The Rams’ Make-or-Break SeasonEzra Shaw/Getty Images
Each year in the NFL, there are a number of teams that seemingly need to break through and show signs of life or risk being scrapped. NFL owners can’t cut an entire team overnight, but for these sort of teams, wholesale changes are in play. In addition to whatever personnel moves may be in store, a failure to launch in these sort of seasons often means that a head coach hits the street. This week at Grantland, I’m going to be dedicating a series of articles to teams that are in this situation in 2015. Informally, we’re calling it Brink Week.
Last year, Brink Week saw one prominent team swim while the other sank. After years of standing on the precipice and cruelly missing out on the playoffs with a series of Week 17 losses, the Dallas Cowboys finally delivered on their potential under Jason Garrett and rode a dominant offense to a 12-4 record. Elsewhere, while the Atlanta Falcons improved on their dismal 2013 campaign, but they were still plagued by late-game mistakes and a 6-10 record wasn’t enough to save Mike Smith’s job.
In 2015, one of the top candidates for Brink Week has to be the head coach situated in St. Louis. Jeff Fisher has made a career out of steering his team toward competency and enjoying the patience of steady owners. After taking over as interim coach of the then-Oilers in 1994 and going 1-5, he managed to retain the job on a full-time basis and went 7-9 before three consecutive 8-8 seasons. Going four-plus seasons without making the playoffs would doom most coaches, but Fisher got another year to prove his mettle and promptly led a 13-3 Titans team to the Super Bowl, a season that began a run of four playoff appearances in five years.
Competency has been Fisher’s hallmark, with him winning seven or eight games in nine of his 19 full seasons as a head coach. But as he enters his 20th full season at the helm of an NFL team, Fisher may very well need to take the Rams to the playoffs to retain his job for 2016. St. Louis is a young, talented team awash with players as a result of the Robert Griffin swindle, and with the 49ers disintegrating and the Cardinals likely to decline, 2015 might be the Rams’ clearest path to a postseason berth. But what can they do to get off the brink and line up for playoff football for the first time since the 2004 season?
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The offseason trade that sent longtime quarterback of the future Sam Bradford to Philadelphia only confirmed what’s been true about these Rams for a while: It’s a team built both financially and schematically around its defense, and in particular its pass rush. Another offseason decision — the move to sign pocket-disrupting Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley to a one-year, $5 million deal — only reinforced that plan. This is a team seemingly built to resemble the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl–winning Giants teams, each of whom could get pressure with four excellent defensive linemen and hold up in coverage.
The question for 2015, then, is the simple matter of figuring out which version of the Rams defense will show up. There was every reason to think that last year’s Rams team would have had a dominant, game-changing pass rush led by budding superstar Robert Quinn. Fisher had even brought in defensive wizard Gregg Williams, a mastermind at creating pressure in his previous stops, to serve as the team’s new coordinator.
And yet, like a child with a grenade launcher who couldn’t bring down the piñata, the Rams and their expensively assembled pass rush simply couldn’t find the quarterback for the first month and a half. St. Louis recorded just one sack through Week 6, leaving the Rams four sacks behind the 31st-ranked Raiders. Maybe it was the absence of Chris Long, who went down with an ankle injury in Week 1 and missed the next 11 games. Or maybe the Rams needed some time to grow familiar with Williams’s tendencies (and vice versa). Whatever was going on simply wasn’t working.
Things turned for the Rams in Week 7 when they used an inspired defensive performance and a pair of incredible special-teams plays to beat the defending champion Seahawks, 28-26. The Rams sacked Russell Wilson three times that day and never looked back; from Week 7 on, the Rams accrued 39 sacks, which tied them with the Ravens for the most. The splits are stark:
So, if the Rams play like the team that stunk up the joint for the first month of 2014, they’re in trouble. If they play like the excellent defense that clubbed the Broncos and produced shutouts in consecutive weeks for the first time since the 2009 Cowboys, well, there may be something promising to build off here.
So what changed for them to get their defense going? Memory told me they had featured a lot more of interior home-wrecker Aaron Donald, and that turned out to be true. Donald’s ascension into the lineup actually came a week before this split appeared, but it was another notable difference. Through St. Louis’s first four games, Donald suited up for just 44.1 percent of its defensive snaps. He played 88 percent of the defensive snaps against the 49ers in Week 6 and didn’t look back; over the final 12 games, Donald was in the lineup for 74.5 percent of the defensive snaps.
Donald had the team’s lone sack and two of its quarterback hits through those first four games; afterward, he produced eight sacks and 11 hits. The only other 4-3 defensive tackles to accrue nine or more sacks as a rookie during the 21st century are Corey Simon, Ndamukong Suh, and Kevin Williams, leaving Donald in awfully good company. He was a deserving choice as defensive rookie of the year, showing up on tape week after week with downright spectacular moments:
The next thing I figured, given the rise of Donald, was that the Rams improved defensively by getting away from the blitz and allowing their dominant front four to get pressure on their own. That turned out to be totally wrong. The Rams did blitz a lot during that ugly start, sending extra rushers 44.1 percent of the time, which was the second-highest rate in football. From Week 7 on, though, Williams dialed up the pressure even further. He sent blitzes on a staggering 49.6 percent of opposing dropbacks, the league’s highest rate.
You’ll understand why when you see how the Rams were performing on those pass plays where they didn’t blitz during the slow start. When Williams didn’t send pressure, his defensive line simply wasn’t getting home:
During that opening six-week stretch, the Rams were the worst team in football in terms of creating pressure without blitzing. When they blitzed, they did an excellent job of finding the quarterback. It’s only natural that Williams went to his bread and butter and started blitzing more frequently. The split wasn’t as pronounced during that 11-game run to end the season, but it’s likely Williams found a more comfortable equilibrium.
Overall, the St. Louis pass defense was significantly better when it sent blitzers. St. Louis was 17th in opposing QBR (66.4) when it blitzed. When they kept the extra rushers back in coverage, the Rams posted the league’s third-worst QBR against, a dismal 75.8. Even with Long presumably healthy, Donald improving, and Fairley arriving in town, it seems likely the Rams will stick with a blitz-heavy approach in 2015.
To blitz a lot and get away with it, you need to have athletes who can chase down receivers in your back seven. The Rams have no shortage of freaks filling those roles. Heading into last year, the lead candidate to take a step forward and emerge as a possible Pro Bowler at his position was outside linebacker Alec Ogletree, whose athleticism and ability to run with running backs and tight ends evoked comparisons to another Georgia product, Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis. Ogletree did look better in his second season, but he wasn’t the true breakout player on the defense.
That ended up as a less likely candidate. Safety T.J. McDonald is one of the less-heralded players on this defense by virtue of being a lowly third-round pick, underwhelming for a defense that includes an absurd seven first-rounders and four second-rounders among its regulars. McDonald also never really got on track during his rookie season in 2013, suffering a broken leg in September that kept him out for six games and limited his effectiveness when he returned. It’s fair to say he was flying under the radar before the 2014 campaign.
The McDonald who emerged last season was a monster. As Cian Fahey documented at Football Outsiders last week, McDonald was a run-stifling dynamo, both around the line of scrimmage and from deep in the secondary. McDonald’s athleticism allows him to get wherever he wants, but his football instincts and ability to avoid the trash around the line of scrimmage allows him to separate from the LaRon Landry types of the league and actually make plays. Football Outsiders also noted that McDonald made the second-most run tackles for a safety last year, while opposing ball carriers managed to break only three McDonald tackles.
McDonald is the best building block the Rams have in their perennially struggling secondary. Their second-best piece, sadly, won’t be appearing in 2015. Rookie sixth-rounder E.J. Gaines took over as the season went along last year and seemed to be emerging as a competent cornerback, but he suffered a Lisfranc injury early in training camp that will require surgery and cost him the entire 2015 season. It’s a huge loss, especially since the Rams didn’t draft a cornerback in this year’s draft and can’t replace him with anybody from the free-agent market better than Carlos Rogers.
Cornerback remains the one nut the Rams can’t seem to crack under Fisher. They clearly intended to solve the problem with a pair of notable moves during the 2012 offseason, signing Cortland Finnegan away from Fisher’s old stomping ground in Tennessee and drafting troubled prospect Janoris Jenkins in the second round of that year’s draft. Neither move has worked. Finnegan never settled in St. Louis and flamed out after 23 games. Jenkins has stayed on the right side of the law and exhibited an affinity for long touchdown returns, but he’s too often burned and doesn’t create takeaways frequently enough to take advantage of those return skills. He has seven interceptions and two forced fumbles in three years, and while there’s still promise there, Jenkins simply hasn’t consistently shown the coverage skills he did during his time at Florida.1
Speaking of returns, they represent one place where the Rams should be much luckier in 2015 by sheer random chance. As I wrote about in May, the Rams allowed eight touchdowns on fumble and interception returns, three more than anybody else in football. The Rams committed turnovers on 14.5 percent of their offensive drives, the seventh-worst rate in the league, but even given that frequency, eight return scores is a freakish outlier. The Eagles led the league with 36 turnovers (to the Rams’ 27) and they had just three returned for scores.
Remove those points that the defense could do little about and the Rams look a heck of a lot better. Their defense allowed just 1.63 points per drive last season, the sixth-best rate in the league. They finished ninth in DVOA, improving from 25th during the first half of the season to fourth during the second half.
I haven’t seen any evidence that teams that play better during the latter half of the season are more likely to retain that level of performance the following campaign, but if there were ever an anecdotal case to be made, it would be for a young team under a new coordinator, as is the case in St. Louis. It would hardly be a surprise if the Rams were very good — or even great — on defense in 2015.
This only leaves the other side of the football as an enormous question mark. It must be exciting for Rams fans to see that the questions have changed, at the very least. Years of waiting for Sam Bradford to break out have finally come to an end, with Bradford shipped to Philadelphia in a deal that sent the Rams an upgrade in draft picks (albeit for a pick they’ll wait to receive until next year and in a deal subject to Bradford’s health this season) and a possible quarterback of the future in Nick Foles.
Foles will likely be one of the six players starting for St. Louis in Week 1 against Seattle who weren’t in the starting lineup for the Rams during last year’s season opener. He’ll likely be St. Louis’s starter for the next two seasons after signing a two-year extension last week. The contract pushed $4.5 million in guaranteed new money into Foles’s pocket this season, with the Rams gaining the opportunity to have Foles signed to a below-market deal in 20162 while retaining the flexibility to move on. They’ll owe Foles only $8.8 million next year; if he totally flops, the Rams could cut him without sinking their entire team. And if he plays well, the Rams basically buy a year at a fraction of the franchise tag rate.
While we’re all going to be comparing Foles to Bradford, given that the deal represented a rare challenge trade of quarterbacks, the reality is that Foles doesn’t have to outplay Bradford in 2015 to represent an upgrade for the Rams. He just has to be an upgrade on the combination of Bradford, Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis, and Shaun Hill, each of whom have started between seven and nine games for the Rams over the past couple of seasons.
On talent alone, Foles should be able to do that. He’s been blessed to play underneath a pair of quarterback whisperers in Philadelphia, but even outside of the tutelage of Andy Reid and Chip Kelly, Foles should be better than a group of (Bradford aside) replacement-level quarterbacks. Even if Foles was never the star that Eagles fans deluded themselves into thinking he might be after the 2013 season, he’s certainly a quarterback with strengths. He’s developed a better sense of anticipation in terms of throwing routes open; there aren’t many players who make this throw to Jeremy Maclin against the 49ers, even if it required an insane catch from Maclin.
Foles would be an upgrade on Bradford, specifically, by virtue of his propensity to get the ball downfield. Both Bradford and Foles have strong arms, but as I wrote about before Bradford tore his ACL last season, the former first overall pick appeared to have some sort of mental block that kept him from throwing downfield with any sort of frequency or effectiveness. With Bradford out of the lineup over the past year and a half, the Rams have thrown downfield far more frequently and effectively, even with a relatively anonymous batch of quarterbacks under center.
Over his first three pro seasons, Foles has posted a 93.7 QBR on throws 15 yards or more downfield, the league’s seventh-best rate over that time frame. During his career, Bradford generated a QBR of just 59.5 on those same throws, ranking 27th out of 29 qualifying passers. And after Week 7 of the 2013 season, when Bradford last suited up for the Rams before tearing his ACL the first time, Rams passers have put up a 78.2 QBR on those same 15-plus-yard throws. Bradford may very well turn things around and be more effective throwing deep in Philadelphia — he’ll have to if he wants to run Kelly’s offense — but that hasn’t been the case in St. Louis.
The same thing helping Foles to succeed on those deep throws is what I’m afraid could hurt him in St. Louis. Like other large quarterbacks of his ilk, Foles is tough to a fault. He takes hits in the pocket in an attempt to extend plays and get guys open, which is why he was sacked on 8.1 percent of his dropbacks in 2013, even while playing behind what was then the best offensive line in football. That sack rate fell dramatically to 2.8 percent last year, but that was because Foles was more aggressive to get rid of the football before those hits. Football Outsiders notes that Foles was knocked down 34 times in eight games; had he been able to stay healthy and been hit at the same rate, his 68 knockdowns would have ranked second in the league behind Andrew Luck.3
That, sadly for Rams fans who are sick of worrying about their quarterback’s health after Bradford, would be my biggest concern with Foles. It’s not that Foles has struggled to stay healthy for an entire season. It’s that he hasn’t even been able to make it past a half-season without suffering a meaningful injury. As a rookie in 2012, a hairline fracture in his hand ended his season after six starts. During that breakout 2013 season, Foles suffered a concussion during his second start that knocked him out of the lineup; he came back two weeks later and threw for seven touchdowns against the Raiders, starting the final eight games of the year. He matched that eight-game streak before breaking his collarbone against the Texans last season.
The right situation for Foles almost certainly requires an above-average offensive line, which is difficult to picture with the 2015 Rams. St. Louis has repeatedly struggled to build its line during its decade-long rebuild, and this offseason marked the latest in demolitions. The Rams cut big-ticket free agents Jake Long and Scott Wells, moved on from faded veteran Davin Joseph, and allowed right tackle Joe Barksdale to leave in free agency without making a serious offer to retain him.
The new line is full of question marks. They’ve moved the money to the left side, where 2014 second overall pick Greg Robinson will start his first full season at left tackle alongside guard Rodger Saffold. The rest of the line is unproven. Center Barrett Jones was a star in college at Alabama, but injuries have limited the fourth-rounder to just 23 offensive snaps over 10 games in two seasons as a pro. The likely starters on the right side are a pair of rookies, with second-rounder Rob Havenstein in at tackle and third-rounder Jamon Brown slotted in at guard. There’s certainly talent up and down the line, but given how bad the Rams have been at developing offensive linemen for years, why would they suddenly get better now?
The hope for this offense is that the team’s first-rounder, Todd Gurley, is Rams-proof, that they can’t reduce him to a shell of his former self in the way that departed offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer turned 2013 eighth overall pick Tavon Austin into Dexter McCluster lite. Let’s hope Gurley can overcome the offensive line woes and basically just run over and past opposing defenders the same way he did at Georgia without having Fisher or new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti or anybody else get in his way.
It’s certainly not out of the question, although the trend of comparing the best college running back in a class to Adrian Peterson should have died out after Trent Richardson showed up and looked more like the other Adrian Peterson who played for the Bears.4 I would be worried that a healthy Gurley might not represent an enormous upgrade from Tre Mason, who averaged 4.3 yards per carry behind a pretty ugly offensive line last year. The Rams still have Mason, who will see more of the playing time while Gurley works his way back into game shape as he recovers from an ACL tear he suffered in November, but I wonder if they might have been better off keeping Mason as their starter and using that 10th pick on somebody like cornerback Trae Waynes or offensive tackle Andrus Peat.
That’s the issue with projecting this Rams offense to be very good. You can twist yourself into believing that any one of the pieces in a vacuum could be effective, but so many things have to go right for the entire enterprise to play up to Rams’ fans hopes. Foles has to stay healthy. Gurley has to recover and look like the old Gurley. Kenny Britt, who was re-signed to a two-year deal after his first fully healthy season in five years, has to stay healthy and on the right side of Fisher. Brian Quick, who showed promise last season before suffering a very serious shoulder injury, has to get back into game shape and avoid the all-too-common re-dislocations that come with his injury. The entire right side of the offensive line needs to suddenly adapt to the professional game overnight. And Cignetti, the team’s quarterbacks coach under Schottenheimer, needs to prove he can get more out of the varied personnel the Rams have assembled than his old boss did.
Some of those things will happen. If all of them occur, the Rams could take an enormous leap forward. Every year, that happens for somebody, like it did for the Cowboys on offense last season. It’s just tough to project it specifically happening for the Rams, which should mean another pairing of a very good defense with a mediocre offense. Barring an enormous burst of good or bad luck, that combination tends to produce records in the 8-8 range.
Fisher has his strengths as a coach, notably his ability to handle players who are regarded as problems by other teams, but his greatest asset might be his ability to inspire patience within the organization as he builds and rebuilds his teams. And if the Rams don’t make a leap into the postseason in 2015, even Fisher, the great survivor, might not be able to hold on to his job in 2016.