NFC West: Chris Williams

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The free-agent frenzy that opened last Tuesday was one of the busiest and most expensive days in NFL history. But the St. Louis Rams stuck to their plan and mostly opted to sit on the sidelines.

Almost a week removed from the beginning of the free-agent period, the Rams have retained a couple of starters and seen their share of departures. The normal waves of free agency usually take longer than this year but it seems teams aren't waiting around to make their moves in 2014.

Here's where we stand after five days:

Retained

Saffold
OL Rodger Saffold

The deal: Re-signed with the Rams on a five-year, $31.7 million contract with $19.5 million guaranteed.

What it means: It was a wild week for Saffold but after one of the most bizarre free-agent scenarios in recent memory, the Rams kept their top offseason priority. Saffold will be the team's right guard moving forward and allows them more flexibility moving forward because of his versatility. St. Louis got lucky on this one but it doesn't matter how it happened so long as Saffold can stay healthy and produce.

LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar

The deal: Re-signed with the Rams on a two-year deal worth up to $3.5 million.

What it means: Dunbar will get a chance to rebound from a lost 2013 season and reunite with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams with the Rams. While Dunbar's role decreased because of the addition of Alec Ogletree last year, the Rams need more production from him when they do have three linebackers on the field. If Dunbar can return to his 2012 form, he fills another starting job and lessens the need for the Rams to add another outside linebacker in the draft.

Departures

Williams
OL Chris Williams

The deal: Signed a four-year, $13.5 million deal with $5.5 million guaranteed with the Buffalo Bills.

What it means: The Rams lost the one lineman who started all 16 games last year and provided some versatility with his ability to play multiple positions. But Williams was also the team's least effective starting lineman and a clear candidate to be upgraded heading into 2014. The Rams had interest in keeping him but had no intention of offering a similar type of deal. It also speaks to the ability of offensive line coach Paul Boudreau to maximize reclamation projects.

OG Shelley Smith

The deal: Signed a two-year, $5.5 million with the Miami Dolphins.

What it means: The loss of Smith is another subtraction from the Rams' depth on the offensive line but it's also not cause for much alarm. Smith lost a preseason battle for the starting left guard job to Williams and though he showed some ability as a run blocker, he struggled in pass protection and was often overmatched by the bigger, more physical front sevens in the NFC West. Again, Boudreau should be able to coach up someone else to provide similar production and depth to fill Smith's backup role on the interior. That depth could come from current options like Barrett Jones or Brandon Washington or a veteran free agent such as Davin Joseph or Daryn Colledge, both of whom have visited St. Louis.

TE Mike McNeill

The deal: Signed a two-year deal with the Carolina Panthers. Terms unknown.

What it means: Losing McNeill doesn't alter much in terms of the Rams' primary options at tight end but it does remove a versatile piece from the depth chart. McNeill was the team's fourth tight end and played sparingly in the offense. He was a trustworthy backup and a favorite of coach Jeff Fisher's but is a piece the Rams can replace rather easily, perhaps with late-season pickup Justice Cunningham.

Finnegan
CB Cortland Finnegan

The deal: Signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the Miami Dolphins.

What it means: The Rams released Finnegan at the start of free agency, creating valuable cap space and a hole in the secondary. The key here is how much the Rams can gain from this contract based on the offset language they had built in to Finnegan's contract. Depending on how Finnegan's deal with the Dolphins is structured, the Rams could gain an additional $3 million in cap space. Assuming he makes the team or possibly immediately based on a bonus, it's reasonable to think the Rams have a good chance at getting all of that $3 million in space back. The team also has an opening for another cornerback.

QB Kellen Clemens

The deal: Signed a two-year, $3 million deal with the San Diego Chargers.

What it means: We already knew the Rams were planning to grab a young quarterback in May's draft but this should only serve to reinforce that idea. What remains to be seen is whether the Rams want to carry a third, veteran quarterback to handle the No. 2 job until the unnamed rookie is ready. That's a role Clemens would have been ideal for but he did enough in 2013 to draw interest and land a well-deserved deal with San Diego. The Rams now have just two quarterbacks, starter Sam Bradford and Austin Davis, on the roster.

Triple Coverage: Bills sign Chris Williams

March, 12, 2014
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Chris WilliamsAP Photo/David SeeligWill newly acquired Chris Williams garner success on the Bills' offensive line in 2014?
The Buffalo Bills addressed a need along their offensive line Wednesday, signing former St. Louis Rams guard Chris Williams to a four-year, $13.5 million deal.

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.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- As if the $42.5 million contract for Rodger Saffold with the Oakland Raiders didn't provide enough evidence of the NFL's desperation for offensive line help, the Buffalo Bills offered a resounding confirmation Wednesday when they agreed to an even more stunning contract with another former Rams lineman.

As ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported Wednesday morning, the Bills struck a deal with former Rams left guard Chris Williams on a four-year, $13.5 million deal with $5.5 million guaranteed. Yes, you read that right. I re-read it a few times to make sure I didn't have a digit off in some place.

Obviously, Williams' deal doesn't break the bank like Saffold's, but for those who followed the Rams in 2013, those contract numbers are every bit as surprising as the ones Saffold got. Saffold's contract was a surprise because of his injury history. There's no lack of talent there. Williams is a different story.

After a training camp battle for the starting job at left guard, Williams edged out Shelley Smith for the job. From there, Williams was the one reliable piece on the line, starting all 16 games. But durability was probably Williams' greatest asset, along with the versatility to play tackle.

In most games, Williams held up fine, particularly as a run-blocker with Jake Long next to him and after Zac Stacy took over as running back. Where Williams had trouble was when the Rams faced some of the league's better defensive fronts, especially in the NFC West. Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco gave him fits, and it was no coincidence the Rams struggled to get much of anything going offensively against those three teams.

For Williams to get a solid free-agent deal speaks more to a depressed offensive-line market and the work of Rams offensive line coach Paul Boudreau than anything else.

Aside from the top tackles, who flew off the shelves at expensive prices Tuesday, this free-agent market was mostly lacking attractive options along the interior. Saffold was probably the best guard on the market; he got paid like a tackle and may not even play guard in Oakland. After that, Geoff Schwartz was the best option after a solid 2013 season, but that was really the extent of his sample size of production in the NFL. The Rams made a play for Schwartz but were outbid by the New York Giants.

Washington
Jones
With Saffold, Schwartz and Jon Asamoah gone, teams in need of help on the offensive line (read: almost all of them) seem to be willing to take chances on players who provide experience and not much else.

Which brings us to Boudreau. He has long had a reputation for coaching up lesser-known players, getting production out of them, and seeing them land nice free-agent contracts. Williams was one of his most recent reclamation projects after the Bears released the former first-round miss. Boudreau also squeezed solid performances out of previously unproven guys like Joe Barksdale.

For the Rams, losing Williams likely means another opportunity for Boudreau to develop a young lineman like Brandon Washington or Barrett Jones. The Rams have already invested time and money in both.

But it should also be noted that the Rams aren't going to throw money around for an offensive lineman in this thin market knowing that Boudreau can do well with so-called lesser talent.

The real takeaway for the Rams should be the need to upgrade the talent beyond players like Williams.

Given the strength of the defensive fronts the Rams see six times a year in the NFC West, it's time to give Boudreau more to work with than simple clay, even if it means having a young group of rookies to coach up. Losing Saffold was a blow. Losing Williams provides a chance to get better.

Free-agency primer: Rams

March, 7, 2014
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: OL Rodger Saffold, QB Kellen Clemens, OL Chris Williams, OG Shelley Smith

Where they stand: The offensive line is the one area with the most questions heading into 2014. The larger-than-expected salary-cap increase will likely allow the Rams to retain one of their costlier veterans (probably center Scott Wells) to lessen the need a little, but the Rams still have a decision to make on guard Harvey Dahl and his $4 million cap number. Likewise, Saffold, Smith and Williams are set to become unrestricted free agents. The Rams badly want to keep Saffold and will push hard to do so with the idea that he can be a starter at one of the guard spots long term. Bringing back Williams or Smith would give them a potential starter inside or better yet, experienced depth. The secondary is the other area in need of reinforcements. St. Louis could probably use a starter and a backup at safety and another top-three-caliber corner with the pending release of Cortland Finnegan. Bringing Clemens back as a No. 3 who can tutor whomever the Rams draft in May might also make sense.

What to expect: The Rams have spent lavishly in free agency in each of their first two years under coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead. The results of those signings have been mixed at best, and the better signings have been the more midlevel moves, like signing and re-signing defensive end William Hayes and the addition of defensive tackle Kendall Langford. The Rams insist they're coming close to breaking through, and if they truly believe that, they'll have some young talent to re-sign in the next few years. Spending big in free agency isn't usually a path to success, and the Rams probably won't be very active this year, at least compared to the previous two. Many will connect the Rams to Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verner, but that seems a bit overblown given what Verner is likely to cost. If Saffold departs, perhaps the Rams spend to find a piece on the offensive line or elsewhere, but if they have it their way, expect retaining Saffold to be the "big" free-agent move.
The free-agent market is scheduled to begin March 11 and teams may begin negotiations with those poised to hit the market beginning March 8. We'll count down to that with a position-by-position look at what the Rams have in place, who is set to hit the market, what they might need and who might fit the bill.

In place: It's no secret the Rams have some potential moving parts on the offensive line heading into free agency but things are beginning to crystallize before the market opens on March 11. Among the players who started most of 2013, left tackle Jake Long, right tackle Joe Barksdale and center Scott Wells are still in place.

[+] EnlargeRodger Saffold
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonRetaining Rodger Saffold could be the key to the Rams' offseason plans to upgrade the offensive line.
Long is recovering from a knee injury and his status for the first week is up in the air though the Rams remain optimistic he'll be ready for the opener. Barksdale had a solid season though he's scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next year. Wells has long been considered a potential cap casualty but the larger-than-expected salary cap makes it more likely he'll stick around.

The biggest question here centers on guard Harvey Dahl, who carries a $4 million salary-cap number into next season and is coming off another season-ending injury. The Rams could make a move to create space now or see how other things play out before making a decision.

Beyond that quartet, the Rams have youngsters such as Brandon Washington, Barrett Jones and Mike Person whom they have been grooming in hopes they'll step in to help at some point. Center Tim Barnes started a few games at the end of the year in Wells' place and should be back to compete again.

Pending free agents: Rodger Saffold, Chris Williams, Shelley Smith, Barnes (exclusive rights/already tendered)

What's needed: The Rams' offensive line as a whole outperformed its individual pieces in 2013. A lot of the credit for that should go to offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. The Rams' presumptive starting five from the beginning of the year played just 295 of the team's 968 snaps together last season, checking in just above 30 percent. Only three other units around the league spent less time together on the field.

The thing about the missed time is that it was expected. The Rams entered the year with a veteran but injury-prone group and it lived up to that billing. That's what makes the offensive line the team's top priority heading into the offseason. They need to get younger and more talented so they can finally have a group that sticks together awhile without having some sort of major makeover every offseason.

Beyond that, the Rams want to be a physical, run-first offense in a division loaded with fearsome front sevens. They do just fine with Boudreau maximizing lesser talents but if they want to reach the next level, it makes sense to give him something better than regular old clay to work with.

In terms of specifics, the Rams could use help at both guard spots and a top-tier tackle who could start on the right side and become Long's future replacement.

Possible fits: The best in-house fit is Saffold. The Rams really want to bring him back but they're going to have a lot of competition. Bringing Saffold back would cure a lot of what ails the offensive line. He'd be the long-term option at guard and provide solid depth at tackle. That wouldn't mean they could just skip over the line in the draft but it would lessen the need. Coach Jeff Fisher has also said he'd like to bring Chris Williams back and that could make sense so long as he's cheap depth and not expected to be a starter. Some also are high on the potential of Smith, though I don't see it after watching him struggle against some of the league's better fronts. If Saffold departs, the Rams could look to spend some money on a veteran guard such as Denver's Zane Beadles or Kansas City's Jon Asamoah or Geoff Schwartz. The market for linemen doesn't look very strong, though.

Verdict: One way or another, the Rams are going to make some changes or moves along the offensive line. I tend to doubt Dahl will return though if Saffold leaves, maybe the Rams allow him to play the final year of his contract. Everything that happens here will depend on Saffold but I do expect the Rams to bring back at least one from the group of Saffold, Williams and Smith. When all is said and done, it would be a surprise if the Rams don't spend at least some free-agent money and draft capital addressing the offensive line.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- You’d be hard-pressed to find an offensive lineman who prefers pass blocking to run blocking.

The chance to run block allows any offensive lineman the chance to come flying out of his stance and physically dominate the man across from him. Pass blocking puts the pass in passive, asking linemen to wait for the collision to come to him with more precision and technique required.

So it’s no surprise that the St. Louis Rams' offensive line enjoys the power running game that has become the centerpiece of the offense in the past seven games.

[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Zac Stacy
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesIn the past seven games, the Rams revamped their running game, averaging 151.86 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry, led by running back Zac Stacy.
“It feels good,” right tackle Joe Barksdale said. “You aren’t as physical in pass protection. It’s more technical. Run blocking is technical, too, but being able to line up every once in a while and just come off the ball and hit somebody and not worrying about a quarterback getting killed is pretty fun.”

It’s one thing to enjoy an activity. It’s another thing all together to actually be good at it.

For whatever reason, Rams offensive linemen Barksdale, Jake Long, Chris Williams, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl, Rodger Saffold and Shelley Smith have proved to be particularly proficient when it comes to repeatedly clearing space in the run game as opposed to keeping the quarterback upright while dropping back 50 times a game.

“We always talk about balance, and I think our guys can do whatever we ask them to do,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “I think they like that style of offense is probably the better way to say it. They like coming off the ball and trying to work double teams and things like that. But they’ll do whatever we ask. It’s been fun to watch these guys.”

Soon after the Rams’ 35-11 loss to San Francisco on Sept. 26, the Rams had hit an early season low point and lagged behind in many areas. None more so than the run game.

At that point, the Rams were dead last in the NFL in rushing at 47.25 yards per game. They were only slightly better in yards per carry, ranking 31st at 2.59 yards per attempt.

In the days after that game, Fisher, Schottenheimer and the offensive staff gathered over the long weekend and began piecing together the formations and plays they wanted to incorporate.

They also changed personnel at running back by plugging in Zac Stacy as the starter and added more multiple-tight-end and power-I formation stuff with guys like Cory Harkey and Lance Kendricks more prominently involved. The coaching staff also emphasized the need for better blocking outside the hashes from the receivers, something else that has improved during the Rams’ run-game renaissance.

Schematically, the Rams have stuck to what they know in terms of keeping Stacy between the tackles with plenty of inside zone calls, many of them to the left side behind Long, Williams and Harkey at fullback.

“It starts upstairs,” Fisher said. “Guys have done a great job upstairs with the scheme, with the game plan and then carrying it over to the practice field. It just doesn’t stop with the line.”

The personnel on the offensive line was the one area that didn’t see much change, though injuries have caused the occasional shakeup.

Barksdale stepped in for an injured Saffold at right tackle and played well enough to hang on to the job upon Saffold’s return. Dahl suffered a knee injury and Smith stepped in before ceding the job to Saffold, who has excelled in two starts on the interior.

No matter how the Rams have mixed and matched in the past seven games, they’ve found ways to have success on the ground.

“I think we are a lot more physical, a lot more aggressive,” Saffold said. “We started out kind of like a different game plan. Now we are a lot more balanced.”

The results have been overwhelmingly positive. In the past seven games, the Rams are averaging 151.86 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry. Both of those totals rank second in the league over that span.

The net effect of the improved run game has also allowed for the Rams to make more plays down the field in the passing game, many of those coming off play-action. The Rams are 9-of-20 on throws 20 yards or more down the field in those seven games, a vast improvement from the first four contests.

And though they still prefer to run block, the pass blocking comes much easier after the run has been established.

“It’s really good, because it takes a lot of the heat off when you are dealing with the pass rush,” Saffold said. “When they get their ears pinned back, they start chipping away at you, and after that it can be one technique or one move that gets you beat, so of course we love to take the pressure off of doing that. I think we have been able to pass and run very effectively, especially these last few games, and it’s really opened up a lot of things for us.”

RB Zac Stacy probable for Sunday

November, 29, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- It had been trending this direction all week but barring a setback, the St. Louis Rams will have their trio of concussed players, including running back Zac Stacy, available Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.

Stacy
Stacy, cornerback Trumaine Johnson and left guard Chris Williams practiced fully on Friday and are officially listed as probable on the team's Friday injury report. That group has gone through the necessary steps to be cleared by doctors to return and appears on course to play in San Francisco.

Clearly, having all three key starters available is a positive thing for the Rams, particularly in a game where all hands on deck will be required against the Niners.

While Stacy has been having much success running the ball of late, it's Johnson's likely return that might be the most imperative. That's because the Rams lost Cortland Finnegan to injured reserve because of an eye injury last week and cornerback Brandon McGee suffered a foot injury in Thursday's practice that kept him out Friday and has him designated as questionable for Sunday.

With Johnson's return on track, the Rams would have Johnson, Janoris Jenkins and Quinton Pointer as the only healthy available cornerbacks. Safety Rodney McLeod can also play in the slot and has in sub-packages a number of times this season.

Here's how the rest of the Rams' Friday injury report shapes up:

Questionable: McGee, S T.J. McDonald (shin), G Harvey Dahl (knee)
Probable: Stacy, Johnson, Williams, LB Will Witherspoon (not injury related), DE Eugene Sims (foot)

More progress for three concussed Rams

November, 28, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Although they have yet to be officially cleared to play Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, the St. Louis Rams' trio of concussed players appear to be trending toward a return a week after suffering their injuries.

Running back Zac Stacy, cornerback Trumaine Johnson and left guard Chris Williams all participated in Thursday's practice. They were not allowed to have contact yet but they were able to work at a normal tempo. They're officially listed as limited participation on the injury report.

"As protocol continues, we were able to get the three players that are going through the process with the concussions on the field today," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "No contact, but full speed and that's encouraging."

Fisher said the three players still have another hurdle to clear before they can be cleared and the final tests of the process will take place Friday. He did acknowledge that "everything looks good" for the potential return of all three players against the Niners.

Guard Harvey Dahl (knee) also made some progress and did some limited work with the scout team.

Cornerback Brandon McGee was the only addition to the injury report after he appeared to tweak his foot during practice. He's listed as limited.

Here's the full breakdown:

Did not participate: LB Will Witherspoon (not injury related)

Limited participation: Stacy, Williams, Johnson, Dahl, McGee, safety T.J. McDonald (shin)

Full participation: DE Eugene Sims (foot)

Stacy, Johnson, Williams 'doing well'

November, 27, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. --The St. Louis Rams continue to monitor their three key starters who left last week's game against the Chicago Bears with a concussion as they move toward Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Running back Zac Stacy, cornerback Trumaine Johnson and left guard Chris Williams did not participate in Wednesday's practice according to the team's official injury report, but all three are making strides in a positive direction according to coach Jeff Fisher.

"All three of them are doing well," Fisher said. "They're all going through the process right now and they're all doing well."

Stacy and Johnson, in particular, appeared to be in pretty good shape Wednesday. That duo spent part of the practice running sprints on the side with head athletic trainer Reggie Scott.

Toward the end of Wednesday's practice, the Rams removed their pads and went to a walkthrough pace. All three players participated at the walkthrough pace.

Elsewhere on the injury report, the Rams were also without guard Harvey Dahl (knee), linebacker Will Witherspoon (not injury related) and safety T.J. McDonald (shin) for Wednesday's workout.

Defensive end Eugene Sims (foot) was limited.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Not since the days when Tom Mack lined up at left guard and bulldozed through opposing defensive lines had the St. Louis Rams had an offensive line string together three or more consecutive games without allowing a sack.

The Mack-led line of 1973 was the last Rams unit to accomplish the feat. The 2013 Rams matched the feat Sunday, going back to the final two games of the previous season

“That’s three consecutive games now where we haven’t given up a sack and I don’t think that’s happened in this franchise since somewhere in the mid-70s,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “Not that there’s much carryover from last year but at least we got off to the right start. You credit the offensive line, the quarterback and everybody involved.”

Avoiding sacks is indeed the responsibility of the entire offense but as quarterback Sam Bradford was quick to point out after the win against the Cardinals, it all starts with the front five.

For the Rams, it’s been a long time since they could go a series without allowing a sack let alone full games. That they finished 2012 strong in that area was a step in the right direction. That they carried it into the opener, especially against a blitz-happy Arizona team, is an even better sign given the type of offense the Rams are becoming.

Bradford dropped back to pass 38 times against the Cardinals and Arizona brought blitzes from all over the field. According to STATSPass, Arizona called 17 blitzes. Fisher said Bradford was hit just six times in the game.

“I thought they looked good,” Fisher said. “I thought they hung in there. They did a lot of different things up front. They kept the pocket clean for the most part. That was pretty good.”

While the Rams run blocking left plenty to be desired, the pass protection was good for a group that had never played in a regular season game together. Bradford escaped pressure a couple of times but for the most part, he had time to stand in the pocket and deliver. He was 11-of-17 for 113 yards against the blitz on the day.

The offseason addition of left tackle Jake Long, the move of Rodger Saffold from the left to right side and plugging Chris Williams in at left guard left the Rams with a line that looks capable on paper but with questions about how it would all come together in week one.

Veteran offensive line coach Paul Boudreau had his group ready to go despite playing some musical linemen during the preseason.

“I can't say enough about those guys up front,” Bradford said. “They played outstanding today, and I think it shows that we've taken leaps and bounds from where we were last year. I thought the communication between myself and the line -- I thought [center] Scott [Wells] did a great job of getting things solved.

“They threw some looks at us, especially on third down, that we hadn't seen in the preseason and those guys didn't flinch at all. They kept doing their jobs, kept me protected, and allowed us to make some plays towards the end of the game."

The offensive line is the most veteran-laden starting group on the team’s roster. That it came together and played well in the opener shouldn’t be a surprise. The question that lingers over the group is health. There were plenty of people holding their breath when the team’s medical personnel were tending to Saffold and Long on Sunday.

If they can continue to avoid those brief scares turning into lasting injuries, the streak could continue.
ST. LOUIS -- For the better part of the past decade, whenever the Rams needed leadership in a close and late situation, they turned to running back Steven Jackson.

Trailing by 11 in the fourth quarter Sunday against Arizona, Jackson was nowhere to be found. After an offseason of building an offense with quarterback Sam Bradford as the centerpiece and as he enters another season as an offensive captain, all eyes were on Bradford.

Bradford doesn’t have the fiery, in-your-face personality that many often (and mistakenly) associate with leadership. He’s always been a calm, lead-by-example type who wants to lead with actions rather than words.

So when Bradford entered the huddle with his team trailing 24-13 and less than two minutes to go in the third quarter, his teammates saw exactly what they always see from Bradford. He stayed the same on the next possession and every one thereafter.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty ImagesQuarterback Sam Bradford rallied the St. Louis Rams to a victory in Week 1.
“Sam is cool as a cucumber all the time, man,” left guard Chris Williams said. “That’s just Sam for you. He’s not a panic guy. It’s great.”

Starting with that drive late in the third, Bradford went on to complete six passes in a row for 76 yards and a touchdown to draw the Rams within five. On the ensuing two-point conversion, Bradford found another way to add points to the Rams’ tally, taking a snap out of the shotgun, showing pass and bursting into the end zone to trim it to three.

“Yeah, how’d you guys like that?” Bradford said, laughing. “That was pretty good, huh? I think they had no idea that I was going to run the ball on that play and I think that’s why it worked so well. But hey, we’ll take what they give us.”

Bradford’s late-game heroics weren’t limited to sneak-attack runs either. Starting from that late drive in the third quarter, Bradford went 11-of-13 for 128 yards and a touchdown for a rating of 133.3 to close out the game and the Cardinals.

For Bradford to take the next step and become the quarterback he was drafted to be and that the Rams believe he can be, he’ll need to continue to find ways to bring his team back when it falls behind.

In his first two seasons, Bradford struggled in late-game situations. In games where his team was either up or down by seven points or fewer, Bradford posted a rating of 67.6 as a rookie and 75.0 in 2011.

Although it went a bit under the radar, Bradford began to show a penchant for coming through when the Rams needed it most in 2012. With the Rams in more close games last year, Bradford got better and better with victories on the line as the season went along.

When all was said and done, Bradford posted a rating of 92.7 in the fourth quarter of games still hanging in the balance and led the Rams to game-winning drives in fourth-quarter comebacks three times and engineered a comeback that led to a tie against San Francisco. That doesn't include a near-miss in last year's season opener in Detroit.

Bradford led a game-winning, fourth-quarter comeback just once in his first two seasons.

“Sam did a great job,” tight end Jared Cook said. “He kept his composure the whole time. He put everybody on his back and on his shoulders, and he carried us to victory.”

That Bradford is not only embracing his role as a leader but also proving capable of handling the role in winning fashion is a good sign not only for his future but for the Rams. The team invested heavily in surrounding him with talent in the offseason and has committed to making him the focal point of the franchise moving forward.

It’s only one week into the season but a comeback win in which the Rams scored the final 14 points of the game would seem to be a good building block from which to grow.

“He’s a tough kid and he battles hard and I think he works as hard as anybody in this league,” said defensive end Chris Long, a close friend of Bradford’s. “He’s had a lot not go in his favor so far in his career that he can’t control. So to have him with every resource at his disposal and the continuity that he has going into this year, that’s big. You’ll see great results.”

As for any lingering doubt that might have been left as to where to look when a boost is needed, there’s clearly a consensus choice in the locker room.

“It’s Sam’s team,” Long said. “It’s Sam’s team all the way. We have built things around him so it’s Sam’s team. That’s the way everybody wants it.”

Rams-Cards: Saturday matchup breakdown

September, 7, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. – Sunday’s season opener between the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals contains plenty of intriguing matchups, making it difficult to boil it down to just a few.

Here are three to keep an eye on when the teams kick it off Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET at the Edward Jones Dome.

Rams P Johnny Hekker/coverage team vs. Arizona PR Patrick Peterson

Two years ago, Cardinals punt returner Peterson nearly beat the Rams by himself with multiple dynamic returns, including a “walk-off” return in overtime in the game in Arizona.

The Rams added Hekker before last season and the then-rookie did his part in helping to keep Peterson at bay. After two return touchdowns and an average of 27.8 yards per return in 2011, Peterson's numbers against the Rams fell to 15 yards per attempt last year.

Hekker helped neutralize Peterson through a combination of hang time and kicking toward the sideline. The concept is simple: Use the sideline as an extra defender, and get enough hang time to allow the coverage to get down the field.

In the first meeting against Peterson and the Cardinals, Hekker averaged 56.9 yards with a net of 46 on seven attempts, with three punts dropped inside the 20. That earned him NFC special teams player of the week honors.

An award won’t offer much comfort this time around, but Hekker acknowledged that it could at least help from a mental standpoint.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Hekker
AP Photo/Paul Jasienski"You can't bank on last year's success with a guy like that," Rams punter Johnny Hekker said of Arizona's Patrick Peterson.
“The only thing it helps is as far as confidence,” Hekker said. “I think that’s something I’ll carry into this week and I’ll carry it kind of into this season. Having a whole year of experience. You can’t bank on last year’s success with a guy like that. They know that and we are all amped up and anxious to go. It’s going to be exciting.”

Rams LT Jake Long/LG Chris Williams vs. Arizona DE/DT Calais Campbell

Cardinals defensive lineman Campbell has been a thorn in the Rams’ side seemingly for as long as he’s been in the league. The big, long-armed Campbell creates havoc with his pass-rushing skills and strength against the run.

Making matters more complicated are those Inspector Gadget arms, which add a 35.5-inch wingspan to his 6-foot-7 frame. In his past six games against the Rams, Campbell has 16 tackles, six sacks, three batted passes and a blocked field goal.

In defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ new scheme, Campbell will work inside and out, but mostly lined up opposite starting Rams left tackle Long and expected starting guard Williams.

Campbell’s ability combined with those long arms makes him a tough matchup for either lineman.

“It helps him a great deal,” Long said. He’s very tall, strong, a great player. So you have just got to get into him, attack him and not let him lock his arms out and get away from you, because if that happens, he’s good with that.”

Of course, the easiest way to neutralize Campbell is to have him on the sideline. He was added to the injury report as questionable with a quadriceps injury suffered in Friday's practice. Campbell missed the second meeting between the teams last season with a calf ailment.

Rams WR Tavon Austin vs. Arizona CB Tyrann Mathieu

Because the Rams and Cardinals have been playing each other for so long, it’s easy to find a track record of the above matchups. This one, though, involves perhaps the league’s two most exciting rookie talents.

Austin and Mathieu are set to make their NFL debuts Sunday and will probably see plenty of each other, with Austin working in the slot for the Rams and Mathieu handling primary slot-corner duties for Arizona in nickel packages.

Obviously, the duo has yet to face each other in the NFL, but they did see each other back in a college matchup in 2011. Mathieu’s LSU team easily disposed of Austin’s West Virginia squad that day (47-21), but Austin had his way with the Tigers defense.

Austin finished that game with 11 catches for 187 yards, and though he wasn’t regularly matched up with Mathieu, he did get the better of the player then known as “Honey Badger” a few times.

Mathieu has impressed observers in Arizona nearly as much as Austin has done in St. Louis. They’ll probably see much more of each other Sunday, and the winner could strongly influence the game’s outcome.

“(He’s a) very instinctive, good player, plays way bigger than his size, got good coverage skills, good blitzer,” Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said of Mathieu. “(He’s a) good football player, real good football player. He and Tavon have had some battles in the past. It’ll be fun to watch them go at it.”
The Arizona Cardinals hope rookie first-round draft choice Jonathan Cooper can recover from a broken leg in time to play the final six or so games in 2013.

The injury was a tough one for the Cardinals. They are rebuilding their long-neglected offensive line around Cooper, the seventh overall pick in the draft. Injuries sidelined multiple starters on the line last season, including left tackle Levi Brown and center Lyle Sendlein. Losing Cooper before he plays a regular-season game reduces the margin for error even though overall line depth is improved.

There is hope for Cooper. Other highly drafted offensive linemen have bounced back from injury-shortened rookie seasons in recent years. Russell Okung, taken sixth overall by the Seattle Seahawks in 2010, rebounded to earn Pro Bowl honors in his third season. Cincinnati's Andre Smith and Atlanta's Sam Baker have been more durable lately after rough early stretches.

The chart below ranks first-round offensive linemen from 2008 through 2012 by most games missed as rookies.

Chris McIntosh, Steve Hutchinson, James Carpenter, Okung and Jason Smith are five first-round offensive linemen from NFC West teams to miss time early in their careers since the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions for the 2002 season. All but Hutchinson suffered significant injuries as a rookie. Hutchinson suffered a broken leg four games into his second season.

Left guard decision looms for Rams

August, 26, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Expected competition for most of the Rams’ starting jobs never really materialized at most of the anticipated positions. Most, that is, except for left guard.

While position battles are a time-honored training-camp tradition, some battles such as running back crystallized almost before they even got started. But the left guard job has remained an ongoing issue with Chris Williams and Shelley Smith taking turns.

Three games into the preseason schedule and with the training-camp portion of practices over, Rams coach Jeff Fisher hinted Sunday that some closure could finally come this week.

Smith
Williams
“We’re getting there,’’ Fisher said. “We may be ready to make an announcement this week at some point."

What has been a two-horse race really since the spring remains one as the Rams close in on the start of the regular season. Throughout camp, the offense has been fortunate to have mostly the same players on the offensive line healthy and available each day.

Right tackle Rodger Saffold suffered a dislocated left shoulder, which cost him a couple of weeks, but left tackle Jake Long, center Scott Wells and right guard Harvey Dahl have been together enough to forge at least some semblance of cohesion.

That group hasn’t consistently had one piece in the left guard slot, though, as Williams and Smith have played musical chairs.

In practice, Williams and Smith spent much of the time trading off, with each getting plenty of work with the first-team offense. That balance was mostly unharmed by Saffold’s injury as Joe Barksdale stepped in at right tackle, though Williams has been getting work -- and got a little against Denver -- as a backup option at that spot.

Williams’ versatility is what made him an intriguing option for the Rams when they signed him on Oct. 22 of last year. He played in three games near the end of last season, splitting time at right guard with Smith in a similar setup after a season-ending injury to Dahl late in the year.

For his career, Williams is the more experienced option of the two with 38 starts, including 20 at left guard, 11 at right tackle and seven at left tackle.

Smith has played guard exclusively for the Rams since they picked him up following the final round of cuts in 2012. He made six starts last year, four at left guard and the previously mentioned pair at right guard.

“Chris has been moving around, which is good,’’ Fisher said. “The flexibility at the left guard spot and then a little bit of right tackle here and there; it’s good. Shelley’s moving around a little bit, playing left guard, right guard. We’ve got depth there.’’

The presence of depth is not the primary concern for the Rams, however. Theoretically, the Rams could go with a rotation like they did with the duo at the end of last season, but for continuity sake, it would make sense to make a decision and go with it.

Neither has separated in any clear terms based on playing time in the first three preseason games, either.

Williams has played 17, 11 and 28 snaps in the first three games, starting Games 1 and 3 and working most of those plays at left guard with just a little bit of right tackle mixed in.

Smith has played more snaps with counts of 35, 28 and 16 but he’s also spent more time with the backups than Williams, particularly in the preseason opener against Cleveland.

Following Smith’s lone start against Green Bay, Fisher didn’t exactly offer overwhelming praise when asked about Smith’s performance, saying simply that Smith was "OK" before moving on.

According to Pro Football Focus’ ratings, Williams has allowed a sack, a hit and three hurries while Smith has been responsible for a sack and two hurries. Much like the competition for the backup quarterback job, neither player has grabbed the job by the throat and made the decision a foregone conclusion.

Despite the lack of overwhelming evidence in either direction, Williams probably fits the bill a bit better than Smith given his size advantage (6-foot-6, 320 pounds versus Smith’s 6-4, 297 pounds) and experience level. The guess here is that Williams ultimately wins out.

Monday morning Rams notes

August, 19, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The Rams will get back to work this afternoon as they begin preparations for the third preseason game Saturday in Denver.

Before we look ahead, let’s do a little cleanup work and empty the notebook from the weekend loss to Green Bay and yesterday’s news conference with coach Jeff Fisher.
  • Fisher was pleased with how Joe Barksdale filled in at right tackle against the Packers. That Barksdale played well came as no surprise to Fisher, who made it clear he was comfortable with the third-year tackle soon after presumed starter Rodger Saffold left the preseason opener with a dislocated left shoulder. “I thought Joe was good,” Fisher said. “He hung in there and played well. He played well against the Packers last year in the regular season. I thought he hung in there and played pretty well.”
  • With that said, Fisher said he and the Rams are hopeful that Saffold could return to action as soon as this week. While the additional work has been good for Barksdale considering the Rams’ lack of experience with their offensive line depth, Saffold needs the reps at his new position on the right side. Gaining some continuity with the other projected starters would be a plus, too.
  • It appears that nothing has been fully resolved in the competition for the left guard job at the halfway point of the preseason. Chris Williams started the opener in Cleveland and Shelley Smith got his chance against Green Bay. If that pattern continues, Williams will get the work with the first team offense this week in Denver. The Rams had some success running behind Williams in the opener but Fisher said Smith was “OK” against Green Bay.
  • Tight end Lance Kendricks (knee) and defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo (foot) came off the physically unable to perform list last week so they could get up to speed in terms of the team walk throughs each day. Both players said they were hopeful that they could get back in time for this week’s game in Denver. Fisher said the pair was “closer” to a return but it remains to be seen if either will be ready to go in time to play the Broncos.
  • Asked about the team’s struggles to get much going in the running game (22 carries for 52 yards), Fisher pointed out that Green Bay loaded the run box with extra defenders for most of the night. It’s an area Fisher said he’s not concerned about, particularly with the first team. Otherwise, he felt like the Packers were doing more with their backups than the Rams were with theirs. “We really didn’t commit to the run,” Fisher said. “It was hard because of what they were doing and what we were trying to do. I’m not concerned about it. We’ve got to get better at it but we didn’t have enough carries in the ball game, as many as we’d like and they kind of forced us out of it from a line of scrimmage standpoint. We wanted to look at the passing game as well. We’ll get back to it this week but the first group I thought did a good job.”
  • The Packers’ game planning and the Rams’ vanilla approach made for some serious struggles for the Rams backup offensive units. Green Bay regularly brought blitzes and the backup group struggled to pick those up. It made life particularly difficult for Kellen Clemens and, to a slightly lesser extent, Austin Davis.
  • Speaking of Clemens and Davis, nothing seems to be settled in the team’s competition for the backup duties behind starter Sam Bradford. Clemens struggled mightily against Green Bay and Davis did the same until a final drive resulted in a touchdown pass with about a minute to go. Like with left guard, the Rams have been alternating between Davis and Clemens behind Bradford. That will continue this week. “We will go back to Austin this week as a two and Kellen will be a three and we’ll continue to evaluate them,” Fisher said.

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