The (7-2) Denver Broncos will travel to the "Gridiron Gateway" to take on the (3-6) St. Louis Rams this week. As representatives of their respective conferences' Western Divisions, both teams really need a win this week.
The Rams are a conundrum. On paper, they are one of the NFL's most ridiculously talented teams, and yet, they can't seem to get it done on the field. Make no mistake, this team's talent must not be measured by the numbers in their win/loss column.
They've had some bad luck in 2014. They lost their franchise quarterback, Sam Bradford, which will take the wind out of the sails of any team in the league. I recently sat down with the Publsiher/Lead Analyst for Gridiron Gateway, Scout's St. Louis Rams report. You can find him on Twitter @NateLatsch. Without further adieu...
MHH: In the pre-draft process, like many, I had Aaron Donald rated at the top of his position group. With 3 sacks on the season, how is he fitting in with the Rams? Has he been able to impact the defense?
GG: The Rams felt fortunate that Donald was still available at the No. 13 overall pick. He was an accomplished player at Pitt, where he won just about every national defensive award possible, but some teams must have been scared off by his smaller size.
The Rams weren’t, obviously, and now they are reaping the rewards. Donald came off the bench for the first four games, before St. Louis inserted him into the starting lineup, but he’s a guy who has contributed something every time he’s out there with his quickness and ability to get into the backfield.
Donald is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss (12) and is second on the Rams in sacks (three), quarterback pressures (18) and quarterback hits (eight). He trails Pro Bowl defensive end, Robert Quinn, in each of those categories, so he’s in with some elite company.
GG: Hill became the starter after Sam Bradford tore his ACL for the second-straight season, but then Hill suffered a quad/thigh injury in the second quarter of the season opener against the Minnesota Vikings. Davis performed well in two starts in relief of Hill and Fisher anointed him as the starter for the rest of the season.
But after a couple of strong starts early on, Davis has really struggled recently. In his last two starts he threw two touchdown passes and was intercepted four times. The Rams led the Cardinals 14-10 in the fourth quarter on Sunday but Davis was intercepted twice and also fumbled and two of those turnovers were returned for touchdowns.
He’s had six turnovers returned for scores this season. So the Rams will turn to the 34-year-old Hill, who is expected to provide veteran leadership and not make some of the same mistakes that have plagued Davis. St. Louis is now 3-6 but better quarterback play this season could have reversed that record.
MHH: As a 2013 rookie, Zac Stacy went wild, rushing for 973 yards and 7 TDs in only 14 games. His production has slipped in 2014. What has been the issue? And does it have anything to do with a guy named Tre Mason?
GG: Stacy went into this season as the starter, after his impressive rookie campaign, but he just wasn’t very effective this fall with the opportunities he was given. He lost his starting job a few weeks ago -- first to backup Benny Cunningham and then the past two games to rookie third-rounder Tre Mason — after averaging just 3.9 yards per carry with one touchdown on 66 carries.
Cunningham has also averaged 3.9 yards per carry but has three rushing scores among 48 attempts. Mason was inactive for the first four games but then provided a spark off the bench and looked like a guy who would produce more as the starter. He’s had that opportunity the past two weeks but is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry on 33 attempts.
The Rams had some success last season relying on their defense and a strong rushing attack, led by Stacy, but they just haven’t had a lot of success running the ball this season. The offensive line hasn’t had the same kind of push up front that it had last season and that is reflected in the Rams averaging 3.9 yards per rush, after they averaged 4.1 last season.
MHH: Last year, Robert Quinn and Chris Long proved that they are two of the best edge rushers in the league. However, Long has yet to play a snap due to an ankle injury. With only 17 sacks as a team, is this a result of missing Long? Or is there something else amiss?
GG: Long was hurt during the season opener against the Vikings and has been out ever since. They only had one sack (from Donald) in the first five games but have had 16 over the past four games, including eight in San Francisco two weeks ago. It didn’t make any sense because they were so good last season, primarily rushing just the front four.
Long’s absense definitely didn’t help, but I think it was more of a combination of teams focusing on getting the ball out of their quarterbacks’ hands quickly and the Rams just coming up a bit short, time and time again, those first five games. Quinn, who had 19 sacks in his breakout season a year ago, didn’t have any in the first five games but has six in the past four weeks.
MHH: The Rams made some waves at the trade deadline, by orchestrating one that brought safety, Mark Barron, to St. Louis. It's early, but how do you perceive he'll impact the secondary?
GG: Barron only played special teams in his first game with the Rams, in San Francisco, but made an impact on Sunday against the Cardinals while playing 33 snaps as a nickel safety. He had six tackles, two quarterback pressures, one quarterback hit, one safety and one forced fumble.
He’s a bigger safety and he showed his physicality with a couple of big hits. He probably wouldn’t have played that much against Arizona but the Rams lost rookie nickel cornerback, Lamarcus Joyner, to an injury and were already shorthanded in the secondary because of injuries.
I don’t know that he’ll play that much this Sunday against the Broncos, but I do think the Rams will continue to find ways to get him more and more involved in the defense because he adds another hard-hitting guy to the mix that can be disruptive.