Establish run early? On second thought ...

October, 10, 2012
10/10/12
4:00
PM ET
Steven Jackson was convinced during training camp that the St. Louis Rams would become much more run-oriented under new coach Jeff Fisher.

That didn't necessarily mean the team would finish the 2012 season with far more rushing plays than usual. What he envisioned represented more of a mindset.

"Going into this season my mentality is, I have to set the tempo initially for each and every game," Jackson said from Rams camp in August. "I believe this time we're going to use the run to set up the pass, the play-action, settle Sam [Bradford] down in the games."

That still might happen, but through five games, the Rams have departed from expected form. They have run the ball only 32.7 percent of the time in first quarters. That is the lowest percentage in the NFL and down from 48.5 percent last season.

So much for establishing the run early. So much for "settling down" Bradford.

What's going on here?

A few potential factors at work:
  • Offensive line: The Rams are playing with backups at center, guard and left tackle. Their right tackle wasn't on the roster when the team went to training camp. The Rams might not be in position to "stick with the run" for the sake of doing so.
  • Jackson's health: Jackson suffered an injury in the season opener last season. He suffered a groin injury early this season. The Rams might realize they need to limit his carries for the long haul.
  • Confidence in Bradford: The Rams have trusted Bradford with the ball. He might be the best offensive skill player on the team. If he can get the ball out quick, pass protection won't be such an issue.
  • Staff flexibility. Fisher and staff have shown they'll play to their strengths (pass rush, coverage) and away from their weaknesses (run defense). They're not set in sticking to a rigid system. So, as much as Fisher wants to establish a hard-nose mentality through the running game, he won't do so at the expense of what might give the team its best chance to win a specific game.
  • Surprise factor: Opponents preparing for the Rams early this season have surely focused on stopping Jackson, the team's most accomplished player. Jackson has topped 1,000 yards rushing for seven seasons in a row. That could open up chances in the passing game. The Rams' aggressive passing attack moved the team down the field quickly on St. Louis' opening drive against Arizona.
  • It's only five games: The Rams' first-quarter tendencies could even out as the season progresses.

Brian Schottenheimer, the Rams' first-year offensive coordinator, spoke before the season about running the ball into loaded fronts -- those with more defenders in the box than the offense has available to block them -- for the sake of establishing a physical mentality.

The Rams have 28 carries against loaded fronts, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That is tied with the Miami Dolphins for most in the league. They had 54 last season (21st), 61 in 2010 (14th), 86 in 2009 (15th) and 76 in 2008 (19th).

Jackson won't complain if the Rams do become more run-oriented early in games.

"When I shoulder that kind of responsibility, I actually go into the game a little bit edgier," he said during camp.

The Rams have run only 55 first-quarter plays on offense this season. Every team with fewer has had a bye week already. The Rams have not.

St. Louis has 18 rushes for 81 yards (4.5-yard average) on its 55 first-quarter plays. That includes two scrambles. The Rams have averaged 8.6 yards per attempt on 33 first-quarter pass plays, tied for the sixth-highest average in first quarters this season. They have 11 first downs on those 33 passes.

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