NFC West: Daryl Richardson

ST. LOUIS --A quarter of the way through the 2013 season, the St. Louis Rams were on pace to be one of the worst rushing teams in the history of the NFL.

After parting ways with veteran Steven Jackson, who posted 1,000-yard seasons like clockwork, in the offseason the Rams insisted they would be able to replace Jackson's production with a variety of options. Daryl Richardson figured to get the first shot with Isaiah Pead waiting in the wings. That plan left the Rams at 1-3, averaging less than 50 yards per game on the ground through the first four weeks.

[+] EnlargeZac Stacy
Michael Thomas/Getty ImagesZac Stacy emerged this season as St. Louis' top option out of the backfield.
A dreadful 19 carries for 18 yards as a team against San Francisco in Week 4 left Rams coach Jeff Fisher and his staff looking to get back to their run game roots. At the center of that plan was finding a back capable of carrying the load. Rookie Zac Stacy had one carry in the first four weeks after falling behind because of some injury problems in training camp and the preseason.

Stacy took over as the starter in Week 5 against Jacksonville and never looked back.

"I was given the opportunity and I pretty much just took advantage of it every week," Stacy said. "There’s really no secret sauce to what I’m doing. It all started up front with the offensive line and just being a pro about yourself. Staying an extra hour watching tape, staying an extra hour working on your footwork and craft and stuff like that. That’s one thing I’ve taken from guys like Chris Long, James Laurinaitis. One thing they told me is just be a true pro about yourself. Eat right, take care of your body. Little things like that."

After nearly a decade of relying on Jackson as the workhorse of the offense and running game, the Rams attempted to go to more of a committee approach but Stacy's emergence took them back to the method that had worked in the run game. Stacy handled the bulk of the work from that point forward, finishing with 973 yards on 250 carries and 26 catches for 141 more yards and eight total touchdowns.

For the most part, Stacy was a strong, reliable centerpiece for an offense that was at its best when Stacy was at his best. But that doesn't mean Stacy didn't have his share of struggles in his rookie season.

As teams loaded the box to try to stop the run more and more, Stacy ran into some difficult games. Seattle and Arizona shut Stacy down completely, holding him to 40 yards on 29 carries. He finished the season with an average of just 3.89 yards per carry. He also battled small injuries that never cost him a game but kept him out of games for stretches of time.

Likewise, Stacy's pass protection got better during the season but can use work in that area as well. That's just one example of the details Stacy plans to attack in his first NFL offseason.

"Just doing all the little things," Stacy said. "Getting a better grasp of the playbook from that standpoint. Obviously getting faster, stronger. It’s a long season that I’ve learned from a rookie standpoint. You have got to be able to take care of your body as well. Keep doing all the little things right, from the weight room standpoint, flexibility, all of that stuff."

By the end of the season, Benny Cunningham was the primary backup with Pead next in line and Richardson inactive as he battled injuries all season.

The Rams seem to have plenty of options for the running game, making it unlikely they'll need to spend much in the way of money or draft capital on another back though a speedy complement might be an option. Stacy might not have answered the running game question in full but he appears to have done enough to earn another shot at starting in 2014.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For the third consecutive week, St. Louis Rams receiver Tavon Austin is questionable for Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks because of an ankle injury. But there appears to be a bit more hope than there's been the past two weeks.

Austin was a limited participant in practice Friday, ending a run of nearly three straight weeks in which he'd gone without participating in any practices. In each of the past two weeks Austin has missed those workouts then missed the ensuing game. Austin getting some work on Friday at least leaves the door open that he could return for the season finale.

Technically, the questionable designation makes a player participating a 50/50 proposition. Austin is likely to be a game-time decision for Sunday.

Here's the rest of the Rams' Friday injury report:

Doubtful: RB Daryl Richardson (thigh)
Questionable: Austin (ankle), S T.J. McDonald (illness)
Probable: DE Chris Long (thigh)

McDonald and Richardson did not practice Friday. Long was a full participant.

Tavon Austin remains out

December, 26, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams receiver Tavon Austin again did not practice Thursday as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.

Austin
Austin suffered the injury Dec. 8 against Arizona and has not played or practiced since, missing games against New Orleans and Tampa Bay. Rams coach Jeff Fisher has expressed optimism the past couple of weeks that Austin might be able to return in time to get back on the field, but time is running out for that to happen.

The Rams have one more practice Friday before traveling to Seattle for the season finale. If Austin doesn't at least get some work in at practice, it seems likely his season will end without another appearance.

Elsewhere on the injury report, the Rams were without safety T.J. McDonald because of an illness and running back Daryl Richardson did not practice because of a thigh ailment.

Defensive end Chris Long returned to practice as a full participant after sitting out Wednesday with a thigh injury.

Tavon Austin questionable again

December, 20, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In today's edition of the Tavon Austin injury watch, we can confidently report that, well, there's not much to report.

Austin sat out Friday's practice, just like he did Wednesday and Thursday, as he continues to nurse his ankle back to health. He didn't practice before sitting out last week's game against New Orleans, either. Rams coach Jeff Fisher said Austin will be questionable for Sunday's game against Tampa Bay.

Austin
Fisher said Monday that he hoped Austin would be able to practice at some point this week. Clearly, that didn't happen, which makes Austin's status more tenuous for this week. It seems unlikely he'd play without practicing, but it's possible he could improve in the next couple of days, test the ankle before the game and play against the Bucs.

Here's the Rams' complete Friday injury report:

Questionable: Austin (ankle), running back Daryl Richardson (thigh)

Probable: Offensive lineman Mike Person (illness), linebacker Will Witherspoon (illness), cornerback Janoris Jenkins (back)

Tavon Austin still not practicing

December, 19, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Earlier this week, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher said he hoped receiver Tavon Austin would practice at some point this week as he continues to battle an ankle injury.

Austin
Austin will have one more chance to do that Friday after he sitting out practice for the second consecutive day Thursday. Austin suffered the ankle injury near the end of the team's game against Arizona in Week 14. He did not practice last week and missed his first game against New Orleans. But Austin is out of his walking boot and appears to be moving around better.

The chances for Austin to get back on the field this week against Tampa Bay will likely hinge on his ability to return to practice Friday.

Elsewhere on the injury report, the Rams made some additions to the two they had listed Wednesday. Here's the full breakdown:

Did not practice: Austin (ankle), running back Daryl Richardson (thigh), offensive tackle Mike Person (illness), linebacker Will Witherspoon (illness)

Limited practice: Cornerback Janoris Jenkins (back)

Austin, Jenkins questionable for Sunday

December, 13, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For the third consecutive day, St. Louis Rams receiver Tavon Austin and cornerback Janoris Jenkins did not practice.

Jenkins
Austin
For those keeping score at home, that's a full week's worth of practice in preparation for the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Austin's ankle injury and Jenkins' back ailment have kept them on the sideline all week and now have them listed as questionable for this week.

In NFL parlance, the questionable designation translates to a 50/50 chance to play. Austin has watched practice each of the past two days with a walking boot protecting his left foot.

Jenkins has spent the week getting treatment on his back but took to social media earlier Friday to offer a strong statement that he plans to play against the Saints.

In response to a fan question, Jenkins said he'd be ready to play.

The possibility of playing without Austin is damaging enough to an offense without much big play potential in his absence. Not having Jenkins would also be harmful to a struggling secondary without much depth, especially against New Orleans' high-octane passing attack.

Here's the Rams' complete injury report for Friday:

Questionable: Austin (ankle), Jenkins (back), running back Daryl Richardson (thigh), Harvey Dahl (knee)

Probable: Cornerback Brandon McGee (foot)
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert once felt very much at home at the Edward Jones Dome. In fact, it was at the current home of the St. Louis Rams where he kick-started a career that would eventually make him the No. 10 pick in the 2011 NFL draft.

Gabbert made his first college start as a sophomore in 2009 at the Edward Jones Dome, for Missouri against Illinois in what then was an annual border showdown. He led the Tigers to a blowout win, throwing for 319 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for another touchdown. He returned with the Tigers in 2010 and led them to another victory on the same field in his final college season.

"It’s going to be a nice return to the Dome, and we’re ready to go,” Gabbert said.

Finding a NFL stadium where Gabbert has had success in his young career isn't an easy task. Putting it mildly, Gabbert has had a tough transition to the league, going through coaching and scheme changes nearly from the day he was drafted. This season, he's posted a quarterback rating of 30.7 in his two starts, with no touchdowns and five interceptions.

Gabbert's struggles in Jacksonville have many wondering just how long he'll get to prove himself. It seems the Jaguars are committed to seeing it through this season and at least finding out what they have.

Well aware of the criticism that surrounds him, Gabbert has a pretty respectable approach to understanding all that goes with playing his position at the game's highest level.

"It’s rightfully deserved," Gabbert said. "It’s part of the job description when you signed up. The quarterback and the head coach are the ones that get the blame, and they’re the ones that get more of the credit than they deserve when things are going well. But it’s the quarterback’s job to lead his football team and it’s the quarterback’s job to get points on the board."

Getting points on the board has been a tough task for the Jaguars so far this season; their 7.8 points per game rank last in the league. Considering the Rams' struggles this season both scoring and preventing points, they'd better hope Gabbert doesn't feel too at home in the Edward Jones Dome.

I.C.Y.M.I.

It was an exceedingly busy day in this corner of cyberspace, with Twitter nonsense, trades and so much more. Here's a recap of yesterday's activities. ... We started with the weekly quarterback watch and a look at Sam Bradford. ... From there, it was time for the weekly buzz with a video breakdown of this week's storylines for the Rams. ... Next was the first glimpse at the possible changing situation at running back and the Daryl Richardson/Twitter affair. ... We looked at how Jacksonville's trade of tackle Eugene Monroe changes things for this week. ... A quick injury update and the Rams' lack of bodies in the secondary. ... Finally, we had a news story with reaction from all parties on Richardson and the Twitter incident, as well as a vote for Zac Stacy as this week's starter.

Elsewhere:

At stltoday.com, my pal Bernie Miklasz took a break from Cardinals mania and offered his take on the Rams' run-game struggles.

Post-Dispatch writer Joe Lyons writes that rookie end Gerald Rivers is looking to build on his debut.

CBS Sports offers a preview of Sunday's Rams-Jaguars game.

At stlouisrams.com, Jonathan Webb takes a look at Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein's solid start.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- After two of the ugliest offensive performances any team in the league has put up in the past couple of weeks, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher wants to make some changes.

“We’re going to have to, as we’ve already started, kind of adjust our offensive philosophy to, I think, what’s probably better suited for us right now,” Fisher said. “And that’s to hand it off, and everything else spins off of that.”

After an offseason of adding speed on the perimeter with the likes of Jared Cook and Tavon Austin with the intent to build an offense around the right arm of quarterback Sam Bradford, a philosophical shift is coming, but not the one anyone expected.

Despite the offense’s success in up-tempo, no-huddle looks, the Rams want to get back to what Fisher has had the majority of his coaching success doing: run the ball.

[+] EnlargeDaryl Richardson
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceWith Daryl Richardson and the Rams run game scuffling, coach Jeff Fisher said he may consider outside options for a solution.
One pretty big problem with that: The Rams have showed absolutely no ability to do that effectively in 2013. The offensive line hasn’t opened many holes, and there isn’t a running back on the roster who has proved capable of making anyone miss or picking up yards after contact on a consistent basis.

The Rams have just 189 rushing yards this season, which ranks 29th in the league. Mind you, the Rams rank that low despite having played one more game than every team in the league except San Francisco. They’re averaging 2.59 yards per carry, which is second to last in the NFL, and are getting 1.15 yards after contact per rush.

That anemic run game has been even worse in the past two weeks, gaining 1.71 yards per attempt on 31 tries with a long of 11 yards. The Rams also sit 31st in the league in third-down conversions at 25.9 percent in no small part because of an inability to gain yards on the ground to get into more manageable third downs and move the chains on the few occasions they get into third-and-short.

“Frustrating,” Fisher said. “It is. We’ve got work to do. It’s been -- again, 75 carries against any defense for that matter is difficult over that period of time in a short week and we talk about teams that can run it.”

Clearly, the Rams need to get the running game going in some capacity, and I have to believe that when Fisher speaks of running the ball more, he simply means he wants to find ways to be successful as his teams in the past have been rather than some sort of major shift in which the Rams suddenly line up in power I-formations and hammer away with a fullback.

Either way, it’s going to be difficult for the Rams to get the run game going until one of their backs shows the ability to take over the job.

They hoped it would be Daryl Richardson, who won the starting job early in camp. Richardson has been slowed by a foot injury but has struggled rushing anyway. A one-cut-and-go runner in his rookie season, Richardson isn’t particularly adept at making tacklers miss or shaking loose when a defender gets his hands on him.

Isaiah Pead was also supposed to factor, but after he missed the first game because of a substance abuse suspension, he wasn’t even active against San Francisco.

“He’s had a couple moments, yeah, over the last couple of weeks,” Fisher said. “But I didn’t put him down because of that.”

Fisher said the Rams intended to use Austin in the backfield against the 49ers in a role similar to what Pead had played, but those plans were scrapped early.

Rookie Benny Cunningham has had some opportunities but hasn’t had much success either, and fifth-round pick Zac Stacy was active last week but played just one snap.

Clearly, the Rams’ drastic inability to run the ball isn’t solely the product of the backs. They aren’t getting much help from the offensive line. And that doesn’t even touch on the struggles of the backs to help in pass protection.

“We’ll evaluate the running back situation based on the types of things we come up from the run game need,” Fisher said. “We’re going to look at it this week, and we’ll definitely have a plan in place when we come back.”

The Rams don’t appear to have any obvious solutions for the position in house, and it would make a lot of sense to, as Fisher says, look at possible outside options to at least give them some semblance of a run game and some reliability picking up the blitz.

Rams must get running game going

September, 24, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- There was a time not so long ago where the thought of trying to get an ailing running game revved up against San Francisco 49ers' defense would have spelled disaster for the team attempting to accomplish the feat.

This week, that’s precisely what the Rams need to do if they want to get the offense going and come away with a home victory against the division rival 49ers.

“Being one dimensional isn’t really helpful to an offense,” Rams running back Isaiah Pead said. “We need to go out and let the 49ers know and everyone else that is coming to play us that we can run the ball also.”

So far, that message has apparently been sent using a carrier pigeon instead of UPS overnight. The Rams' run game has been stuck in neutral for the first three games, accumulating 171 yards on the ground, 29th in the league.

[+] EnlargeSean Weatherspoon
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesDaryl Richardson is the Rams' leading rusher, but he's averaging just 3.3 yards per carry.
What’s worse, the Rams are gaining just 3.17 yards per attempt, which ranks 27th in the NFL. They’re also one of four teams without a rushing touchdown in the first three games.

When asked about his team’s rushing woes, Rams coach Jeff Fisher has repeatedly pointed out that the Rams have found themselves trailing early and forced to abandon the run before it can find any rhythm.

“We’ve just got to hand it off more,” Fisher said. “We haven’t had the opportunities -- we’ve gotten behind. We’ve got to get back to that early in the game.”

There’s some truth to the idea that the Rams have had to get away from the run sooner than they’d like. They have just 54 rushing attempts so far this season, more than only three teams in the league.

Of course, the Rams could allow for more rushing attempts if they ran the ball more successfully on those earlier attempts.

In the first three games, the Rams have attempted 12 runs and gained 35 yards in the first quarter, less than 3 yards per carry. None of those dozen rushing attempts has resulted in a first down.

Logically, if the Rams are having more success running the ball, they’re picking up first downs, extending drives and creating more chances to keep attacking on the ground.

The bigger issue here seems to be an offensive line that has struggled to get consistent push and a young group of running backs from which no one has emerged as a consistently reliable option yet.

“We have got to do a better job upfront of moving guys off the ball, get on the second level, get to linebackers, let the running backs hit the hole,” left tackle Jake Long said. “The last few weeks we have been down so much we have had to play catch up and pass the ball a lot so that takes away from the run game. It all starts up front, we’ve got to move guys off the ball and stay on our blocks.”

It’s not all on the offensive line, though. Starting back Daryl Richardson leads the team with 98 yards on 30 carries. He’s been slowed by a foot injury but hasn’t been particularly impressive on his rushing attempts.

Pead and Benny Cunningham have had a few chances of their own and neither has done much to distinguish himself. Part of the problem is none of the backs have showed much ability to make defenders miss or run through contact. The Rams have 71 rushing yards after contact, which ranks 31st in the league.

The Rams have alternated among their various backs in the first three weeks.

“A rhythm is a running back’s best friend,” Pead said. “To have that rhythm is always a plus. We’re a running back committee right now. Daryl is the starter, but whoever gets in there has to answer the call.”

Allowing one back to stay in and get a rhythm would be made easier if one of them would have some measure of success.

In a departure from the usual San Francisco defensive dominance, the Niners are giving up 138 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 29th in the league. Last week, the Colts bludgeoned the Niners with the run, carrying 39 times for 179 yards on their way to a time of possession edge of 12 minutes and 50 seconds.

It’s not realistic to expect the Rams to do the same without proven backs like Indianapolis has in Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw but some sort of reasonable facsimile would serve the Rams well in their quest to even their record at 2-2.

“When we get the opportunity to run the ball, we’ve got to run the ball,” Long said.

Upon Further Review: Rams Week 3

September, 23, 2013
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A review of four hot issues from the St. Louis Rams31-7 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.

Falling behind: Getting off to a slow start has been an ongoing problem for the Rams in the first two weeks, but they raised (lowered?) the bar on themselves Sunday in Dallas.

[+] EnlargeAustin Pettis
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsWide receiver Austin Pettis, who had two receptions for 20 yards and one touchdown, reacts to the Rams' Week 3 loss in Dallas.
At halftime, the Rams trailed 17-0 with only 18 yards of offense and a single first down while having allowed allowed 202 yards and 12 first downs. It’s hard to pinpoint why the Rams can’t get off to a good start, but it’s a problem they better fix in a hurry.

Defensive regression?: The Rams were off to a good start defending the run in the first two weeks, limiting Arizona and Atlanta to 61 yards per game on an average of 2.9 yards per carry. Dallas running back DeMarco Murray erased any of that goodwill by trampling the Rams once again with 175 yards and a touchdown.

Pass defense was the primary issue for the Rams in the first two games, but the Cowboys didn’t even need to attack St. Louis through the air. Supposedly the strength of the team this season, the Rams' defense has shown more signs of regression than progress through three weeks.

Running in place: Starting running back Daryl Richardson left the game early after aggravating a foot injury and did not return. No matter, the running game picked up where it left off in the first two weeks, which is to say it was essentially nonexistent for the third week in a row.

Yes, the Rams fell behind early and were forced to throw to try to catch up, but even before that, the Rams showed no signs of a running game ready to break out. They attempted 12 runs and gained 35 yards, with the longest rush coming on an 11-yard gain by Isaiah Pead.

Suddenly, Steven Jackson “only” rushing for in the neighborhood of 1,000 yards doesn’t sound so bad.

Special flags: Jeff Fisher didn’t agree with the majority of the four special teams penalties that went against his team last week in Atlanta, and it remains to be seen how he’ll feel about the three more that went against the Rams on Sunday.

Nevertheless, those penalties happened, and this time, they were even more costly because the Rams earned two apparent infractions that wiped out a punt return for a touchdown by Tavon Austin. Field position remains a problem, and the biggest reason for it continues to be the team’s penalty issues.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- As passing numbers rise to record levels around the league through the first two weeks, the corresponding rushing numbers have been taking the obvious dip.

That’s certainly true in St. Louis, where quarterback Sam Bradford is off to his best statistical start but the Rams’ running game has yet to rev to a level beyond mediocrity.

There are plenty of factors that have contributed to the Rams posting just 136 rushing yards (25th in the NFL) in the first two weeks but there are a couple that stick out to offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer: the youth of the team’s backs and the early penchant for falling behind.

[+] EnlargeSean Weatherspoon
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesDaryl Richardson hasn't been able to get on track through the first two weeks, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry.
“In the running game, I think there’s plenty of room for improvement,” Schottenheimer said. “I think it just comes down -- we’ve got young backs. We put ourselves in some positions where we haven’t had favorable numbers, whether it was the scoreboard or just some heavy boxes and stuff trying to run against.”

In many ways, the running game in the league simply isn’t what it used to be. Teams are spreading things out and throwing more and, in many cases, using the short passing game as an extension of the run.

There’s been evidence of that approach in St. Louis where Schottenheimer said the Rams have looked closely at using the short passing game as a substitute for the run game in certain situations.

“I think [those are] certainly things you talk about, even during the week game plan wise,” Schottenheimer said. “Can a quick slant or something make me six or seven yards, where a great run makes me four or five yards?”

When the Rams have tried to get the running game going, they have yet to find much success. In the first two games, the Rams averaged 3.24 yards per carry, 23rd in the league and Bradford’s 23-yard scramble against the Falcons is the team’s longest run so far this season.

The Rams also have yet to register a rushing touchdown or convert a third-down with a handoff on four attempts.

While Daryl Richardson emerged early in camp as the team’s starting back, he has yet to fully establish himself as the type of back the Rams can hand it to and expect big numbers over the course of a game.

Fellow backs Isaiah Pead, Benny Cunningham and Zac Stacy haven’t had many opportunities in the opening games though Pead was on the field quite a bit against Atlanta when the Rams went to their up-tempo, no-huddle look.

Richardson has also been nursing a foot injury that has caused him to miss some practice time. Again this week he looks to be ready to play but Pead could again factor when the Rams decide to push the pace a bit.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious every day I walk in here,” Pead said. “But I can’t call the shots, I can’t put myself in so I can only work hard every day and wait for that time.”

Last week, the Rams played an Atlanta team that was for all intents and purposes one-dimensional but still found a way to get the job done in the passing game. The Rams would prefer not to eschew the run all together, especially knowing how important it can be to salt games away with it when you have a late lead.

Instead, look for the Rams to keep finding ways to get the run game going. Now that Bradford and the passing game have shown an ability to pile up yards, the Rams should get more favorable looks to run against. It’s just up to the team’s young backs to take advantage of those opportunities.

Two weeks in a row we’ve seen the Rams throwing to catch up from a deficit but what happens when they are looking to protect a lead?

“I know the thing we want to do is be balanced,” Schottenheimer said. “That’s a big part of it. Games come down to the fourth quarter and sometimes you’re going to have to try to throw it like we did last week and try to come from behind. Other times, you’re going to have to run the football in four-minute and try to put people away… nothing replaces the ability to run the football when the opponent knows you’re going to have to run it.”

Six Rams return to practice

September, 19, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- With the benefit of a day off Wednesday and a "sleep-in Thursday," the St. Louis Rams got six of the nine players who did not practice a day ago back in time to participate in Thursday's workout.

C. Long
Defensive ends Chris Long (hip), Eugene Sims (foot) and William Hayes (hip), cornerback Cortland Finnegan (nose), guard Chris Williams (foot) and running back Daryl Richardson (foot) all were upgraded to full participation in Thursday's practice. Long's upgrade is perhaps the most significant after he was shut down near the end of last week and played through his injury against Atlanta. Of the rest of the group, only Richardson appeared on the injury report last week.

Safety Darian Stewart (thigh) also got positive news, moving from limited participation to full. That's good news for a team that's a little light in the secondary after releasing defensive back Quinton Pointer and signing offensive tackle Max Starks on Thursday. Pointer had been listed on the injury report Wednesday with a thigh injury.

All of the returning bodies left just right tackle Rodger Saffold (knee) and tight end Mike McNeill (chest) as non-participants.

Meanwhile, this week's opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, had a pair of meaningful changes from a day ago as receiver Dez Bryant (back) and defensive end Anthony Spencer (knee) moved from non-participants to limited ones.

Here's the full rundown for the Cowboys:

DNP: LB Ernie Sims (groin)
Limited: Bryant, Spencer, CB Morris Claiborne (shoulder), DE DeMarcus Ware (neck)
Full: QB Tony Romo (ribs)

Rams-Falcons study session: Offense

September, 17, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. – A look back at the St. Louis Rams' 31-24 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday after reviewing the coaches’ film.

The Big Play: With 11:42 to go in the second quarter, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford throws a pass in the flat to running back Daryl Richardson that bounces off Richardson’s hands and into the waiting arms of Atlanta defensive end Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora returned it 68 yards for a touchdown and a 21-0 lead.

The Rams lined up with two receivers, two tight ends and Richardson in the backfield. Receiver Austin Pettis went in motion to the left, with Chris Givens next to him.

Atlanta had five defenders on the line with a linebacker, and Umenyiora drops into zone at the snap.

Richardson stayed in to block, but released into the left flat in front of Umenyiora. Bradford looked downfield but didn’t have anyone clearly open. However, tight end Jared Cook appeared to be on the verge of coming clean as Bradford threw to Richardson.

Bradford’s throw came out a bit hot, but it still hit Richardson in the hands and he simply didn’t handle it. The bad news for the Rams was that the Falcons just so happened to have the perfect call in place, with Umenyiora in the right spot at the right time.

[+] EnlargeOsi Umenyiora
AP Photo/John BazemoreOsi Umenyiora's 68-yard interception-return TD put the Rams in a 21-0 hole against Atlanta.
While Bradford might have had a small window to deliver it to Cook as he ran toward the deep left, the pass was catchable for Richardson. From there, the interception and return was the result of some old-fashioned bad luck.

Hidden Play: With 3:23 to go in the second quarter, Bradford narrowly misses a deep connection down the left sideline to Cook.

The Rams lined up with four receivers and a running back with Bradford in the shotgun. Givens lined up to the right, with trips to the left including Cook, Pettis and Tavon Austin.

The Falcons had cornerback Robert Alford playing press coverage on Givens on the right, with their other defensive backs off of the trio on the left.

At the snap, Alford came off Givens and went after Bradford on a corner blitz. Bradford didn’t see the blitz and missed a chance for a quick delivery to Givens as he looked to the left, where Austin was running a deep in, Pettis was running a quick out and Cook was running a deep route down the outside.

Cook ran clear of cornerback Desmond Trufant and Bradford let it go, but Bradford had to rush the throw a bit as Alford closed in on him. The ball landed a bit to the outside of Cook’s left shoulder, and he appeared to get himself turned around as the ball fell incomplete.

The play wasn’t obviously important but it was one of the few opportunities Bradford had to get the ball down the field against the Falcons, especially in the first half. At the time, the Rams trailed 21-3, and a big play that could have jump-started a touchdown drive would have gone a long way toward igniting a comeback earlier in the game.

Other observations:

  • It’s definitely worth leading this with since I wrote about it Monday morning. After getting a chance to look at the film, Bradford really didn’t have many opportunities to get the ball down the field. He threw 35 passes 5 yards or less down the field, but in looking back at it, there might have only been a few chances to take deeper shots on some of the balls he checked down on (and not all were checkdowns, either). That’s exactly why I qualified that post with the mention that it wasn’t wise to make sweeping judgments without seeing the film. Interestingly, the success in the shorter passing game came in the middle of the field, many of those completions coming on short crossing routes.
  • One thing that flew a bit under the radar after the game but must improve for the Rams is the drops they had in this one. I counted five total, with Austin responsible for three. Kendricks and Richardson were also guilty. That’s a disappointment for the Rams after having just one in Week 1.
  • Open space continues to be hard to come by for Austin as teams seem content to let him catch the ball in front of them and then rally to the ball quickly. The offense also hasn’t had much luck running Austin from anywhere other than a normal backfield spot.
  • I counted 13 second-half plays the Rams ran without a huddle (not including plays that started drives in which they didn’t huddle). Those plays gained 97 yards.
  • Richardson didn’t have much room to run when he got carries, but he also didn’t make much happen with his opportunities in the passing game. More of a one-cut-and-go-type of runner, Richardson didn’t make many tacklers miss after making the catch.
  • Bradford and the Rams continue to have issues with batted balls. Atlanta knocked down three passes a week after Arizona knocked down a pair.
  • The player that was most consistently excellent against Atlanta to my eyes was left tackle Jake Long. He was stout in pass protection and even got to the second level a few times. He had linebacker Sean Weatherspoon frustrated early in the game.

Three things revisited: Rams-Falcons

September, 15, 2013
9/15/13
6:45
PM ET
ATLANTA -- Looking back at three things worth watching from the St. Louis Rams' 31-24 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

1. On the line: The Falcons' offensive line didn’t entirely right the ship after a rough outing against New Orleans last week, but it did fare better against a Rams' defensive line that didn’t seem to get much pressure until the second half.

Atlanta’s inability to run the ball made it one-dimensional and offered some prime opportunities for the Rams’ front four to rush the passer with impunity.

The Rams got to Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan for two sacks, but spent most of the second half taking aim at him. They had eight quarterback hits according to the unofficial press-box statistics.

It was still an upgrade for Atlanta’s line from last week, and a bit of a downgrade for the Rams after they dominated Arizona upfront last week. The decision would go to the Rams in the battle upfront but it wasn’t as clear as last week.

2. Tight end battles: The Falcons made it clear they had no intention of allowing Rams tight end Jared Cook to carve them up the way he did Arizona last week. To that end, Atlanta used a linebacker to make contact every time Cook released from the line and added safety help over the top.

Cook’s line was much different than last week as a result, finishing with one catch for 10 yards on six targets. That did open things up for receivers Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, who posted 105 and 78 yards, respectively.

On the other side, Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez was relatively quiet in his own right. He had four catches for 33 yards, but did come up with some key first downs, including one that set up Atlanta’s final touchdown.

3. Revving the run game: Another week went by without much productivity from the Rams’ running game. Starter Daryl Richardson played after battling a foot injury in practice this week, but he wasn’t too effective, averaging 3.5 yards on his 10 carries.

The Rams didn’t get much work for their other backs, either. Isaiah Pead had one carry for 1 yard, and rookie Benny Cunningham got his first NFL opportunity with two carries for no yards.

Quarterback Sam Bradford actually provided the day’s longest run for the Rams, picking up 23 yards on a late scramble. All told, the Rams gained just 3.8 yards per attempt on 18 carries.

Three things: Rams-Falcons

September, 14, 2013
9/14/13
4:00
PM ET
ATLANTA – Three things to keep an eye on as the St. Louis Rams visit the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday afternoon at 1 ET.

On the line.

The Rams have built their defense around one of the league’s best defensive lines. That group came through against Arizona last week with four sacks, including three from end Robert Quinn.

Bookend Chris Long is questionable this week because of a hip injury, but he hasn’t missed a game since entering the league in 2008.

After taking care of business against Arizona, the Rams’ line has a chance for another big game this week against an Atlanta offensive line that sprang many leaks in its opener against New Orleans. The Saints sacked or pressured Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan 12 times, and on Sunday Atlanta could be without left tackle Sam Baker, who is questionable with a knee injury. If Baker can’t go, the Falcons will probably move Lamar Holmes to the left side and plug in Jeremy Trueblood on the right side.

The Rams can greatly enhance their chances by generating consistent pass rush behind the strength of their front four.

“We’re going to have to find a way to get to Matt whenever possible, but it’s easier said than done,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “They’re going to get whatever issues they had last week fixed, I’m sure. We’ll just be prepared to adjust accordingly.”

Tight-end battles.

Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez is now in his 17th season creating nightmare matchups for opposing defenses, and in last week's opener he caught a touchdown pass. Gonzalez still has a knack for finding open spaces in zones and is one of Ryan’s primary red-zone targets.

“Over the years, he’s created the matchup problems for defenses,” Fisher said. “[He’s] very, very difficult to cover with linebackers if you’re lucky. Then, he’s got such good size and he bodies you out and keeps drives alive against the DBs. He’s been a great red-zone target all of his career.”

Rams tight end Jared Cook put on a Gonzalez-esque performance against Arizona with seven catches for 141 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Atlanta will almost certainly make slowing Cook a top priority this week after he abused Arizona linebackers when they attempted to cover him man-to-man.

Should the Falcons choose to double-team Cook, things could open up elsewhere for the Rams. But whether it’s as a decoy or as a top target, Cook and his presence in the passing game will go a long way in determining the Rams' offensive success, this week and all season.

Revving the run game.

In their first season in nine years without Steven Jackson in the backfield, the Rams struggled to find traction in the run game against Arizona. Daryl Richardson was more active than anticipated, carrying 20 times for 63 yards and catching five passes for 33 yards. He’s dealt with a foot injury all week but is listed as probable and expected to play this week.

Richardson’s workload may dip a bit against the Falcons because of the foot and because of the return of Isaiah Pead from a one-game suspension. Fisher said he wants to get rookie Zac Stacy more involved, and Benny Cunningham could also get some work.

Regardless of who is carrying the ball, the Rams must do better than 67 rushing yards on 24 carries this week. Atlanta was stout in stopping New Orleans’ rushing attack last week, giving up just 2.7 yards per carry on 29 attempts.

"We do take pride in running the ball, and basically we just want to be able to handle it when they throw eight, nine men in the box,” Rams right tackle Rodger Saffold said. “We have some plans for that and we are looking for success out of the run game.”

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