Between now and the September 9th season kick-off, Hank Koebler, IV will be previewing all the NFL teams with new teams being released daily.
2009 final record (overall, division): 1-15, 0-6
Division finish: 14th NFC West
Offensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 32nd, 29th, 28th, 20th
Defensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 31st, 29th, 25th, 27th
2009 Individual Statistical Leaders
Rushing: Steven Jackson, 1,416 yards, 4 TD
Passing: Marc Bulger, 1,469 yards, 5 TD, 6 INT; Kyle Boller, 3 TD; 6 INT
Receiving: Donnie Avery, 589 yards, 5 TD; Brandon Gibson, 348 yards, 1 TD; Steven Jackson, 322 yards, 0 TD; Daniel Fells, 273 yards, 3 TD
Tackles: James Laurinaitis, 107 total tackles; Ronald Bartell, 61 total tackles
Sacks: Leonard Little, 6.5 sacks; Chris Long, 5.0 sacks; James Hall, 4.5 sacks
Interceptions: James Butler, 3 INT, 0 TD; James Laurinaitis 2 INT, 0 TD; Oshiomogho Atogwe, 2 INT, 0 TD; Leonard Little, 1 TD, 1 INT
2010 Season Outlook
October 10 at Detroit: The Rams come to visit the only team they beat this year, and St. Louis's top draft pick will probably spend most of the game getting slammed to the turf by the Lions' top draft pick. The Lions have assembled a pretty intimidating front four, and the Rams' offensive line will have to have a phenomenal day to keep this game from getting ugly.
October 17 vs. San Diego: This, like every other game on the Rams' schedule, is a long shot for St. Louis to win. Their only chance of a victory lies in the fact that the Chargers will likely be without the services of receiver Vincent Jackson, and may be without left tackle Marcus McNeill as well. As I wrote in my Chargers preview, the loss of Jackson makes the offense a whole lot more one-dimensional and predictable. So the Rams have an outside chance of giving the AFC West Champions a run for their money.
Marc Bulger, QB; Leonard Little, DE; Adam Carriker, DT; Alex Barron, OT
Key Returning Players
Steven Jackson, RB; Donnie Avery, WR; James Laurinaits, LB; Oshiomogho Atogwe, FS/p>
Key Draft Picks
Roger Saffold, OT; Sam Bradford, QB; Mardy Gilyard, WR
Key Free Agent Signings
Na'il Diggs, LB; A.J. Freeley, QB; Chris Hovan, DT; Fred Robbins, DT
Key Acquisitions via Trade
Bobby Carpenter, LB
The core of any offense should be its line, preferably anchored by a franchise left tackle. Here, the line struggled mightily, and the struggles should continue this year. Left tackle Alex Barron was pretty bad last year, and he left the team via a trade to the Dallas Cowboys. In his place we will likely see last year's first-round pick Jason Smith moving over from the right side, while this year's second-round pick Rodger Saffold will be tasked with starting as a rookie. Right guard Adam Goldberg was fairly good in pass protection, but center Jason Brown and left guard Jacob Bell were not. In the running game, nobody was able to push defenders off of the line of scrimmage, but this was masked by the otherworldly abilities of running back Steven Jackson.
Because he plays for such an inept NFL franchise, Jackson rarely gets the recognition he deserves as possibly the best running back in the league behind Tennessee's Chris Johnson. What sets him apart from most other running backs is his leg strength. No matter how many defenders are on top of him, Jackson has an amazing ability to keep his legs moving, which often leads to him escaping tacklers and turning broken plays into big plays. Also, his leg strength allows him to accelerate quickly and get to full speed, and when he is at full speed he is able to run straight through defenders. His work ethic is commendable, as he played his hardest and carried the offense on his back even though he knew the team had no shot at making the playoffs and rarely even had a shot at winning the game they were playing. He is also the Rams' top receiving option. Without a doubt, Jackson is the entire St. Louis offense.
However, Jackson's role as the centerpiece of the offenses is due just as much to the lack of talent everywhere else as it is due to his abilities. The only remotely bright spot on the receiving corps is wideout Donnie Avery, who is better suited to play in the slot than as a team's top option. Receiver Mardy Gilyard was drafted from the University of Cincinnati to bolster the receiving corps, but the Rams' current crop of receivers still doesn't scare anybody.
Of course, the biggest talking point on the offense is the quarterback position. The Rams invested the top overall draft pick on Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford and coaches are in love with the accuracy he has displayed in offseason work. Of course, Pros vs. Joes is filled with contestants who can throw a football accurately when not being chased by 300-pound linemen. The question is, can Bradford throw this well when it matters most? The answer to this question, due both to shortcomings of Bradford's as well as the environment in which he has been placed, is probably no. Bradford put up great stats in his Heisman year at Oklahoma, but he was playing behind an amazing offensive line, and he often literally stood still in the pocket without fear of facing a pass rush. In 2009, with a majority of his offensive line departed, Bradford injured his shoulder in the very first game of the season, and when he came back, he injured the shoulder again and his season ended surgery as he had to get surgery to repair his shoulder. Many writers have pointed out that Drew Brees was tremendously successful after having the same shoulder surgery as Bradford, but Brees has incredible pocket presence and is adept at avoiding sacks, so he had less of a chance of re-injuring his shoulder after the surgery. For Bradford, who is an absolute statue in the pocket and will be playing behind a very bad offensive line, it is only a matter of time before the rookie quarterback gets hurt again.
There's also the mental aspect of the game to consider when assessing how successful Bradford will be. He did not have experience making pre-snap reads in college, and could be seen looking to the sidelines to get the plays from his coaches. Obviously, that just won't work in the NFL, and Bradford may not be ready to read an NFL defense. While coaches have stated they're confident in A.J. Feeley, a career backup, to be the starter and that Bradford won't start until he's ready, that's only because expressing confidence in Feeley sounds better than admitting "if our rookie quarterback isn't ready, we may have an even worse record than last year." On top of that, if Bradford really isn't good enough to beat Feeley for a starting job, then drafting Bradford was an absolute waste of the number 1 pick in the draft. If you have the top overall pick in the draft, then your team is most definitely not in shape to draft a player who needs to sit on the bench. Whether he plays behind a porous offensive line, or sits on the bench, Bradford's first year in the league will be a major disappointment. His preseason debut confirmed this, as he completed only 6 of 13 passes, had multiple passes swatted down, and took an astounding 4 sacks.
This isn't necessarily Bradford's fault; he didn't force anyone to draft him. The Rams deserve the blame for selecting him when they knew they were incapable of creating an environment that is conducive to a young quarterback being able to succeed. Quarterback is a position whose performance is highly dependent on the entire rest of the offense, so drafting a quarterback makes very little sense if the rest of the offense has nothing that will allow him to succeed. The Rams would have been much better off drafting Nndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy. While the amount of defensive tackles who are busts is just as high as it is for any other position, the success or failure of a defensive tackle is a lot more dependent on the tackle's abilities, rather than on the performance of ten other players.
This defense's biggest weakness in 2009 was the lack of an interior push from the pass rush, and in the draft the Rams passed up on the chance to address this need. With defensive tackle Adam Carriker being traded from St. Louis to Washington, this weakness will likely be worse. Defensive end Leonard Little was a good situational pass rusher, but he was not re-signed this offseason. End Chris Long, entering his third year as a pro, has the technique to be pretty good in the league, but he doesn't seem to have the physical burst necessary to become a consistent threat off the edge. Head coach Steve Spagnuolo's defensive success with the Giants was predicated on the ability to rush the passer with a rotation at the front four, so the lack of talent and depth among the Rams' line makes it incredibly difficult for Spagnuolo's scheme to be successful.
Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis had a great rookie season, and looks as if he could be the run-stopping anchor of the defense if the Rams put more talent around him. The Rams couldn't get much done with their outside linebackers last year, and to fix that they acquired linebacker Bobby Carpenter from the Dallas Cowboys when they traded away Alex Barron. Also acquired this offseason was strongside linebacker Na'il Diggs, who is a fairly steady player but isn't very impressive in any aspects of his game. Cornerback is possibly the biggest weakness on this defense. While Ron Bartell is a decent corner, quarterbacks aren't afraid to throw at him if he's in one-on-one coverage. Behind him is third-year pro Justin King, as well as rookie Jerome Murphy.
Safety is the one aspect of this defense that is a bright spot. Strong safety Craig Dahl is an absolutely ferocious blitzer, which helps the Rams because they have to blitz so frequently to compensate for their lack of pressure from the front. Free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe has a knack for picking off the deep ball, is a pretty hard hitter, and goes straight for the football when tackling. While Dahl and Atogwe are a very talented safety duo, the Rams' weaknesses elsewhere make the two safeties disappear. Dahl is often forced to blitz frequently, which means that offenses know to prepare for it. Atogwe is best-suited for roaming around in the deep middle of the field, but he often has to stick to man coverage because the cornerbacks are struggling.
As a whole, this defense has two or three good players, and two safeties who might actually be great. The thing is, until they're surrounded by better players, we'll never know. Again, this is why Nndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy would have helped this defense tremendously. As I've mentioned in some of my other previews, a dominant defensive tackle makes the whole defense better. Former Giant Fred Robbins, signed this offseason at the age of 33, gets decent penetration, but he isn't the dominant force that would have a trickle-down effect on the whole defense. A tackle like Suh or McCoy who would constantly demand double teams would free up the rest of the line, allowing the front four to get pressure, letting the rest of the defense make plays. Instead, because of the lack of pass rush, St. Louis's two best defensive players are easily neutralized.
Special Teams Overview
The Rams' kickoff coverage was abysmal in 2009, ranking 29th in kickoff return distance allowed despite averaging the eighth-highest kickoff distance in the league. They ranked fourth in their average punt distance, and came in 29th in average punt return distance allowed. The Rams were pretty solid in returning kicks, though; receiver Danny Amendola had an average of 11.6 yards per punt return, and 24.5 yards per kickoff return.
Kicker Josh Brown was fairly shaky last year, successfully making only 19 of 24 attempts. Throughout his career, he hasn't been much better than that, converting only 81 percent of his field goal attempts.
Head Coach: Steve Spagnuolo
Spagnuolo was brought in for one purpose: fixing the defense. He was an absolutely brilliant defensive coordinator for the Giants, and once he gets the right personnel, his defense in St. Louis will be just as good. The question is: how long will it take to get the right personnel?
Top 2011 Free Agents
Bobby Carpenter, LB
4th NFC West
As I said in the offensive overview, the selection of Nndamukong Suh would have had this team looking a lot more competitive this year. However, they chose Bradford, and their fate rests in his hands as he struggles behind a porous offensive line. While we have yet to see how Bradford, and by extension, the Rams, will turn out in the long run, the short-term prognosis is not good at all. - Hank Koebler, IV
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