Jeff Fisher made his bones in coaching with a bruising, physical defense coupled with a conservative run-oriented offense led by big back Eddie George. That was in Tennessee (and Houston). As Fisher enters his second season in St. Louis, the bruising, physical defense is still there. But this offense could be unlike anything ever seen on a Fisher team. After undergoing a dramatic offseason makeover of skill-position players, the Rams have gotten faster and potentially more explosive on offense. After finishing 25th in scoring and 23rd in total offense in 2012, the Rams may do a 180 in terms of approach this season. It may take time to see how it all shakes out, but it looks like the emphasis is on getting players in space, creating mismatches, spreading the field and picking up the tempo.
Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 7th
For the first time as an NFL player, quarterback Sam Bradford has the same offensive coordinator in Brian Schottenheimer — and the same terminology and playbook — in consecutive seasons. The apparent emphasis on more of an up-tempo passing style better suits Bradford. He did some of his best work a year ago in the hurry-up, when he was given more responsibilities at the line of scrimmage.
He’s got a speedy receiver corps with the addition of tight end Jared Cook in free agency and wideouts Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey in the draft. Four-time Pro Bowler Jake Long is the new left tackle on what already was an improved offensive line. If the Rams can find production in a backfield minus Steven Jackson, this could be Bradford’s eagerly awaited breakout season. There will be growing pains, however, because so many of the running backs and wide receivers are inexperienced. But the potential exists for a dynamic offense, one that can create a lot of matchup problems. Cook, who has 4.49 speed, will line up in the slot, out wide, in the backfield, and — oh yeah — on the line. Pairing Cook with the much-improved Lance Kendricks, the Rams can mimic the Patriots with two accomplished pass-catching tight ends.
At wide receiver, the Rams have a pair of burners in Chris Givens and Austin. Brian Quick presents a big target. Not unlike Cook, Austin will line up just about anywhere. Austin Pettis can make the tough short and intermediate catches and has developed into a decent red zone presence. But it won’t work as well without some semblance of a ground game. Second-year players Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead are smaller scatback types. The Rams traded up into the fifth round for Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy, a tough inside runner who they hope can excel in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Terrance Ganaway, who played in only three games as a rookie, will have a chance to show he can provide a big-back element.
For at least the start of the season Richardson will play the role of lead back, as he beat out the rest of the competition during training camp. Pead hurt his chances when he received a one-game suspension from the NFL for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Even though Richardson is atop the depth chart, he won't be expected to carry the load like Jackson did for so many years in St. Louis. Pead, Stacy and Ganaway all should get their share of chances during the season.
The addition of Long gives St. Louis a veteran line — at least four-fifths of a veteran line — with former Green Bay Pro Bowler Scott Wells at center, hard-nosed Harvey Dahl at right guard and Rodger Saffold grudgingly moving to right tackle to accommodate Long. If the Rams find a left guard and the unit stays healthy, this could be one of the league’s better lines.
The Rams flirted with being a top-10 defense for much of the 2012 season. If rookies Alec Ogletree (linebacker) and T.J. McDonald (safety) fill the only holes in the starting lineup, this unit should achieve top-10 status this time around.
It all starts with the pass rush. Robert Quinn and the underrated Chris Long are developing into one of the NFL’s top tandems of pass-rushing ends. They combined for 22 sacks — a big reason the Rams tied for the league lead in sacks, an amazing achievement considering they led less than one-third of the time during games over the course of the season. They still managed to get all that pressure even though they didn’t have opponents in predictable passing situations all that often.
William Hayes was a super-sub off the bench with seven sacks, backing up Long and moving inside to tackle in passing situations. As a result, the Rams didn’t blitz all that often; they didn’t have to because of the consistent pressure of the front four. That figures to be the case this year, particularly if second-year tackle Michael Brockers can continue to provide an inside push, a part of his game began developing late in his rookie season.
At linebacker, James Laurinaitis continues to be a rock in the middle, and he will be seeking his fifth consecutive season as the team’s leading tackler. He also will help mentor Ogletree, who is slated to start alongside Laurinaitis. Read-option quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick of San Francisco and Russell Wilson of Seattle took the league by storm a year ago, and the Rams are counting on Ogletree’s closing speed to help keep them in check.
The Rams' other starting outside linebacker was expected to be Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who was a surprise last year after leaving New Orleans in free agency. He is an active, aggressive hitter capable of making the splash play via interception, sack, forced fumble, or simply a jarring tackle. Unfortunately, he also will miss the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Fisher has already said that Dunbar may not be handed his starting job right away once he rejoins the roster in Week 5. Veteran Will Witherspoon, who played for the Rams from 2006-09 and for Fisher in his last season coaching the Titans in '10, is expected to fill Dunbar's spot in the starting lineup.
The only veteran in the secondary, corner Cortland Finnegan, sets the tone with his take-no-prisoners style of play. Janoris Jenkins showed he could be a game-changer as a rookie with four defensive touchdowns, but he needs plenty of technique work. After falling out of favor following a training camp injury a year ago, Darian Stewart will hold down the starting job at strong safety.
A year ago, the Rams gambled by jettisoning kicker Josh Brown and deciding not to re-sign punter Donnie Jones. Both respected veterans were replaced by rookies. One year later, it looks like the gamble will pay off. Although he tailed off later in the season, Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein was sensational for much of the 2012 season, making his first 15 field goals in the NFL and kicking seven of 50 yards or more, including an NFL rookie record 60-yarder. Johnny Hekker needs more consistency but has that rare blend of leg strength and directional skills. The issue for years in St. Louis has been the return game. Austin should help solve that, especially on kickoff returns. And don’t be surprised if Jenkins gets another shot on punt returns where he was dynamic in college.
Final Analysis: 3rd in NFC West
There’s no doubt this is a team on the rise. Fisher is a proven commodity, players love playing for him, and he has an owner and organization that gives full support — financially and otherwise. Unlike many front offices of the past, general manager Les Snead & Company actually have a plan in terms of the draft and free agency. A foundation of young talent has been established, although the team probably needs another good draft and offseason to be considered a genuine playoff contender. So 2014 may be the true breakout year, not ’13.
For now, they are dealing with a radically strengthened NFC West, with Super Bowl contenders San Francisco and Seattle the teams to beat. So victories will be tough to come by and hard-earned. The best the Rams might hope for is .500.
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New England (8/30)
NY Giants (8/30)
Green Bay (8/29)
New Orleans (8/26)
San Francisco (9/3)