NFC West: Alec Ogletree

Rams Camp Report: Day 8

August, 2, 2014
Aug 2
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ST. LOUIS -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of St. Louis Rams training camp:
  • The Rams held their annual scrimmage Saturday, coming out in full pads for the first time. While none of the principals competed in any live drills, the first-team offense and defense did match up for some extended team drills. They spent those drills working at "thud" tempo with the defense making contact with the shoulder pads but with no live tackling. The first-team offense continued to show signs of life in the early live drills, with quarterback Sam Bradford and receiver Stedman Bailey hooking up for big gains twice in as many snaps. Bailey had a big day in general, catching about 10 passes during live drills and seven on seven. Bradford later connected with Kenny Britt for a long touchdown on a perfectly thrown deep ball. But when the drill moved closer to the goal line, the defense stood tall and kept the offense out of the end zone on consecutive handoffs from the 2.
  • At the end of the practice, the Rams did some live scrimmaging using primarily backups and rookies vying for roster spots. There were a few notable exceptions, though. Greg Robinson (left tackle), Aaron Donald (defensive tackle) and running back Tre Mason took some reps during the live portion.
  • One area worth watching in this camp is the development of the tight ends and running backs in blitz pickup. The running backs, in particular, don't have much experience in blitz pickup. When those groups took on the linebackers in the one-on-one drills, the decided advantage went to the linebackers again. Presumptive starter Zac Stacy is coming along in that regard, but there is still a lot of work to be done. The tight ends had a little more success, with Cook actually getting a couple of good reps in. And another player to keep an eye on is undrafted free agent Alex Bayer. Bayer seems to be technically sound as a blocker and could emerge as a strong candidate to win a potential fourth tight end spot on the roster. The flip side, of course, is the linebackers' success. Alec Ogletree was especially impressive in those drills. Gregg Williams should be able to have some fun with Ogletree behind this defensive line.
  • We haven't had any full-blown fights in this camp, but a mini-scuffle broke out during the aforementioned linebacker-running back drills. Running back Benny Cunningham and linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong exchanged shoves and words before being separated.
  • The Rams took some precautions with their many banged-up players but at least so far it doesn't seem they have any serious issues. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers left practice a bit early Friday after tweaking an ankle and returned Saturday only to depart when shaken up again. The Rams might just have to be cautious with him moving forward to ensure he doesn't make it worse, but it doesn't sound serious. Linebacker James Laurinaitis came out with a walking boot on his left foot after getting stepped on earlier in the week. The injury isn't believed to be more than a mild ankle sprain, though. Offensive lineman Rodger Saffold also left Friday's practice with an apparent hand/wrist injury. He did not practice Saturday and watched from the sidelines with no cast or wrap on his hand. Like Brockers, Saffold's injury isn't believed serious. Other notables not practicing: Cornerbacks Lamarcus Joyner and Janoris Jenkins, offensive lineman Barrett Jones, defensive lineman William Hayes and receiver Brian Quick.
  • Funniest moment of the day: Backup quarterback Shaun Hill took a snap and as he dropped to hand it off, tripped over his own foot into a head first somersault, with jeers and laughs from his teammates.
  • The Rams are off Sunday and will return to practice Monday at 4:30 p.m. ET at Rams Park.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- There was a time in the not so distant past where, if you ranked NFL rosters from No. 1 to 32, placing the St. Louis Rams at No. 31 would have been considered a compliment.

As the Rams trudged through one and two-win seasons, the lack of talent was so glaring that not coming in last on such a list would be cause for celebration. But those times are gone. Or they should be, anyway.

The folks from Pro Football Focus released their own roster rankings Insider on ESPN Insider on Thursday and much to my surprise and, perhaps, that of many others, the Rams checked in at No. 31. That is not a typo, the Rams finished ahead of Jacksonville, narrowly avoiding a last-place finish.

[+] EnlargeJames Laurinaitis
AP Photo/Tom GannamMiddle linebacker James Laurinaitis is rated as a below average starter in an analysis of NFL rosters by Pro Football Focus.
Four or five years ago, anyone watching the Rams would have been hard-pressed to disagree. As we sit here in 2014, most would do so vehemently.

To put some context behind the ranking, Pro Football Focus has its own methods of measuring each player's production. They use film study and have developed their own grading system which is then used to assign each player a color designation. Those colors correlate to a label for each player of "elite," "high quality," "good starter," "average starter," "below average starter," "poor starter," "not enough information" and "rookie."

Obviously, the more players ranked as a "good starter" or above, the better the roster will be. For example, the No. 1 ranked Seattle Seahawks have three elite starters, seven high-quality starters and eight good starters. According to PFF's metrics, the Seahawks have just two below average starters and zero poor starters.

When it comes to the Rams, the only elite player according to PFF is defensive end Robert Quinn. That is an assessment that is hard to disagree with both in the sense that he is absolutely an elite player, but also in the roster being void of others who would qualify for that label.

However, it's in the middle part of those rankings where I would disagree with PFF's ranks. Of the team's 22 starters, PFF has the Rams down for seven below average starters, eight average starters and two poor starters. That means 17 of the 22 players on the roster are average of worse, according to PFF.

Included in the group of below average starters are middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, outside linebacker Alec Ogletree and tight end Jared Cook. Running back Zac Stacy and defensive tackle Michael Brockers are two of the starters deemed average, and safeties T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod are the two listed as poor starters.

While Laurinaitis, Ogletree and Cook certainly have their faults, I wouldn't consider any of them below average based on how they produce compared to others at their positions. That is not to say any of them should be considered elite, but Laurinaitis and Ogletree were two of the most productive linebackers in the league last season, and Laurinaitis has a track record of producing far better than below average or average. Ogletree has plenty of improvement to do, but improved throughout the season and provided plenty of flash plays. Cook didn't put up numbers commensurate with his contract in the first season, but still finished 10th in the league among tight ends in receiving yards, fifth in yards per catch and tied for 11th in touchdowns. If nothing else, those numbers would put him right at average.

By no means am I saying the Rams should be a top 10 or even necessarily a top 20 roster, but it's hard to understand how some teams on the list, such as Minnesota and Oakland, could be ahead of St. Louis.

The Rams certainly have more than their share of question marks heading into 2014. They have been the youngest team in the league two years running and look poised to be once again next season. It's also worth considering that a roster that young still has managed to finish with seven wins in each of the past two seasons. If the roster was older and treading water, I could understand the argument for it being one of the league's worst.

But it isn't. It's folly to think all of the Rams' young players will develop into top starters in the league. There is plenty of work to be done before the Rams roster can be considered one of the league's best. But they've done enough that they should no longer be deemed one of the worst.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams have made a habit the past two years of continuing to perpetuate the blockbuster trade they made with the Washington Redskins by making additional deals.

In fact, in the first two years with Les Snead as general manager and Jeff Fisher as coach, the Rams had made at least one trade with each of their three first-round picks, not to mention other deals made in later rounds.

But the Rams managed to sit still, not fidget and make some picks in Thursday night's first round. In selecting Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson with the second overall pick, the Rams added the final piece of the puzzle from the trade with the Redskins.

While we won't be able to fully assess the deal for some time, the Rams certainly came away with quite a haul when you factor in all the pieces they have added. Of course, if quarterback Robert Griffin III goes on to a big career, the Redskins won't mind the cost. All of that is to be determined.

In the meantime, here's a breakdown of what the two sides received in the trade:

Washington received: QB Robert Griffin III

St. Louis received: DT Michael Brockers, CB Janoris Jenkins, RB Isaiah Pead, G Rokevious Watkins, LB Alec Ogletree, WR Stedman Bailey, RB Zac Stacy, OT Greg Robinson

As we sit here today, that means the Redskins got a starting quarterback. The Rams, meanwhile, got starters at defensive tackle, cornerback, linebacker, running back and offensive line with a receiver who could likely grab that role this year.

All-NFC West: St. Louis Rams

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
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» NFC Teams: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

 ST. LOUIS -- As though the St. Louis Rams' last-place finish in the hypercompetitive NFC West division wasn't enough of a reminder of how far they have to go to become legitimate contenders again, one need only look at how they fared in our voting for an all-division team.

While Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona each had at least seven representatives on a team consisting of 26 players, the Rams finished with just three players to qualify. In all honesty, it's hard to argue with the result, save for one notable exception I'll get to in a moment.

The three Rams to make the list are defensive end Robert Quinn, outside linebacker Alec Ogletree and returner Tavon Austin. Before we get into the reasons, let's lay out the rules of the voting here. We voted for actual teams with an additional defender allowed because of the different defensive schemes used by the teams in the division. We also stuck to positions so we couldn't just vote for the four best linebackers regardless of inside or outside. We had to have two outside 'backers and two inside 'backers.

With that out of the way, it's hard to argue against any of the three Rams who made the cut.

Quinn was the obvious choice, an absolute no-brainer who is not only the best at his position in the division but in the NFL as a whole. He has built a compelling case to be the league's defensive player of the year. Quinn became a complete player in 2013, adding a much-improved ability to stop the run to his repertoire in addition to his dynamic pass-rush skills. All of that added up to his first career Pro Bowl invitation.

Ogletree put together a strong rookie season, showing the type of week-to-week improvement the Rams hoped he'd achieve after using a late first-round pick on him in 2013. Staying on the field for all three downs, the former college safety was adept in coverage right off the bat, but game experience helped his instincts and he got better against the run along the way. What's more, Ogletree showed a knack for the splash play, forcing six fumbles and returning an interception 98 yards for a touchdown.

It should be noted that while Ogletree had a good year and is deserving of his inclusion, he's also a direct beneficiary of our voting rules. Other outstanding linebackers were left off because of the plethora of talented inside linebackers and the standard allowing for only two of them to make it.

In a division loaded with dangerous returners such as Arizona's Patrick Peterson and Seattle's Golden Tate, it was the Rams' other first-round pick who landed the votes to be the team's returner. Austin had a rocky start as a returner as penalties from his teammates nullified some big returns and left him frustrated in the first part of the season. But Austin grew up along with his young special-teams units and began to find a groove. His scintillating 98-yard punt return for a touchdown against Indianapolis was the team's most exciting play of the season and just a glimpse of what the future may hold for the dangerous rookie.

All three of those Rams are deserving of their place on this team and though I argued vehemently for the inclusion of one more, punter Johnny Hekker, he came up short to the more well-known name in San Francisco's Andy Lee. In fact, each NFC West reporter threw out a nomination for the punter he covers, but the case for Hekker was far better than the others. He was consistently excellent throughout the year and set the league record for net punting in a season. At least the Pro Bowl voters got that one right.

Aside from Hekker, it's hard to see anything more than maybe some minor quibbles with the team from a Rams perspective. Cases could be made for Michael Brockers at defensive tackle or Greg Zuerlein at kicker. Jake Long likely would have landed a spot if we took the two best tackles rather than a left and right.

As it's currently constructed, I have little doubt the Rams' roster is much better than it was when coach Jeff Fisher arrived. For St. Louis to take the next step, more players like Quinn will need to take the next step forward and emerge as elite in the game's toughest division.

Rams-Buccaneers study session: Defense

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
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ST. LOUIS -- Some thoughts and observations on the St. Louis Rams' 23-13 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, after reviewing the All-22 film.

  • Let's get our weekly praise for defensive end Robert Quinn out of the way right now. The most impressive thing about Quinn's day against the Bucs wasn't his three sacks. It's that he managed to get them despite having only a handful of snaps in which he didn't receive extra attention. Quinn is often described as being super athletic and fast, both of which are true, but his non-stop motor deserves mention, too. As this game went on, Quinn began to find ways to use the extra blockers against the Bucs. On his second sack, Quinn noticed an extra blocker in the form of a running back chipping on the outside, Quinn made contact with the back and left tackle Donald Penn, used an inside spin move and got to Mike Glennon for the sack. His understanding of space and angles has improved to the point where he's finding ways to not only win athletically but with intelligence as well. To think, Quinn is only 23.
  • [+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Robert Quinn
    Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty ImagesRobert Quinn recorded three sacks against the Buccaneers, bringing his season total to 18.
    The Rams run defense has made certain strides in the final month and a half of the season, shutting down nearly everyone since that Tennessee game. This one was no different. There are many reasons for that improvement, including better tackling across the board but one player who might not be getting enough credit is defensive tackle Kendall Langford. Langford has been integral in shutting down the run and he was particularly impressive in this one. Langford and Michael Brockers punished the interior of Tampa Bay's offensive line for most of the day, pushing them around in the run game or, at worst, getting a standstill at the point of attack. Langford isn't just occupying blockers, either. He had a couple of nice plays getting off blocks and dropping Bobby Rainey for a loss.
  • It was a solid day overall for the Rams linebackers with Alec Ogletree again leading the way. His week-to-week progress continues. Watching him go after the ball is impressive. Quinn gets most of the attention for his ability to get strip sacks but Ogletree has a knack for identifying when to go after the ball and then finding a way to get it out when he does. Both of his forced fumbles came after he'd established the tackle was about to be made and before the runner was down. It's an ability that seems to be innate for Ogletree, who had no glaring missed tackles to my eye, another sign of improvement.
  • James Laurinaitis has quietly put together another strong season and he was good in this one as well. Laurinaitis seemed to know where Rainey was running every time he got the ball and was a sure tackler when he got there. Jo-Lonn Dunbar also had perhaps his most productive game of the season.
  • Rookie safety T.J. McDonald also looked to have one of his better games. He's had a habit of missing tackles he should make but I didn't see any from him and he looked more sure of himself coming on the blitz as well.
  • Speaking of blitzes, the Rams did a nice job of “adding” in this one. The concept is simple. When a team sends extra blockers to one side, you can add pieces to the places vacated and create major matchup issues. On McDonald's sack near the goal line, the Rams moved Quinn to defensive tackle with Ogletree and McDonald lining up on the edge over left tackle where Quinn usually lines up. Both blitzed as the Bucs tried to send extra help on Quinn. Ogletree was picked up but McDonald went untouched and nearly had a safety. Coincidentally, Quinn still beat his man but McDonald simply got to Glennon first. That type of confusion comes from a simple but well-designed concept.
  • William Hayes didn't play much but made the most of his chances. He played about 16 snaps but recovered two fumbles and stuffed a run in that time.
  • I've consistently believed the Rams defensive line is at its best when the secondary -- especially the corners -- is aggressive in coverage. Which is to say when they play more press coverage and force routes to take longer to develop. Glennon had few chances to get the ball out quick and the Rams took advantage for seven sacks. ESPN Stats & Information keeps a statistic for time a quarterback has the ball before passing. Glennon's time in this one was 4.13 seconds on average. That's a bit longer than what he's used to and the credit for that goes to the Rams doing a good job in coverage. For comparisons sake, the Rams had just one sack against Arizona's Carson Palmer on a day when he got the ball out in 2.68 seconds. He did that against soft zones where receivers came open right away.
  • The cornerback duo of Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins seems to be coming into its own a bit toward the end of the season. Jenkins has had some hard luck on close interference calls this year but he's also been guilty enough that he's not going to get the benefit of the doubt. Still, he continues to battle and come up with a picture perfect pass breakup or two seemingly every week. From a pure coverage standpoint, the past two games might have been his best of the year. Johnson was even better against the Bucs, though he appeared to get turned around on a long completion to Vincent Jackson. Hard to tell if it was his responsibility, though.
  • Aside from a silly block in the back on a punt return, it was another solid day for the Rams special teams. Johnny Hekker and Greg Zuerlein make one heck of a punter/kicker combination.

Morning Ram-blings: A fumble fest

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
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ST. LOUIS -- After a 2012 season in which fumbles were hard to come by for the St. Louis Rams' defense, it's taken just two players to better the team's number of forced fumbles in 2013.

The Rams managed to force just 12 fumbles in 2012, and even on the rare occasion they jarred the ball loose, they struggled to come up with it. This year there's been no shortage of opportunities or recoveries. In fact, the Rams have more fumble recoveries (15) in 2013 than the dozen forced fumbles they had last year.

More telling, defensive end Robert Quinn (seven) and linebacker Alec Ogletree (six) have combined for 13 forced fumbles this year, also topping last year's total. Quinn is tied with Indianapolis linebacker Robert Mathis for the league lead in that category. Ogletree is next behind Quinn and Mathis after he added two more to his total against Tampa Bay on Sunday.

“We knew if we could get to the ball we definitely had a chance of possibly getting the ball out," Ogletree said. "I was able to get to the ball and get the ball out along with some of the other guys.”

That's been a familiar refrain for the Rams' defense. After adding Ogletree's pair of forced fumbles to the tally, the Rams have 21 forced fumbles this season, the most in the league. The team's 15 fumble recoveries are tied with Kansas City for most in the NFL also.

The Rams nearly had another one late in Sunday's game against the Bucs but didn't get the benefit of a review when Quinn appeared to get to Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon before his arm could come forward late in the fourth quarter.

There's been a direct correlation between turnover differential and wins for the Rams this year. That's far from a novel concept, but the Rams and Bucs were even in giveaways Sunday and St. Louis still managed a win.

“I really wish they would’ve reviewed that last one they called incomplete," coach Jeff Fisher said. "We might’ve gotten another one because there was clear recovery there, but we’ll take a look at it. When we struggle, we’ve lost the turnover battle, so to come away with a win, not having the edge there [in turnovers], it’s rewarding.”

When the Rams were struggling to get fumbles last year, Fisher insisted that things like fumbles come in cycles. Last year was a downturn, but it's clear the opposite has been true in 2013.

I.C.Y.M.I.

A roundup of the weekend's Rams stories appearing on ESPN.com. … In Saturday's matchup stories, we offered three things to watch in the Rams/Bucs game as well as a trio of individual matchups worth keeping an eye on. … In Rapid Reaction, we offered some quick thoughts on the Rams' victory. … From there, it was a quick news story on the injury to left tackle Jake Long. … Next, we discussed the need for the Rams to prioritize Rodger Saffold in the offseason, especially in light of Long's injury. … Finally, we examined the big picture with a look at how the Rams are better now than they were a year ago at this time and what that could mean for the future.

Elsewhere:

Prim Siripipat and Tom Waddle break down the Rams' Week 16 win over the Buccaneers.

At stltoday.com, Jeff Gordon offers his weekly report card.

Jim Thomas supplies his running recap of the Rams' win.

Meant to get this in the other day but worth mentioning here, Bernie Miklasz posits that it's too soon to call receiver Brian Quick a bust.

Nate Latsch at FoxSportsMidwest.com took a look at Robert Quinn's big day from a little different angle.

A quick game recap from Turf Show Times.

Upon Further Review: Rams Week 16

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
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ST. LOUIS -- A review of four hot issues from the St. Louis Rams' 23-13 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

Crown him: In this space last week, we made a strong case for why Rams defensive end Robert Quinn should be the leading candidate for the NFL's defensive player of the year. Quinn only added to the résumé against the Bucs, racking up three more sacks and six tackles. In the process, Quinn became the franchise's single-season leader for sacks, besting Kevin Carter's previous record of 17 by one.

[+] EnlargeRobert Quinn
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsWith three sacks of Bucs QB Mike Glennon, Robert Quinn moved into the league lead with 18 on the season.
Quinn's 18 sacks now lead the NFL in that category, and he remains tied with Indianapolis' Robert Mathis in forced fumbles with seven. Despite constant double- and triple-teams, Quinn kept battling against the Bucs and proved once again why he should be the leader in the clubhouse. Teammates William Hayes and Chris Long carried Quinn off the field to chants of "MVP, MVP" at the end of the game. No player has wrecked more offensive game plans in 2013.

Don't forget Ogletree: Rams rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree hasn't been as prominently mentioned in the defensive rookie of the year contest as Quinn has in the defensive player of the year battle, but maybe he should be. Ogletree added eight tackles, half of a sack and two forced fumbles to his tally against Tampa Bay.

For the season, Ogletree has 110 tackles, 1.5 sacks, an interception return for a touchdown, six forced fumbles, eight pass breakups and five batted passes. His half-dozen forced fumbles trail only Quinn and Mathis in that category.

Losing Long: Not all of the news from Sunday's game was positive for the Rams. They lost left tackle Jake Long to a knee injury three plays into the game, and coach Jeff Fisher said there's concern that it's a torn ACL. That would mean a long road to recovery for Long, leaving the Rams with even more questions on an offensive line that figures to have plenty in the offseason.

Rodger Saffold ably filled in for Long against the Bucs and continues to show his value through not only his versatility but also his ability. Saffold's pending free agency now becomes an even more pressing issue for the Rams as the offseason nears.

Rookie ramblings: The Rams have had no problem relying on rookies to produce all season, as they are the league's youngest team for the second year in a row. That production has been hit or miss from week to week but Sunday's game provided a glimpse into what could be when this year's group reaches its potential.

Ogletree is something of a given in terms of production at this point; so is running back Zac Stacy, who provided his fourth 100-yard rushing game of the season Sunday. Now, others are starting to become more prominent. Receiver Stedman Bailey had three catches and rushed for a 27-yard touchdown. Safety T.J. McDonald had six tackles and a sack.

That doesn't even include top pick Tavon Austin, who didn't play because of an ankle injury. If the growth of this year's class from Week 1 to now is any indication of the future, this draft class might be the type of foundational group that leads to big things for the Rams in the future.
ST. LOUIS -- Since the moment the St. Louis Rams were officially eliminated from the playoff race on Dec. 8 in Arizona, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis made it abundantly clear to his teammates what will be expected of them in the season's final three games.

In that losing locker room, Laurinaitis wasted no time telling his many young teammates that playing out the string is unacceptable. Using his words, anything less than an upward pointing arrow at the end of the 2013 season would be unacceptable.

That's why, even after his team matched its 2012 win total of seven with a 23-13 win against Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon, Laurinaitis wouldn't even allow himself a moment to enjoy that feat.

"No, I want to get to eight," said Laurinaitis, now in his fifth season. "I've never been at .500 or above. I'm trying to take us there."

[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' James Laurinaitis
Scott Kane-USA TODAY SportsThe Rams aren't satisfied with seven wins. "No, I want to get to eight," fifth-year linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "I've never been at .500 or above. I'm trying to take us there."
The Rams' victory against Tampa Bay represented the next step in a progression that maybe hasn't gone exactly as planned but is still evident as the Rams close out the season.

With seven wins on the year and one game to play, the Rams have an opportunity to reach that .500 mark, a number they haven't hit since 2006. It clinched a winning record at home (5-3) for the first time since 2010 and only the second in nine seasons. It gave the Rams a winning record (6-4) outside the NFC West division this season after a 3-7 showing last year.

It also signals a chance to quantify improvement over Year 1 of the Fisher regime.

Since coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead took over the franchise last offseason, they have been quietly building toward what they hope will be a 2014 breakthrough season.

That means there will be no excuses heading into 2014, but if the Rams are to make that next step next year, they had to first start by showing that the 2013 edition of the Rams is better than the 2012 version.

As they head toward the finish line, there's ample evidence piling up in that direction.

"I haven't really looked at the whole scheme of it in terms of the season," Laurinaitis said. "We're a ton better than we were earlier in the season. I think we have a lot of young players that are coming strong. It's going to be a big offseason for us."

The Rams' reliance on young players was never more evident than it was against Tampa Bay. The response was strong contributions from guys who may have struggled with their opportunities early in the season or perhaps weren't even on the field.

A rookie class the Rams have depended on heavily provided the type of production that offers an even brighter future. In fact, most of the rookie class looked like full-grown men.

Linebacker Alec Ogletree had eight tackles, half a sack, a tackle for loss and two forced fumbles. Running back Zac Stacy grinded out 104 yards on 33 carries with a touchdown.

Receiver Stedman Bailey had three catches for 44 yards and rushed for a 27-yard touchdown on a double reverse. Safety T.J. McDonald had six tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit.

That doesn't even include No. 8 overall pick Tavon Austin, who missed the game with an ankle injury, or any of the valuable second-year players like cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson or defensive tackle Michael Brockers, among many others.

"We're a football team that unfortunately is not going to the playoffs, but you would not know it by the way that we continue to come in, continue to work and continue to show up on Sundays," quarterback Kellen Clemens said. "And a big part of that has been the contributions that we've gotten from some of these young players."

Clearly, the Rams believe they have the personnel in place to become a contender. In addition to the progress of those young players, they've also found the right formula to put their players in position to succeed.

Even before starting quarterback Sam Bradford was lost for the season to a knee injury, the Rams had started to find that identity. That they've won four games with Clemens under center means they've found it.

"Run the football, play good defense and then the other things happen," Fisher said. "They stem off those things. You play good defense, you rush the passer, get off the field on third down and run the football and then good things happen. ... That's how you have to win."

The overall concept of being a better team than they were the year before is a sort of intangible idea that can be hard to gauge. The Rams believe they're better than they were in 2012 and they look better at this stage than they did earlier this year and last year.

Of course, there's still another more tangible way to prove it.

"We have got a big one in Seattle," Laurinaitis said. "Young team, that's a tough place to play. I'm not sure it will mean a lot to them because they have already clinched, but it will mean a lot to us."

It would mean real, tangible progress heading into 2014.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Much has been written and said this week about the chances of St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn taking home the defensive player of the year award. That includes plenty from this corner of cyberspace.

Lost in the end of the year award conversation is the candidacy of a pair of Rams rookies for their respective rookie awards. With two weeks to go, running back Zac Stacy and linebacker Alec Ogletree are probably long shots for the offensive and defensive rookie of the year awards, respectively. But both have done enough to at least have their names thrown into the hat.

We detailed Stacy's season here yesterday but there have been almost no rookies more productive on the offensive side of the ball than Stacy since he became the Rams' starter in week 5. In that time, Stacy has the second most carries among all backs and is fifth in rushing yards.

Stacy
Ogletree
The problem for Stacy's chances is that one of the few backs who has been more productive is also a rookie. Green Bay's Eddie Lacy has been nothing short of fantastic in that span, leading the league in rushing with 977 yards and seven touchdowns on 233 carries. Many consider Lacy to be the leader to win offensive rookie of the year.

Those that don't point to San Diego receiver Keenan Allen or, to a lesser extent, Cincinnati running back Giovani Bernard. Allen has 63 catches for 931 yards and seven touchdowns acting as a revelation to a San Diego offense in desperate need of a reliable receiving target.

Although things could change in the next two weeks, Stacy is probably on the outside looking in but if you weigh his value to the Rams' offense, particularly after the loss of quarterback Sam Bradford, a case can be made for him to at least finish in the top three.

Ogletree faces a far more difficult climb to merit consideration in the defensive rookie of the year race. Steadily improving throughout the year, Ogletree has posted the type of numbers that would make him a strong candidate in most seasons. He has 101 tackles (third among rookies), four forced fumbles (first), eight pass breakups (fourth) and five batted passes (first). He also has a sack and an interception he returned 98 yards for a touchdown.

That body of work should qualify Ogletree to have his name firmly in the mix but the production of many of the top defensive rookies this year has been impressive.

New York Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson has been a force against the run, racking up a shocking 70 tackles from a position where those are hard to come by.

Buffalo linebacker Kiko Alonso has been even better, posting 137 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and four interceptions.

New Orleans safety Kenny Vaccaro, San Francisco safety Eric Reid and Carolina defensive tackle Star Lotulelei also have solid cases. Like Stacy, it's going to be difficult for Ogletree to squeeze his name to the top of many ballots but there's no denying that he, too, has earned mention among the best rookies in the league.

Even if, as expected, both Rams rookie fall short of any postseason recognition, their fans can take solace in the fact that they're getting strong return on draft picks right away. In St. Louis, that hasn't been a common occurrence in the past decade or so.

Matchup breakdown: Rams-Saints

December, 14, 2013
12/14/13
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EARTH CITY, Mo. – A look at three key matchups in Sunday's Rams-Saints game set for 4:25 p.m. ET at the Edward Jones Dome.

Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree (and more) vs. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham

Nobody on the Rams roster knows Graham than linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. The former Saints teammates still work out together in Miami during the offseason.

In other words, nobody knows better than Dunbar exactly the challenge that New Orleans' dominant pass-catching tight end presents.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesJimmy Graham has more touchdowns than any other receiver in the NFL this season.
"He can do it all," Dunbar said. "He's fast, he's strong, he's athletic. He has strong hands, can catch the ball at its highest point. Jimmy can do a lot. He's dangerous. He's one of the reasons why they're successful. He's definitely one of the reasons why that offense works."

Indeed, Graham has put together perhaps his best season in a career that's quickly adding big ones every year. Through the first 13 games, Graham leads the Saints in receptions (74), receiving yards (1,046) and touchdowns (14).

Graham's size and athleticism make him nearly an impossible cover for any one player though Ogletree is the Rams defender most qualified to try given his own size and athletic ability.

More likely, the Rams will look to throw multiple defenders at Graham, who make most of his hay down the seam.

Rams tight end Jared Cook vs. Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro

The Rams have an athletic tight end of their own in Cook though he's nowhere near Graham's league in terms of production. The Saints defense has plenty of players capable of helping on Cook but the most intriguing might be the rookie Vaccaro.

Not many defensive backs have Vaccaro's versatility which allows New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to use him in many ways.

"The young kid, the Vaccaro kid, is playing really good," Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens said. "It's not very often that you see a guy move from strong safety and then come down and play nickel when they go sub. So, it's a testament to his ability."

Vaccaro versus Tavon Austin would be an even more interesting matchup but Austin's injured ankle may prevent that one from materializing. In the meantime, don't be shocked to see the Saints use a few different methods for covering Cook, who leads the Rams in receptions and receiving yards.

Cook has struggled to get off physical press coverage this season so if and when Vaccaro is covering him, don't be surprised to see that matchup initiate at or near the line of scrimmage.

Rams linebackers vs. Saints running backs

This is a bit of a copout since we usually stick to individual matchups but the Saints won't allow for that to happen given their use of three backs in any and all situations.

New Orleans backs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles all bring something different to the table. Sproles is the mighty mite back with the receiver skills. Ingram is the slashing, downhill runner. And Thomas is a sort of hybrid of the two with power to spare.

The Rams run defense has actually been better in recent weeks but it's not just New Orleans' running game they has to concern them.

I've seen those guys do it year in, year out," Dunbar said. "There's no way I would discredit what they do in the backfield. Pierre is definitely a hard working player. He runs the ball physical, downhill. He has this uncanny ability to stay on his feet. Sproles is explosive. He can catch the ball and he can do some things in the backfield. They use them both on screens. They just present so many challenges in the run and pass game."

In addition to standard run support duties, the Rams linebackers have to maintain discipline to keep the backs from hurting them in the pass game. Perhaps most important, they have to be sure tacklers in space to keep short gains from turning into big ones.

Double Coverage: Saints at Rams

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
10:00
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Drew Brees and Zac StacyGetty Images, USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees and the Saints are piling up numbers, but Zac Stacy and the Rams may give them trouble.

While the New Orleans Saints come to the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday with plenty to play for, the St. Louis Rams have been eliminated from playoff contention.

The scenario of the Rams playing out the string and the Saints pushing for prime seeding in the NFC is one we've seen before. But, for whatever reason, the Rams have beaten or played the Saints tough in recent meetings. In addition, Rams coach Jeff Fisher has a history of success against New Orleans.

In this week’s edition of Double Coverage, ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Saints reporter Mike Triplett discuss the Rams’ relative success against the Saints, and much more.

Wagoner: The Rams are out of the mix for the postseason and again playing a much better New Orleans team at home. In 2011, the Rams stunned everyone by knocking off the Saints in a somewhat similar situation. It seems New Orleans has struggled to find traction on the road this year. Anything in particular you can point to for those problems?

Triplett: Well, first of all, the Saints hate that question. But it keeps coming up this year because they have struggled quite a bit on the road -- they're 3-3, and two of their wins were surprisingly low-scoring. The Saints actually have the best road record in the NFL since 2009 (24-14). But part of the reason they catch so much heat for looking so human on the road is because they play so super-human at home (as former linebacker Scott Shanle said recently).

There’s no one real consistent theme for their road struggles. Sometimes it has been weather conditions or footing -- neither of which will be an issue on Sunday. And sometimes, of course, they just come out flat. But I don’t expect that from the Saints this week since they know how much is on the line with the playoffs looming.

Nick, with no playoff hopes to inspire the Rams, do you see them treating this game with the same intensity? I know they’re coming off two losses on the road. Have you seen any signs that they can bounce back and cause trouble for the Saints?

Wagoner: Speaking of questions teams hate, Fisher doesn't appreciate anything that looks at the big picture or beyond the next game. For all the problems this team has, effort and buy-in aren't on the list. The Rams have nothing tangible to play for this season, but this is the youngest team in the league and there are plenty at Rams Park who have long insisted that the target year for a breakout is 2014. To get there, they need to continue to make strides over the final three weeks, so I would expect them to put up more of a fight to close out the season.

As it pertains to the Saints specifically, the Rams have a habit this season of playing good teams pretty tough, save for San Francisco. They've beaten Arizona, Indianapolis and Chicago, and they gave Seattle all it could handle at home. There's no guarantee they can carry that over to Sunday, but after two bad performances the past two weeks, I expect a more representative performance against New Orleans.

One storyline that intrigues me here is the presence of Rob Ryan. The Saints went from a former Rams head coach at defensive coordinator (Steve Spagnuolo) in 2012 to one who looked like he was about to become the Rams' coordinator this year. How has Ryan been able to turn around that defense in one year, and what are the biggest differences?

Triplett: Yeah, the Saints definitely owe the Rams an apology for that one -- or a thank-you note. Ryan has made a huge impact. His two most important qualities are probably his attitude and his creativity. Players immediately responded to his enthusiasm and his energy level. They say Ryan makes the game fun, something players have said about him throughout his career. Just as important, he has shown enough flexibility to mold his defense around the players he’s working with (which became a necessity when they suffered a handful of key summer injuries).

I've been especially impressed by the way Ryan has featured young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, among others. And he’ll throw a ton of different looks at teams from week to week and series to series. I’m shocked that this is the first time Ryan’s had a winning season as a defensive coordinator. He obviously found the right fit for himself in New Orleans.

Tell me about the Rams' defense. Any chance they can hang with the Saints’ potent offense? Who might match up against tight end Jimmy Graham and the running backs who catch passes out of the backfield?

Wagoner: The Rams' defense has been especially hard to figure. They expected to be a top-10 group but haven't been able to do it for a few reasons. The pass rush has games where it absolutely dominates and takes over. Robert Quinn has emerged as one of the game's best and Chris Long is still dangerous. When the pass rush is humming, it makes life miserable for opponents. That's the Rams' best hope for slowing down the Saints.

But the Rams don't match up all that well with New Orleans on the back end. The secondary has struggled mightily, especially at safety. Graham is a matchup nightmare for all teams, and he could really expose the Rams’ issues at safety. The Rams drafted linebacker Alec Ogletree to help neutralize guys like Graham, and he could get the call on Sunday. He's a former safety playing linebacker and has at times flashed elite cover skills for a linebacker. But I think he's flattened out a bit in that area in recent weeks while his run-stopping skills have improved. The secondary is going to require major upgrades in the offseason, and given the Saints' weapons, anything short of a dominant pass rush will make for a long day for the Rams.

While we're talking about the Saints' offense, it seems like it's as good as ever, with Drew Brees putting together another monster season. You see that group every day and every week in games. Are there weaknesses that can be exploited, and how have teams found success in slowing them down?

Triplett: Every once in a while, the Saints’ passing offense does get slowed down. The best way to succeed against them is to get physical and disruptive in coverage -- bumping and chipping guys at the line, pushing the envelope within the five yards of contact and trying to stay tight on them down the field. It worked for New England (in heavy man coverage) and Seattle (more zone coverage). But it’s easier said than done. The Panthers tried to play physical this past week, but they didn't have the manpower to stop Graham and receiver Marques Colston. The Saints usually burn defenses with their “pick your poison” offense since they are so deep and versatile.

Interesting that you brought up Ogletree. I liked him as a possible pick for the Saints in April. Instead, they drafted another disruptive athlete -- Vaccaro -- who has made a nice impact in a versatile role. One of the main reasons the Saints drafted Vaccaro was because they liked his ability to cover slot receivers like Tavon Austin. I saw Austin’s breakout performance a couple weeks ago. Any chance he can be that X factor on Sunday?

Wagoner: Well, Austin suffered an ankle injury against Arizona last week and Fisher has called him day to day. If Austin plays, it’s possible his ankle could slow him down a bit. Considering his game relies so much on speed and elusiveness, an ankle injury could affect him more than it might other players. If he’s OK, he certainly could be an X factor. Without Sam Bradford at quarterback, the Rams really struggle to put together long drives. They need big plays to keep up in most games, and Austin is the one guy capable of consistently providing them. If they don’t have him, it’s going to make an already difficult task even tougher.

Alec Ogletree progressing on schedule

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams have no shortage of young players they're hoping will continue to mature over the season's final three weeks. But one of their prized youngsters doesn't need to make a major leap in the final three so much as he needs to stay on his current positive trajectory.

Linebacker Alec Ogletree was the Rams' "other" first-round pick back in April but, as he closes in on wrapping up his first year, he's been the team's most consistent rookie and he's made steady gains throughout the season.

[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Alec Ogletree
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesAlec Ogletree, a 2013 first-round pick out of Georgia, has exceeded expectations for the Rams' defense.
“Each week he does something that surprises you," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "You say, 'Wow' on a positive side. He’s tackled very well, got off blocks, ran much better this week in his pass coverage and things than he was last week. He’s making a lot of plays for us.”

Through 13 games, one could argue that aside from defensive end Robert Quinn, Ogletree has made the most plays for the Rams' defense. He's tied with middle linebacker James Laurinaitis for the most tackles on the team with 95, has an interception return for a touchdown, a sack and four forced fumbles. According to Rams' coaches review, Ogletree has a one-tackle edge on Laurinaitis at 121-120.

If Ogletree can tally more tackles than Laurinaitis in the final three contests against New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Seattle, he'll break up Laurinaitis' streak of four consecutive seasons leading the team in that category.

Ogletree isn't keeping the tally in his head, but he's not making any bones about his desire to break Laurinaitis' team record for tackles by a rookie.

"I am trying to break his record he set," Ogletree said. "I can definitely say that."

Coming into the NFL out of Georgia, Ogletree spent time in Athens playing safety before moving to linebacker late in his college career. That set him a little ahead of the curve in terms of pass coverage but with plenty to learn about defending the run.

Ogletree's pass coverage has been mostly solid throughout the season, but his struggles getting off blocks have been evident in games where the Rams have been gashed by the run such as Dallas, the first game against San Francisco and Tennessee.

It's an area Ogletree knew he'd need to improve upon arriving in the NFL.

"It definitely was something I wanted to work on coming into this year and I’ll continue to work on it and get better," Ogletree said. "I want to be even better next year."

The film shows Ogletree using his hands to shed blockers a little better in recent weeks, but what's more evident is improved instincts and read and react skills. His athleticism has never been in doubt and when he sees plays develop right away, he has the speed to get there. It's clear from watching him that having some games under his belt has allowed him to react to things quicker than when he first arrived in the league.

As for the continued need to improve hand usage, Ogletree said he spends extra time at practice hitting the shield and trying to hone his craft in that area. He's also more comfortable in the scheme.

"I definitely have just been trying to work at using my hands a lot more from college to now," Ogletree said. "It has paid off a lot."

Make no mistake, Ogletree still has plenty to learn to reach his vast potential but with three games to go, he appears headed in the right direction.

Rams-Cardinals study session: Defense

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
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ST. LOUIS -- Some thoughts and observations on the St. Louis Rams' 30-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals after reviewing the All-22 film.
  • From the beginning of the game, the Rams' defensive approach to "covering" Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald was perplexing to say the least, especially in the first half. Carson Palmer only threw to him twice on the opening drive, but it was no coincidence that both completions came when cornerback Janoris Jenkins was playing off coverage in a soft zone with linebackers, safeties or even defensive end Chris Long asked to drop underneath to make Fitzgerald work for it. On the first play of the game, Palmer hit Fitzgerald for 19 yards when safety T.J. McDonald dropped into the flat with Jenkins dropping deep. As McDonald ran to the short area, Fitzgerald ran an intermediate in route for an easy pitch and catch. Later, on third and 5, Rodney McLeod dropped into the flat but Long was asked to run all the way across the field to get in coverage and the ball was in Fitzgerald's hands before he could get there. Gain of 15, first down and a play later Arizona is up 7-0.
  • Later, Fitzgerald lined up in the slot and the Rams opted to go to man coverage with Quinton Pointer covering him. Again, mismatch and an easy 15 yards. More head-scratching ensues.
  • Fitzgerald simply outclassed an overmatched Rams secondary once again in this one. He finished with 12 catches on 12 targets. He's still a great player and some of those grabs came against decent coverage but as the examples above point out, the Rams didn't have many good ideas on how to slow down a guy who regularly makes their lives miserable.
  • One player who did fare pretty well against Fitzgerald after a rough week last week was cornerback Trumaine Johnson. He showed good read and react skills as he closed on Fitzgerald a couple of times and tackled him quickly for short gains. Much better performance for Johnson this week.
  • Tougher sledding for Jenkins on the other side. He had a couple of borderline calls go against him and a couple of tough catches made on him.
  • Still not getting much help from the safeties, a regular theme this year. McLeod made a nice play to force the fumble near the goal line but otherwise was pretty quiet from that spot.
  • Quinn
  • The Rams' pass rush was unable to get to Palmer much but they were buzzing him quite a bit. Robert Quinn's frustration, which led to a penalty, was understandable after watching this again. He was held without calls a few times and the Cardinals threw extra blockers his way. But Palmer's ability to get the ball out quick had to be most maddening. Playing that soft zone coverage against a team aware of your pass rush prowess again is a good way to negate your ability to rush the passer. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Palmer's average time before throwing was 2.68 seconds. His previous low number for the year was 2.93 seconds against Tampa Bay. Hardly enough time for any pass rush to get home.
  • Aside from the struggles in coverage, the Rams defense once again did all it could to make its life more difficult with penalties. Some were questionable, sure, and I've already documented how I felt about the call on Eugene Sims, but some were just plain silly, too. McDonald's late hit out of bounds on the opening drive, for one, was unnecessary. Seven more penalties on the defense in this one a week after piling up six in the first half against the Niners.
  • Looking for a bright spot? The Rams run' defense was pretty good again with a few obvious standouts. Linebacker Alec Ogletree, save for a missed tackle in the hole early on, had a nice day and showed continued improvement as a run defender. He's getting off blocks better and appears to be reading things better now than earlier in the season. His arrow seems to be pointing up and that's a good thing because he'll be a key cog for this team moving forward. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and James Laurinaitis were solid against the run as well.
  • The defensive line did well against the run most of the day but two players in particular stood out to my eyes: tackle Kendall Langford and Quinn. Langford was stout at the point of attack and made running between the tackles quite difficult.
  • The defense didn't have a great day by any means but it certainly didn't get much help from the offense in terms of field position. The Cardinals' average starting field position was their own 33 and they started two drives in St. Louis territory.
  • More good work from the Rams' coverage units on special teams. Patrick Peterson had two punt returns for 3 yards, including a 6-yard loss. That group has been perhaps the most consistent bright spot this season for the Rams, led by the right leg of punter Johnny Hekker.

Rams-Niners study session: Defense

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
5:30
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ST. LOUIS -- A look back at the St. Louis Rams' 23-13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers after reviewing the All-22 film.

Instead of breaking down a big play and a hidden play this week, we'll just dive right into observations and general thoughts from the game.
  • It was quite clear from the beginning that the Rams' top goal in this game was to stop Niners running back Frank Gore and San Francisco's ground game. They spent much of the day loading up with the intent to stop Gore. And that's exactly what they did. The Rams' run defense improved greatly from the first meeting and most of it was simply the ability of their front seven to get off blocks and make tackles.
  • Jones
    Kaepernick
  • All told, the Rams defense played pretty well in this game but there were two issues that kept them from keeping it a little closer: penalties and the ability of Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick to extend plays and get the ball down the field.
  • First, on the penalties, the Rams were unhappy with many of the calls that went against them but in watching it again most of the calls, especially against the defense, seemed legitimate. The exception was the call on linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar for hitting Kaepernick late. You could see why they called it but it was too far in terms of trying to protect him. On the call that went against cornerback Janoris Jenkins, he took a jarring blow from receiver Anquan Boldin and lost his feet. Jenkins grabbed Boldin to prevent a walk-in touchdown and try to keep up. It was the right call but clearly a tough matchup for Jenkins.
  • Aside from that, Jenkins played pretty well. He had a couple of nice pass breakups, two on back-shoulder throws which he was on top of all the way. He doesn't have the splash plays but Jenkins appears to be improving from week to week.
  • Tougher day on the other side for Trumaine Johnson, who struggled to keep up with Boldin. Worse, he let his struggles affect him as he picked up an unnecessary roughness penalty and was inconsistent tackling after giving up completions. Michael Crabtree turned him inside out on a double move for a 60-yard gain in the third quarter, also.
  • Safety T.J. McDonald was better in this one than his first game back from his leg injury, including textbook coverage for a pass breakup on Niners tight end Vernon Davis (not the play you're thinking about). The Rams still had their share of struggles covering Davis. It's not saying anything we didn't already know but the Rams simply need a playmaker on the back end of the defense. The safety play was actually decent in this game but that's been on the high end of what they've had most of this year.
  • It would probably be easy to look at the Niners' shuffling along the offensive line and think end Robert Quinn would have had yet another big day at the office. With Joe Staley out, Quinn faced covered guard Alex Boone most of the day. Quinn was shut out in the sack department but played better than that zero might indicate. The reason? Kaepernick. Quinn and bookend Chris Long got around the edge multiple times but Kaepernick often stepped up in the pocket to get away from that pressure. Sometimes that led to Kaepernick running or throwing for a positive gain and it also led to three sacks combined from defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford, both of whom pushed the pocket well for the most part.
  • As a group, this was one of the best games of the year for the Rams' linebackers in terms of defending the run. James Laurinaitis was solid all day once again and Jo-Lonn Dunbar consistently made the correct read and helped bring down Gore at or near the line of scrimmage. Alec Ogletree performed well against the run, even getting off blocks to make tackles a couple of times but actually struggled in coverage a bit. Ogletree slipped in coverage once but also had a play in which he was covering Boldin well, but when Kaepernick scrambled he got caught looking in the backfield and actually ran away from Boldin for an easy completion to set up a field goal.
  • Another good day for the Rams' special teams in coverage but not much there for the return game. The kick return team had a few opportunities to get something going but couldn't do it and gave the offense poor field position a few times. Punter Johnny Hekker was quite good again.

Rams-Panthers study session: Defense

October, 22, 2013
10/22/13
10:00
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A look back at the St. Louis Rams' 30-15 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday after reviewing the coaches' film.

Big Play: Carolina receiver Steve Smith catches a 19-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton for a 27-12 lead late in the third quarter.

This wasn't a big play so much as the culmination of a costly drive allowed by the Rams defense. The Rams had just trimmed the lead to 20-12 and a stop would have given them a chance to tie the game. Instead, the Panthers drove 72 yards for a touchdown and finished it off.

On the play, the Rams were in nickel defense with safety Matt Giordano playing as the single safety up high. The Panthers had three receivers split wide to Newton's left and tight end Greg Olsen standing up off the line on the right side.

Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins played press coverage against Smith. At the snap, Jenkins attempted to jam Smith but didn't do much to slow down Smith, who darted to the right side with the rest of the routes moving the opposite direction.

The Rams pass rush got good push as blitzing linebacker Alec Ogletree and end Robert Quinn nearly got to Newton for the sack but forced him to struggle with a follow-through. The result was something of a wounded duck that floated on Newton but actually worked to Carolina's advantage.

Smith had to come back for the ball, and as he did, Jenkins was unable to keep his feet to make the tackle. Giordano whiffed on a possible tackle and Smith waltzed into the end zone to put the nail in the Rams' coffin.

Hidden Play: With 11:21 to go in the third quarter, Rams end Chris Long received an encroachment penalty to give Carolina a first down at the Rams' 39.

We won't get into personnel and alignments here but this was actually a big play for multiple reasons and not just because the Panthers got a first down out of it.

First and foremost, it was an awful call. Carolina right guard Chris Scott clearly committed a false start to draw Long and defensive tackle Michael Brockers offsides. Scott really didn't even try to get back into position to mask it.

Once again, the officials missed an easy, obvious call.

The next part of the equation is the fall out from the play. One could argue that it was this play, not the one where Quinn hits Newton that set in motion the sequence culminating in Long's ejection.

Long was clearly and reasonably frustrated by the call. On the next play, he dropped Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams for a loss of 4. The next play was the one that set off the melee and resulted in Long's ejection from punching, you guessed it, Scott.

It's not hard to connect the dots of frustration for Long there. That doesn't mean he was right to do what he did, and he's the first to say as much, but you have to wonder if there was some carry over from the encroachment call to the ejection.

Other observations:
  • Here's our weekly update on Quinn: he's still playing at an extremely high level. I believe he's the Rams best player right now regardless of position. He's even playing the run well. Check out the defense's opening sequence when he tackles Williams for a loss of 1 and then brings down Newton for a sack.
  • Long was also playing quite well in this one before his ejection. He actually teed up Quinn for the aforementioned sack and spent plenty of time buzzing around Newton in the backfield.
  • Mentioned it after the game and the tape confirmed it, but a really strong job by the Rams run defense in this one. Much more discipline, better tackling, guys being in the right place. Safety Darian Stewart even looked much better in that regard.
  • Tough day at the office for cornerback Trumaine Johnson whom the Panthers targeted plenty. Making things worse was a silly defensive holding penalty he earned as a result of peeking into the backfield, which led to him clutching and grabbing to make up for it. In fairness, Johnson did do a solid job in run support.
  • Jenkins didn't fare much better in coverage. Newton had just two incompletions. While most of those completed passes didn't go for big gains, the Rams must find a way to defend the pass better. Being more aggressive might be one way. There have been signs of that in recent weeks but the Rams were more content to play soft in coverage this week it seemed.
  • On special teams, the Rams gave Tavon Austin a chance to return kicks. He only got two attempts but he showed some signs of being a weapon in that spot. On one he didn't hit the seam at full speed as he should, but a bit more experience and he could make a difference there.
  • He's not getting much credit because he's doing it quietly, but kicker Greg Zuerlein deserves a tip of the cap for his consistency.

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