by: Michael Steffes
Today begins the week long preview of the NFC West. We are starting with the St. Louis Rams. The Rams had a season last year that can only be described as "ouch". It was painful for the fans and it was painful for the players. Steven Jackson, Orlando Pace, Leonard Little, Marc Bulger and about three waves of offensive linemen all missed time with injuries. In a way, the injuries saved Scott Linehan's job. After lofty expectations, the Rams managed a mere 3 wins which earned them the 2nd pick in the draft.
Last Season Record: 3-13
Total Offense: 24th
Total Defense: 21th
Points Scored: 28th
Points Allowed: 30th
ESPN PWR: 28
USA Today PWR: 23
Peter King PWR: 29
Key Additions: K Josh Brown (Seattle), OG Jacob Bell (Tennessee), QB Trent Green (Miami),WR Reche Caldwell (Washington), TE Anthony Becht (Tampa Bay)
Key Subtractions: SLB Brandon Chillar (GB), K Jeff Wilkins (retirement), WR Isaac Bruce (SF)
To begin with, the Rams brought back Al Saunders as offensive coordinator. He will bring his legendary 9000 page playbook to St. Louie. To be honest, it is hard to access the impact Saunders may have because the DC folks were watching a Joe Gibbs influenced offense. That was clear. Linehan is an offensive coach too, so it is unlikely Sauders will have full reign. But if he does, and the Rams can learn it in time, they should be more efficient.
A lot of that starts with the QB. Marc Bulger has proven to be a Pro Bowler when protected. But when he gets hit... ooh it is a fun day in the opposing secondary. His back up this year is Trent Green. He is a guy who needs his jersey to stay clean as well, as he has been knocked out cold two years in a row. You can tell where this is heading.
The name of the game for the Rams this year will be keeping the quarterback upright. This starts with the offensive line. As previously noted, last year the Rams entire line was injured at some point or another. They have done a decent job adding depth re-signing Goldberg and Brett Rohmberg. The also drafted linemen in John Greco and Roy Schuening. However, if either of those players get significant time the Rams will be in trouble. Signing Jacob Bell was big. He is an underrated player, but he is also undersized and I am not sure how well that fits the Rams system. He should help them in the run game more than the passing game. The passing game for the Rams relies heavily on Orlando Pace. Pace has suffered season ending injuries in the last two years. Chances of him ever playing at a Pro Bowl level again are slim. Alex Barron the other tackle is a disaster. He seems to have a knack for getting bad penalties and giving up sacks in key situations. If Pace stays healthy, this offense could be one one of the most improved units, if he gets hurt again it will be another long year.
The running game suffered last year due to Steven Jackson's injury. He should be healthy and motivated this year because his contract is up at the end of the season. It will be interesting to see how that effects him. Players respond differently to contract years, but my sense is that Jackson will be raring to go. He is really the Rams best player.
The wide receivers are where the Rams have really declined since their days of Division favorites. This year they are throwing out a motley crew (yes!). Torry Holt is great, but he has chronic knee problems, hates the coach, and wants to move to NC. I am not sure what type of mentor he really will be. Drew Bennett steps into the number 2 role. However, he is oft injured as well, so expect to see Reche Caldwell and the rookies Donnie Avery and Keenan Burton before too long. Rookie WR's receivers are rarely very productive, and Al Saunders offense is a challenge to learn, so expect the Rams to struggle putting up points through the air this year.
As for the tight end, well Randy McMichael has seen his best days come and go. But Saunders pointed out to him that he has coached the Pro Bowl tight end for 8 years running. We will see if that continues. I say it would be a huge upset for McMichael to be anything better than average. The second tight end is Anthony Becht, a free agent addition. He is solid, not flashy. But don't discount the comfort factor, Bulger and Becht were teammates at West Virgina, and if McMichael doesn't perform, Becht could see an increased role. The team may just use two tight end sets and less 3 and 4 wide packages than recent years.
Overall this simply is just an average offense these days. Steven Jackson is really their only explosive player unless Torry Holt is in better health and a better mood. One injury to a tackle and it will be more of the same, Marc Bulger getting hit, taking sacks, and throwing picks. It may happen anyway if Pace doesn't come back in his usual form.
The Rams saw fit to use the #2 overall selection on defensive end Chris Long, so lets start with the defensive line. The team has invested their first rounder in the d-line two years running. Will this be the year it is up to snuff? Well we will wait and see, but they simply aren't a bunch to be feared yet. They Rams got a total of 3.5 sacks from the defensive ends who started the season, Hall and Little. There most effective pass rusher was tackle Leroi Glover. He had 6 sacks. If the Rams want to make noise in the NFC West they are going to need Chris Long to improve those numbers dramatically. It would also help if the run defense improved. The Rams gave up 115 yards a game. Carriker moving inside with Glover should help the interior, but having a rookie on the end will allow teams to run outside. This unit should be improved, but it is not quite ready to strike fear into o-cordinators yet.
The one unit that does, or did, was the Rams linebackers. Will Witherspoon was everywhere against the Seahawks last season in St. Louis. He is easily their best defensive player and led the team with 7 sacks. The team still has Pisa Tinoisamoa on the weakside. However their biggest weakness may be the other linebacker spot. The Rams waited to address linebacker until the 6th and 7th rounds. They are sorely missing needed depth and a third quality starter. Right now it is Quinton Culberson.
As for the back end, the Rams finally found a playmaker in Oshiomogho Atogwe. He ended the year near the top of league in interceptions. The Rams avoided near disaster when Fahkir Brown won an appeal and wasn't suspended for the year. He will start on one side while Tye Hill mans the other. The Rams also added Justin King in the draft, but he will need time to develop. The corners just aren't good enough to match up in this division, and the weak pass rush leaves them exposed. Expect the Rams to have trouble again defending in the secondary.
Well, we all know the Rams spent their big free agent dollars on Seahawks kicker Josh Brown. Linehan said they had Brown as their top rated free agent. He certainly will give them a reliable replacement for Jeff Wilkins, but if he will be in position to win games like he was Seattle we will have to wait to find out. Plus, many may point to the long snapping situation, but the numbers say Josh Brown was a below average kicker last year. Because of the Rams general lack of depth, I would expect Brown to be the strongest part of the special teams unit, and the fact that he tends to allow a lot of kick returns won't bode well.
As much as the Rams, and their supporter are saying a little health and this team be much improved, they are ignoring their schedule. The Rams open with an extremely difficult set of games: At Philly, NYG, AT SEA, BUF. Honestly, I think they will at most have one win going into their bye week. It doesn't get easier on the other side either as they play Washington, Dallas, and New England coming out of it. That is 5 playoff teams in their first 7, plus a healthy Philly and upstart Buffalo. I would be worried if that was the Hawks schedule, and this is the Rams. What does this mean?
It means the tough early part of the schedule is going to deflate the team and put them in a pretty hard spot to climb out of. They second half of their schedule appears much easier , but even games like at Atlanta in Week 17 could be tough because they will be young and getting better as well. Really with the Rams, there are no gimmes. There easiest game is probably Miami or San Fran at home, but both of those teams seemed to have made bigger strides than the Rams. Sorry St. Louis, it is going to be another long year.
I really can't see the Rams winning more than 5 games. That is a two game improvement, and I think the Rams should be better, but their schedule is just going to kill them. I think they end up last in the NFC West again with a 5-11 record. Another year in the dumps and with their aging stars in Pace, Holt and Bulger, this team is going to need a major rebuild. Luckily they should have another high pick. I long for the days of a good Rams/Hawks rivalry, but my crystal ball says it isn't coming soon.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
by: Michael Steffes