NFC West: Daren Bates
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
"I'm feeling great now and I'm ready to get back in," Long said Friday afternoon.
Long's impending return combined with the potential for normal starting right guard Harvey Dahl to get back in the mix could create some interesting offensive line permutations against the Cardinals. Dahl has been out with a knee injury, but practiced all week and is also listed as probable. That leaves something of a logjam on the offensive line given the success of Rodger Saffold at right guard in Dahl's stead.
The Rams could opt to rotate Saffold into multiple spots or potentially rotate Dahl in, but either way, they have some choices to make in terms of the offensive line for this one.
Elsewhere on the injury report, linebacker Daren Bates also received clearance from concussion protocol and is likely to return this week.
Here's the full Friday injury report:
Out: Center Scott Wells (leg)
Questionable: Cornerback Brandon McGee (foot)
Probable: Long (concussion), Bates (concussion), Dahl (knee), defensive end Eugene Sims (neck)
Long still has obstacles to clear to return Sunday against Arizona but so far he seems to be following the same steps that three concussed Rams followed last week. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson, left guard Chris Williams and running back Zac Stacy returned from concussions after a week in which they did nothing Wednesday, were limited Thursday and then did everything in Friday's practice. Long has now done the first two but has the third and final piece of that puzzle to complete to get back against the Cardinals.
Linebacker Daren Bates is also attempting to return from a concussion and like Long was upgraded from not participating to limited Thursday.
Here's the full rundown of Thursday's injury report:
Did not participate: Center Scott Wells (leg)
Limited participation: Long, Bates, cornerback Brandon McGee (foot)
Full participation: Defensive end Eugene Sims (neck), guard Harvey Dahl (knee)
Of note for Arizona, quarterback Carson Palmer's status remains a bit tenuous after he was limited for a second day in a row with a right elbow injury. Receiver Michael Floyd (ankle) and running back Andre Ellington (knee) practiced on a limited basis after sitting out Wednesday.
While it's a long shot the Rams will get Finnegan back this week against Carolina -- he's listed as doubtful -- he offered his first sign of progress toward that end by practicing on a limited basis Friday.
Still, any sign of progress is good for Finnegan and the Rams. Despite his early season struggles, the Rams have been short-handed in the secondary in his absence, forced to reconfigure the defensive backfield with safety Rodney McLeod moving into the slot in nickel packages and Matt Giordano stepping into McLeod's safety spot.
With a long week looming before the Monday night matchup with Seattle, it's possible Finnegan could be in better position to return next week assuming he doesn't play against the Panthers.
The only other Rams not to practice Friday were safety Darian Stewart and running back Benny Cunningham (ankle). Coach Jeff Fisher said Stewart missed the practice because of an illness.
Cunningham has been ruled out this week and the Rams will have to make an adjustment at kick returner. Tavon Austin and/or Isaiah Pead appear to be in line to handle those duties.
Here's the full rundown from Friday's injury report:
Out: Cunningham (ankle)
Doubtful: Finnegan (thigh)
Probable: RB Zac Stacy (chest), LB Daren Bates (hip), DE Chris Long (thigh), Stewart (illness)
Of note for Carolina, defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (hamstring) is doubtful and cornerback D.J. Moore (knee) is out. Tight end Greg Olsen (foot) is probable.
For the second week in a row, the Rams not only created multiple turnovers but turned them into instant points and didn't have any giveaways of their own. They even went one better than last week's plus-three output and added a special teams touchdown for good measure.
The Rams' plus-four takeaway margin was the first time they've hit that mark since a Week 8 game against Carolina in 2010.
"That was a big thing and we did not turn the football over," coach Jeff Fisher said. "Keeping the penalties down and protecting the football and not turning it over for us has been very helpful for us the last two weeks."
During the Rams' three-game losing streak earlier this season, they weren't awful in turnover margin, netting a minus-one for those three games, but it's quite clear the difference it makes when there's a plus at the beginning of the construction.
Houston outgained the Rams 420 to 216 in total yards while running 73 plays to the Rams' 41, gaining a dozen more first downs and holding a time of possession edge of 11 minutes and 20 seconds. By all accounts, those numbers would portend a blowout victory. They did, but not in the direction you'd expect.
That's because of the 98-yard interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Alec Ogletree, the interception in his own end zone by cornerback Janoris Jenkins, Ogletree's forced fumble and recovery by James Laurinaitis and the 11-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown by linebacker Daren Bates while covering a kick.
Those four plays resulted in 17 Rams points and provided enough to give the Rams a victory.
"When you can score defensive touchdowns, those are game changers," Laurinaitis said. "Those don't come a whole lot. So when you get them, that can change the whole outcome of the game. It's detrimental for them when you give them up."
On the other side of the ball, the Rams have showed a penchant for taking care of the ball and did so with a balanced offensive game plan that was effective in the short bursts when it was actually on the field.
Quarterback Sam Bradford attempted only 16 passes but he threw no interceptions. His offensive line allowed no sacks and thus, no opportunities for strip sacks. Running back Zac Stacy protected the ball at all costs despite regularly finding himself in heavy traffic with opponents ripping at the ball.
Before the end of Week 6, the Rams' six turnovers put them in a tie for fourth fewest in the league.
Even as yards might accumulate against the defense or the offense continues to search for some consistency, the takeaway formula remains tried and true.
After the Rams scored on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Bradford to Brian Quick with 7:46 remaining in the third quarter, the offense didn't get back on the field until there was 11:56 to go in the game, a span of 10 minutes and 48 seconds without the ball.
But because of the touchdowns from Bates and Ogletree, the Rams' lead increased from 24-6 to an insurmountable 38-6. And with that, any hope the Texans entertained of a comeback was gone.
"They're huge," Bradford said. "Anytime our defense creates a turnover, it just gives us a spark on offense and then in the second half today, the one on special teams and then the pick-6, we come off the field and we're up 24-6 and the next time we come on the field we're up 38-6. Those are two huge plays in the game and they just gave us a lot of momentum and kind of sealed the deal."
The minimum expectation for any team under the tutelage of coach Jeff Fisher is an innate toughness, the ability to deal with problems head on. Such toughness -- which seemed to build over the course of the 2012 season -- appeared to have vanished after the Sept. 26 drubbing at the hands of San Francisco.
A win against Jacksonville the following week showed that the Rams could do what they needed to against an inferior opponent. But a team personality that the Rams could lean on when times were tough still had not bubbled to the surface.
They aren’t there yet, the personality is still in the developmental stages, but for the first time in the 2013 season, the Rams gave a glimpse of what they hope the finished product will become with a resounding 38-13 win against the Houston Texans on Sunday.
“It was important to us to speak life into our team, after the Thursday game [against the 49ers],” Fisher said. “I think we did that. We sent them off and gave them a little break and brought them back and just started over.”
On Sunday, the Rams showed plenty of signs that their toughness was back, that they could stand toe-to-toe with a physical team such as Houston and not back down. It served them well in 2012 against division foes Seattle and San Francisco, and it did again against the Texans.
Whether it was hard-nosed rookie running back Zac Stacy pushing the pile and picking up yards after contact or quarterback Sam Bradford standing tall in the pocket to take a hard hit from Houston linebacker Brooks Reed as he delivered a strike to tight end Jared Cook for 34 yards to set up a touchdown, the Rams refused to let Houston pummel them.
There was no better example of the attitude the Rams are looking to engender than the reaction of guard Harvey Dahl when Texans linebacker Brian Cushing jumped on Bradford after he slid for a 4-yard gain in the second quarter. Dahl immediately popped up and got in Cushing’s face, with not-so-pure intentions clearly on his mind, before tackle Jake Long restrained him from acquiring offsetting penalties.
It was a small thing in a game of big plays, but when forming an identity, it can be the small things that count the most.
“That’s what I love about Harvey, that’s what I love about all those guys upfront,” Bradford said. “I know they’ve got my back. To see something like that happen, I think that’s a big step for this team, a big step for this offense, and I couldn’t be happier or more proud to play for those guys up front.”
That same mentality was evident in the other phases of the game as well.
On special teams, the penalties mostly evaporated and the unit found a way to score one of the rarer touchdowns in football: a fumble return while covering a kickoff. The play happened because safety Rodney McLeod hit returner Keshawn Martin with reckless abandon and linebacker Daren Bates – fresh off running over a would-be blocker – was simply looking for something else to hit.
The Rams' defense struggled to stop Houston running back Arian Foster from ripping off big chunks of yards, but they managed to find ways to keep the Texans out of the end zone and hold them to field goals. They also created three more takeaways after grabbing three last week.
“We knew the key to this game was holding them out of the end zone and finding ways to get turnovers,” middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “We knew they were going to get yards. They are tough to defend. We just needed to find ways to keep them out of the end zone and get the ball back for our offense.”
The fact that the Rams are the league’s youngest team is not lost on anyone; they were last year as well. They don’t and won’t use it as an excuse for any failures, but after their successes they can point to it and realize there’s still plenty of growth to come.
After the loss to San Francisco, it was fair to wonder if the Rams’ season would be lost by the time they started to progress again. Fisher told his team that it was starting fresh, that the first four games of the season were nothing more than an extended preseason.
The message was received loud and clear, and now, though the team’s identity is still far from formed, that personality is starting to peek from behind the curtain.
“I believe if you want a head coach in a fistfight, I’ve got Jeff Fisher,” defensive end Chris Long said. “Even in a really tough time, and the last couple weeks have been really tough trying to find an identity as a team to try to fall back on like we thought we were building last year, having him as our head coach and knowing the guys that he’s brought in, the right type of people to help you dig out of this hole and to get to .500, the sky is the limit for us. It’s one game. Now, we’ve got to duplicate this next week.”
1. Getting an easy one
For the fifth consecutive week, Houston threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. This time it was Rams rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree doing the damage, bringing it back 98 yards for the score.
Of course, it wasn't Houston quarterback Matt Schaub throwing it this time. It was T.J. Yates and the result remained the same. The Rams' defense came up with three takeaways: Ogletree's touchdown, an interception by cornerback Janoris Jenkins and a fumble recovery by middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. Those takeaways turned into 10 points.
2. Every yard counts
It was a day of across-the-board improvement for the Rams' special teams as they were hit with just one penalty -- kicker Greg Zuerlein's illegal procedure infraction for kicking the ball out of bounds.
More impressive was the touchdown produced by the kickoff coverage unit of all groups. Safety Rodney McLeod hit returner Keshawn Martin on the return, jarring the ball loose and into the waiting arms of linebacker Daren Bates. Bates promptly returned it 11 yards for a touchdown.
Field position is nice but points are better and the Rams made strides in both areas against Houston.
3. Building on the run
The numbers weren't as eye-popping as last week but that's likely due mostly to lack of opportunities offensively as the Rams' running game again provided a much-needed second dimension to the offense.
Leading the charge again was hard-running Zac Stacy, who earned his second start and likely a third with another solid performance. Stacy found holes, evaded tacklers and picked up yards after contact again. He finished with 79 yards on 18 carries and the Rams picked up 99 yards on 25 carries.
Daryl Richardson and Benny Cunningham got three carries apiece in relief.
A fresh start: Coach Jeff Fisher's message to his team after a disappointing performance against San Francisco in Week 4 was that the first four games didn't happen and they were starting anew. The message seemed a little ridiculous from the outside, but it's clear his team has bought into it. After the game, the team started a "2 and 0, 2 and 0" chant in the locker room. The Rams followed back-to-back 24-point losses with two wins averaging 19.5 points. To a man, every player in the locker room approved of and endorsed the fresh-start idea. Now, the Rams sit at 3-3.
Fisher disappointed in Schaub reaction: When Rams defensive end Chris Long dropped Houston quarterback Matt Schaub for a sack in the third quarter, Schaub stayed down with an apparent leg injury. A smattering of Houston fans, already disenchanted with Schaub's recent performances, cheered when Schaub didn't get up. The cheers grew louder when T.J. Yates entered in his place. Asked about it after the game, Fisher expressed disappointment in the reaction, saying Schaub has earned more respect for what he's done in Houston.
That’s because Austin’s official stat line in returning punts doesn’t account for his team’s continued inability to execute special-teams plays, particularly punt returns, without a flag raining down on the field.
The Rams’ six special-teams penalties against the Jaguars cost them 125 yards of field position, bringing the season total to 17 special-teams infractions, one more than the offense and defense combined. Of those 17, 12 have come on punt returns and seven have resulted in half the distance to the goal yardage mark-offs.
Against the Jaguars, Austin had three returns totaling 81 yards called back for various infractions. He should have had 92 yards on his four returns but instead finished with a meager 15 for an average of 3.8 per attempt.
A clearly frustrated Austin left the locker room quickly after the game, eye black still visible. On Monday, Rams coach Jeff Fisher said he attempted to keep Austin’s spirits up, thus the game ball offering.
“Yeah, I gave him a special-teams game ball for having 91 punt return yards in the game,” Fisher said. “So, he’s happy.”
Asked if his ploy worked, Fisher said it did and that he also took some time to show Austin what his punt return numbers would look like were it not for the continued accumulation of penalties on his returns.
Fisher’s numbers would have Austin carrying a return average around 10 yards per attempt to go with 257 yards and highlighted by an 84-yard return for a touchdown that was called back. Austin’s current numbers fall well short of those lofty statistics as he has 57 yards on 17 returns, an average of 3.4 yards per chance and a long of 14. Fisher doesn’t believe the penalties on the returns would have affected Austin, making them all the more maddening.
It’d be easy to understand why Austin would be frustrated at this point with the continued penalties but he’s doing his best to be supportive of his teammates.
“The only thing that matters is my team, they keep on trying,” Austin said. “That’s the only thing that matters to me and I will do the same thing week in and week out and hopefully they’ll stand.
“We’re definitely getting better at it. We have just got to keep working, keep drawing up good schemes and hopefully our plays keep getting bigger and bigger.”
Of course, the special-teams penalty problems extend beyond just the punt return unit. Against Jacksonville, cornerback Brandon McGee ran into Ace Sanders, who called for a fair catch and cost his team 15 yards and cornerback Janoris Jenkins jumped offside on a field goal and an extra point.
Special-teams penalties aren’t new to the Rams under Fisher and special-teams coach John Fassel, either. In 2012, the team drew 25 special-teams flags, second most in the league. They had just three in the first five weeks last year and are clearly on a more alarming pace this season.
In looking around the league, it doesn’t appear there’s more of an emphasis on throwing flags on special teams. Rams opponents have been flagged eight times this year. Fisher hasn’t agreed with all of the calls going against his team, either.
“We have an unusually large number,” Fisher said. “We’ll get it corrected. But again, the confidence in the room -- the guys are good. I think everybody else in the world, after a long return, can look for a flag. We’re not going to because we’re not going to play that way.”
The most common thread among the flags is the relative youth of the players on those units. Youth is not an excuse but the Rams are working with mostly rookies or second-year players, particularly on punt returns. Many of those players don’t have a lot of special-teams experience.
Linebacker Ray Ray Armstrong, McGee and receiver Stedman Bailey have combined for nine flags and all three are rookies. While some advocate benching or cutting players to hold them accountable, that’s easier said than done given that Fassel doesn’t exactly get to pick and choose from the team’s entire pool of players for special teams.
Instead, Fisher is preaching consistency and confidence that as players mature they’ll get better.
“That’s just the special-teams world,” Fisher said. “I’ve got tremendous confidence in the whole group in the room and Coach Fassel. It’s very important to them. They work very hard. It’s going to turn around. We’ve got an outstanding returner and an outstanding scheme. We put each of the fouls in perspective, discussed them -- ‘How do you avoid them?’ whether in fact it was a foul or not. So, I’m confident that we’ll get it behind us.”
It’d be one thing if this was just a five-game sample size but including last year’s problems, it appears there’s a deeper trend forming. Of course, the numbers have grown worse this year so it seems unlikely that things will continue at this exaggerated rate.
Still, wishing, hoping and handing out game balls is nice but until something more tangible breaks their way, progress will have to be seen to be believed.
WR Tavon Austin, first round, No. 8 overall: It was difficult for Austin to find space to operate against the Cardinals as he played 41 offense snaps and dropped back for punt returns four times. He finished with six catches for 41 yards on his seven targets and had one carry for minus-1 yard. Finding opportunities in the return game was equally difficult. He returned one punt for 1 yard.
LB Alec Ogletree, first round, No. 30 overall: Ogletree played a lot with 66 defensive snaps and eight more on special teams. He tied cornerback Cortland Finnegan for the team lead with seven tackles according to the unofficial press box statistics. It was a quiet seven tackles for the most part, though Ogletree nearly made a diving interception in the fourth quarter.
S T.J. McDonald, third round, No. 71 overall: The most active of all Rams rookies, McDonald played every defensive snap with 71 and 15 more on special teams. He finished with five tackles and a pass defended. McDonald had a few bone-crushing hits that drew oohs and aahs from the crowd but was mostly workmanlike in his debut.
WR Stedman Bailey, third round, No. 92 overall: Bailey didn’t get a chance to contribute offensively. His day consisted of three special-teams snaps and did not record any statistics in unofficial press box numbers.
OL Barrett Jones, fourth round, No. 113 overall: Jones was a pregame inactive and did not play. He’s behind Tim Barnes as the team’s interior swingman right now.
CB Brandon McGee, fifth round, No. 149 overall: Like Bailey, McGee didn’t get many opportunities. He played a trio of special-teams snaps and none on defense.
RB Zac Stacy, fifth round, No. 160 overall: Stacy spelled Daryl Richardson briefly, playing seven offensive snaps. He had one carry for 4 yards.
Undrafted rookie roundup: It was a busy special-teams day for undrafted rookie linebackers Ray Ray Armstrong and Daren Bates. Both are core players on the coverage units and both made their presence felt on their 17 snaps. Bates dropped Arizona returner Javier Arenas at Arizona’s 8 on a kick return and Armstrong stopped Patrick Peterson after just a 1-yard return on a punt late in the fourth quarter. … Running back Benny Cunningham indeed got the first chance to handle kick-return duties and was solid if unspectacular on his pair of attempts. He averaged 23 yards with a long of 25 on those returns.
Little did Bates know that when the Rams were the only team to call and express interest in him after he went undrafted in April’s NFL draft that he was walking into a place that actually was the exact fit he’d need to make the team.
“My agent told me this is where I would be at,” Bates said. “So I that’s all I had and that’s what I took. It worked out perfectly.”
In St. Louis, your pedigree doesn’t matter as much as what happens when you step on the field. To borrow a phrase from Twitter follower @3k_, if you can play, you can stay.
So it is that the current 53-man roster has 18 players that were originally undrafted, 15 of whom were signed by the Rams coming out of college, given an opportunity and earned their way on to the roster.
In this year’s undrafted rookie class alone, the Rams kept five players -- linebackers Ray-Ray Armstrong, Jonathan Stewart and Bates, defensive end Gerald Rivers and running back Benny Cunningham -- who did not hear their names called in April’s draft.
If the draft is the lifeblood of a franchise, undrafted free agency serves as the blood bank. That’s why, in the Rams’ philosophy, it’s not just general manager Les Snead and his group working hard to unearth hidden gems.
“It’s something that everybody works at, the coaches. It’s a collective effort and it starts well before the draft,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “It’s basically one of those deals where you get a sense for guys on the board and if they’re still left on the board when the draft’s over, you basically express interest and show a need and fortunately we got some quality players.”
It hasn’t always been that way around Rams Park, though. In fact, before the arrival of Fisher, Snead and vice president of football operations Kevin Demoff, the undrafted rookies were generally an afterthought.
Not that the Rams didn’t pursue them but they usually didn’t even make competitive bonus offers to go after the best options available. That has changed plenty in the past two years, and it’s a good reason why the Rams now figure to have undrafted players making major contributions for the first time since London Fletcher in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Safety Rodney McLeod went unselected in 2012, made the team and led it in special teams tackles as a rookie. Most undrafted players get their start on special teams but work their way up after. McLeod is a good example and likely to start on defense against Arizona on Sunday.
“There are Pro Bowlers that were undrafted college free agents,” Fisher said. “So, yeah, basically everybody’s doing it. You spend a lot of time on the bottom of those lists. You spend a lot of time in it, so it’s worked out good for us so far.”
The roster scouring isn’t limited to undrafted free agents, either. Offensive lineman Brandon Washington was a sixth-round pick by Philadelphia last year, didn’t make the roster and spent the 2012 season on the Rams' practice squad.
Washington proved a valuable scout team member. He clearly understood his role and the old idea that the more you can do, the more valuable you become.
“It was definitely one of those things,” Washington said. “I learned that last year on the practice squad. I kind of bumped around on practice squad and then coach Bones (special teams coach John Fassel) would come pick me up and say ‘Be my gunner or cover this guy on punt return.’ I was like, ‘What in the world?’ Me a gunner?’ But I heard that a lot, the more you could do, the better. I just looked at everything as an opportunity.”
Washington arrived in this year's training camp hoping to earn a spot at guard but plans changed when injuries hit the Rams at tackle. Without hesitation, Washington returned to his Miami (Ohio) roots and played tackle, again showing the versatility and attitude the Rams seek in young players.
After watching the Rams keep young players around him last year, Washington knew when he was told he’d have a shot to make the roster, it wasn’t just lip service.
“All the hard work you put into this thing, you try to come out here and earn a roster spot,” Washington said. “That was my No. 1 goal coming in. You can be on practice squad and then get a chance for this.”
The amount of players making the roster after going undrafted also can’t hurt the Rams in their pursuits of future player in similar predicaments.
Yes, the Rams have been a team reshaping a roster and naturally have more job openings than teams with deeper rosters, but it’s been made clear that the philosophy of keeping the best players regardless of resume isn’t going to change anytime soon.
“Beforehand, I had no idea,” Rivers said. “I just came in hoping for the best and going out there and playing hard. Coach was saying he doesn’t care who you are, (if you are) making plays, production, that is all on the field. Production equals power.”
Offensive lineman Ryan Lee and linebacker Jabara Williams were the final two cuts to reduce the roster from 77 players to 75. Lee was let go with the designation of waived/injured after he suffered an undisclosed injury late in last week's game against Denver.
Neither move comes as a surprise, but Williams' release is indicative of the progress made by a trio of undrafted rookie linebackers in camp. Williams was a former seventh-round pick of the Rams in 2011 and showed enough promise in that preseason that a segment of fans were outraged when he was released after two regular-season games to make room for offensive lineman Mark LeVoir.
Chicago claimed Williams and he appeared in five more games before returning to the Rams' practice squad on Nov. 21 of last year.
Williams battled some injuries during this camp but he'd been surpassed by the intriguing trio of Ray Ray Armstrong, Daren Bates and Jonathan Stewart around the same time of his injury.
As it stands, the Rams have eight linebackers on the roster, including Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who will not play in the first four games because of a violation of the league's performance-enhancing substance policy. Given the exemption the Rams have for Dunbar in the first four weeks, they could theoretically carry all eight of the remaining linebackers, but it seems more likely that they'll opt to trim at least one more in the final round of cuts.
Armstrong has been one of the team's most pleasant surprises and is a near lock to make the roster at this point. Bates would seem to have the inside track on the final linebacker job because of his special-teams ability.
The final round of cuts is scheduled for Saturday when every team must trim to 53 players by 6 p.m. ET.
In a normal St. Louis training camp, August temperatures generally hover in the 100-degree range with unbearable humidity. Perhaps it’s Mother Nature’s way of making it up to the city for the numerous dangerous storms that rolled through in the spring, but whatever the reason, the Rams have enjoyed a training camp severely lacking in oppressive heat.
So when the Rams put the pads on and temperatures rose to the upper 80s Tuesday afternoon, the feisty attitudes that normally have long since boiled over began to spill out on the practice field.
The result was the most “spirited” practice of this training camp, with multiple scuffles breaking out.
“Occasionally in camp those things happen,” head coach Jeff Fisher said. “It’s kind of one of those deals. I think most of you at some point said, ‘Gosh, this is amazing weather for training camp.’ But today it got a little warm and they had pads on and that’s what happened. That’s good. We need to work through that.”
The most notable scrum happened early in team drills when linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar and tight end Jared Cook got tangled up. Dunbar didn’t take kindly to being knocked down and defensive end Chris Long swooped in to help his teammate.
Cook’s helmet popped off but the group was quickly separated.
There were a few other scuffles throughout practice, too, including a mix-up when linebacker Daren Bates appeared to hit running back Benny Cunningham a bit late and tackle Joe Barksdale jumped in to protect his running back.
Fisher doesn’t mind when his team shows that passion so long as it doesn’t go too far and, considering that the weather hasn’t allowed for some of the chippiness that usually accompanies camp, he said he was OK with what took place Tuesday.
“You don’t want anybody to get hurt and all that kind of stuff,” Fisher said. “They jumped in there and they have more fun pulling it apart than they do mixing it up and that’s fine. We have just got to focus on the football.”
More Tuesday practice notes
- Right tackle Rodger Saffold made some progress toward a return from his dislocated left shoulder. He participated in individual drills but isn’t yet ready to jump into team work.
- Rookie safety T.J. McDonald did get back to work after sitting Monday because of a knee ailment. He was back with the first group for some but not all of team drills. He did come up with an interception near the goal line in 7-on-7s.
- Fellow safety Darian Stewart did not practice again because of a hamstring injury. Rodney McLeod again replaced him with the first defense.
- Receiver Austin Pettis had his second strong day in a row. He made a difficult one-handed grab with just his left hand over cornerback Cortland Finnegan in the corner of the end zone during one on ones.
- Rookie wideout Tavon Austin and end Eugene Sims did not practice again Tuesday. Both have been excused to tend to personal matters.
- The Rams officially released backup tight end Cameron Graham.
- Tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen was shaken up late in practice when he collided awkwardly with Bates. He walked it off and Fisher indicated he’d be OK.
St. Louis is coming off a 27-19 loss in the preseason opener at Cleveland and makes its home debut for 2013.
Hometown fans hoping to see the Rams unveil some of the new weapons they acquired in the offseason will likely leave disappointed as all indications are that the team will again stick to the vanilla game plan it used last week.
With that in mind, here are five things that are worth keeping an eye on as the Rams host Green Bay.
Right tackle redux: Projected starting right tackle Rodger Saffold suffered a dislocated left shoulder two plays into the opener in Cleveland. He hasn’t practiced all week and won’t play against the Packers.
Joe Barksdale, who replaced Saffold last week, has taken almost all of the work with the first-team offense in practice this week and will make the start in Saffold’s place.
Barksdale fared pretty well in Saffold’s stead last week and the chance to start could give him some valuable reps for a group of backup offensive linemen that doesn’t have much in the way of experience.
Behind Barksdale, the Rams don’t have much in the way of tackles. Chris Williams, who started last week at left guard, could get a look at right tackle. The same can be said for rookie Barrett Jones and Brandon Washington, both of whom are projected to play on the interior but have filled in at right tackle this week.
Spread it around: The majority of the starting offense played just 14 snaps last week, leaving for another week the long anticipated first looks at tight end Jared Cook and receiver Tavon Austin. Neither caught a pass against the Browns as Austin was targeted once and Cook did not get a look.
Starting wideout Chris Givens stole the show last week with three catches for 82 yards and will again be involved, but the Rams would like to at least get the likes of Austin and Cook an opportunity or two to contribute.
Going deeper: All week, Rams coach Jeff Fisher has made it known that the first units will play a little longer on both sides of the ball. Part of that is to get the primary starters a few more reps than they had last week, but the other reason is he wants to get some of his younger players who are down the depth chart a chance to play with the top units.
Namely at running back and receiver, don’t be surprised if youngsters such as Zac Stacy, Terrance Ganaway, Benny Cunningham, Brian Quick and Stedman Bailey see a few snaps with the first-team offense.
Looking at linebackers: Veteran Will Witherspoon is all but certain to step into the starting role in place of suspended starter Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Dunbar is eligible to play but Fisher made it clear he wants to use the main workload to prepare the players who will start on the season on Sept. 8.
Witherspoon is a known commodity as he enters his 12th season in the league. Rookie starter Alec Ogletree will also look to bounce back from a rough start last week in Cleveland.
What might be more intriguing in this area is the hunt for talented depth that can serve as reliable backups for the starting group. Josh Hull is the only backup linebacker with any game experience but the Rams have some intriguing options that figure to get work with the No. 2 defense.
The three undrafted rookies -- Ray Ray Armstrong, Daren Bates and Jonathan Stewart -- have flashed potential during camp and proved to be potential long-term contributors on special teams. It seems likely at least one of those three will make the active roster and tonight’s game serves as the next chance to make a strong impression.
Corner three: Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins are pretty well entrenched as the starters at cornerback. Trumaine Johnson entered camp as the likely third corner in nickel packages after he finished the 2012 season as the team’s third corner.
Johnson is probably still in the lead to fill that role again this year, but rookie Brandon McGee seems to be at least stating his case for the job.
McGee got some reps with the first-team defense as the third corner in practice this week and it’s worth monitoring to see if he gets a shot to do it in the game. Considering Fisher’s statement that he wants to give some different young guys a chance to play with the first team, it’s entirely possible McGee will at least get a few reps in that role.
This year, it's unlikely the Rams will keep that many, but if there's one position where at least one rookie free agent seems destined to land a roster spot, it's linebacker.
With Dunbar out of the picture, Rams coach Jeff Fisher acknowledged Thursday that veteran Will Witherspoon would replace him in the starting lineup. Having a veteran on hand makes for a logical move in taking Dunbar’s place but it also opens the door further for the team's three undrafted rookie linebackers to take a shot at making the roster.
Witherspoon represents the team's most experienced backup, but aside from him, the Rams have only one other linebacker, Josh Hull, with any starting experience. Meanwhile, rookies Ray-Ray Armstrong, Daren Bates and Jonathan Stewart find themselves jockeying for position behind the presumed starting group of James Laurinaitis, Witherspoon and Alec Ogletree.
The trio of Armstrong, Bates and Stewart will get its second game opportunity to make an impression on the Rams coaches Saturday night against Green Bay.
"I know where my place is on the team, and I just go out and give 110 percent every time, whether it's a special teams practice or a full game," Bates said. "I am just going out every day to prove to everybody, the coaches especially, that I can be out here and play in this league."
All three rookie linebackers have taken their turns making an early case to land a spot on the 53-man roster, particularly Armstrong and Bates, who both play on the outside.
Armstrong probably came to the Rams with the highest profile among the undrafted rookies. He played safety at Miami for two seasons, playing well enough to earn status as a potential future first-round pick before he was suspended seven games into his junior season and summarily dismissed from the team for violation of team rules.
“Whatever chance I get, whenever coach puts me in there, I’m just trying to do my job and get it done every play,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong had his share of ups and downs in that game, posting three tackles but also garnering a $7,875 fine for a facemask penalty in the second quarter.
An injury to fellow backup outside 'backer Jabara Williams has allowed Armstrong to get plenty of reps with the second team, but like most undrafted rookie linebackers, his name must be made on special teams first.
"He didn't play at all last season, so there's a little bit of rust, but as far as a long guy, a good athlete, he's learning," special teams coach John Fassel said. "I believe he's passionate. I think he's a guy that we're going to probably need to contribute on teams -- all those 'backers."
Like Armstrong, Bates is undersized by NFL linebacker standards at 5-11, 212 pounds. For those watching, though, Bates plays much bigger than his size.
At the team's first special teams practice on July 27, Bates proved to be one of the most rugged players on the field, regularly mixing it up with the much bigger Hull.
That style has Bates working on nearly every special teams unit. He played 17 defensive snaps and 13 special teams plays, finishing with four tackles against the Browns.
"A lot of good stuff from him," Fassel said. "Every time he goes, you hear a crash. He uses his pads, he's a -- you can call it an undersized linebacker -- but he's feisty. He's fast-twitch; he is confident in his collisions, and I think from what I see is that he's a real passionate guy about (special) teams, which is prerequisite to being good on it as a young guy."
The Rams kept six linebackers out of training camp last year but had a far different composition to the group with older veterans such as Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh in place.
This year, there's no such veteran depth on the roster, leaving the opportunity for a couple or even all three of the undrafted rookies to land on the final 53.
How that trio fares on special teams will go a long way in making that final determination.
"No matter what the case may be, I am trying to go out there and prove something to every eye watching on a daily basis," Bates said, "that I'm here to play, and I'm here to stay."