The Rams have been mirrored in a youth movement ever since Jeff Fisher signed on as Head Coach. That’s all well and good, but now it is time to show real progress in the win column. The Rams managed to beat Seattle, San Francisco and Denver but otherwise struggled to have any consistency as young teams are prone to do. From my point of view the honeymoon period is over. What will it take for St. Louis to make the playoffs as soon as in ’15? Here’s a recap of 2014, and a brief look ahead
What went right: After a record 105 defensive sacks the past two seasons STL looked like they would never get to opposing QB’s early in ’14. They had an amazing total of just six sacks in games 1-7. They finished with 40, meaning they got going with 34 in games 8-16. RB Tre Mason unseated former up and coming RB Zac Stacy and looks like someone who could be special, although blocking may be an issue. The front four of the Rams is as good as any in the NFL.
What went wrong: The Rams nearly started 0-7. It took an almost miracle win at Tampa and a two point upset of Seattle to avoid such a start. STL was far more competitive after that, coinciding completely with their uptick in defensive sacks. Losing the accurate Sam Bradford (again) hurt consistency at that position. The pass % was decent, but play was erratic and the not quite ready for prime time offensive line allowed 47 sacks. STL had a problem in the second halves of games, getting outscored 219-131. The first half was the opposite with a positive ledger of 193-135. Teams passed at will vs. STL and that is why the point totals jumped up late in games. You absolutely can NOT win in the NFL when your last three pass defense % totals are 66.2% and a pair of 68.1% figures. Another big problem was the NFL high 10 return TD’s allowed. Only Jacksonville with six and Washington with seven came close to that figure. Most of those return TD’s came in the 2nd half of their games.
2014 draft recap: STL had another two early picks thanks to the completion of the RG III trade. OT Greg Robinson was certainly not going to hit the ground running as a pass protector. The potential is there but he has much to learn. The only reason I wasn’t high on the Rams drafting DT Aaron Donald was their already embarrassment of riches at this position. Drafting Donald meant losing out on impact somewhere else and certainly STL had plenty of key needs. Nevertheless, Donald was more than solid as a rookie with 48 tackles and 12 sacks. DB Lamarcus Joyner missed time due to injury but still contributed 40 tackles and looks like someone with a future. Mason ran for 765-4.3 with four TD’s despite playing in just 12 games and starting nine games. Safety Maurice Alexander was mostly used on special teams (four tackles). Lower rated sixth round CB E.J. Gaines actually started 15 games and contributed 70 tackles but did nothing to improve their pass defense completion %. Five other Rams were drafted and not one saw the field. In fact, inaccurate QB Garrett Gilbert, unrated OL Mitchell Van Dyk, unrated CB C.B. Bryant and * rated DL Michael Sam were all cut! Nice going, Rams! OC Demetruis Rhaney is on the team, at least for now, going on IR before the season started. Free agent WR Kenny Britt stayed out of trouble and contributed.
ROSTER ANALYSIS AS OF SEPTEMBER 3RD:
QB: Nick Foles is a clear upgrade over what they’ve had, but I still believe he has only short area accuracy. Case Keenum has major potential as a competent NFL #2 option.
RB: Todd Gurley will be eased into action. Tre Mason is not 100% as otherwise the Rams could still make this work in September. The other RB’s have at best short term value.
WR: The unit is decent, but lacks a true #1 guy. They do go five deep.
TE: Solid, with two co-starters and a decent #3 option.
OL: Jeff Fisher has made a statement in the last two drafts by overhauling this unit with a heavy emphasis on run blocking skill. The starting OL has almost zero pass blocking skill. The left side looks much better than the right side.
DL: They have five players who were 1st round draft picks. Chris Long is the glue, and he needs to get and stay healthy.
LB: Once again, they have two really solid starters and one very weak option. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Akeem Ayers are the OLB options, with nothing behind them.
CB: I like three CB’s on this roster, but somehow they can’t seem to limit teams below 65% pass completions at the very least.
Safety: Mark Barron and TJ McDonald have some talent, but have not really developed into surefire starters. Rodney Mcleod actually does start, and that is not a good thing. STL could have drafted higher rated players at safety.
Special Teams: Punting is average, but maybe above average in directional skill. The return specialists have yet to live up to their lofty billing. The return D has consistently been bottom five. That has to stop.
Coaching: Jeff Fisher has spent three years building this team. Now they need to do more than be an extra dangerous underdog. The offense is a bit erratic. Gregg Williams did nothing to improve the defense in his return to coaching in ’14. Perhaps he can change that now.
TEAM KEYS AS OF SEPTEMBER 3RD: The Rams need new QB Foles to play better than he did for Philly in ’14, while also outperforming recent Ram QB’s. The pass D% has been terrible at 68.1% in EACH of the past two seasons. When does this start improving? St. Louis may be home for the Rams just one more season, but another 3-5 home record won’t give them any chance of making the playoffs.
DID THE PRESEASON MEAN ANYTHING? The Rams will start the year with Gurley inactive and Tre Mason likely missing as well. Trey Watts ran well at Tulsa and the ’14 undrafted player ran 19-87-1 in preseason. He might be their only hope for early success, forcing this run blocking OL to pass protect for Foles. Foles looked fairly sharp but took three sacks in 26 attempts. Should Foles go gown Case Keenum was 20-34 and only took one sack. I’m really worried about his pass protection. The WR and TE units were fine. Surprisingly, the run D looked solid. The Rams went into ’14 having had 105 defensive sacks the previous two years. They had 40 in ‘14, but 34 of those sacks game in games 7-16! This could be another slow start as STL had ZERO preseason defensive sacks! Once again August showed me nothing to make me feel the pass D% will get better. The ledger read 92-128, clearly over 70%! I spoke about Jo-Lonn Dunbar in the roster analysis. The 10 game starter from a year ago was cut! Akeem Ayers is the likely starter (4 tackles), with no one listed behind him. It looks like 7th round choice Bryce Hager (22 tackles) is the next man up. Unless Tavon Austin reaches his potential the return game will be average at best. The kick return defense still needs fixing.
STRATEGY AND BOTTOM LINE ANALYSIS: Everyone expects the Rams to take the next step in ’15, especially with Jeff Fisher at the helm. I like him as a coach, but this team has some holes that are not going away, and lacks a veteran presence in many areas. Specifically, the OL is not built to pass block, the LB unit is extremely thin, and the scheme used in the secondary allows opposing QB’s to complete way too many passes. STL hopes to combat these weaknesses with improved QB play, a true feature RB, and a sometimes dominating pass rush. On their side is a comfortable schedule with some tricky back-to-back road games but only one game outside of the regular Sunday setup. STL will lack their feature RB for at least the 1st month but could start fast hosting not quite ready Seattle, going to dysfunctional Washington and hosting Pitt. Sure, they could be underdogs all three games but the Rams should be disappointed if they start 1-2. With games at Arizona and GB next, 1-4 would be too much to overcome. 2-3 would be fine, as games 6-9 are hosting Cleveland and SF, at Minny and back home to face Chicago. The Rams were 3-5 at home in ’14, losing twice when favored. That has to stop or else there will not even be a sniff of the playoffs this season. Games at Baltimore and at Cincy won’t be easy. Jeff Fisher is known for road upsets but Baltimore is a physical team and that could wear on the Rams. If the Rams start 2-1 and then go 3-1 in games 6-9 they will be 5-6 before staying at home weeks 12-14 to face Arizona (poor lately), Detroit (Lions no schedule issues) and Tampa. The Rams close the season at Seattle and at SF. BOTTOM LINE: I do think 5-6 is reasonable, so the December three game home stand will be critical. By then we all should know if Foles is an improvement, if the run game is clicking, and if anything has been done to fix their pass defense scheme. I don’t see a sweep at home, so this is a soft 8-8 prediction. I respect Jeff Fisher but I wish there were more veterans on the team as well as more capable pass blockers. KEY GAME: Week one vs. Seattle. It’s almost a given that the Rams will lose at Seattle in late December. The Rams cannot control their playoff destiny vs. teams not on their schedule, meaning Divisional records will be used as tiebreakers. A loss to start ’15 could come back to haunt them. Handicapping Tip: NONE, but Jeff Fisher tends to “cover” more often than not as an underdog, especially on turf.
TENTATIVE POWER # SET: 25.5