On Saturday, the Packers travel to the Edward Jones Dome to take on the St. Louis Rams. Joe McAtee of Turf Show Times was kind enough to answer some questions about the Rams and provide some insight into their strengths and weaknesses.
APC: This past May, the Rams added first-round pick Aaron Donald to their defensive line. How has he looked thus far in camp, and how dominant does that front four project to be this season?
He's a special talent and one that should fit perfectly into the Rams' front four. Robert Quinn exploded last year and made good on the potential he showed early in his career, developing into a pure pass rushing terror. Chris Long continues to provide a great complement on the other side. The interior was manned last year by Michael Brockers, who is continuing to refine a skill set built around power moves, and Kendall Langford who is more versatile. Donald however is one of the more athletic DTs I've ever seen. He's quicker than some linebackers, ferocious with his hands and has an uncomfortably good feel for space.
We saw it against the Saints, but I can't wait to see more of him. At Pitt, he often had too much to deal with as the focal point for opposing offensive lines. For the Rams, he won't be double teamed or schemed for anywhere near as much thanks to the talent around him. I'm biased as a Rams fan, but anyone who wouldn't grade this line as one of the best in the NFL would have a lot of explaining to do.
APC: Rams Quarterback Sam Bradford tore his ACL seven games into the 2013 season. How far along is he in his recovery, and will he make an appearance when the Packers come to town this week?
Everything coming from the team suggests he's 100%...or whatever version of 100% you are coming off an ACL tear after less than a year. In any case, the team held him out of the proceedings against New Orleans because #precaution, but HC Jeff Fisher went on record saying he'll play this week. I'm not sure there's a ton of logic behind keeping him on the sidelines for the first game out of concern for whatever level of risk there is and then playing him this week, but then again the Rams haven't been on good terms with logic for quite some time. The bigger concern right now for Rams fans is the assurance the team has given that LT Jake Long will be ready for week one after tearing both his ACL and MCL last season. He'll be out against the Packers, but things appear to be on track for him for the regular season.
APC: Last season, St. Louis built a reliable ground game behind running back Zac Stacy. They doubled down on the position with the selection of Tre Mason in the draft. How is the running game shaping up, and whom do you expect to serve as the lead back in the Rams' offense?
It's a bit of a mixed bag right now and one Rams fans aren't of one mind on. Personally, I think a lot of Stacy's early success last year came about because of an offensive scheme shift that nearly coincided with Bradford's injury which was awfully convenient. Stacy didn't get his first start until week 5 against the Jaguars; he performed well averaging just over 16 carries in the first three games after he took the starting role all with Bradford at the helm. The following three weeks, all coming after Bradford's season ended, he had more than 25 carries in each game. Without Bradford, the Rams were forced to rely on the running game because Kellen Clemens was the best option at QB and when Kellen Clemens is the best option at QB, your best option on offense is to run the ball.
So I think teams were a bit unprepared (a) for the increased volume in the running game but also (b) the quality of it initially. Later on in the season after Stacy had established himself and teams remained without reason to worry about Clemens, they began clamping down on the run. Of the last five games of the season, only one included a strong performance from Stacy. Two of them (the road contests against divisional foes Arizona and Seattle) served up a combined 40 yards on 29 attempts. So whether it was a rookie wall or a stamina issue or, my preferred rationale, increased defensive preparation and scrutiny from opponents, the rushing game was much less viable later on in the year.
All that being said, I'm not sure how it's going to stack up come week one. I expect Stacy to hold on to the starting role. Other than that, I don't feel all that comfortable predicting anything with any certainty. I wasn't very high on the Mason pick from the get go, so I'm not all that convinced he's going to immediately serve as the backup for Stacy. The Rams have been publicly pretty high on Benny Cunningham who earned the respect of the fans last year for some of his performances, so we'll have to see how it plays out. If nothing else, Saturday's game will be of interest for Rams fans to see more of the running game and who's involved.
APC: In recent years, the Rams have invested several high draft picks at the wide receiver position. How is their receiver corps developing, and who has stood out the most?
Oh jeez. See, this is the problem when you're not good for so long. There's so much uncertainty at too many places.
I'd say we're better at the position we were five years ago, but that's not saying much. I'm concerned that Rams fans are excited about two players who really don't warrant that much excitement based off of their 2013 performances: Kenny Britt and Stedman Bailey. Britt has rejoined Jeff Fisher from their time in Tennessee via free agency this offseason, but is coming off a dismal season last year in which he only caught 11 passes for 96 yards. To be fair, he's looked very good in camp, and it's hard to forget how much impact he had on the field early on in his career. It's just tough for me to get excited over someone who couldn't get much time somewhere else last year.
As for Bailey, his rookie year production surpassed Britt in 2013...with a whopping 17 catches for 226 yards. Add to that a four-game suspension to start this year, and he's not exactly someone that most NFL spectators outside of St. Louis would be all that impressed with. A sizeable contingent of Rams fans are committed to the idea that Bailey is on the verge of stardom. To me, it comes off a bit more like hope than reality. And yes, he too has looked good in camp. His touchdown reception against the Saints only added fuel to the fire that Bailey fans are stoking. But if you want me to place a bet on the Rams' wideouts on a pair of guys that totaled 28 receptions for 322 yards in 2013...I'd keep my money in my pocket.
OBLIGATORY TAVON AUSTIN MENTION.
APC: With the addition of Greg Robinson and the return of Scott Wells, have the Rams solved their issues along the offensive line or will their inconsistent play continue?
Quietly, the Rams offensive line did pretty well last year. Football Outsiders had them ranked 12th overall in run blocking and 14th in pass protection. Being in the top half of the league for anything is something the Rams aren't accustomed to in the last decade, so I'd take that any day. Much of the credit has to go to offensive line coach Paul T. Boudreau who found a way to make it work in 2012 and improve his unit last season. I mean, he turned Chris Williams and Shelley Smith into free agent additions that the receiving fan bases were excited to bring aboard. That's damn near miraculous work. I think the Rams' O-line has gotten a bit of an unfair rap in past years because they weren't stacked with big draft selections and Bradford's injuries tended to suggest he was the recipient of some poor line play (I would point to the fact that Bradford's ACL injury last year occurred when he was pushed out of bounds at the end of a scramble, not a protection issue). That's seemingly changing with Jake Long on board, a big contract to maintain Rodger Saffold and the attention a #2 pick brings.
Speaking of, GRob's been as advertised thus far: ridiculously strong, but unrefined technically. He's capable of absolutely mauling defenders in the run game, but his feet are a bit slow in pass protection right now and he's got a learning curve in front of him to boot. This is where I point out that he declared for the draft after his redshirt sophomore year, so as a 21-year-old, he's got plenty of work to do to get his game right for the NFL. He got time both at guard and tackle against the Saints, but he's headed for starting duties at left guard in week one, so I wouldn't be surprised if that's the only spot he gets work in against Green Bay.
We'd like to thank Joe and Turf Show Times for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A session over there as well as their fantastic coverage of all things Rams. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company this Sunday for our comprehensive game day coverage of Packers vs. Rams.