Is this the year Jeff Fisher and the Rams emerge as a legitimate playoff contender in a competitive NFC West?
Coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead walked into a mess in 2012, inheriting a franchise that lost 65 of 80 games from 2007-11 — an NFL record for futility over a five-year span.
They brought the team back to respectability immediately with a 7–8–1 record in 2012. But as they enter their fourth season in St. Louis, the Rams haven’t been able to get over the hump despite harvesting a bounty of draft picks in the RGIII trade. In fact, they’ve backslid a bit each season, going 7–9 in 2013 and 6–10 in ’14.
After three consecutive years of entering the season as the youngest team in the league, that won’t be the case this season. St. Louis has a roster full of young veterans who should be approaching their primes.
The Rams can no longer blame their woes on injuries to quarterback Sam Bradford. He was traded. So with a defense that should be formidable, there really are no excuses this season. It’s win or go home.
After weeks of hearing Fisher and Snead utter variations of “Sam’s our guy,” Bradford was unceremoniously shipped off to Philadelphia for Nick Foles in a surprising trade that also included an exchange of draft picks. Foles’ arrival is just part of a massive facelift on offense. The Rams also have a new offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti and a new quarterbacks coach in Chris Weinke. They will have a new feature back in Todd Gurley and an overhauled offensive line.
Cignetti promises to streamline the playbook and simplify the play-calling. But the overall theory will remain the same for a Fisher-coached team: The Rams want to run the football, be physical and mix in the play-action pass. After a so-so 2014 season in Philadelphia that was over by midseason because of a broken collarbone, Foles will try to recapture some of the magic he displayed in 2013, when he threw 27 touchdowns with just two interceptions and had success throwing the deep ball.
A strong running game would obviously helps Foles out, and the hope around Rams Park is that Gurley is ready sooner rather than later as he completes his rehab from a November knee injury and subsequent surgery at Georgia. A healthy Gurley can be a game-changer, and paired with speedy Tre Mason — last year’s Rams rushing leader as a rookie — St. Louis has the makings of a formidable one-two backfield punch.
The receiving corps returns intact — all five wideouts from the ’14 squad and all four tight ends. In terms of continuity, that’s a luxury few teams have. Kenny Britt and Brian Quick will provide big targets as the starting wide receivers, and once again the theme for Tavon Austin is to get more involved in the offense. We’ll see if Cignetti can accomplish what predecessor Brian Schottenheimer couldn’t on that front.
The key question comes on the offensive line, where the Rams are inexperienced and could have as many as three linemen making their first NFL starts to open 2015.
With the exception of a December meltdown against Odell Beckham Jr. and the Giants, the Rams had one of the league’s elite defenses over the second half of 2014. There’s no reason to believe they can’t pick up where they left off. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, entering his second season with the club, knows his players and how to use them.
Basically the entire defense is back: Seven of the top nine defensive linemen from a year ago return, as do all three starting linebackers. All 11 defensive backs who were under contract at the end of 2014 remain under contract.
In short, the Rams could be formidable on this side off the ball. Robert Quinn and Chris Long are the bookends at end in the team’s 4-3 alignment. Reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald provides a disruptive force at tackle with his quickness and savvy. Free-agent pickup Nick Fairley gives the Rams five first-round draft picks on their defensive front. If motivated and healthy, the former Detroit defensive tackle provides another playmaking presence in the trenches.
The addition of Akeem Ayers at outside linebacker gives the Rams yet another pass-rushing option; it will be interesting to see what packages Williams cooks up for him. James Laurinaitis is as steady as it gets in the middle. Alec Ogletree on the weak side has shown pursuit and playmaking ability in his first two NFL seasons but needs to get out of the gate quicker to start the season.
The strength of the secondary is the McSafeties — strong safety T.J. McDonald and free safety Rodney McLeod. McDonald is a thumper in the box; McLeod was much improved in coverage a year ago. But the cornerbacks still give up too many big plays. Consistency remains elusive for Janoris Jenkins, who makes big plays at times and then gambles and gives up big plays at times. Look for Lamarcus Joyner, who at times looked overmatched as a rookie, to step up his play.
Punter Johnny Hekker and placekicker Greg Zuerlein form one of the league’s top kicking tandems. Hekker made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and was nearly as good in ’14. He can punt for distance and direction and is amazingly consistent, almost never hitting a bad one. And watch out for him on trick plays: The former high school quarterback can’t be ignored as a threat passing the ball out of punt formation. Zuerlein hasn’t been booming them from long distance like he did in his 2012 rookie season, when he earned the nicknamed Greg The Leg, but his accuracy has improved. In the return game, Austin hasn’t disappointed on punt returns. He still needs to be more decisive, with a little more north-and-south and a little less wiggle. But he has had a lot of big returns called back by penalties in his first two seasons, so a little more discipline by blockers should lead to bigger and better things. Benny Cunningham is an unlikely looking kickoff returner. While most are sleek and fast, Cunningham looks like a tank rumbling up field at 5'10" and 217 pounds.
The Rams have invested a lot of money and high draft picks on the defense. Now it’s time for that defense to carry the day by shutting teams down and flashing dominance whenever possible. That will be especially important early in the season while the offense gets its act together. Even without a 100 percent Gurley early, the Rams should have enough on offense with Mason and the receiving corps to grind out some victories. There are two big “ifs” attached here, however. Foles must stay healthy, and the offensive line must overcome its youth and provide effective protection. We’re guessing Foles gets it done; it’s a little more dicey when it comes to the offensive line. But after 11 long seasons at or below sea level, the ingredients are in place for the Rams to post their first winning season since 2003 and keep Fisher and Snead around for another year or more.