This week I had the opportunity to interview a St. Louis Rams fan that I met back in the spring while participating in the #MockTwo mock draft on Twitter, @STLRamblings. I gave him pretty short notice on the request, so I want extend my thanks for his rapid response to my questions.
@STLRamblings: Before we get to the questions, I’d like to say that I have a great amount of respect for Bills fans. Your #BillsMafia movement is fantastic and has been embraced by fans and players alike. Also, as a Canadian who has been to a few Bills games (my next one coming up this week) you all are a welcoming bunch, even when I’m at the games with my Patriots fan friends. I hope the Bills have a long and successful future in Buffalo. Now, let’s see if I can give you all some insight into this match-up.
1. 2008 Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford is finishing up his third season with the St. Louis Rams. What’s the general consensus among fans regarding their team’s quarterback?
Sam Bradford has not lived up to his draft slot but he has not been considered a bust yet either. I think the general consensus is a cautious optimism.
Bradford has had an ok season so far, and that’s the only way to put it. He hasn’t really won us any games, but he hasn’t lost us any either. At the same time, I believe fans are becoming desperate to confirm their beliefs that he is the franchise quarterback. It seems like after every win, there are fans who want to instantly label that game as Sam Bradford’s best of his career. This includes last week’s win against the 49ers where Bradford accounted for 2 points (a 2 point conversion pass to Lance Kendricks). Sure, we was poised on his last drive of the game, making some big plays with his feet to get Greg Zuerlein into field goal range, but a touchdown-less game shouldn’t be a franchise QB’s crowning achievement.
My grade on Bradford as a draft pick remains an incomplete. We haven’t done him any favours, failing to surround him with weapons and give him an offensive line he can feel comfortable behind. Personally, I’d like to see him take the reins and become more of a fiery and vocal leader but if that’s not him, it can’t really be forced. Hopefully the front office continues to be successful, gets him a couple new toys and leads him to a break-out year next season. With more weapons, it would open up a more aggressive offensive playbook, leading to better stats and hopefully more points per game.
2. The Rams have become somewhat resurgent over the past month, having won or tied 3 of their last 4 games. What’s been the key to recent success?
There are a couple things that I believe have made a big difference recently. First, I believe this team is growing together and a large group of players have made some huge strides at the same time. Remember, this Rams team is young and the roster turn over from last year was huge. This is a team who is learning to play together and learning to play in the NFL. The roster features some hungry competitors who came excited to play against division rivals (all 3 of the wins and ties came against NFC West teams). Rookies like Zuerlein (#4, K), Brockers (#90, DT), Jenkins (#21, CB), Richardson (#26, RB) and Givens (#13, WR) have all made big time developments in their games recently.
Another big factor in the recent hot streak is that the defense has begun to force turnovers again. Before the recent success, the Rams had a mid-season lull, going multiple weeks in a row without forcing turnovers. Recently, the defense has begun to capitalize on mistakes, and not only has that prevented points against, it’s actually resulted in points for. Janoris Jenkins has scored 3 defensive TD’s in the last two games (2 interception returns and a fumble recovery). If this defense can force turnovers, the offense can focus on taking care of the ball rather than putting up more points than they are capable of.
3. Jeff Fisher’s Rams have won 5 games thus far in 2012. That’s already 50% of the total wins Steve Spagnuolo was able to achieve in three seasons with the team! What does Fisher bring to the table that Spagnuolo didn’t?
Fisher is a much more aggressive coach than Spagnuolo could ever dream of being. This is evident in every aspect of coaching, from play calling to acquiring talent. In play calling, Fisher isn’t afraid to go for it on fourth down or call multiple fake punts a game. He runs a blitz heavy defensive scheme and trusts his corners, even with poor safety play. On the offensive side of the ball, he doesn’t have the weapons to get too aggressive, but he does what he can and isn’t afraid to put Steven Jackson on the bench if he feels it’s the right move. He also managed to surround his players with fantastic and experienced coordinators and position coaches. His reputation draws people to work for him, Spagnuolo didn’t carry that much influence.
The biggest impact has been his aggressive nature when acquiring talent. Spagnuolo operated under the four pillars system, which was a fancy way of saying he only wanted choir boys playing football for him. He refused to take on any players with questionable pasts or possible character flaws. This led to us having one of the friendlier teams in the league, but also one of the least talented. Fisher’s first big move was signing Cortland Finnegan (#31, CB) to a free agent deal. This NFL bad boy brought an attitude previously unknown to the Rams. This is a hard hitting, in your face defense now; I’d venture to say one of the most talented in the league. If our offense could sustain longer drives and the defense managed a little more recovery time on game days, I’d say we would be a top 5 defense statistically. He also went and drafted NFL problem children Janoris Jenkins (#21, CB) and Chris Givens (#13, WR). Both have made huge impacts in their rookie season. These are guys that would have never been looked at by Spagnuolo.
4. One of the fun stories of 2012 is rookie kicker Greg “Legatron” Zuerlein, who has been named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week twice this season. With seven field goals of at least 50 yards, what’s it like having someone with this ability on the roster?
I’m sure you’ve all heard the nicknames. Young GZ, Legatron, Greg The Leg. Zuerlein is probably the most loved kicker in the entire league. He’s got the leg to make a 70 yard field goal, and that isn’t over stating it. Of course, his accuracy causes him to miss from the longer distances, but realistically, 90% of the teams aren’t trotting out their kicker for 60 yard attempts. I’d like to see him make his field goals from 30-39 more consistently, but you have to love how poised the rookie is in kicks to win games. When your offense moves the ball as sporadically as the Rams do, it feels good to know you don’t have to go far to put some points on the board.
5. Steven Jackson has been the offense’s workhorse pretty much since taking over for Marshall Faulk in 2005, and became the team’s all-time leading rusher in 2010; after his contract renegotiation this past September however, he’s due to become a free agent in 2013. Who will be the lead back for the Rams next season?
FREE STEVEN JACKSON. I really don’t see any way that the Rams resign Jackson after this season. I believe Jackson knows it’s over, but to his credit, he is still fighting for every yard out there like the true professional that he is. I firmly believe he was being shopped early in the year as the Rams used him much more infrequently than in the past. Since the trade deadline passed, Jackson has resumed his role as the workhorse and he is running hard for that new contract. He doesn’t have the breakaway speed anymore, but he can still carry guys around and run for 6 yards per carry on a good day. I’d love nothing more than Jackson to go to a contender for the next 2 years and win a Super Bowl, and then retire as the Rams develop into legitimate contenders.
Daryl Richardson (#26, RB) has really provided a nice spark for the Rams offense as a change of pace guy. Though significantly smaller than Jackson, he is not afraid to run between the tackles and possesses enough speed to break away to the endzone. As a 7th round pick, he beat out fellow rookie and second rounder Isaiah Pead (#24, RB) with his decisive style. Pead’s role has been minimal this year, however I am still confident he can develop into a solid player. He has seen the field a few plays a game lately, usually in motion from the back field to a WR slot. Last week, they motioned him to the outside, uncovered that the Defense was in man as a 49ers linebacker followed him out, and then just overthrew a streak route that Pead got separation on. Look for that play again this week.
Next year, both Pead and Richardson will be on the team and running back will be handled by committee. I would expect that a larger back may be drafted in the later rounds or as a free agent for short yardage. Then again, Jeff Fisher has shown that he is comfortable with featuring undersized speed backs from his days as Head Coach of the Titans.
6. What’s the greatest weakness of this Rams team? If you were Chan Gailey (head coach and de facto offensive coordinator), how would you attack the St. Louis defense? As for Dave Wannstedt (DC) and the Buffalo defense, what key factor in this offense do they need to focus on shutting down?
Analyzing the defensive side of the ball, the Rams are a very solid team, but not completely air tight. The Rams strength is their defensive line. Our starters, Quinn (#94, DE), Langford (#98, DT), Brockers (#90, DT) and Long (#90, DE) have all played very well this year. Quinn and Long are getting to the quarterback with 8.5 and 7 sacks respectfully. We also have some solid depth defensive lineman in William Hayes (#95, DE) and Eugene Sims (#92, DE). With your patchwork offensive line, this will be a challenge in both the running and passing game.
Lately, the Rams defense has been giving major cushions to opposing receivers. This stems from the fact that we gave up a few longer touchdowns due to coverage break downs in the middle weeks. While it does keep the play in front of the corners, short routes are very easy to complete and can lead to long and draining drives. This style of play can lead to interceptions for Janoris Jenkins, who enjoys baiting a quarterback and then breaking on the ball. Pump fakes and double moves can be very successful against him. Finnegan has been lining up in the slot when the situation calls for it, and often blitzes from the slot as well. I would expect to see overload blitzes on the right side to attempt to overwhelm your undrafted free agent right tackle, perhaps with Finnegan and Jo-Lonn Dunbar (#58, OLB) both blitzing. When you see Finnegan in the slot, don’t assume the corner on the opposite side of Jenkins can be picked on. Both Bradley Fletcher (#32, CB) and rookie Trumaine Johnson ( #22, CB) have been solid this year. If there is one spot in our secondary you can exploit, it’s our safeties. I expect a fairly big day from Scott Chandler, especially in the red zone. Both Craig Dahl (#43, S) and Quinten Mikell (#27, S) are in the box safeties and struggle in coverage.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Rams will have a healthy offensive line for the second time this season. Saffold (#76, LT) has been an excellent pass blocker and Rob Turner(#59, LG) has played significantly better than expected, first as a reserve center and now left guard. We do have Barry Richardson (#79, RT) at right tackle, easily the weak link on the line and often requiring blocking help from Lance Kendricks (#88, TE). We don’t run off tackle often, resulting in a lot of handoffs up the middle over the guards and centres. Steven Jackson is a dangerous weapon in the screen game, so Buffalo should work hard to sniff that out. At receiver, our most consistent weapon is Danny Amendola (#16, WR) who was limited in practice this week. He’s tough and should play. He is a short yardage specialist who runs excellent routes and finds holes in zones. He doesn’t offer much in terms of yards after catch, but he is a player who could catch 10 balls this game. Chris Givens (#13,WR) is a rookie who has emerged. Early in the year, he was nothing more than a streak runner on the field for about 3 plays a game. I say runner because he was always overthrown. Then, towards the middle of the season, Bradford started connecting on one deep pass a game. Givens had a nice little streak of games with a deep pass. In the last couple games, his work with the route tree has started to pay off. He’ll run the occasional deep pass, but he’ll also run underneath routes and zone busters. He and Amendola are the only two WR’s who can get separation and win. We run to set up the pass and only push the ball down field a few times a game. If I was calling defensive schemes against the Rams, I’d run blitz heavy and challenge WR’s at the line with man-on-man coverage. Have a safety (Byrd is perfect for this) shadow Givens over the top and make sure he doesn’t beat you deep. Also, watch for the Pead ( #24, RB) streak which I referenced in question 5.
I know all you Buffalo fans see a dome team coming to play in the great Buffalo weather, but I don’t see it that simply. The Rams are not built like a typical dome team. They are a nasty defense and a run first offense. I expect their hot streak to continue into Buffalo and they will win a close game against the Bills. I see the defense forcing a few turnovers and for the most part, containing CJ Spiller with a heavy rotation on the defensive line. I also think they will take care of the ball and focus on the run game and short passes. Rams 20, Bills 17.
I’m very much looking forward to coming to Buffalo to watch this game. I will stick around the comments section and answer any further questions you might have. THE BILLS MAKE ME WANNA SHOUT!
Thanks for taking the time to answer the questions!
And to the readers, please feel free to leave a comment or question below if you have anything you’d like @STLRamblings to speak to.