EARTH CITY, Mo. -- While crowds at Rams Park are up about 70 percent from last year’s training camp, the longtime attendees who have muddled through the summer heat in recent years must feel like they’re watching practice with the fast forward button permanently pushed.
That’s because, if nothing else, the 2013 edition of the St. Louis Rams is noticeably faster after an offseason in which big money and valuable draft picks were spent to upgrade an offense that’s been sorely lacking in the speed department.
“There’s no doubt that this offense has a totally different feel than the one last year,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “I think if you look at some of the pieces that we’ve added, we’re faster. We’re faster at almost all the positions on the field now. I think that puts a lot of stress on the defense. If they hesitate for a second, we’re by them. We’re going to have to figure out how to best utilize that speed and the things that we can do with that.”
Therein lies the challenge for Bradford and, more specifically, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
Like Bradford, Schottenheimer says this season’s offense has more speed than any group he’s ever been around. In addition to returning starting receiver Chris Givens, the Rams added one of the fastest tight ends in the league in Jared Cook via free agency and the most dynamic multipurpose weapon in the draft in Tavon Austin.
How that all manifests itself when the regular season arrives remains to be seen, but all signs in this camp point to a far different offensive personality than the grind-it-out Rams of the Steven Jackson era.
Bradford is quick to point out that the Rams are using a lot more "11" (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) and "12" (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers) personnel. The alignment options they have within those personnel groupings vary nearly every play during camp.
Those personnel groupings will likely turn into a more up-tempo offense meant to play off the additional speed the team has added.
“I think that gives us the flexibility to move people around and play them in different spots,” Bradford said. “Last year, I think, there were times where we were pretty predictable as far as who was going to be where and what we were going to do. I think just changing the looks, changing the formations slightly, moving guys around … I think that confuses the defense a little bit.”
Entering his second season in Schottenheimer’s offense, Bradford’s understanding of the scheme is advanced beyond any of the offenses he’s worked in previously. This is the first time he’s been in the same offense for more than one season.
That wouldn’t mean much if coach Jeff Fisher, general manager Les Snead and Schottenheimer hadn’t taken steps necessary to surround him with talent.
In fan and media circles, the phrase "make or break" has been thrown around quite a bit as it pertains to Bradford, but Fisher insists those conversations aren’t taking place within the walls of Rams Park.
“He’s improving, which is good,” Fisher said. “But I’ve said this all the time, the better the people that are surrounding him are, the better chance he has of taking another step. I think we’ve done everything we can to this point doing that with Cook, and the young receivers from last year, Austin [Pettis] is improving, so it’s a good group around him. Now we’ve got to protect him, which I feel like we can. It’s early, but our offensive line is certainly a lot different than it was to start last year.”
THREE HOT ISSUES
1.Who steps up at the skill positions?
All of the speed the Rams added to the offense won’t mean much if the young Rams receivers and running backs don’t turn raw potential into production.
Pettis is the longest-tenured receiver or running back on the roster, and he’s entering just his third season in the league. Cook, who is in his fifth season, is the most experienced pass-catcher of the group but technically qualifies as a tight end. He’s clearly formed an early bond with Bradford in camp.
Givens looks to be the one receiver whose spot on the depth chart is etched in stone as he heads into his second season. Second-year wideout Brian Quick has been mostly inconsistent in camp, but his size makes him an appealing possibility as a potential foil opposite the speedy Givens. For now, it’s Pettis holding firm in that spot.
Rookie Stedman Bailey could also force his way into the picture as he’s made a solid first impression during camp.
At running back, Richardson looks to be the leader in the clubhouse as he and Pead enter their second NFL seasons. Rookies Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham, as well as second-year back Terrance Ganaway, are also trying to work their way into the mix.
In a perfect world, all of those players will be ready to contribute right away and Schottenheimer can find ways for everybody to be a factor.
“I think, honestly, if we just design good plans and the guys work hard and know what they’re doing, the ball’s going to get spread around -- that’s the key,” Schottenheimer said. “Sam’s got to read his progressions. The ball is going to go to the open guy. You get in trouble when you’re limited and you try to force a ball to a guy or two, but when you have multiple weapons, the ball gets spread around pretty good.”
The Rams have made it clear they have no issue with relying on young players, but it could be asking a lot of such an inexperienced group to take big steps forward for the offense to take shape right away.
2. The Walton Effect
Although he’s just entering his first season as an NFL defensive coordinator, Tim Walton is certain to be an upgrade over the person who filled the position in 2012: nobody.
Walton comes to the Rams from Detroit, where he coached defensive backs in a similar system under head coach Jim Schwartz.
The Rams played the entire 2012 season without a defensive coordinator after the NFL suspended Gregg Williams for his role in the Saints bounty scandal. Williams’ son Blake, who was working as the linebackers coach, handled most of the defensive play-calling duties but was not asked to return after he didn’t mesh well with the rest of a veteran defensive coaching staff.
The defense won’t take on any major modifications under Walton as the system remains the collaboration of Fisher, assistant head coach Dave McGinnis and others. Those collaborative efforts will remain in place when it comes to game planning, but Walton will call the plays on game day.
Walton’s history working with defensive backs has also come in handy with a young group aside from cornerback Cortland Finnegan. Throughout camp, Walton has been regularly seen working with the secondary during individual periods.
While opinions about whether having a defensive coordinator will make a big difference are mixed, Finnegan believes it can only help a unit that improved to the middle of the pack in 2012 make another move up in the upcoming season.
“I think that’s huge for us,” Finnegan said. “You talk about not having that voice last year, and we still did well. I think, this year, having him being able to say yea or nay to stuff and really working on fundamentals, I think that’s something someone like myself and the guys can really benefit from him.”
3. Can the offensive line stay healthy?
The only position group on the Rams offense that boasts plenty of meaningful NFL experience is the offensive line. That’s a great place to have it, so long as that group can stay intact.
While the left-guard job still needs to be sorted out between Chris Williams and Shelley Smith, the other four on the line -- left tackle Jake Long, center Scott Wells, right guard Harvey Dahl and right tackle Rodger Saffold -- have combined for 289 regular-season starts. If Williams wins the job, that number jumps to 327.
Expecting any group of offensive linemen to remain healthy for an entire season is probably an exercise in folly, but it might be even more wishful given the age, injury history, or both, of each of the four already entrenched on the line.
Long, brought in to protect Bradford’s blind side, was the team’s biggest offseason addition and has been sharp in camp. But he’s 28 and coming off a season during which he missed four games because of a triceps injury on the heels of a back injury that cost him a pair of games in 2011.
Wells is 32 and never had an injury history of note before a foot issue cost him nine games in 2012. That came after offseason knee surgery that cost him part of last season’s training camp.
Like Wells, Dahl has never had many injury issues, but, also like Wells, he’s 32 and coming off a triceps injury that kept him out of the team’s final two games of 2012.
While Saffold is the youngest of the group at 25, he actually has the most problems staying on the field. He missed six games in 2012 after hurting his knee and seven in 2011 because of concussion, ankle and pectoral injuries. He suffered a dislocated left shoulder injury Thursday against Cleveland and is expected to miss a preseason game or two because of it.
Injury issues for Saffold could complicate things further given that he’s moving to right tackle after spending his first three seasons on the left side.
None of those concerns would matter much if the Rams had a roster stocked with experienced depth on the line, but as experienced as the starters are, the backups are pretty green.
Smith started six games last season, and swing tackle Joe Barksdale got his first two starts under his belt in 2012, but that’s it in terms of game experience among the backups.
Fisher has taken steps in camp to protect his linemen, regularly offering them repetitions off throughout practice. That leaves the members of the line hoping for the type of good luck that doesn’t come easily to many teams.
“I hope so,” Long said. “The last couple years for me, I have had the injury bug. And I know Scott has had some injuries and Rodger and Harvey. Hopefully, we can all stay healthy and strong. We are all feeling good right now, so, hopefully, we can continue that and just keep getting better.”
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The Rams defense moved into the top half of the league in 2012, buoyed by a dominant defensive line, which returns all of its key players from a season ago. That group helped the Rams tie Denver for most sacks in the league (52), and the front seven was further fortified with the addition of linebacker Alec Ogletree. The offense boasts more raw speed and athleticism than any group the Rams have put together in nearly a decade. Bradford finally has some stability with the scheme as he and Schottenheimer embark on Year 2 together.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
While talented, the Rams are almost entirely unproven at the offensive skill positions. Bradford is the elder statesman of the group, and he’s entering just his fourth season in the league. Compounding matters is an offensive line that takes on the complete opposite look from the skill positions with a group of mostly older players who have dealt with various injury issues in recent seasons. The defense will return eight starters but has some questions on the back end at safety. Taking the next step to compete in a treacherous NFC West against a difficult schedule will require big progress for young players at running back and receiver and a fair amount of luck in terms of health on the offensive line.
While Austin and Cook are garnering a lot of the attention, Givens has been perhaps the most consistent pass-catching option the Rams have in camp. Matched up against cornerback Janoris Jenkins more often than not, Givens has continued to make tough, contested catches and is running crisper routes than he did as a rookie, particularly in the intermediate areas.
Rookie safety T.J. McDonald has been better than expected in coverage. He struggled in that regard for most of his senior season and again at the Senior Bowl, but aside from some problems covering Cook and a couple of mixups in the preseason opener, he’s been solid on the back end.
Defensive tackle Michael Brockers remains the most physically intimidating presence on the roster and actually added about five to seven pounds in the offseason while packing on muscle to get to 326 pounds. If there’s one player here who seems poised for a true breakout, it’s Brockers.
In February, Fisher all but anointed second-year quarterback Austin Davis as Bradford's backup. Not long after, the Rams re-signed Kellen Clemens, and neither has done much in camp to separate from the other.
After parting ways with blocking tight end Matthew Mulligan as a salary-cap savings move in the offseason, the Rams already had some in-house options. Cory Harkey is the presumptive favorite in the role, but don’t sleep on veteran Zach Potter. He brings more experience and could be in the mix to compete with, or be kept in addition to, Harkey.
It’s highly unlikely the Rams will have as many undrafted free agents make the opening-day roster as they did a season ago, when they started with seven, but it seems as though there is room for one or two to make it, specifically at linebacker. Ray-Ray Armstrong has been consistent throughout camp, and if he can perform on special teams in the preseason, he could make it.
The Rams have three running backs jockeying for position in Pead, Richardson and Stacy, but if they opt to keep a fourth, there’s a good battle brewing between Ganaway and Cunningham for the spot. Fisher personally called Cunningham after the draft to sway him to sign, and he’s flashed the type of speed that could give him a leg up.