After checking out the Falcons season-opening opponent in the Saints yesterday, it’s time to check out their Week 2 matchup against the St. Louis Rams and many of the questions they face headed into training camp.
The Rams could prove to become one of the most interesting stories of 2013. They featured the best record within the NFC West division, which featured two of the teams that many believed were the best in the conference last year in Seattle and San Francisco. They proved to be the team most effective at thwarting Colin Kaepernick last year, primarily because of their ability to get pressure with just four rushers.
That Rams defense was in the running last year with Arizona and Cincinnati for the most underrated unit in the league that few had seen outside their respective markets.
It will feature many of the same cast of characters, helmed up front by defensive end Chris Long and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, and anchored on the back-end by cornerback Cortland Finnegan. Their biggest addition is first round linebacker Alec Ogletree, who they moved back to get when they swapped picks with the Falcons.
Ogletree is an elite linebacker prospect when it comes to his coverage potential, which was a problem area for the Rams last year with Jo-lonn Dunbar garnering too many snaps on third down akin to the Falcons own Stephen Nicholas. Ogletree’s draft stock fell due to off-field issues and questionable instincts. How quickly he can transition to the NFL and impact could have a big impact on whether the Rams defense goes from very good to elite.
They’ve had some success with players of questionable character, including cornerback Janoris Jenkins last year. Jenkins had his brilliant moments last season, taking three picks to the house, but that masked the fact that he was highly inconsistent in coverage. They’ll need him to become more consistent this year to take that next step.
If there is a major question mark for the defense it lies at the safety position where starters Craig Dahl and Quintin Mikell both departed. Mikell still remains unsigned and a possibility to return, but at this point in the summer seems unlikely. That leaves the quartet of Darian Stewart, T.J. McDonald, Matt Daniels, and Rodney McLeod competing at the position.
All are short on NFL experience, with Stewart being the most experienced. He started 13 games in a lackluster 2011 campaign, and is expected to win the strong safety spot. He’s being pushed by Daniels, but both players struggled to stay healthy last year. That hasn’t changed thus far during the off-season. Stewart missed the last two weeks of OTAs with a calf injury, and Daniels hasn’t shown he’s 100% recovered from off-season knee surgery.
That leaves a lot of pressure on third round pick McDonald, and special teamer McLeod to pick up slack at the other spot. McDonald is a hard-hitter but a bit stiff in coverage. McLeod led the Rams in special teams stops last year, but was very undisciplined (8 ST penalties was second-most in the league), which probably doesn’t bode well for being a disciplined starter on defense.
Speaking of discipline, the Rams where very much the embodiment of the opposite last year, pacing the league with 129 penalties (per NFL Penalties.com). In fact, the Rams had as many pre-snap penalties (60) than the Falcons did overall. To make improvements from a team vying for a division crown to a team that wins a division crown, that will need to change. Pacing the team was none other than franchise quarterback Sam Bradford with 8.
While Bradford had a strong rookie campaign in 2010 to help take the Rams out of the cellar they had been stuck in for years, in the years since he has been at best an average quarterback. This year will be the big year in which the Rams will need Bradford to take a step forward. He’ll get his second year with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, a measure of continuity he lacked in his first three seasons in the NFL. That should help Bradford, who has struggled when pressured as he becomes too inefficient under pressure and takes too many sacks.
Thus why the position battles up front will play a key part to the Rams’ success in 2013. With the introduction of center Scott Wells into the lineup down the stretch, the pass protection saw improvement with a sack rate that was nearly cut in half over the last six games (3.93%) as opposed to the first ten (7.2%). The Rams also brought in Jake Long to solidify the left tackle position, which should move Rodger Saffold to the right side, where he’s better suited. That should also help their discipline as his number of false starts (16 per STATS, LLC) over his three-year career dwarf say a player like Sam Baker (2) in that span.
They have a battle brewing at left guard beside Long with Rok Watkins, Shelley Smith, and Chris Williams competing for the spot. With Watkins expected to serve a one-game suspension, the Rams will open the season with either Smith or Williams in the lineup. The goal will be for one to clearly emerge during training camp so they don’t have to deal with a musical chairs act that will undermine continuity during the regular season. They don’t want to be in a position where rookie Barrett Jones’ recovery from off-season foot surgery plays a significant factor in their 2013 success.
Another key battle will be at the running back position, where second-year players Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead will be battling to replace new Falcon running back Steven Jackson. Richardson spelled Jackson last year on the majority of passing downs, surpassing second-round pick Pead last summer, who struggled to pick up the offense. After years of relying on the powerful legs of Jackson, they will hope the more explosive pair of Richardson and Pead can provide a spark to the offense.
And the spark, or rather the big play is what the Rams hope to be the hallmark of their 2013 offensive attack. Their offense may be built around top pick Tavon Austin, who is expected to be a Percy Harvin-esque weapon in the slot right away. How quickly Austin gets up to speed could essentially make or break the Rams offensive attack this year. The inability of departed slot receiver Danny Amendola to stay healthy the past two years is a big reason for Bradford’s regression, as he relied heavily on the quick, timing throws to Amendola as a rookie in 2010. Austin will be counted on to be a similar possession threat, but coupled with elite speed and ability after the catch that could spell trouble for opposing defenses.
Young receivers like Chris Givens and Brian Quick will also be counted to step up and become more potent weapons on the outside. Like Austin, Givens also has plenty of speed and flashed big play potential last year. Quick had a quiet rookie campaign in 2012, but with his size and long strides could offer a competent third option in their passing attack akin to former Falcons receiver Michael Jenkins.
Another new weapon that the Rams will be reliant upon is tight end Jared Cook, who’s blend of size, speed, and athleticism are reminiscent of Antonio Gates. But Cook has never developed into a consistent weapon after four years in Tennessee. Head coach Jeff Fisher hopes to get more out of him in St. Louis than he did with his former squad. If he can, then it will add another potent weapon to the Rams offensive mix.
The Rams are a young team that will be heavily reliant on young players to step up and become more consistent playmakers in 2013. If several rookies like Austin, Ogletree, and McDonald can hit the ground running, players like Bradford, Jenkins, and Cook can become more consistent, and top playmakers like the two Longs, Laurinaitis, and Finnegan maintain the status quo they will be a formidable team this year. Discipline and consistency are the buzz words for the Rams in 2013 and if they follow through they could potentially surprise teams with a wildcard spot, or dare I say a division title.