beacon of hope for all special teamers. Kickers and punters are still underappreciated but not in St. Louis where the Rams might have the best kicker/punter combo in the league. Kicker Greg Zuerlein (aka Greg the Leg), best known for his 58- and 60-yd field goal game against the Seahawks in 2012, ranked seventh (+32.7) in 2013 with a 92.9% make rate (sixth highest). He was also sixth in Kickoff Rating at +27.0. Punter Johnny Hekker graded second among all punters at +36.1 and led the league with a 44.3 net yards per punt average, a stunning 1.7 yards better than the next punter.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1. Wide Receiver Issues
The Rams added wide receiver Kenny Britt in the offseason to try and bolster an unproductive receiving core. Britt is hoping to make up for his last two seasons with the Titans (a combined -24.0). Out of 94 qualifying players who targeted at least 25% of snaps played, none of the Rams returning WRs are in the top 60 of PFF’s Yards per Route Run Signature Stat. Someone in this group needs to step up to be Bradford’s go-to guy as well as and alleviate all the attention running back Zac Stacy will get.
2. Tavon Austin
Inconsistency plagued Tavon Austin in his rookie year marred by a four-week stretch from Week 2-5, posting negative grades ranging from -1.4 to -1.8. He finished the year with a +0.3 rating because of his +3.1 rush rating (only Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson had a better WR rush rating). To go along with his nine rushing attempts (16.8 yards/carry), the versatile Austin lined up in the slot 80% of the time last year. Austin only saw 65 targets on 434 snaps but had the most receptions out of all Rams WRs and deferred to below-average starters Givens and Quick. After such an underused and inconsistent rookie season, there seems to be more questions than answers entering the 2014 season.
3. Unpredictable Is Good
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is also entering his third season with the Rams and there is great uncertainty in how his offense will score points. Even though they are a run-first team, there is a clear lack of explosiveness. Via Steve Palazzolo article linked above, only 9.1% of Bradford’s passes traveled at least 20 yards in the air, fourth lowest in the league. Schottenheimer’s reluctance to keep defenses honest with a vertical pass game could be one reason for his low 33% third down conversion rate. NFL coaches do not change and if Schottenheimer refuses to, the Rams offense will sputter again.
4. Finnegan’s Energy
Although his grade plummeted during his 2-year stint with the Rams, Cortland Finnegan brought an immeasurable emotional edge to the defense. Now that the veteran of the defense has left, someone else must carry the torch. While corners Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins graded better, all indications point to second-year safety Rodney McLeod as being “the guy”. He started all 16 games last year and was also voted special teams captain, a great indication he is respected by his peers. While he seems to be a natural leader, it is an immense challenge to embrace this role for an entire season.
5. The Schedule
The Rams play the third-toughest schedule this year and is one of the rare teams that has three road games in three consecutive weeks starting Week 8 (at Kansas City, at San Francisco, at Arizona). Almost a third of the Rams’ roster is either rookies or grade out at average, placing them in a vulnerable position in the latter months of the season.