"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
08 Sep 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
The St. Louis Rams have been fighting a lot of fires lately. There was a somewhat chaotic change in ownership in 2010, followed this offseason by what the club claims are baseless musings of another change on the horizon. The team is squabbling with the local government about its stadium lease, it publicly backed out of a deal to play home games in London in 2013 and 2014 and has had to deflect rumors that a move back to Los Angeles could happen in the near future.
Current owner Stan Kroenke can live with this drama and chaos. It’s part of doing business on a near billion-dollar scale. What Kroenke can’t live with is the losing. Perhaps that too, in some ways, is part of doing business. But when the losing amounts to 14 games in a single season, it becomes a powerful force against your bottom line.
Even though the Rams had plenty of excuses last season –- a rash of injuries, tough schedule, a youthful offense trying to learn Josh McDaniels’s difficult system after no offseason -– Kroenke did not give his leaders a chance to right their nearly sunken ship. Overhauling the front office and coaching staff, he brought in veteran head coach Jeff Fisher, a beacon of stability. Fisher tapped 41-year-old Falcons director of player personnel Les Snead to work alongside him as the new general manager.
The two men have wasted no time putting their stamp on the franchise. They hired a pair of controversial coordinators to overhaul each side of the ball: the Jets’ much-maligned Brian Schottenheimer on offense, and the Saints’ forever-stigmatized Gregg Williams on defense. The former is one of the more creative intermediate-passing designers in the NFL, which makes him, potentially, a great match for quarterback Sam Bradford. The latter, unfortunately, got himself indefinitely banned from the league. His responsibilities are now divided amongst a trio of assistants. (Nobody said Fisher’s and Snead’s rebuilding efforts would go smoothly.)
This new Rams regime was lucky to inherent the second overall pick in the draft. With a young franchise quarterback already in place, they were able to convert that pick into two extra second-round selections this year and extra first-round selections in 2013 and 2014. That’s quite a coup, though it still may not be enough to fill the myriad of holes on this roster. To accelerate the process, the new regime has been aggressive in free agency, signing cornerback Cortland Finnegan, center Scott Wells and defensive tackle Kendall Langford. There’s always the possibility of good coaching drawing young diamonds out of the rough. These are how the first steps of a comprehensive rebuilding project are supposed to go. Ideally, the changes will generate a few extra victories right off the bat and help create the type of "winning culture" that every franchise aspires to have.
Which Sam Bradford is the real Sam Bradford? Is it the rookie from 2010 who showed accuracy, a quick release, and uncommon pocket poise in the face of pressure? Or is it the sophomore from 2011 who was erratic, timid, and too concerned about pass-rushing pressure to consistently work through his progressions? The Rams believe that as long as Bradford is healthy -- he battled an ankle injury last season, and has said he doesn't expect to be 100 percent this season either -- and in the right offense, he’ll pick up where he left off in 2010. Brian Schottenheimer’s system has a few similarities to the West Coast system that Pat Shurmur ran two years ago. Schottenheimer and quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti have been working closely with Bradford on his footwork and on getting the ball out quickly.
The idea is for Bradford to take less of a pounding in 2012. Injuries limited him to just 10 games last season, where he endured 36 sacks and numerous hits. If necessary, Schottenheimer can scale his system back like he did for Mark Sanchez by utilizing calming tactics like play-action, rollouts, and simple dump-offs built into the early progressions. Ideally, however, Bradford will regain his pocket poise and allow his play-caller to try and push the ball downfield.
This will require better pass protection than the Rams got in 2011. A lot of responsibility will fall on new offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. The problem areas will be at left guard and right tackle. Quinn Ojinnaka is being asked to fill the interior duties. The 28-year-old veteran has always had iffy lower-body strength. He’s the most reasonable option though, at least until massive fifth-round rookie Rokevious Watkins develops.
At right tackle is Barry Richardson, a fairly vulnerable pass-blocker, but a far more reliable all-around player than newly acquired ex-Jet Wayne Hunter. For Hunter, the athleticism is there, but the technique never has been.
Fortunately, Boudreau should have reliable prospects at the other three front line positions. Rodger Saffold continues to hone his footwork and has the athletic tools to one day become a top-10 left tackle. Scott Wells is one of the more cerebral, fundamentally sound centers in the league. And at right guard, Harvey Dahl lacks athleticism, but he’s one of the few players who can actually compensate with grit. Boudreau had better hope these guys can stay healthy, though, as the second-string is short on talent and experience.
Better protection is only part of the story; the Rams still need to find someone for Bradford to throw to. They’re counting on second-round rookie Brian Quick to become an explosive playmaker outside. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder has upside that’s been characterized as "tantalizing," but he’s leaping to the NFL from tiny Appalachian State. It’s possible that fourth-rounder Chris Givens, with change-of-direction quickness that could translate well to the slot, will be the more reliable rookie contributor in 2012.
A heap of fringe veterans and recent draft picks make up the rest of St. Louis’s receiving depth. Possession target Danny Amendola will likely start on one side. Opposite him will be either Brandon Gibson or Steve Smith. Neither is explosive, but Gibson is at least a willing run-blocker, which helps in base sets. Smith, if he can regain the career that knee problems have all but derailed, can be a smooth, soft-handed outlet. Also in the mix is last year’s third-round pick Austin Pettis, who was up and (mostly) down as a rookie and will miss the first couple of games due to a suspension.
Schottenheimer did not always have great receivers in New York, which is why tight end drag routes and seam patterns figured so prominently into his passing attack. In St. Louis, he has a lighter Dustin Keller in Lance Kendricks. The second-round pick of a year ago is a very fluid, move-oriented player when coming out of the backfield, and he’s shown the necessary athleticism to defeat some cornerbacks on the outside. Last year, Kendricks was not factored into the gameplan as often as he should have been.
Schottenheimer likes to use a fullback in the run game. The Rams would have liked to use veteran Ovie Mughelli, but the knee issues that ruined the second half of Mughelli’s 2011 season persisted. The choice will be undrafted third-year pro Brit Miller.
Running behind the fullback is, amazingly, still Steven Jackson. The three-time Pro Bowler has expressed his desire to sign a contract that would allow him to finish his career in St. Louis. It’s possible he already has and just doesn’t know it; after all, the 29-year-old workhorse’s current deal expires after the 2013 season. Jackson hasn’t shown any glaring signs of wear and tear, and he’s such a smart, patient, professional ballcarrier that he can probably still produce for a little while even after Father Time shows up on his caller ID. Fisher and Snead have already prepared for his departure by spending a second-round pick on Cincinnati’s Isaiah Pead. Pead has great straight-line speed and should be valuable spelling Jackson right away. Hopefully, some of the veteran’s toughness and interior vision can rub off on the rookie. Or rookies, as Pead may share some -– even a lot -– of his playing time with seventh-round pick Daryl Richardson, who had the more impressive preseason.
Gregg Williams is the new defensive coordinator, and he’ll probably never work a single game for the Rams. Fisher is ostensibly holding out hope that the NFL will reinstate his lifelong friend after this season. In the meantime, Williams’s duties will be divided between longtime veteran assistant Dave McGinnis, secondary coach Chuck Cecil, and linebackers coach Blake Williams (Gregg’s 27-year-old son). McGinnis has head coaching and coordinating experience. Cecil was a coordinator for two years in Tennessee, though with disastrous results.
Williams’s absence has critical implications because with him, it’s never been about his system, it’s been about the way he’s willing to use his system. Williams is one of the more aggressive blitz-callers in the NFL. He doesn’t necessarily turn up the pressure often (though he certainly turns it up more than most), but when he does, he turns it full blast, bringing six and sometimes seven pass-rushers. Will his replacement play-caller, whoever that is, have that kind of chutzpah?
Perhaps he won’t have to. One reason Williams blitzed maniacally in New Orleans was that he had a futile front four. St. Louis’s front four is acceptable, and potentially laudable. Though Fisher and Snead reportedly wanted to draft receiver Justin Blackmon sixth overall, they were thrilled after trading down and snatching Michael Brockers at 14. In just three years at LSU, the 250-pound end morphed into a 300-pound interior monster. Scouts have compared him to former Patriot and current Raiders lineman Richard Seymour. Brockers wasn’t a pass-rushing demon in college, but he’s believed to have significant upside here. A high-ankle sprain could cost him some games early, however.
Upside is also a key word for lithe defensive end Robert Quinn. The 14th overall pick of a year ago is slated to start on the outside after coming along slowly as a rookie. Quinn has remarkably natural swiftness. If his 265-pound frame is unable to hold up on running downs, the Rams could split his snaps with free agent pickup William Hayes, who was stout as a rotational player in Tennessee.
Any playing time Hayes gets would be on the right side, as left defensive end Chris Long doesn’t come off the field. Long is coming off a career year in which he posted 13 sacks. He’s a relentless, fundamentally sharp, base end who has learned how to turn the corner at the pro level. Recognizing that good players like Long are what quality franchises build around, the Rams gave the former No. 2 overall pick a new five-year, $60.3 million contract this past offseason, which included $36.8 million in guarantees.
Inside, Brockers will play as many downs as possible, hopefully drawing double teams that can open things up for free agent acquisition Kendall Langford. An agile lateral mover, Langford must prove that he can be more consistent playing tackle in St. Louis’s 4-3 than he was playing end in Miami’s 3-4. If he can’t be, top backup Darrell Scott will get additional reps.
With Long locked up, Snead’s next major rounds of negotiations will take place with middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, who is in a contract year. The fourth-year pro has improved exponentially since entering the league as a second-round pick. After figuring out the mental side of pro football, Laurinaitis started exhibiting sideline-to-sideline range against the run and safety-like instincts hunting up inside routes in pass coverage. He will have to pull more than his weight in 2012, as outside linebackers Mario Haggan, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and newly acquired backup Rocky McIntosh are all serviceable but far from dynamic.
"Serviceable but far from dynamic" would once have been an appropriate segue to St. Louis’s secondary, though new investments at cornerback are expected to change that. In March, the Rams signed hotheaded ex-Titan Cortland Finnegan, who can hold his own matching up with opposing No. 1 receivers week in and week out. Finnegan is not quite elite, but he tackles well, has decent ball skills, and is effective in all facets (including blitzing) when lined up in the nickel slot.
In April, Fisher and Snead rolled the dice by spending a second-round pick on Janoris Jenkins, a player with early first-round talent but a commercial airline’s worth of baggage. The latest piece of baggage came just days before the draft, when the ex-Gator (ex as in he was kicked out of the program and had to transfer to North Alabama) was arrested for marijuana possession.
If Jenkins doesn’t work out, the Rams have another long-term prospect to turn to in third-round pick Trumaine Johnson. The Montana product is a press-zone type corner, which fits this scheme well enough. (The scheme has a lot of man concepts, but as long as the corners are physical, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to apply the proper safety help.) If Johnson, who did not face top-level competition playing in the Big Sky Conference, is not ready to contribute right away, fourth-year man Bradley Fletcher will likely get the nod in nickel packages.
At safety, St. Louis has two hard-hitters in Darian Stewart and Quintin Mikell, but neither is particularly sound in coverage. Though Mikell has long thrived as an in-the-box thumper, the Rams prefer to use the springier Stewart, who also serves as the dime linebacker in that capacity. That may have to change, as the soon-to-be 32-year-old’s diminishing speed has compromised his range in coverage. Backing up both safeties is Craig Dahl, an experienced sixth-year pro who knows where to go but doesn’t have quick enough feet to always get there.
With Josh Brown gone, the Rams saw it prudent to use a sixth-round pick on kicker Greg Zuerlein. The departure of punter Donnie Jones opened the door for undrafted rookie Johnny Hekker, who, surprisingly, didn’t have any competition in training camp. In the return game, rookie Isaiah Pead will handle punts, while Danny Amendola and Janoris Jenkins are in the mix on kicks.
Things are pointing in the right direction for St. Louis, but there are still a lot of upgrades needed at wide receiver and offensive line. That could make it difficult for Bradford to regain the footing on his young career. Defensively, there’s exciting young talent on the front and back ends, but depth and a few of the starting spots are still glaring concerns.
3 comments, Last at 18 Sep 2012, 12:01am by Nick W. (St. Louis)