32 Teams in 32 Days: St. Louis Rams
In the initial year of the Jeff Fisher era, the Rams proved they were not the hapless team fans had seen under Scott Linehan, Jim Haslett, and Steve Spagnuolo. While Sam Bradford was about as inconsistent as it gets, combining good performances with mediocre and abysmal ones, some would argue the QB has never possessed the offensive weapons to succeed. While we could argue for hours about that, Bradford is currently entering his fourth season and the time is now for the former Heisman winner. If the Rams weren’t in the same division as the 49ers and Seahawks, there would be many talking about them as one of those sneaky playoff teams in the NFC. Regardless, there is still plenty to be confident about if you’re a St. Louis fan.
Five Reasons to Be Confident
1. Chris Long
Following in his Hall-of-Fame father’s footsteps, Chris Long has proven to be a terror on the edge in his five years in the league. While his run defense leaves plenty to be desired, Long has registered a +60.0 pass rush grade in his five seasons. In 2012, he tallied 76 total pressures, including 55 hurries, which led a competitive group of pass rushers in the NFL. It’s obvious he needs to work on his run stopping, especially with the Niners and Seahawks pounding the ball in between the tackles. Still, Long has been a sure tackler as he’s missed just three tackles in the past two seasons. Another thing to keep in mind is the youth of the Rams’ front four. In Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers, St. Louis has two talented young pieces along the line. Brockers battled an ankle injury early in the season, but flashed talent as a three-technique defensive tackle. The defensive line is certainly a position of strength.
2. Offensive Weapons (Part 1)
Bradford’s go-to receiver last season was Danny Amendola. While he was a brilliant safety valve and threatened the defense with short-area quickness and occasional deep speed, the diminutive receiver simply couldn’t stay on the field. That left Bradford with the error-prone Brandon Gibson, slow-developing rookie Brian Quick, and average second-year man Austin Pettis. Luckily, another rookie stepped up as Chris Givens emerged as a legitimate deep threat despite lacking polished route running skills. Givens caught just eight of the 25 passes that were 20+ yards, but he did have seven catches of 50+ yards.
This season, Bradford cannot complain about his arsenal. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer undoubtedly has the personnel to get the job done. Along with another offseason for Givens, in which he can improve his route tree, Les Snead and company added Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey in the draft, as well as Jared Cook in free agency. Austin is an ideal replacement for Amendola, possessing game-breaking quickness and outstanding run after the catch ability. Cook was an ill fit for Tennessee’s offense, but he played nearly 77% of his snaps from the slot in 2012, the most of any tight end that saw at least 25% of his team’s snaps. Utilizing Cook in the slot is without a doubt the best use of his size and speed.
3. Offensive Line Upgrades
The Rams’ offensive line in 2012 was a mess, and that may be an understatement. They finally gave up on 2009 No. 2 overall pick Jason Smith, but after some injuries and inconsistent play, the line was cobbled together by nothing more than duct tape by the end of the season. Four of their five returning starters were with the team last season, but only Harvey Dahl (+5.6) played more than 621 snaps. Rodger Saffold was pressed into duty at left tackle and actually played well, allowing just 16 pressures in his 621 snaps. With Saffold manning the right side, that leaves the left side for the newly signed Jake Long. Long had a drop in play and battled some injuries in his final season in Miami, and it undoubtedly affected his payday. However, Long was downright dominant his first four years in the league, posting a +118.6 cumulative grade from 2008-11. A rejuvenated Long, along with a healthy interior line, will at least give Bradford a chance to run a high-powered attack.
4. Settling in at Cornerback
Janoris Jenkins experienced some legal troubles and maturity problems at the University of Florida and subsequently transferred to North Alabama before entering the pros. That led to his drop to the 39th overall pick for 2012. He certainly had his rookie moments as he allowed five or more receptions in seven of the 15 games that he played in. Jenkins was especially torched by Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Tannehill, and Colin Kaepernick as well. However, his absurd ball skills also produced four interception returns for touchdowns during the season — though he was often gambling in coverage and relying on his speed to make up ground if he was beaten. Jenkins is sure to experience his ups-and-downs once again, but to not see some improvement would be a shock.
5. Greg “The Leg”
Whatever you want to call him, Greg “The Leg,” “Legatron,” or “Young GZ,” the Rams found a franchise kicker in the sixth round of the 2012 draft. As a rookie, Greg Zuerlein graded out as the fifth-best kicker in the league. More importantly, he may have the biggest leg in the league. Only fellow rookie Blair Walsh had more field goals of 50+ yards in 2012. Although he missed six tries from that same distance, Jeff Fisher trotted Zuerlein out for multiple 60+ yarders. While it may be odd seeing a placekicker in a preview such as this, the Rams are sure to play some close games both in and out of the division, and “Legatron’s” right boot may be asked to win some matchups in 2013.
Five Reasons to Be Concerned
1. Replacing Quinton Mikell
The veteran strong safety was one of the best performers for the Rams on defense last season. As a prototypical in-the-box safety, Mikell excelled in stopping the run and rushing the passer, finishing with a cumulative +15.3 grade, but earning +8.5 each in run stuffing and rushing the quarterback. Having a safety that is adequate in stopping the run is imperative in the NFC West. If you can’t at least minimize the damage the 49ers and Seahawks do on the ground, it becomes next to impossible to stop Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. Rookie T.J. McDonald will be first up to fill the void. While he reportedly has been a “quick study” learning the strong safety position, asking a rookie who largely underwhelmed in college to step into a starting role may be asking a bit too much.
2. Offensive Weapons (Part 2)
Steven Jackson, Danny Amendola, and Brandon Gibson have all moved on since the end of 2012. Speed has since been injected into the roster, but 26-year-old Jared Cook has been forced to take on a leadership role among the Rams’ skill-position players. While we can never underestimate the ability of any rookie to contribute immediately, or for the light to click on for a second- or third-year player, is the fact that Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead, Zac Stacy, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Chris Givens, Brian Quick, and Austin Pettis have just 1,930 total snaps in the NFL concerning? Maybe, but if the offense is clicking early it won’t matter.
3. Improved Tackling?
In 2012, there were just five teams who had more missed tackles than the Rams. Some of the main culprits, such as Jo-Lonn Dunbar (17 missed tackles), Craig Dahl (16 missed tackles), and Mikell (13 missed tackles) are either not on the team anymore, or in Dunbar’s case suspended for the first four games of the season. James Laurinaitis, Cortland Finnegan, and Janoris Jenkins also had double-digit missed tackles so it was more of a team-wide epidemic rather than a of couple bad apples. I’d expect Jenkins to improve on his 18 misses from last season, as he was battling some back and shoulder injuries that sapped some of his ability to tackle efficiently. It is odd that a Jeff Fisher-coached team would lack something as fundamental as tackling, but through two preseason games the trend has continued. Although it’s a small sample, 19 missed tackles in two games, with nearly half coming from the starting lineup, is not exactly a good start to the season.
4. Offensive Line Depth
With some injury luck, the Rams’ offensive line could hold up and be a solid unit. Behind the starters though, there is a lack of experience and talent. There’s no doubt that third-round pick Barrett Jones will be a competent guard/center player. Still, he’s coming off a Lisfranc injury that he played with during Alabama’s National Championship, so any contribution Jones might have will be later in the season. Other backups are draft busts, like Chris Williams who disappointed in four seasons in Chicago after being the No. 14 pick in the 2008 draft. Or they’re undrafted free agents who have seen very little time on the field and have not looked good when they have seen snaps. An injury along the front, especially to Long or Saffold could derail any playoff hopes the Rams hold.
5. Sam Bradford
Bradford is really more in the gray area between confident and concerned, but he works at the backend of the list. The fourth-year signal-caller has flashed talent in each of his first three seasons, but also looked lost at times. What good is an arsenal of offensive talent if your quarterback can’t get the ball to those weapons? Bradford had 590 pass attempts in his rookie season, but will be asked to do plenty of throwing this season. In Richardson, Pead, and Stacy, the Rams have a talented group of running backs. However, none of the youngsters are capable of carrying the load. Brian Schottenheimer’s spread attack will put an incredible amount of pressure on Bradford to read the defense quickly and get rid of the ball.
What to Expect
Even with Michael Crabtree and Percy Harvin set to miss a good chunk of regular season games for the 49ers and Seahawks, St. Louis’ NFC West foes still possess deeper and more talented rosters. The gap is closing though, and with an easier schedule and some luck with injuries, the Rams could sneak up on their rivals. The NFC is a bear of a conference this season, so it’s next to impossible to call them a lock for a playoff seed. The Rams will likely be in the mix for a wild card spot, and with a stout defense they’ll be in a ton of games. They were 2-1-1 against the 49ers and Seahawks in 2012. That kind of showing in 2013 will have them in the hunt again this season.
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