Why you won't recognize Rams' offense
June, 12, 2013
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonThe St. Louis Rams are looking to be more aggressive on offense this year, encouraging quarterback Sam Bradford to take a chance if he thinks there's an opportunity for a big play.
ST. LOUIS -- Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer delivered an old-school message to players in the St. Louis Rams' first offensive meeting at training camp one year ago.
The 2012 Rams were going to seek their offensive identity in the running game, pounding away even when opponents loaded up to stop them, Schottenheimer told the team. They would wear down defenses with a run-first offense, then strike down the field in the passing game.
The thinking was sound given the Rams' personnel at the time and concerns about protecting quarterback Sam Bradford following an injury-shortened 2011 season. Now, with power back Steven Jackson gone to the Atlanta Falcons, the Rams have rerouted their offense through Bradford, loading up on speed at the skill positions and upgrading their line with tackle Jake Long's addition in free agency.
It's as if the Rams have hit the reset button on the Bradford era.
Schottenheimer is back, marking the first time Bradford has had the same coordinator in successive NFL seasons, but so much else has changed.
"Totally different," Bradford said following practice Tuesday. "The speed that we have acquired and what we have on the outside now -- and even the inside -- it suits us more to spread it out and play more one-back this year."
The Rams are banking on rookie receiver Tavon Austin and recently acquired tight end Jared Cook to create matchup problems with their speed, leading to more favorable opportunities for teammates Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Lance Kendricks, Austin Pettis and Stedman Bailey. It's happening already during red zone drills in practice, where the Rams can go with the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Cook and the 6-3, 220-pound Quick on the outside, with Austin (5-8, 174) and Pettis (6-3, 207) among those threatening from the slot.
Bradford thinks opposing defenses will have to change how they play.
"It just seems like when we played teams in the past, they were pretty much saying, 'This is what we play, you can't beat us and we're going to play it,'" Bradford said. "I don't think teams are going to be able to do that any more. They will have to design coverages to stop some of the players that we have."
Austin, he of the 4.38-second time in the 40-yard dash and commensurate stopping power, is everywhere in practice: in the slot, on the perimeter, in the backfield, returning punts. Early indications suggest he alone gives the Rams something they didn't have even when a healthy Danny Amendola was beating slot corners with his quickness.
"What takes Austin to the next level is he played a little running back at West Virginia, so his vision seems to open up, where Danny didn't have to do that," Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. "He poses a different kind of threat."
The 40-yard times for players St. Louis added compare favorably to those for players the team subtracted. Austin's 4.38 beats a 4.58 for Amendola. Bailey's 4.52 beats Brandon Gibson's 4.59. Cook's 4.49 beats a 4.9 for Matthew Mulligan.
Jackson, a phenom when he clocked a 4.45-second time nearly a decade ago, wasn't running that fast at age 29. But his 240-pound presence in the backfield, outsized by his figurative presence in the locker room, influenced how the Rams wanted to play. Jackson had earned his touches. The power game suited him.
"With 'Jack' here last year, that was going to be what we did just because he was such a great player and that fit his style of play and even the rest of the guys around him," Bradford said.
Rookie Zac Stacy and second-year backs Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson give the Rams a smaller, quicker mix of running backs this season. The 240-pound Terrance Ganaway is the traditional bigger back on the roster, but for now he's a longer shot to command playing time even if he earns a spot on the 53-man roster.
Stacy, 5-8 and 218 pounds, has caught the ball well so far. Pead, who struggled to factor as a rookie, caught Bradford's attention last summer as a potentially special change-of-pace back. Richardson averaged 4.8 yards per carry. None of the three compares to Jackson as a pass protector, power runner or team leader, but if things go according to plan, the Rams will increase their per-carry average as part of a higher-scoring attack led by Bradford.
The Rams ranked 24th in touchdown drives last season with 32, nine off the league average. They ranked 27th in points per drive.
Schottenheimer and Bradford think the offense had to work too hard for its points in the absence of "explosive" plays, defined by the team as rushes gaining at least 10 yards or passes gaining at least 20.
Some teams set the minimums at 12 yards for rushes and 16 for passes.
The parameters seem fairly arbitrary and I can't figure out why a 10-yard run would trump an 11-yard pass for explosiveness, but the general idea is clear. The Rams want to extend themselves on offense with an emphasis on the big play.
"That has been one of our philosophies going through camp this year," Bradford said. "If there is a favorable matchup and we can push the ball down the field, let's see what happens. Make our guys go make plays in practice, so if we do it in a game, it's not something that is new."
The Rams averaged 2.85 points per drive last season when they had at least one rush of 10-plus yards or one pass play covering at least 20, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They averaged 0.54 points per drive the rest of the time. The league averages were 3.44 and 0.72 points per drive, respectively.
The chart shows points-per-drive averages for the Rams and the NFL last season based upon the longest play within each drive, regardless of whether the gains were made passing or rushing. For example, the Rams averaged just 0.09 points per drive, about one-fourth the league average, when their longest play within a drive was 0-9 yards. The Rams' points per drive increased tenfold with at least one play between 10 and 14 yards, and so on.
The numbers suggest the Rams, while below average in scoring overall, moved closer to the league averages when they connected on longer plays. This could validate what Bradford and Schottenheimer felt instinctively about the Rams' struggles in grinding out drives. Poor field position was another factor working against St. Louis.
At issue: how to generate a greater number of longer plays.
Schottenheimer wants Bradford to play more aggressively overall and on third down in particular. At one point in practice Tuesday, Bradford threw incomplete to Quick on a deep post pattern against tight coverage. Schottenheimer liked the idea even though Quick wasn't really open.
"You don't force plays, but you've gotta realize if I have a guy running a post and the defender is even with him or if it's a safety on him, hey, sometimes it's worth taking a shot," Schottenheimer said, "because you are showing your player you trust him to go make that play."
There haven't been enough Rams players worth trusting in the recent past. Amendola was too frequently injured, missing 20 games over the past two seasons. The Rams in recent years were filling out their receiving rotation with stopgap players such as the recently retired Steve Smith. Now, the Rams have five wide receivers they expect to build around for years to come: Austin, Givens, Quick, Pettis and Bailey.
Austin, the eighth overall choice in the draft, stands out for his speed and elusiveness. The 6-foot-3 Pettis has had the strongest offseason of any Rams receiver, according to Schottenheimer. Givens provided five receptions of 50-plus yards last season while Bailey matched Austin with 114 receptions for West Virginia. Quick needs reps after playing sparingly as a rookie second-rounder. He had 11 receptions, two for touchdowns -- including a 36-yarder against San Francisco that was one of two scoring receptions longer than 13 yards allowed by the 49ers all season.
"It comes down to who you are going to double [cover] between Cook and Tavon, who do you single, and then do those other guys step up?" Finnegan said. "You have the variety to do so many things offensively now, and we're seeing it defensively like, whoa. It's exciting to watch. It's different."