William_Hayes_PRE-2013

2013 Rams Season Preview: Young Team Must Prove It Before They Can Ram It

Suddenly, there are stakes. It has been a long time since there have been legitimate, justifiable expectations for winning Rams football, and you can tell St Louis doesn’t really know how to act. The local history of relevant professional football boils down to two blips: the too-brief Air Coryell days of the late 70s, and the Greatest Show on Turf (four years bracketed by the trade for Marshall Faulk and the release of Isaac Bruce).

That’s approximately seven seasons out of seventy-something in which the locals have had above-average football to watch. So while the young and radically retooled Rams are gaining palpable excitement around the league, there is a strong and classically Missourian vein of “show me” embedded in the bedrock of the local fan base.

You say that Tavon Austin is the most electric player in this year’s draft, and the perfect fit for this offense? Fine. Show me.

You say that Sam Bradford is ready to take a major leap forward with his first taste of offensive continuity, even without his favorite target in the passing game? Fine. Show me.

You say that the Rams will be fine without Steven Jackson, with a mildly fumble-prone sixth-round pick and an undrafted rookie replacing him? I might be willing to be persuaded. Show me.

You say that the Rams are actually excited about moving on from Jo-Lonn Dunbar, and lining up three rookies around decrepit Will Witherspoon? All to the good. But first, you have to show me. 

OFFENSE

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People like to say that this is, or will be, a "make or break year" for the leader of this offense, and they may be right. But I'm not talking about quarterback Sam Bradford, to whom Jeff Fisher is extremely committed. I'm talking about the author of his playbook, Brian Schottenheimer.

Schottenheimer has an unmistakable advantage in landing coaching jobs, thanks to his father's long coaching tenure and extremely prolific coaching tree. There are many, many veins of coaches in the college and pro ranks that owe some sort of fealty to Papa Marty. Scheme-wise and legacy-wise, he made for a natural fit between Fisher and Bradford. His playbook has WCO and spread-friendly concepts that are quarterback friendly, but without sacrificing Fisher's love for a physical run game.

However well-burnished his family name, though, Schottenheimer has yet to coach up a consistent upper-tier offense. Yes, he was hamstrung for four years by the Mark Sanchez Work Ethic ("I promise to go read the playbook, as soon as I figure out which soccer headband to wear for this GQ photo shoot"), and by a lack of talent here.

But I found it telling, and troubling, how badly his team performed against the AFC East in the Rams' interconference matchups last year. Neither the mighty Patriots, the perpetually rebuilding Dolphins, nor the woeful Jets had any fear of the Rams offense, and we only barely squeaked out a miracle win vs the execrably coached Bills thanks to some receiver heroics in the two-minute drill.

Now, truly, it is Schottenheimer who finds himself without excuses if this radically restocked offense fails to take shape.

If we cherry pick the things that have worked for him in the past, we can point to the trifecta of Drew Brees, Darren Sproles and Antonio Gates in San Diego's passing game back in 2007-08 and roughly thumbnail in Bradford, Tavon Austin and Jared Cook. We can look at the Jets' surprising red zone efficacy with Sanchez (Bradford), Dustin Keller (Cook again, or maybe Lance Kendricks) and Plaxico Burress (big bodied Brian Quick). We can look at the relative fearlessness and frequency with which Sanchez found Santonio Holmes (Chris Givens) deep downfield.

We can also look at the consistency with which he generated running threats whether he has had LaDanian Tomlinson or Shonn Greene to work with. A good thing with our grab bag backfield, whose most talented player has the least head for the game.

In fact, all those are good things, and on paper combine in potentially interesting ways to create a potent passing game here. Sam Bradford has been stuck at the freshman level of his coordinators' playbooks for the past three seasons. With Sanchez's lack of development, arguably it has been five years since Schottenheimer has been able to teach anything beyond a 101 course. So while many national writers have written both quarterback and coach as non-factors, maybe each is ready to show what the other can do. Maybe.

Can Sam Bradford and his new toys take a big step forward in 2013 with Schottenheimer's playbook? Sure, if his preseason leap to 10.2 yards per attempt (third behind only Drew Brees and Tony Romo among starting QBs) is a reliable indicator.

But, you know. Show me.

DEFENSE

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The one constant on Schottenheimer's resume has been consistent support from an upper-tier defense. He should have that again, despite question marks in the back seven.

No one will, or should, question that the Rams have a fearsome front four, including a rotation that goes comfortably nine or even ten deep, counting practice squad players. The specter of injury looms over all teams… This unit is the lone one on the Rams that could survive a rash of visits to the training room and still be effective. And if they stay healthy? The trio of Michael Brockers, Robert Quinn and Chris Long are as dangerous and versatile as any in the game.   

Savvy defensive coordinators can take a single dominant unit, or even a single dominant player (in the case of Darrelle Revis in his prime, for example), and reshape how opposing offenses have to play against you. If you can effectively take away a whole part of the field, or whole chapters out of the playbook, you’re already on the road to winning.

Is Tim Walton that savvy defensive coordinator? Could be. We’ll see. Show me.

Walton will be filling the coordinator position for the first time at the pro level, but he lands on a defensive staff that has more than enough experience to go around. If you want to know where to assign credit for last year's top 10 defense and league-leading sack total, consider this: each of the position coaches return; the brash kid calling plays is gone.

Also gone are a quartet of starters in the middle of the defense: quality starters in Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Quintin Mikell, and thrift store donations in Rocky McIntosh. In their places, and bookending them on both sides,  start players with a variety of chips on their shoulders. (Call them the Frito Lay defense? Nahhh…)

Will Witherspoon: crusty vet must prove he has something left.

Alex Ogletree and Ray Ray Armstrong: rookie conversion projects must justify the boatload of snaps they're about to receive.

TJ McDonald: must prove numerous draftniks wrong who called him too stiff and uninstinctive.

Rodney McLeod: an upjumped special teamer has to prove he can handle the full defensive playbook.

Then you have a whole bag of chips being carried around in the secondary by Janoris Jenkins (too soft in coverage?), Trumaine Johnson (sophomore slumping?), Brandon McGee (too small?), Cortland Finnegan (…you name it).

For opposing offensive coordinators it looks like a grab bag of enticing options, but each of the young players has a gambler's moxie and enough speed to turn a mistake into points. The canniest of the bunch might be Jenkins, who was asked as a rookie to spend every snap against opposing teams' number ones, and who was the fifth-most thrown against cornerback in football. (Finnegan was 7th.) Jenkins also led the NFL in defensive touchdowns. If he is ready for a major leap forward, this defense gets legitimately dangerous.

But, you know. Show me first.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The dynamic kicking tandem of Johnny Heller and Greg Zuerlein could become long-term difference makers for the Rams, not just in the obvious ways (65 yard field goals anyone?). In preseason week 3 vs Denver, the two absolutely dominated starting field position, erasing dangerous return man Trindon Holliday, and making the field longer for Peyton Manning and company. 

Both players have abundant leg talent. What they have to prove in 2013 is consistency. Zuerlein's long distance accuracy has suffered from extended droughts and occasional mechanical hiccups. Hekker's biggest concern is reining in his leg, to keep from outkicking his coverage. 

On the other side of the ball, Tavon Austin is capable of providing fireworks on punt returns, and while the kickoff return game is up in the air, Benny Cunningham has the job to himself at least for week one with Isaiah Pead suspended. For an undrafted rookie, every week is a "Show Me" week, so expect Cunningham to be prepared. 

THE SCHEDULE

Depending on whose advanced stats you use, the Rams played either the toughest (Football Outsiders) or the second-toughest (PFR) schedule in football last year. Obviously, playing six games against the suddenly powerful NFC West is a factor. (Hey, even the Cardinals were a 4-0 team when we first played them last year.)

Surprisingly, though, the conference games weren't a problem for the Rams last season, amassing more wins vs the division than the previous four years combined. And for the third season in a row, they have a chance to travel to Seattle to knock over the division’s newest bully at season’s end. If everything goes right, there may be a playoff berth at stake.

But the home losses to the likes of the Jets and Vikings, and improbable week 1 road loss to the Lions, are the kinds of games that need to be improved upon. Road Trips to middling teams like the Cowboys (week 3), Panthers (week 7) and Colts (week 10), and home hosting of would-be patsies Jaguars (week 5) and Titans (week 9) are where the mettle of this team will be measured.

The Rams aren't so improved that they can take any team, any game, for granted. They will be tested each and every week, and no weakness is easier to exploit than overconfidence.

That's not to say that confidence is a bad thing. They can and should believe themselves to be a good team, capable of going toe to toe with anyone.

Can they get to ten wins? Absolutely. Could they slip and fall to ten losses, even without catastrophic injury? I don't like to think about it, but it could happen. Could they sneak into the playoffs? For the first time in a long time, I'm not willing to write off the possibility. 

But first, they have to show us all.

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