NFC WEST ST. LOUIS 2014 STRENGTHS: • Offensive line, defensive line, coaching Rams Offense Sam Bradford is on the IR after retearing his left ACL, so offensive production will fall on the shoulders of Shaun Hill. Hill has thrown just 16 passes since 2010 when he coverd for injured Matthew Stafford as the Detroit Lions starting QB. Zac Stacy is the running back people know only because he carries the ball more than all the other runners combined, though does so at less than four yards per carry. Tavon Austin is the next great hope on a receiving corps that normally takes other teams’ discards and tries to make something out of them. With this type of typical game plan, the Rams have not had a winning season since 2003. But if any head coach can take a talent-deprived, chemistrydepleted team back to the playoffs, it is third-year Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, who once transformed Tennessee from an 8-8/7-9 franchise their first five years together into a six-time playoff team in his last dozen years there, garnering 10-to-13 wins six times. If he is indeed building something in St. Louis, it is an everimproving O-line. The Rams’ offensive line ranked 12th while running and 14th when passing in 2013, giving St. Louis’ skilled positioned players belief that a foundation is indeed in place. Now if only some of these prospects started delivering on their potential. Bradford (26 years old), Stacy (23) and Austin (23) are making doubters out of most. Then again, one thing the experts don’t worry much about is the offensive line, where the left side is manned by four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long and No. two pick in the 2014 NFL Draft Greg Robinson, and the right side is controlled well by Joe Barksdale and Rodger Saffold. The house may look boring, but at least the foundation is solid. Offensive Player to Watch Watch Jake Long. If he is healthy, it is tough to find a better left tackle in the game. In 2013, he wasn’t healthy. He was still Pro Bowl material, just not All-Pro left tackle like he was in 2010. That’s what happens when you play through a 2014 WEAKNESSES: • Conservative play-calling, lack of big-play offense, little continuity on roster RAMS recovering ACL/MCL injury, as he did in 2013. For insurance, the Rams made left guard Greg Robinson the No. 2 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, ready to move the rookie over should Long need to ever rest and recover. If Long is healthy and Robinson, an All-American left tackle at Auburn, quickly learns his new position, St. Louis will have one heckuva left side to run on. Which, of course, will lead to better numbers than last year (4.11 yards-per-carry on the left end and 4.14 around left tackle—ranking 11th in the NFL in both categories). Rams Defense Defensive end Robert Quinn enjoyed one of the finest seasons an NFL defensive lineman has enjoyed in years, taking home Defensive Player of the Year honors as a reward for his hard work. But what made the Rams D-line as special as their O-line was that it wasn’t just Quinn putting in work. Fellow defensive ends Chris Long (yes, Howie’s son) and William Hayes registered 8.5 sacks and 5.0 sacks, respectively, while defensive tackles Michael Brockford and Kendall Langford netted 5.5 and 5.0 sacks. Their line presence alone helped the Rams rank fifth as a defensive line against the run—allowing only 51 percent conversion on 3rd/4th and 2 or less (ranked fourth), stuffing 27 percent of the runners behind the line of scrimmage (ranked second)—not to mention, first against the pass, according to Football Outsiders. As good as the Rams were on the D-line, they ranked 11th collectively as a team defense—third against the rush and 15th against the pass. That is why St. Louis has been trying to upgrade its linebacker and secondary options. Gambling cornerback Janoris Jenkins is one risky cover guy, while his rookie teammate and fellow cornerback LaMarcus Joyner may get a few starts this year. Then, there’s always hope they can squeeze another year out of linebacker James Laurinitis or overcome a disappointing season and see linebacker Alex Ogletree have a better 2014.
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