Optimism exists in St. Louis again, and this time, we're not talking about the Cardinals. The team that plays its home games less than 10 minutes away at Edward Jones Dome, the St. Louis Rams, enter the 2013 season with high hopes.
Even in a division widely considered the most elite in all of football, St. Louis can point to several factors that allows them to believe they can be competitive and possibly even win the NFC West. Those factors include a 4-1-1 record against divisional opponents last season, the addition of key pieces offensively, and a defense that tied for an NFL-high 52 sacks in 2012.
As Jeff Fisher enters his 2nd season as head coach of the Rams, he also brings back offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, which bodes well for quarterback Sam Bradford, who will be working under the same coordinator in successive years for the first time in his career. However, the losses for St. Louis this offseason are important to point out.
That list is headed up by All-Pro running back Steven Jackson, who is now in Atlanta. Jackson, who joined the 10,000 rushing yards club last season, had always assumed a leadership role for the Rams for most of his nine seasons in St. Louis. Bradford also lost two of his favorite receivers in Danny Amendola (New England) and Brandon Gibson (Miami).
Yet the Rams feel like this year they are a different bunch. No longer do they have the identity of a ground and pound, short yardage team. Now, spotlighted with quite a bit of speed at each skill position offensively, St. Louis feels like they can spread the field more and present a different look to opponents than in the last several years.
Most say it's make-or-break for Bradford, who undoubtedly has more weapons to work with than he's had in his short career with the Rams. Bradford, who is coming off of a year where he set career highs in yards (3,702) and touchdowns (21), is surrounded by speed on the exterior this season that should catapult him into performing like the #1 pick that he is.
That speed comes from 2013 first-round draft pick Tavon Austin, who should help the Rams immensely in the receiving and return game. Also brought in at receiver includes Austin's college teammate Steadman Bailey, and also tight end Jared Cook, whom the Rams grabbed in free agency this summer. Along with productive receivers Chris Givens, Brian Quick, and Austin Pettis, Bradford has an arsenal of pass catchers that are capable of making big plays.
The running game is the major question mark for the Rams entering 2013. A spot that was once among the strongest on the team is now filled by 2nd year players and rookies. The two backs poised to get the bulk of the carries include second year running backs Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson.
Richardson, who showed flashes of speed and talent last season, rushed for 475 yards, which ranked second on the team. Pead, a second round pick out of Cincinnati in 2012, has the skill to compete for a spot that Fisher says will likely be a committee system. St. Louis also picked up former #1 pick Jake Long to play left tackle, who should help protect Bradford better and vastly improve an offensive line that hasn't been especially great over the last several years.
If the Rams can score more points next season, they have a defense that can hold teams from reaching the end zone, leading to a possible increase in wins next season. The Rams defense, who tied the Denver Broncos with a league-high 52 sacks, returns six of their front seven from last season, including defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn, who both recorded double-digit sacks last year.
They also return their leader on the defensive side of the ball, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, who was fourth in the NFC in tackles last season with 142. Drafted in the 1st round, the Rams brought in linebacker Alec Ogletree, who will add some speed and athleticism to the linebacking corps.
In the defensive backfield, the tandem of Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins proved to be problematic at times for offenses in 2012, and should show improvement in 2013. The pair combined for 7 interceptions and 5 defensive touchdowns last season, with Jenkins getting 4 of the defensive touchdowns. Jenkins, a 2nd round pick from North Alabama, led the NFL in defensive touchdowns during a rookie campaign where he started each game opposite Finnegan.
The safety spot is questionable for St. Louis this season, with Darian Stewart assuming the starting strong safety duties now, and rookie T.J. McDonald the leader to start at free safety. Stewart brings some experience, but not nearly as much as recently released safety Quintin Mikell did last season as the starting safety.
St. Louis is slated to be a surprise team in the NFC next season. If things line up well for them, they could compete for the NFC West division crown. However, lack of experience and a brutal schedule could keep them near the middle of the pack in the NFC, with an optimistic outcome of a potential Wild Card berth. Either way , the Rams should be much improved, and whether that's 8, 9, or 10 wins this season, the Seahawks and 49ers may soon have company at the top of the division.
By: Kenny Bunch