Outlook: Entering his sixth season as the head coach of the St. Louis Rams, Mike Martz is at a crossroads. He still has the cache of running one of the more potent offenses in the league and the fact that he was the offensive coordinator of the club when they won their only Super Bowl following the 1999 season.
With all the explosiveness Martz has on the offensive side of the ball, his teams have been the exact opposite on the defensive side and on special teams. So this offseason Martz and the Rams front office did their best to address their needs.
During free agency the team went out and signed two solid linebackers in Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley, a nod to their inability to stop teams from running up and down the field on them. During the draft they took three defensive backs, hoping to free up the linebackers and safeties for blitz opportunities.
These three players will add a speed dimension to the kick and punt coverage units as well, units that have ranked at or near the bottom for the better part of a decade. Bob Ligashesky, who has only one year of NFL experience, became the fourth special team's coach in Martz's tenure.
Things need to change in the Gateway City. This club must become more physical and reach their vast amount of potential, or Martz could be on the way out sooner rather than later.
Quarterbacks: Even though he only has four-years of experience, QB Marc Bulger is on the cusp of becoming an elite signal-caller. In 2004, he achieved career highs in completion percentage (66.2) and yardage (3,964). He also finished one shy of his season-high touchdown mark with 21 scores and cut down his interceptions from 22 in 2003 to 14 last year.
Bulger's problems still come in the red-zone, when he tries to force things too much. Bulger has a good arm, is very accurate and is tough in the face of a rush. With a porous offensive line, he was hit over and over and continued to get up and make plays, but he did miss two games and most of a third with a bruised shoulder.
Chris Chandler was a disaster as the backup last year and so the team released him following the season. Jamie Martin will fill that role and the Rams couldn't be in better hands. Martin does not have a starter's arm, but he knows the system well and he is a good leader.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, one of this year's seventh round draft choices, beat out second-year player Jeff Smoker for the third quarterback spot. He has a good arm and has excellent athleticism. Martz never fully trusted Smoker, so Fitzpatrick must have been able to take in the complicated offensive system enough to make Smoker expendable.
Running Backs: The Rams have an embarrassment of riches in the backfield. Future Hall-of-Famer Marshall Faulk, even though he has lost some speed, isn't the starter for the club anymore. That honor belongs to second-year RB Steven Jackson, who could garner Pro Bowl considerations if his preseason performances are any indication.
Jackson is a devastating runner who can hurt you between the tackles or on sweeps to the outside. He loves contact and runs hard all the time. He finished with 673 yards on 134 carries (a 5.02 yard per carry average) and four touchdowns last year. He's a decent receiver coming out of the backfield, although, until Faulk retires he will see limited opportunities in this area.
Faulk still has enough tread left on the tires to scare teams as a change-of-pace back to Jackson. Faulk led the Rams last year with 774 yards and three touchdowns last season, while also hauling in 50 catches for 310 yards and one touchdown. As mentioned before, he has lost a step or two, but still has the amazing quickness and excellent vision that once made him the most feared runner in the league. He is also adept at picking up the blitz when asked to stay in and block and he is a team leader.
Aveion Cason and Arlen Harris are battling it out for the third running back spot and Cason appears to be the leader at this point. He has good speed and quickness and he catches the ball well. He appears to have picked up the offensive system well and Harris has lost carries to him this preseason.
At fullback the Rams have several options. H-Back Brandon Manumaleuna right now is in the number one spot with Madison Hedgecock backing him up. Hedgecock showed well in the final part of the preseason and he is a bruising blocker and tough runner when called upon.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Other than Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, Torry Holt is the best big-play wideout in the league. Holt runs good routes, has excellent hands and he can get deep when the team asks him to. He led the team with 94 receptions for 1,372 yards and 10 touchdowns and there is no reason he shouldn't be able to match or top that this season.
Behind Holt is the deepest corps of wide receivers in the NFL. Isaac Bruce, who turns 33 in November, still has good speed and hands. He seemed to wear down toward the end of the season, but still managed his best season in four years with 89 catches for 1,292 yards and six touchdowns.
Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald, the third and fourth wideouts, could start for a lot of teams in the league. Curtis was able to show some of the explosiveness that caused the Rams to spend third round choice on him in 2003. He hauled in 32 passes for 421 yards and two touchdowns and his deep speed is the best on the team.
McDonald is super-quick and has sneaky speed. He finished third on the team with 37 receptions for 494 yards and three touchdowns. He also handles punt return duties therefore, he doesn't see as many snaps as Curtis, but he seems to make even more plays when he has the chance.
Veteran Dane Looker is a solid fifth receiver who has good hands and runs precise routes.
The tight end position isn't usually used as a receiver in the Rams' system. Roland Williams and Manumaleuna are at their best when they are asked to seal the corner on running plays.
Offensive Line: For how explosive the Rams offensive is, the success of the entire unit hinges on the answers the team finds along the line, particularly at right tackle and at left guard.
The team is set at left tackle with one of the best linemen in all of football. Orlando Pace, entering his ninth season and recently signed to a lucrative multi-year contract, is an excellent athlete and uses his size and quickness to keep pass-rushers at bay. He isn't quite as adept when asked to block for the run, but he still is solid in that area as well.
Behind Pace will be 2005 first-round choice Alex Barron. The hope heading into training camp was that Barron would be able to start on the right side, but because of a protracted contract negotiation he won't be starting in the early part of the season.
Athletically Barron is almost a clone of Pace. He is huge (6'7", 320), has quick feet and long arms. When he finally made it into camp, Barron showed he was woefully behind in regards to his technique and intensity. For now he will work behind Pace and eventually challenge RT Rex Tucker for playing time in the second-half of the season.
Tucker takes over the right tackle spot by default, but he does have some experience after playing his entire college career at left tackle. He's more suited for the inside, but he has good size and quick enough feet to battle most pass-rushers. If and when Barron takes over on the outside Tucker can then move over the troublesome left guard position that is currently being held down by Tom Nutten.
After retiring following the 2003 season, he was coaxed out of retirement by the Rams during the preseason in 2004 and played in eight games last season. He is a versatile player, able to play both guard positions and center. He adds a needed veteran presence to the depth chart. He's better at run-blocking than pass-blocking, but he's smart and technically sound.
Besides Pace the other two returning starters along the line are C Andy McCollum and RG Adam Timmerman. Timmerman and McCollum have both started over 160 straight regular season games and both may be wearing down. Timmerman struggled with shoulder, knee and foot injuries last season, but he was back to 100% before camp started.
McCollum isn't the most physical center in the league, but he is never out of position and is very smart. Without him in the lineup the Rams pass-protection could take a big hit, because he makes all of the blocking adjustments.
The depth chart, aside from Barron is pretty thin behind the starters at this point. Larry Turner can back up all three of the inside spots, while Matt Willig, acquired off of waivers from Carolina during training camp, can play either tackle spot. Blaine Saipaia is another body on the inside, but he has done little to distinguish himself.
As stated before, if this unit runs into problems with injuries, the Rams offense could become average very quickly.
Defensive Line: No unit improved more as the 2004 season progressed than the defensive line. For the second straight year, the Rams are looking to replace the end spot opposite explosive left end Leonard Little.
Anthony Hargrove will be the starter at right end, but it remains to be seen whether he can replace the departed Bryce Fisher who recorded 8.5 sacks last season to lead the team. Hargrove has a great motor, is athletic and very strong. If he learns how to read plays better and set up blockers which will allow him to use his excellent athleticism, he could have a breakout season.
Little had a down year by his standards last season, but still managed to record 46 tackles and seven sacks. He is one of the quickest defensive ends in the league and he has improved his technique in stopping the run over the years. He uses his hands well and keeps good leverage which allows him to stay strong at the point of attack.
At tackle the Rams have three first-rounder's who need to make their presence felt. Ryan Pickett has been the most consistent of the three. He plays strong against the run, but isn't much of a pass-rusher. He finished with 46 tackles and two sacks last season. He also caused a fumble.
Entering his third season, Jimmy Kennedy finally looks ready to realize his vast potential. Kennedy struggled his rookie season and the first part of his second year with injuries, but came on at the end of 2004 and if he continues to improve his technique and intensity he could be a force to be reckoned with.
The third part of the first-round trifecta is Damione Lewis who is about out of chances with the team. He's had trouble staying out of the trainer's room and even when he was healthy he doesn't show the consistency needed to be a force. His size and speed is excellent, but he is long on promise and short on results.
Tyoka Jackson is the most versatile of the backups. He backs up Little on the outside and can provide a pass-rush from the inside when the team needs it.
Linebackers: This unit received two major upgrades when Coakley and Claiborne came aboard. No longer will the linebackers take bad angles, be out of position or over-run plays.
Coakley isn't big, but he is fast, sheds blockers well and is a sure tackler, something the Rams linebackers have struggled with the past few seasons. As a Cowboy last season, Coakley finished with 68 tackles and six passes defensed.
Because the Rams have lacked a big-thumper in the middle, Claiborne gives them something they haven't had in several seasons. He is almost 260 pounds, but he runs very well and has good athleticism. His job is to play the run and play it well. If he can do that as a two-down linebacker the Rams could be much improved on defense this season.
The only returning starter at linebacker will be Pisa Tinoisamoa. For a short time during the early part of the offseason, Martz and his staff toyed with the though of turning Tinoisamoa into a strong safety, but they scrapped that idea and should be better for it. He plays with toughness and an attitude and even though he struggled with a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery he still led the team with 92 tackles.
Backing up the starters will be three athletically gifted, but smallish players. Robert Thomas, last year's starter on the inside, is best suited for outside duty and he will back up Coakley. He's an excellent coverage linebacker and he will probably be the team's nickel backer.
Second-year player Brandon Chillar struggled while starting five games last season, but he has all of the tools to be a good player in the league. He is going to back up Tinoisamoa on the strong-side and should be able to provide a decent pass-rush when called upon.
Defensive Backs: This unit took a big hit when its best cover corner, Jerametrius Butler went down during camp with a torn ligament in his knee. He was placed on injured reserve in the cut down to the 53-man regular season limit.
Taking his place will be third-year CB DeJuan Groce. Groce is very fast, but lacks ideal size and strength. He is ultra-confident though and recorded 36 tackles and seven passes defensed in five starts last season.
On the opposite side is silky-smooth Travis Fisher who has excellent closing speed and aggressiveness. He was limited to 10 games last season because of injuries, but still managed 35 tackles, one interception and five passes defensed.
Behind the two starters the Rams have a lot of unknowns. Corey Ivy, Terry Fair and Ron Bartell are all there, but it remains to be seen what they can actually provide as far as depth. Fair, who hasn't played football in two years, suffered a scary injury during the preseason, but he has the most experience of the bunch.
At safety, the Rams have a player who hits like a linebacker in SS Adam Archuleta. He struggles in space and is a liability in coverage, but there is no denying his play-making abilities. Archuleta registered 85 tackles and one force fumble last season and defensive coordinator Larry Marmie expects more out of his fifth-year player heading into his second year in the system.
FS Michael Hawthorne struggled as a nickel back last season, but the hope is he makes a smooth transition to the deep middle. He will be pushed by 2005 third-round selection Oshiomogho Atogwe, who is a big hitter and is a ball-hawk.
Fourth-rounder Jerome Carter is an ideal backup at strong safety and he has the skills to eventually push Archuleta for playing time.
Special Teams: Much like the energizer bunny, K Jeff Wilkins just keeps going and going. He is one of the league's most consistent and reliable kickers. After setting a league record with 163 points in 2003, he only posted 89 points last season, but that wasn't his fault.
Wilkins has a strong and accurate leg and he's adept at hangtime on his kicks, allowing his coverage units to get down the field to make a play.
The problem is they haven't made plays in a very long time. The coverage units were a disaster last season and it got special teams coach Mike Stock fired. Ligashesky has some decent players to work with on the coverage units so the hope is the results improve. They can't get much worse.
At punter rookie Reggie Hodges won the job and while he has a strong leg, he needs to work on his hang time.
Final Projection: This team is loaded with talent at the offensive skill positions and with an aggressive coach like Martz it is primed for another big season. Martz is widely considered the "evil genius" by the rest of the NFL and his attitude is, "if you aren't trying to score, you're trying to lose."
That mentality will win the Rams several games, but it will also cost them at least two games as well.
Defensively the secondary is very thin. They must get solid play from Groce or teams will be able to pass at will. A consistent pass-rush would be a big help, so Hardgrove's development and Kennedy's continued progress are imperative as well.
They should finish 10-6 and win the NFC West and host a playoff game. This team has the talent to go deep into the playoffs, but they probably won't go much farther than the second round again.
Scott Eklund writes and reports for Seahawks.NET and Dawgman.com. Feel free to contact him at email@example.com.
Opponent Preview: The St. Louis Rams
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