The St. Louis Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars have a lot in common. Unfortunately, most of their commonalities aren’t things their fans can appreciate. Both teams are struggling mightily heading into this game at Edward Jones Dome.
There are, however, plenty of interesting storylines in this one. Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan was once the front-runner to be the Rams’ majority owner before Stan Kroenke exercised an option to purchase the team.
Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert is a St. Louis native and returning for his first game in his hometown as the much maligned starter.
Those are just a couple of the topics to watch heading into this week. ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco break down the matchup.
Wagoner: Well, Mike, it looks like there may not be two teams struggling more right now than the Rams and Jaguars. Jacksonville is losing by an average of 24.5 points a game and the Rams have lost their past two by an average of 24. It’s a bit of a broad question because everything seems to go hand-in-hand in this league, but what would you say is the main thing causing the Jags to struggle so much through the first quarter of the season?
DiRocco: Like you said, it’s hard to list just one reason, but if I had to pick one, it would be that some of the veteran offensive players the team had counted on haven't performed. The defense has issues but it’s serviceable. The interior of the offensive line -- Brad Meester, Uche Nwaneri and Will Rackley -- has not played well, and that has pretty much doomed the running game. Left tackle Eugene Monroe wasn't playing that well, either, but he is one of the better young tackles in the league and his departure via trade to Baltimore will affect the stability of a line that already has given up 18 sacks. Maurice Jones-Drew doesn’t look the same, but he has had very little room to maneuver. With Justin Blackmon suspended for the first four games, third-year receiver Cecil Shorts wasn’t able to be the playmaker the offense needs and has compiled most of his catches in the second half when the games have been out of reach. Plus, tight end Marcedes Lewis has played just two snaps this year because of a calf injury.
Speaking of not performing, what is the Rams’ stance on Sam Bradford? Is he in their long-term plans or are they getting ready to move in a different direction since he hasn’t developed the way they expected?
Wagoner: The Rams insist Bradford is their guy. As recently as last week, there were reports that they’d sign him to an extension were he willing to do it now. That was before last week’s game against San Francisco but that one game surely didn’t change their mind. Bradford had some good moments in the first two games but has struggled the past two weeks, but it’s not all on him. The offensive line has been battered, the Rams have no run game to speak of and there aren’t many receivers making plays after the catch.
While we’re on the subject of quarterbacks, Blaine Gabbert is coming home to St. Louis this week and it looks like the Jaguars are sticking with him. What has held him back from developing and how much longer do you expect Jacksonville to keep him as starter?
DiRocco: Several things. He’s had three head coaches, three offensive coordinators and three offensive systems to learn in his three seasons. That would be tough for anyone to handle, but consider that Gabbert was only 20 years old when he entered the league. Plus, he’s had some injuries (toe, shoulder, forearm, ankle, thumb, hand) that have cost him eight games. He hasn’t exactly had an all-star lineup of receivers at his disposal, either. All that being said, Gabbert still has some of the same issues he had as a rookie: He’s hesitant to take shots down the field, he makes questionable decisions with the ball and he rarely steps up into the pocket to avoid pressure and make throws. The 2013 season will be his chance to prove to new coach Gus Bradley and new GM Dave Caldwell that he can be a franchise quarterback. If he struggles again, the Jaguars will almost certainly go quarterback with their first-round pick in the 2014 draft, which is looking more and more like the No. 1 overall selection.
Jeff Fisher’s Tennessee Titans teams were tough teams that popped you in the mouth again and again, even on offense. Has he gotten the Rams to that point yet?
Wagoner: I thought that he had; last year’s team was as tough and feisty as any in the league. Save for one or two games, they battled tooth and nail to the very end. So far this year, there has been a clear regression in all areas, including that toughness. They brought linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar back this week and he should at least give them a boost in that regard. There are a lot of tough players in that locker room, but for whatever reason, it’s not coming through on Sundays. You mention the idea of popping a team in the mouth on offense. Most of that is predicated on the run game. The Rams have none to speak of right now; certainly no Steven Jackson or Eddie George or any other backs that have had success under Fisher.
Of course, it seems if the Rams were going to ever get a running game going, this would be the week for it. It looks like teams have been able to run all over the Jaguars this year. How much of an issue is that in terms of opening up everything else and allowing offenses to do pretty much whatever they want?
DiRocco: The biggest problem with the Jaguars’ run defense is it has given up too many big runs. The Jaguars gave up seven runs of 20 or more yards against Oakland, one against Seattle and one against Indianapolis. It’s mainly due to blown assignments. For example, defensive end Jason Babin got caught inside on Terrelle Pryor’s long run off a read-option play. Those big plays are one of the reasons the Jaguars have given up the most yards rushing in the NFL (657, 164.3 per game), but it’s also partly due to the fact teams have been up big on the Jaguars and are trying to run clock. Opponents are able to take advantage of play-action and make plays over the top, which is compounded by the fact that the Jaguars are starting a pair of rookie safeties.
The Rams are obviously in a division that includes two powerhouse teams in Seattle and San Francisco. We know the Jaguars are not even close to being able to contend for a playoff spot, but how far away are the Rams?
Wagoner: Further away than most everybody thought entering the season, at least in their current form. The Rams raised hopes around here last year, going 7-8-1 and posting a 4-1-1 record in the NFC West. They then went out and had an offseason that drew critical acclaim for their moves in free agency and the draft. Right now, none of the things that needed to come together to push the Seahawks or Niners have come to fruition and one could argue that Arizona is at least even with the Rams in its rebuild. This is again the youngest team in the league and it should be better in November than it is right now, but the youth is no excuse for the backward steps we’ve seen to this point.