By Dan Durkin
(CBS) By traditional standards, Jeff Fisher’s 11-14-1 record as head coach of the Rams is disappointing. However, the situation he and general manager Les Snead inherited two years ago was anything but orderly.
After a stretch of scintillating offense in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the Rams have been mired in an eight-year lull. No winning seasons since 2003, no playoff appearances since 2004. In fact, Fisher’s 11 wins tie the win total from the four seasons prior to his arrival.
So, while the pace may be glacial, they are making progress.
Fisher and Snead inherited one of the league’s least talented rosters and a franchise quarterback – Sam Bradford – based purely on draft status and pay grade.
Even though he won’t be under center again this season (torn ACL), Bradford remains the most pivotal player in the organization.
Their first major organizational decision about Bradford was made during the 2012 draft. Armed with the second-overall selection, Snead bypassed the opportunity to draft Robert Griffin III and parlayed the pick into three first-round and one second-round draft picks to start patching the crater-sized holes on the roster.
Just weeks into the 2013 season, team president Kevin Demoff was emphatic that Bradford was their future at quarterback and welcomed negotiations on a contract extension. Perhaps they are in fact convinced he’s their future, but certainly an underlying motive behind that negotiation would be to ease the $27 million cap burden Bradford carries over the next two seasons.
Recall if you will, Bradford was the first-overall selection in the final draft before the new CBA. Thus, he signed the last rookie mega-deal, to the tune of $50 million guaranteed. Four seasons later, it’s safe to say Bradford is still an unknown quantity who has yet to play up to his pay.
Combine Bradford’s bloated salary with a rehabilitation schedule and two first-round draft picks in the talented 2014 quarterback class, and Demoff’s proclamation may need to be reevaluated.
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s scheme blends passing principles from Air Coryell and West Coast, with a traditional two-back, I-formation power running scheme. Schottenheimer uses a lot of pre-snap motion and shifts to try and get the defense to show its hand.
Bradford’s replacement is Kellen Clemens, who worked with Schottenheimer as a member of the Jets. Despite being in the league for eight years, Clemens will be making his 16th career start on Sunday.
Clemens has a career passer efficiency rating of 65.2, and completes 52.2% of his passes for an adjusted net yardage per attempt of 4.11 yards. Those are pedestrian numbers indicative of a replacement-level backup quarterback.
Protecting the quarterback has been an issue in St. Louis for the past three seasons. Consequently, the Rams made some alterations to their roster and scheme.
In free agency, Snead splurged on left tackle Jake Long. Long isn’t the pass protector he once was, but his run blocking has been stellar. He’s provided the Rams much needed stability on the blind side.
Schematically, Scottenheimer has incorporated short drops with safe reads early in the progression to help the quarterbacks stay clean in the pocket and build a rhythm with their throws.
The Rams are the youngest team in the league, many of which are skill position players on offense.
With a stockpile of young picks, the Rams have a chance to build a bevy of homegrown talent. However, this approach also presents a challenge with personnel groupings, alignments, terminology, and assignments.
They’re still waiting for returns from their early draft picks in 2012 – wide receiver Brian Quick and running back Isaiah Pead – but their 2013 draftees – wide receiver Tavon Austin and running back Zac Stacy – have gone to the top of the class.
It took the Rams five weeks to find him, but Stacy has been a revelation. Since taking over as the lead back, Stacy’s averaging 88 rushing yards per game and the Rams are averaging 134 rushing yards as a team. This reprioritization of the run game has brought much needed balance to the offense.
Wide receiver is the most technical position in the NFL, therefore it presents the biggest learning curve for a rookie like Austin. In Week 10 against the Colts, Austin had a breakout performance, accumulating 318 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns.
Schottenheimer has started using Austin out of bunch sets to get him free releases off the line, and is giving him more freedom to go vertical when he gets off coverage.
Chris Givens has been the Rams most targeted and productive wide receiver. Givens leads the team with 10 catches of 20 or more yards, 192 yards after the catch and 22 first downs.
The Rams also brought in free-agent tight end Jared Cook. Cook’s a dynamic athlete, but his best season went for 49 catches for 759 yards, so it’s hard to categorize the $19 million in guaranteed money he received as anything other than an overpayment. His deficiencies as a run blocker make it even more difficult to reconcile, considering how often the Rams ask their tight ends to be in-line run blockers.
This season was all about the development of Bradford, who for the first time in his career was operating with the same offensive coordinator in successive seasons. Bradford or not, the Rams offense is still a work in progress. Their formations are surprisingly predictable in terms or run/pass tendencies.
Fisher and defensive coordinator Tim Walton are both proponents of 4-3 defenses predicated on a strong front, minimal blitzing, and creative coverage schemes.
The Rams are building something special along their defensive front.
Defensive end Robert Quinn (12 sacks) is quickly becoming one of the league’s premier pass rushers. Quinn is effortless in his movement, has remarkable get off speed, and his ability to bend the edge is second-to-none. The last element he needs to add to his repertoire is an inside counter move.
Opposite Quinn, is former second-overall pick, Chris Long. Long doesn’t possess elite athleticism, but he is technically sound, and plays with heavy hands and relentless effort.
In between Quinn and Long is 2012 first-round pick Michael Brockers. Brockers is an anchor defensive tackle against the run. William Hayes has also become a key part of the defensive line rotation, displaying versatility to play both inside and out.
At the second level, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is a building block for the future. Laurinaitis earned a lucrative extension in 2012, but his play this season has been subpar.
The Rams play a lot of nickel coverage, so Laurinaitis is flanked by rookie Alec Ogletree (Georgia). Ogletree has unlimited raw athleticism and instincts.
For as dominant as the Rams defensive front has been, it’s surprising their secondary has played so poorly. They’re allowing opposing quarterbacks to average a 93 passer efficiency rating, and have given up seven touchdown passes of 20+ yards.
Youth is certainly a factor. Second-year cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson can be gamblers. Cortland Finnegan was a big-ticket free-agent in 2012, but has flopped in his second season and has been relegated to their slot cornerback.
The Rams are a boom-or-bust defense. They’re sixth in sacks, but have also surrendered 42 plays of 20+ yards.
Fresh off a bye week, the Rams have had a chance to rejuvenate their bodies and are confident. Prior to the bye, they played their most complete game of the season, scoring in every phase in a 38-8 dismantling of the Colts in Indianapolis.
The Rams defensive front will keep them in games, but is prone to giving up big plays. Combine that with an offense that lacks a full compliment of weapons, protection and has inconsistent quarterback play, and it’s evident the Rams are still a few years away.
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