Zac-Stacy-CAR-2013

Three ways the Rams can improve, even without Sam Bradford

Jeff Fisher stood at the press conference podium in the aftermath of the team's biggest loss of the season, and reaffirmed his commitment to Sam Bradford for the 2014 season. The damage to his knee appears to be non-catastrophic and fully rehab-able. Kellen Clemens will take the reins in the short term, and the Rams will add depth and potentially competition at the position, but have no interest in following the Vikings down the QB-rental rabbit hole. 

That's expected news, as Bradford was having his best season as a pro and seems to have had the light come on. It should be good news as well, if Bradford can pick up where he left off. However, the overall story of the Rams won't improve — can't improve — if the other 52 players on this team continue to play as they have in the first seven weeks of the season. 

The season continues, and over the next nine weeks there are very specific things that Jeff Fisher's team must improve on if they expect to be contender-worthy when Bradford returns for 2014. 

HANDS

Brian Quick has seen his snap count grow, but had two crucial drops Sunday that cost his team a first down and a touchdown. Tavon Austin has struggled with drops all season, helping to stifle a breakout. According to Pro Football Focus, Bradford has had 21 passes dropped in just seven games.

A dropped pass is among the most costly mistakes in the game, and there is very little excuse for it. Catching the football is a practice dependent on focus and technique, like any other. 

The drops belie the fact that Bradford had become a top-ten quarterback in the NFL in terms of accuracy. PFF separates out a QB's "accuracy percentage" from his "completion percentage" by removing drops, batted passes, throw-aways, and spikes from the equation. Bradford was completing 74.1% of his aimed passes, compared to a 60.7% completion percentage overall. That difference is one of the largest in the league. 

Kellen Clemens is not going to win any accuracy awards, which means his receivers absolutely cannot allow any extra balls to hit the turf. Someone needs to step up here, and lead this gropu toward a goal of a drop-free finish to the season. 

BLOCKING

Clearly, the emphasis of the Rams offense will shift toward the run game without Bradford behind center. Zac Stacy is going to get the ball a LOT. We know this, and opponents know this. That places all the more emphasis on Paul Boudreau's unit to establish some kind of consistency in the running game. 

This might be difficult to do as long as the Rams continue to run rotations at multiple positions. Rodger Saffold and Joe Barksdale shared snaps at right tackle last week with 31 apiece. Chris Williams and Shelley Smith continue to platoon at left guard. 

Boudreau's unit has showed improvement since Stacy took over the starting job, even getting out in front for a fairly-well-blocked RB screen in the first quarter. They need to continue this improvement and build a cohesive unit. Fisher will feed them plenty of opportunities, you can count on that. 

PENALTIES

This has been the simmering-to-boiling storyline for most of the season. Fisher has had to acknowledge his team's struggles with penalty flags each week, but has been more interested in playing press-conference litigation over what should or shouldn't be called than with exhorting his team to clean up their act. 

"We will play hard," over the next nine weeks, says the coach. But can they play clean? 

If so, we might actually see the long-fabled offensive breakout for Tavon Austin. Perhaps no player in football has had more yardage taken away by his teammates' foolish penalties than Austin this year. Certainly, he leads the rookie class in that dubious measure. 

Chris Long has to retake his leadership role in this matter. He has been given free rein by Fisher to embrace his bad-boy inner self, but he knows that he lost his head in the Carolina game, and that lead to his ejection. Without their anchor, the defense collapsed in the fourth quarter.

 

As Long was escorted off the field, pelted by ice, trash and "Zima cans," he raised his hands briefly to acknowledge the visiting crowd. Internet writer Will Brinson immediately siezed on a blurry screencap of the gesture and suggested that it was a double-bird salute. 

Long broke a twitter silence to challenge Brinson's assertion, and preserve a good name for himself. Brinson ended up retracting the story. 

Why do this? Because Long knows his role on the team. To borrow the rules of Road House, Long's job is to act as the "cooler" among Fisher's collection of hard-hitting bouncers and meatheads. 

Following his example, Fisher's team can thrive by following a modified version of those three simple rules:

1) Never underestimate your opponent;

2) Take it outside (or off the field);

3) Be nice. Or at least, be professional.  

The Panthers excelled at playing the instigator, then backing off in a "just playing" attitude when the referees paid attention. Rather than recognize the ploy for what it was and focus on doing their jobs, the Rams defense unraveled mentally. As they have done week after week. 

There's a difference between playing physical football and dumb football. Long is a veteran and needs to know where that line is. He needs to hold his team to it. 

The Rams' hopes for contention may not improve in 2013 with Sam Bradford out, but if his teammates can do their jobs in his absence, they will become a better team while he's gone. Better yet, they will be far more prepared for his return. 

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