The St. Louis Rams finished last in the NFC West last season, but, despite a 7-9 record, there was plenty of reason for optimism in St. Louis. Among their 2013 victories were wins over Indianapolis, Chicago and New Orleans in the second half of the season.
With a young offense and a defense on the verge of something special, the Rams have a legitimate chance to compete for a playoff spot, despite playing in what is currently the strongest top-to-bottom division in the NFL.
However, they suffered a huge blow in the preseason when quarterback Sam Bradford, who missed half of last season with a torn ACL in his left knee, tore the same ligament in the third preseason game – wiping out his 2014 season. The reins of the offense are being turned over to 13-year veteran Shaun Hill, who began his career with the Vikings. The Rams didn’t make any trade offers to land a backup from the outside, showing faith that Hill can get the job done. He had better, because his backups are extremely inexperienced – rookie Austin Davis and former Texans backup Case Keenum. While Bradford was known for taking a lot of deep shots and had excellent deep accuracy, Hill is going to be more of a game manager, using his quick release to spread the ball around and identify mismatches that can spring for big plays.
He has an impressive cast around him of developing young players. Last season, the Rams found themselves at a running back crossroads. For the previous 15 years, there had been just two primary running backs – Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson. With Jackson allowed to leave via free agency last year, Daryl Richardson was being tabbed as the replacement, but he was ineffective so head coach Jeff Fisher turned the running game over to bruising between-the-tackles rookie Zac Stacy. He replaced Richardson in the fifth game and became a workhorse. In the final nine games, he had four games in which had more than 25 carries and topped 100 yards in all of them. Stacy will get the majority of the work, but he’s far from alone in the Rams backfield. Second-year pro Benny Cunningham drew rave reviews in the preseason and as a rookie averaged 5.6 yards a carry in limited use. Third-round rookie Tre Mason is also expected to be used as a third-down and change-of-pace back, utilizing his open-field speed to create big plays.
The Rams don’t have a legitimate No. 1 receiver, but have a handful of talented receivers looking to carve their own piece of the St. Louis offense. Fisher was reunited with former Titan Kenny Britt, who has seen a promising career derailed by injuries and off-field incidents. A big receiver with excellent speed, Britt is a home run hitter, but not the only big-play threat in the offense. The Rams moved up to the No. 8 pick to select Tavon Austin in last year’s draft. After a very slow start, he gave fans a glimpse of what he could do in a Week 10 win over Indianapolis in which he amassed a whopping 314 all-purpose yards and scored three touchdowns of 55 yards or more. He will line up in the slot in three-receiver sets with former starters Brian Quick and Chris Givens splitting time and slippery Austin Pettis running across the field. As deep as the receiver corps is, it’s missing Steadman Bailey, who was suspended for the first four games of the season.
At tight end, Jared Cook was brought over from Tennessee to reunite with Fisher and led the Rams in receptions last year. The team may not have a bona fide No. 1 star receiver, but they have a lot of talented role players who can do significant damage.
One of the keys for the Rams offense will be the continued improvement of its offensive line. The line was so impressive in training camp and the preseason that No. 2 overall draft pick Greg Robinson hasn’t been able to crack the starting lineup. Failed offensive tackle prospect Roger Saffold has become a dominating left guard and, surrounded by veterans Jake Long at left tackle, Scott Wells at center and Davin Joseph at right guard, the Rams have a unit that could be a strength of the team down the line.
The adage that games are won in the trenches could bode well for the Rams moving forward. They already had one of the most dominant defensive lines in the league last year with Chris Long and Robert Quinn at the ends and Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford at the tackles. With first-round rookie Aaron Donald joining Alex Carrington as the backup tackles to start the season, and pass rushers Williams Hayes and Eugene Sims in the mix at defensive end, the Rams have a deep rotation with the talent to interchange players to keep them fresh late in games. They may not be the elite defensive line unit in the NFL just yet, but they’re not far away from reaching that distinction.
The linebacker corps is a work in progress. James Laurinaitis has been a tackling machine in the middle of the defense for five years, and the addition of 2013 rookie Alex Ogletree, who registered 117 tackles on the outside, gives St. Louis two pieces of the puzzle completed. Jo-Lonn Dunbar is a big hitter but needs to be a little more consistent to match up with his linebacker mates as true difference maker.
The secondary is the weakest link of the defense, but has an emerging star in cornerback Janoris Jenkins. He is an aggressive playmaker and is cutting down on his mistakes, but both he and fellow CB Trumaine Johnson do too much freelancing, get called for too many penalties and bite on fakes that can lead to back-breaking plays. If the Rams can harness their natural abilities and improve their consistency and technique, they could be a dynamic duo. For this game, however, Johnson is out with a knee injury. Second-year safety T.J. McDonald was expected to be a breakout player last year, but a broken leg suffered in Week 4 set him back. He’s back healthy and joined by third-year pro Rodney McLeod. The team is very young in the secondary, with big contributions expected from second-year pro Brandon McGee and second-round rookie Lamarcus Joyner. If this unit can solidify, the Rams defense could compete with Seattle for divisional dominance.
Had Bradford not been injured, the Rams would have been a trendy pick for a team with a losing record in 2013 making the jump to playoff contention. While they still may be a year or two away from reaching full potential, they are going to give the Vikings everything they can handle Sunday because, while they may be flying a little bit under the radar with casual fans, this is a team on the rise with a lot of young talent on both sides of the ball that will only get better with experience.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Preview: Rams on the rise
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