USA Today / © Jeff Hanisch

Minnesota Vikings preview: Rams have talent to be a contender

The St. Louis Rams are starting to add enough offense to complement their defense as they prepare to face a similar team in the Minnesota Vikings.

The St. Louis Rams are a team that finds themselves in an eerily similar position to that of the Vikings – blessed with a strong defense, a run-centered offensive attack and a collection of talented individual players that have yet to put it all together as a team. At 4-3, the Rams know their playoff hopes, whether as a division contender or a potential wild card, will have big implications going up against the 6-2 Vikings.

A lot of changes on the Rams offense have changed the face of the unit viewed as the little brother of the defense – St. Louis, it was viewed, won by defense and won despite its offense. In the offseason, the Rams made a significant trade, moving out longtime starter and former No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford to Philadelphia in exchange for Nick Foles. Foles has a strong arm and can throw all the passes required of an NFL quarterback but has been little more than a game manager over the first seven games of the season, throwing for 1,310 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Like Teddy Bridgewater, Foles hasn’t posted eye-popping numbers due primarily to him not being needed to do so because of the new kid in town.

Todd Gurley has made as big a splash as any rookie running back since Adrian Peterson came to the Vikings in 2007. In his four full games as a starter after missing the first two and being limited in the third, Gurley has rushed for 575 yards and hasn’t had a game yet with less than 125 rush yards. He is clearly the centerpiece of the offense and will be expected to rush 20-25 times Sunday. The primary job of any defense is to stop the run and nobody has been able to accomplish that yet against the frontrunner for offensive rookie of the year.

Another playmaker that is having a breakout season is wide receiver Tavon Austin. A versatile multi-level threat, Austin leads the Rams in receiving with 24 catches for 285 yards, has rushed 17 times for 141 yards and is the team’s punt returner. In all, he has scored seven touchdowns and is being used like the Vikings used to employ Percy Harvin. Plays are designed to get him in space and the Vikings defense knows he needs to be accounted for on every snap.

The Rams only have one receiver with 20 or more catches, but have a slew of players who make contributions here and there. Veteran Kenny Britt is averaging 19 yards a reception but has only caught 12 passes. Third-year pro Steadman Bailey isn’t far behind with a 17-yard average, but he has caught just 10 passes. Fourth-year pro Brian Quick, who was expected to be the top receiver on the team this year, has battled injuries and has just two receptions. The Rams also have a pair of talented tight ends in Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks, but neither of them has stood out either. Cook has caught 19 passes for 245 yards, which is less than what was expected, and Kendricks has just nine catches. Aside from Austin, the Rams seem content to spread the ball around in hopes of springing a big play or stringing long drives together while counting on the running game.

Opening holes for Gurley may not be as easy as it has appeared over the last month. The Rams are very young on the offensive line with Greg Robinson, a first-round pick in 2014, at left tackle and two rookies on the right side – third-round pick Jamon Brown at right guard and second-round pick Rob Havenstein at right tackle. The problem aside from the youth movement is that Havenstein has been sidelined this week during practice and may be replaced by undrafted rookie Darrell Williams or fourth-round rookie Andrew Donnal. Having already lost veteran Roger Saffold for the season, any more injuries up front could be devastating for a Rams team looking to dominate time of possession by running the ball.

It seems clear the Rams felt the O-line needed upgrading by drafting three players in the first four rounds of last spring’s draft, but it hasn’t translated on the field yet. The Rams are last in the league in third-down conversions, making good on just 26 percent of their opportunities. As a result, the Rams defense has been called upon to shoulder much of the burden for the team to be successful and they have the defense to get the job done even if the offense struggles.

The Rams have invested in their defense, especially up front, like few other teams in the league have done. The team has five first-round picks on the defensive line, four of their own drafting – defensive ends Chris Long (2008) and Robert Quinn (2011) and defensive tackles Aaron Donald (2014) and Michael Brockers (2012) – as well as free agent signee Nick Fairley, who was a first pick of Detroit.

All five of them can be game-changers. Quinn is the team’s best pass rusher with five sacks, Donald is a quick-twitch explosive player who can split double teams and blow up plays, and both Brockers and Long do a good job of stacking the line on running plays. The four of them have combined for 13½ sacks and have the skill set to be able to bottle up running plays and provide enough pass pressure that St. Louis can blitz when it wants to, not because it has to in order to bring the heat on quarterbacks.

The biggest potential storyline here is that injuries could take a toll on the Rams Sunday. Long, who was ruled out, and Quinn were both nursing knee injuries that kept them out of practice Wednesday and Thursday, and primary backup William Hayes has missed practice all week with a thigh injury. Whether some of them will be able to play or not, it seems clear that they are banged up and likely won’t be 100 percent, which could be good news for Vikings offensive tackles Matt Kalil and T.J. Clemmings.

The Rams went outside the organization to bolster their linebacker corps, adding a pair of young, aggressive defenders. Akeem Ayers was signed in the offseason in free agency to play one outside linebacker spot and the Rams made a trade with Tampa Bay last year to acquire former first-round pick Mark Barron, who was drafted to play a giant safety but has been moved to outside linebacker because the Rams’ best disrupter from the linebacker corps (Alec Ogletree) is on injured reserve with the designation to return. Depth is extremely thin behind them, so they will be counted on to be warriors alongside middle linebacker and Wayzata native James Laurinaitis. The son of one of the professional wrestling tag team known as the Road Warriors, Laurinaitis is the Rams’ all-time leading tackler, which is saying something for an organization as longstanding as the Rams and the fact that Laurinaitis is just in his seventh season. Like many teams, the Rams have a solid core group of starters, but depth is very thin and St. Louis could ill-afford any more injuries at the linebacker position.

The Rams have systematically gone about building up the secondary much in the same way they have both the offensive and defensive lines under head coach Jeff Fisher. Both of the starting corners are fourth-year players from the 2012 draft – second-round pick Janoris Jenkins and third-round pick Trumaine Johnson. Both of them have pulled in two interceptions and are often left on an island in single coverage with opposing receivers. The top nickel back is second-year man Lamarcus Joyner and is earning more playing time as a young, raw prospect who is improving from week to week. The safeties aren’t necessarily a weakness, but they can be exploited at times. T.J. McDonald is in his third season at strong safety and is a heavy hitter, and free safety Rodney McLeod is an erratic, athletic player who flashes big plays but also takes too many missteps that get him out of position too often. As with linebacker, depth is very thin here.

One of the unreported aspects of the game that could prove critical is special teams. Kicker Greg Zuerlein, taken four picks before the Vikings took Blair Walsh in the 2012 draft, has struggled badly with field goals this year, missing 6 of 15 attempts, including going just 1-for-5 from 50 yards and beyond, which has been one of his strengths during his career. Given the tricky winds at TCF Bank Stadium, the Rams may question attempting a long bomb field goal from “Greg the Leg.”

Also playing into the special teams aspect of the game is punter Johnny Hekker and Austin in the return game. The Vikings have the best punt coverage unit in the NFL, but Austin is one of the best return men in the league, adding a 71-yard punt return for a touchdown. Hekker is a wild card because the Rams have a penchant of running fakes on field goals and punt. Hekker has already thrown two passes this season as the Rams look to catch a special teams unit off-guard, so the Vikings will need to be wary of the Rams potentially trying to pull out a special teams gadget play.

In many ways, the Rams have a lot of similarities to the Vikings. They are viewed as a team on the rise that has an impressive young core of talented players that, if kept together long enough, could be a legitimate Super Bowl contender – but they are currently viewed as a being just a little bit away from reaching their full potential. With playoff implications down the line for both teams, this game is huge for both of them and, on paper, they not only look evenly matched but very similar in key respects, which should make Sunday’s game a potential nail-biter that won’t be determined until the fourth quarter.

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