St. Louis Rams 2011 NFL Team Preview

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We look at the Rams chances of making the playoffs this year.

<p> We look at the Rams chances of making the playoffs this year.</p>

The Rams haven’t had a winning season since 2003, and haven’t made the playoffs since 2004, when they squeaked in as an 8–8 wild card. Is this the year the team finally gets over the hump? In a still-weak NFC West, 9–7 almost surely wins the division; even 8–8 might do. Heck, Seattle became the first 7–9 division champion in NFL history a year ago.

The Rams’ schedule is daunting, with the entire NFC East on the slate, as well as New Orleans, Baltimore, and road games against both Super Bowl XLV participants (Green Bay and Pittsburgh). But in an NFL that is becoming more and more a passing league, if you have a quarterback, you have a chance. And the Rams have a quarterback in rising star Sam Bradford. The Rams are hoping that further development by a young supporting cast on offense, plus continued improvement by a defense entering its third year in the scheme, will help Bradford get the team back in the postseason.

OFFENSE 
Even as a rookie Bradford had a knack for turning busted plays into first downs and elevating the play of those around him. Now add to that mix new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who promises to bring a more aggressive and more pass-oriented approach to playcalling. If the offseason meant anything, when Bradford basically taught the new offense to the Rams’ receivers under lockout conditions, he figures to have more of a leadership role on the team this season as well. Make no mistake, running back Steven Jackson will still be a centerpiece of the offense with his unusual blend of power and speed, but the transition is now underway in making this Bradford’s team.

The receiving corps will be a work in progress with three draft picks — tight end Lance Kendricks and wide receivers Austin Pettis and Greg Salas — joining a group that is characterized by quantity but not necessarily quality. No doubt, McDaniels and head coach Steve Spagnuolo will feel much better about the passing game if Donnie Avery, Danario Alexander, and Michael Hoomanawanui can stay healthy. Avery (knee) missed the entire 2010 season, while Alexander (knee) and tight end Hoomanawanui (ankle) missed significant time. When healthy, Avery is one of the faster wide receivers in the league and provides a much-needed deep threat, while Alexander and Hoomanawanui have some big-play ability.

But the team’s ability to throw deep and the effectiveness of Jackson and the running game are linked to the development of the offensive line. Problems on the interior of the line made it difficult for the Rams to convert in the red zone and in short yardage. Improved play is needed by Jason Brown at center and Jacob Bell at left guard. Harvey Dahl was signed to (hopefully) upgrade the play at right guard. At the tackle spots, Rodger Saffold was a pleasant surprise last season as a rookie left tackle, but both he and right tackle Jason Smith need to be more consistent and more technically sound if Bradford is going to get enough time to throw deep.

The Rams were more than 100 points better on offense in 2010 than they were a year earlier, but they still averaged only 18.1 points per game. They need to add another touchdown per game to that total to be a bona fide playoff contender.

DEFENSE 
Spagnuolo made his reputation as defensive coordinator with the Giants in 2007-08, with a fierce pass rush that made frequent use of defensive ends in passing situations. He now has the chance for a little bit of that magic in St. Louis by adding first-round draft pick Robert Quinn of North Carolina into the mix at end, where he joins veteran James Hall and the emerging Chris Long. Hall and Long combined for 19 sacks last season. In passing situations this year, look for Quinn to come in at right end, with Hall sliding inside to tackle, something he has done periodically — and done well — since Spagnuolo took over in St. Louis in 2009. In addition, veteran Fred Robbins, a former Giant, has provided a good push from the tackle position. The Rams also added two veteran tackles during free agency, Justin Bannon and Dan Muir. Both should play significant snaps.

The Rams have an up-and-coming middle linebacker in James Laurinaitis, a smart, active, aggressive leader who has led the team in tackles each of his first two NFL seasons. Veteran Na’il Diggs is solid at strong-side linebacker, but the Rams need better play from the weak-side position, where four different players started at least one game in 2010. Too often, opposing teams got to the edge on running plays last season, and the Rams need to do a better job holding the point on the perimeter this season.

The Rams opted not to pay safety O.J. Atogwe an $8 million roster bonus due in February, making him a free agent, and Atogwe was quickly snapped up before the lockout by Washington. Atogwe’s penchant for creating turnovers with either interceptions or forced fumbles will be tough to replace, but the Rams did work quickly after the lockout was settled by signing former Eagle Quintin Mikell to a four-year deal. He will team with Craig Dahl at safety. The Rams are pretty solid at corner with Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher. Bartell is good in coverage although he has a track record of dropping interceptions.

Now completely healthy following a severe knee injury in 2009, Fletcher could be an emerging player with the size and long arms that Spagnuolo likes at the position.

SPECIAL TEAMS
In veterans Josh Brown and Donnie Jones, the Rams have one of the league’s best kicker/punter tandems. Brown has a knack for making long field goals, with an NFL-high 28 successful kicks of 50 yards-plus since entering the league in 2003. Jones has punted at a Pro Bowl level in his first four seasons in St. Louis, leading the NFC in both gross average (47.3) and net average (40.6) over that span. Danny Amendola, a productive slot receiver, is tough, shifty and quick as a return man and is especially effective as a punt returner. He lacks the top-end speed to be the ideal kickoff returner, and the Rams may give Mardy Gilyard another chance at that job.

FINAL ANALYSIS 
After three horrific seasons in which they lost 42 of 48 games, the Rams made impressive strides last season, finishing 7–9 and playing for the NFC West title on the final weekend of the regular season. Many, but not all, of the potholes on a talent-depleted roster have been filled, and the core of the defense now has two years experience in Spagnuolo’s complex but aggressive scheme.

Can the Rams take the next step and return to the playoffs? To do so, they’ll have to somehow survive a brutal seven-game stretch to open the season — a stretch that sees them play the entire NFC East plus Baltimore, Green Bay and New Orleans by the end of October. With that kind of schedule, it’s quite possible the Rams could be a better team but have a lesser record.

Outside the Huddle
Call him coach 
Sam Bradford became Coach Bradford during the offseason, throwing to Rams receivers in Oklahoma, Houston, Phoenix and St. Louis. During the lockout, Bradford basically taught the Josh McDaniels offense to the team’s tight ends and wide receivers — not just on the field but in the meeting room as well. It was a big step in Bradford’s rapid development into a team leadership role.

Iron man 
There were durability and injury concerns about Bradford entering his rookie year, but he quickly put those to rest. Bradford and his surgically repaired throwing shoulder played in every offensive snap — Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning were the only other NFL quarterbacks not to miss a snap.

Action Jackson 
Running back Steven Jackson gives his all on the football field, playing through pain and injury and doing everything in his power to lead the team back to respectability. But there’s more to Jackson than just football. He loves to travel. A year ago, he attended the World Cup and swam with the sharks off the coast of Africa (albeit in the “safety” of a metal cage). This offseason, he traveled to New Zealand — just missing the devastating earthquake in that South Pacific nation. Later in the offseason, Jackson went to Paris.

Hall of Fame résumé 
Jackson doesn’t have many victories to show for it, but he’s quickly establishing himself as one of the top backs in franchise history. He passed Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson as the Rams’ career rushing leader last season and added to his club mark with his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season in 2010.

If you can’t beat ’em…
Rookie safety Jonathan Nelson was a big-time Tennessee Titans fan as a middle schooler. So when Rams linebacker Mike Jones tackled Kevin Dyson just shy of the goal line to preserve a 23–16 St. Louis victory in Super Bowl XXXIV, Nelson took it hard. He got over it, but it took a while. “I was so mad at the whole one-yard line thing, and then as the years went by I got to be more and more of a Kurt Warner fan and Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt fan,” he says. “Then I really stared liking the Rams. When you like a team growing up and you actually go to that team, that’s a good feeling.”

West Welker 
He’s small, he’s white, and he’s a productive slot receiver. So Danny Amendola has been hearing the Wes Welker comparisons for years. Which is only natural since Amendola followed Welker in college at Texas Tech. The comparison is as valid as ever now that Josh McDaniels, who helped launch Welker’s career as New England’s offensive coordinator, is now working in St. Louis.

Family business 
Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is the son of the former wrestling legend known as “The Animal.” Laurinaitis created a bit of an offseason stir saying he might take up pro wrestling himself if the 2011 season was canceled. He was just kidding.
 
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