NFC West: Chicago Bears
Williams, a former first-round pick, never panned out with the Chicago Bears. He started 16 games at left guard last season and now will have a chance to step into that same role with the Bills.
ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak, ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner, and ESPN Chicago's Jeff Dickerson discuss the signing:
Rodak: Nick, how did the Rams' line as a whole perform last season? Did Williams make it better or worse?
Wagoner: As expected, the Rams had their share of injury issues on a line full of veterans. They were mostly solid, especially after the team refocused on the run game. But they also had their share of struggles, especially when they faced the dominant front sevens in the NFC West. Williams was the weakest link of the group, though he provided more durability than any of his linemates. He held up OK, but those division foes especially had a knack for getting the better of him.
Jeff, you saw Williams early in his career and when the Bears first tried to make him a guard. Did you ever envision he'd land a contract like the one he got from Buffalo?
Dickerson: Not a chance. The Bears touted Williams as their franchise left tackle of the future when the team selected him in the first round (No. 14 overall) of the 2008 NFL draft, but he hardly lived up to expectations and is considered one of the Bears' biggest draft busts, along with Gabe Carimi, in the last seven or eight years. His chronic injuries and uneven play ultimately led to his release. To be fair, Williams turned out to be much better suited to play inside at guard, however, he was never viewed as one of the elite guards in the NFL, except by the Bills, apparently.
Rodak: Jeff, Doug Marrone is a former offensive line coach and has valued size among offensive linemen early in his tenure with the Bills. Williams (6-foot-6, 326 pounds) is a load, but how effectively did he use his size with the Bears?
Dickerson: Again, I don't want to make it sound as if Williams was a terrible guard, but he never had the reputation of being an ultra-athletic or ultra-aggressive offensive lineman. Maybe that changed when Williams went to St. Louis. Obviously, he has the requisite size to play inside. Marrone is a terrific coach. Hopefully it's a good pairing. But his size was never viewed as a negative or a positive when Williams played in Chicago.
Rodak: Nick, what was your sense on how the Rams valued Williams? Do you think they wanted to bring him back as a starter?
Wagoner: They had interest in bringing him back, though I think it's likely if he'd come back he would have either been a backup or, more likely, in a competition for the starting job like he was in 2013. To me, it made sense if they could get him back to serve as a swing man simply because he could play anywhere on the line except center. Having a player like that at a cheap price is pretty much ideal for a backup. But I don't think they were going to extend themselves too far to bring him back. Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has a great reputation for taking reclamation projects and getting something out of them. Although this is another starter subtracted from the line, I believe the Rams feel they can upgrade the starter at this spot and develop someone else to fill a backup swing role he could have had.
Jeff, something that applies to the Rams and Bills, but you saw up close. The Rams look like they're going to have to do some quick work to improve the line this offseason and they may have to use the draft to do so. It seems the Bears were able to do that last year, what did you see in how they were able to turn it around so quickly?
Dickerson: General manager Phil Emery double-dipped in free agency and the draft. He spent big bucks to land left tackle Jermon Bush and reunite him with his old New Orleans Saints offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, and followed that up by signing guard Matt Slauson. Both turned out to be major upgrades over what the Bears had in 2012. Then Emery drafted right guard Kyle Long in the first round and right tackle Jordan Mills in the fifth round to complement veteran center Roberto Garza. It was a stroke of pure genius.
Wagoner: The Rams might need some of that genius in the next couple of months here though when they lean on Boudreau to be their offensive line whisperer of sorts.
Mike, obviously this is a move that has Jeff and I scratching our heads, and I know you feel that way, too. What was the need for Buffalo on the offensive line, how do you see Williams fitting in and what do the Bills hope to get from him?
Rodak: Nick, the Bills have told Williams that they want him to be their left guard. That was a problem area for the Bills last season, as they never found someone reliable to step in for Andy Levitre. The Bills are big on Williams' size and if it works out, then he'll be an upgrade over Doug Legursky, who should ideally be their backup center. With the contract the Bills gave Williams, he should be starting at left guard on Day 1. If he's not, that's a problem. They're not paying him to be a backup, although with his versatility, he could help as a swing player at several positions. It's a signing that addresses an area of need but also comes with an element of financial risk.
Much has changed over the years, with the Rams moving around before settling about 4 1/2 hours south on I-55.
Sunday's game between the teams will be the 89th in their history, but it represents much more for each.
At 6-4, the Bears are still in the hunt for the NFC North Division and, failing that, a potential NFC wild-card berth. The Rams are clinging to their playoff lives at 4-6 and probably need to win out to reach the postseason.
ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Bears reporter Michael C. Wright take a closer look at Sunday's matchup.
Wagoner: There's been lots of talk about the quarterback situation up there, something that we can relate to in St. Louis. Josh McCown seems like he's done a good job filling in for Jay Cutler. What does he bring to the table that allows him to have success, and how do teammates view him?
Wright: Aside from the immense physical gifts such as athleticism and his ability to make up for whatever limitations he may have in terms of arm strength with anticipatory skills, McCown possesses an engaging personality that makes his teammates play hard for him. Bears general manager Phil Emery in the past has called McCown "a glue guy." Having played for several teams where he gained experience as a starter and worked behind quarterbacks such as Kurt Warner and Jon Kitna, McCown has taken what he's learned and applied it to his own play while relaying some of those experiences to Chicago's younger players. That's part of the reason McCown is widely considered a fatherly figure in the locker room. McCown's teammates respect him immensely because the veteran knows his role and works just as hard as starter Jay Cutler to be prepared to assume that role when the situation calls for it.
Speaking of backup quarterbacks, this game is certainly going to be a Backup Bowl and Kellen Clemens seems to be settling in as the replacement for Sam Bradford. What does he bring to the table and how confident is the team in his ability to get it done down the stretch?
Wagoner: After reading your response about McCown, I was tempted to just copy and paste it and simply sub in Clemens' name where appropriate. Clemens' numbers are about what you'd expect from a backup and fall in line with his career totals. He had pretty much the ideal game you'd want him to have against Indianapolis. He didn't have to throw much, but when he did, he made no mistakes and took advantage of big-play opportunities. What's more, he's completely unafraid to step up in the pocket and take a hit to deliver the ball or pull it down and try to make something happen with his legs. His teammates respect him and it shows in the way they battle for him week to week. To be sure, Clemens is no Bradford, but he has already given the Rams all they want on the field and has been a key mentor in the locker room for his many young teammates.
Switching gears a bit, Chicago's defense has taken an obvious step backward this year. How much of that do you attribute to the change in coaching staff and how much is a product of aging core players on the defense at large?
Wright: There's a little bit of all of that going on, but the biggest blow to the defense by far has been injuries. The Bears lost starting nickel corner Kelvin Hayden for the year before the season even started, then lost franchise defensive tackle Henry Melton with a torn ACL only to see his replacement, Nate Collins, lost for the season with the same injury. Two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman landed on the injured-reserve list due to a torn triceps suffered Nov. 10, and seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs has been out the past three games with a small fracture in a shoulder. Oh, did I mention the Bears also lost starting middle linebacker D.J. Williams for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, starting defensive tackle Stephen Paea has been in and out of the lineup -- and there's a chance he could miss Sunday -- with a nagging turf toe injury and defensive end Shea McClellin missed the past two games due to a strained hamstring? So injuries have destroyed chemistry for the Bears. Considering all the defense has gone through, it's somewhat a surprise it hasn't performed more poorly.
With the Rams coming off a bye, what areas needed the most work during the time away, and is the team confident it was able to sufficiently address them?
Wagoner: I suppose the simple answer to this question is they needed to work on everything during the bye week, but it's more detailed than that. The Rams are again the youngest team in the league and the thing they struggle with most is consistency. They simply haven't been able to string together good performances. So the mission over the bye was to get healthy, get their young guys extra reps in practice and try to position themselves to follow up a dominant win against Indianapolis with another strong performance this week against the Bears. Most notably, they must find a way to be better week to week on defense. They've had some thoroughly dominant performances surrounded by clunkers. Without Bradford, the margin for error is even smaller, so it falls on the defense to pick up the slack by putting up strong performances every time out. The Rams were riding high after the win against the Colts. They believe they can win every week. We'll see if the bye served them well or killed whatever momentum they might have built in Indy.
On the subject of that defense, the Rams clearly have a tall order coming Sunday. With Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte and the emergence of Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett, this seems like as good a group of skill position players as the Bears have had in a long time. Do you view it that way and what does that mean for the team moving forward?
Wright: Absolutely, it's probably the best they've had collectively in the past 20 years and signifies a shift in philosophy for the organization. Prior to the addition of coach Marc Trestman; the Bears always spent their money to build elite defenses while sacrificing quality on offense. But Emery has made it clear the Bears want to start fielding more explosive offenses while continuing the tradition of strong play on defense. So the Bears have invested heavily on offense in free agency and the draft, and it appears they'll be able to keep the group together for a long time, especially if they can secure Marshall for the long term because his contract is set to expire after next season. So while it appears the Bears are set on offense, they've got to immediately turn the attention back to the defense, which is aging and has several players coming up on the end of their contracts at season's end. Tillman's deal is about to expire and the team must decide if it wants to continue to invest huge cap dollars in defensive end Julius Peppers. I'd expect an interesting offseason for the Bears this spring, and a radically changed defense in terms of personnel in 2014.
Last spring, it seemed that a good portion of the Chicago fan base really hoped that somehow Tavon Austin would fall to the Bears. He's obviously made plenty of noise recently for the Rams and seems to be ascending. How much is there that we haven't yet seen from this guy?
Wagoner: Austin is still just scratching the surface of his big-play potential. His breakthrough performance against the Colts was nice, but now it's up to him and the Rams to find a way for him to duplicate it on a more regular basis. Responsibility for Austin's early-season struggles was shared by all parties -- some of it was his struggles to catch the ball and run good routes consistently, some was a product of an offense unsure how to deploy him best -- but it seems things are opening up for him a bit. The Rams have made a more concerted effort to get him the ball down the field in recent weeks as opposed to throwing the short screens and hitches that went nowhere in the first half of the season. That doesn't even include his home run ability as a returner. Austin still has plenty of room to get better, but in the meantime, his breakout game should not only bolster his confidence but open some other things up for the offense.
Steak for Dinner? It's not a question. It's the team name for the NFC West Gridiron Challenge leader after Week 8. The top two teams lost no ground
E11magnifico enjoyed the strongest individual week, amassing 169 points thanks to Titans running back Chris Johnson and the Bears' defense. His team moved into a tie for 68th place with 986 points.
His lineup for Week 8:
- QB: Peyton Manning (13)
- QB: Aaron Rodgers (28)
- RB: Chris Johnson (35)
- RB: Justin Fargas (13)
- WR: Reggie Wayne (20)
- WR: Miles Austin (13)
- TE: Dallas Clark (9)
- K: John Kasay (10)
- Defense: Chicago Bears (28)
The chart shows overall NFC West Gridiron Challenge leaders through Week 8, plus a couple of stragglers. I moved up a few places and percentage points despite only 16 total points from my wide receivers (Michael Crabtree can't get a touchdown catch thanks to Vernon Davis' exploits).
Adrian Peterson will stay in my lineup during the bye week because the price I paid for his services -- $6.5 million out of a $50 million payroll -- is much lower than his market value of $8.2 million. Cutting him and re-signing him would prove too costly over the long haul. At least that's my read on how to manage these lineups. Am I wrong?
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Reports from Rams camp suggested Tinoisamoa lacked the size St. Louis wanted in its linebackers under a new coaching staff (the team also saved millions in salary and cap space). OK, I thought, but you have to line up with someone, and Tinoisamoa was likely to be no worse than the third- or fourth-best linebacker on a team lacking proven depth at the position.
The move appears more dubious from a pure talent standpoint with Tinoisamoa emerging as a starter in Chicago. At the same time, the Bears have erred before in picking up former Rams. I thought Adam Archuleta might help them given that the safety had enjoyed his finest seasons when Bears coach Lovie Smith was his defensive coordinator in St. Louis. It never happened.
Tinoisamoa was also with the Bears under Smith. He appears to have more left than Archuleta had when the Bears signed him. We'll find out how much.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Yes, different schemes favor different types of players, but I'm not sure how a player deemed unworthy of a roster spot on the 31st-ranked team in our power rankings can be deemed an upgrade for the 12th-ranked team. Call it the riddle of Pisa Tinoisamoa.
The Bears also found a spot for Rams castoff Orlando Pace. The Rams are rebuilding. Pace and Tinoisamoa carried inflated salaries. Those things matter. But a less-talented roster could be the price for the Rams, at least in the short term.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Rudy from Chicago writes: Sando! For each of the 4 divisional teams, which little-known players do you think are poised to have big seasons? We all have ideas as to how the big stars will play, but what about the up-and-comers? Thanks Sando, great blog.
Mike Sando: Thanks. Good question. I'm not sure each of the teams will have a little-known player enjoy the sort of season Steve Breaston put together in 2008. I'll be some of our regular contributors can step up with suggestions. I'll take a stab here.
Does John Greco become a productive starting offensive lineman for the Rams? Not if the team drafts a starting left tackle, as expected. Keenan Burton might be a candidate at receiver. Someone beyond Donnie Avery has to catch the passes. I would exclude Avery from the discussion because he played extensively as a rookie. His numbers could spike by default if the Rams do not find other starting-caliber receivers.
Cornerback Tarell Brown could get a chance in San Francisco. Free safety Dashon Goldson will get a chance. Jason Hill and/or Josh Morgan could take the next step as receivers. And a healthy Brandon Jones could take the next step.
In Seattle, does Will Herring get a shot at linebacker and make the most of it? Does Josh Wilson take the next step at cornerback? Red Bryant could improve if he can avoid injuries. Lawrence Jackson could improve, though he was a first-round pick, so not a lesser-known guy.
In Arizona, defensive end Calais Campbell will get more playing time, as could Kenny Iwebema. Early Doucet could emerge if given a chance at receiver. I'm not sure he'll get that chance given the people ahead of him.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Orlando Pace wasn't out of work long. His agreement with the Bears, reached Thursday, means he'll be protecting Jay Cutler's blind side.
Pace can still be effective even though age and injuries have slowed him some. I think he'll benefit from a more mobile quarterback. Cutler is athletic. He can buy time with his legs.
The big question with Pace is whether he can make it through a season healthy enough to play at a high level. The Rams couldn't afford to find out under terms of his old deal. That's why they released him.
Pace's new deal with the Bears is presumably more affordable. If that is the case, the Bears have minimized the risk.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Now we know why the 49ers weren't knee deep in the trade talk for Jay Cutler. They apparently wanted to experience meaningful participation in the next two drafts.
Quarterbacks are important, no question, and the 49ers haven't had a dynamic one for too long. But the price Chicago paid for Cutler -- 2009 first- and third-round choices, plus a 2010 first-round choice and quarterback Kyle Orton -- carries serious sticker shock. The Bears also picked up the 2009 fifth-round choice Seattle had sent to Denver in the Keary Colbert trade, but that qualifies as a minor throw-in.
Assuming the 49ers had the option, would they have been wise to pay that kind of ransom for Cutler? The Broncos acquired the 18th and 84th overall choices in the 2009 draft as part of the deal. Joe Flacco was the 18th player chosen in 2008. Art Monk was the 18th overall choice in 1980. Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell was the 84th player chosen -- in 1958.
Most of the players chosen in those spots don't jump out as perennial Pro Bowl types. The Bears also went into the deal with an edge. They had picked up a third-round compensatory selection, 99th overall, so they felt better about trading No. 84.
The 49ers hold the 10th, 43rd and 74th choices in the first three rounds this year. Those choices are considerably more valuable than the ones Chicago had to offer.
The Cardinals would like to find a potentially dynamic running back in the upcoming draft, as we have discussed.
Their general manager, Rod Graves, will guide decisions on the matter with input from college scouting director Steve Keim, head coach Ken Whisenhunt and presumably others in the organization.
For perspective on decisions the team might make in the 2009 draft, I've singled out the halfbacks Graves' teams have drafted since 1993, when Graves was with the Bears. His teams also drafted fullbacks Joel Makovicka, Dennis McKinley and Ron Janes, but halfback is the position we'll consider for this exercise.
None of the players listed in the chart became long-terms starters for Graves' teams. Raymont Harris started most of three seasons for the Bears.
With that in mind, I checked the Steelers' drafting history at running back during the years Whisenhunt was an assistant for them.
Willie Parker was undrafted. Jerome Bettis entered the NFL with the Rams. The Steelers did not draft a running back before the fifth round (166th overall) while Whisenhunt was with the team from 2001 to 2006. The team did draft fifth-rounder Verron Haynes and seventh-rounders J.T. Wall, Noah Herron and Cedric Humes.
Perhaps the Cardinals and Whisenhunt can start a new tradition drafting for the positon in Arizona. Tim Hightower showed some promise as a rookie in 2008, but not enough to keep the starting job.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Elias Sports Bureau came through with this nugget after the Titans improved to 7-0 without a single 200-yard passing game this season:
"The last NFL team to win its first seven games of a season without throwing for 200 yards in any of the seven games was John Robinson's 1985 Rams, with Dieter Brock at quarterback (and Eric Dickerson in the backfield)."
Those Rams topped 300 yards passing in their eighth game, only to lose, 28-14, to the 49ers. The Rams' season ended in the NFC title game when Mike Singletary's Chicago Bears shut them out, 24-0, at Soldier Field.
Singletary wasn't nearly as entertaining during postgame interviews back then, but if you gave him a chance, he would rock you good. Nobody was messin' in his neighborhood.
Playing the Rams and Lions can do wonders for an NFL running back.
Three of the NFL's five leading rushers have played one of those teams.
The Falcons' Michael Turner rushed for 220 yards against the Lions in the opener. The Seahawks' Julius Jones rushed for 140 of his team's 245 rushing yards against the Rams in Week 3. The 49ers' Frank Gore rushed for 130 yards against the Lions, also in Week 3.
Jones didn't even start the regular-season opener. He rushed for 45 yards in that Week 1 game against Buffalo. But with Maurice Morris suffering a knee injury, Jones has rushed for 127 and 140 yards in two subsequent games. Morris could return after Seattle's upcoming bye week, but it's tough to make a case for reducing Jones' carries.
Jones was adamant all offseason that he could be an elite every-down back. He claimed the Cowboys made a mistake in letting him go. His former Dallas teammate, Marion Barber, ranks sixth among NFL rushers, right behind Gore. Barber hadn't gotten into a rhythm before carrying 28 times for 142 yards against the Packers on Sunday night.
Gore has a chance to pad his rushing stats in Week 4 as long as the 49ers don't fall behind against the Saints. New Orleans is allowing 5.3 yards per carry and 133 yards rushing per game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Few teams can justify carrying two kickers on their 53-man rosters. The Seahawks, with injuries wiping out starters at multiple positions, would seem to have no such luxury. But here they are, entering Week 2 with two kickers among a bloated group of four specialists.
Seattle is one of only six teams carrying fewer than nine offensive linemen. The Seahawks are one of only four teams carrying fewer than nine defensive backs. Seattle is the only team in the league carrying fewer than nine offensive linemen and fewer than nine defensive backs. The team has six receivers, but only four appear healthy enough to play.
Teams make difficult roster decisions all the time. Seattle will have to make another one if the team decides to sign receiver Michael Bumpus from the practice squad Saturday. The team's decision to keep two kickers -- Brandon Coutu and Olindo Mare -- at the expense of other positions does seem extreme. The decision can mean only one thing: Seattle likes Coutu's long-term prospects enough to keep him around even while Mare, with his stronger leg, booms kickoffs through the end zone during games.
The Seahawks couldn't know if a team would claim recently released running back Justin Forsett off waivers. By their actions, the Seahawks clearly feel a team would snap up Coutu if Seattle tried to place him on its practice squad.
Indianapolis was the only team in the league to claim Forsett off waivers when Seattle released him. The Colts, in preparing for their opener against the Bears, surely saw Forsett's breakout game against Chicago during the preseason. We'll have to see if Forsett sticks in Indianapolis and produces. And we'll have to see how Coutu performs over the long term. Only then will we know if the rookie kicker was worth the roster machinations required to keep him.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
A winning record is not hiding in the Rams' 2008 schedule. I've looked, and it's not there. Check out the six-game stretch following the bye. At Redskins, home for Cowboys, at Patriots, home for Cardinals, at Jets, then back across the country for a road game against the 49ers.
Handing the Rams an upset victory over the Giants in the second week qualifies as charity, most likely, but the alternative was forecasting a 1-9 start. And that would be cruel.
With that, we continue our game-by-game look at schedules throughout the division:
1. Lose at Eagles
2. Win vs. Giants
3. Lose at Seahawks
4. Win vs. Bills
6. Lose at Redskins
7. Lose vs. Cowboys
8. Lose at Patriots
9. Lose vs. Cardinals
10. Lose at Jets
11. Lose at 49ers
12. Win vs. Bears
13. Win vs. Dolphins
14. Lose at Cardinals
15. Lose vs. Seahawks
16. Win vs. 49ers
17. Win at Falcons
No question, the Rams should improve offensively. Their line simply can't suffer from as many injuries this season. Steven Jackson should produce. And I do think the defensive front has the potential to rush the passer effectively. I'm just not sure the Rams will be winning enough games to turn loose the pass rushers regularly.
I thought about forecasting a home victory over Arizona in Week 9, but I needed to stay consistent in my predictions made for other teams, and that was a game given to the Cardinals in a previous entry. The Ram's can't like playing on the East Coast in Week 10 (Jets) and the West Coast in Week 11 (49ers).