NFC West: Kellen Clemens

Two years after they first pursued him, the St. Louis Rams finally landed veteran quarterback Shaun Hill on Wednesday as he agreed to terms on a one-year deal as first reported by ESPN Insider Adam Caplan.

Hill
Hill visited with the Rams more than a week ago and departed St. Louis without coming to terms on a contract as he apparently spent time considering a return to Detroit. He went through a similar decision-making process in 2012 when the Rams attempted to sign him away from the Lions before he ultimately re-signed in the Motor City.

This time, the allure of St. Louis was apparently too much for Hill to ignore. Hill keeps a home at the Lake of the Ozarks and is also close with Rams quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti after they worked together in San Francisco.

In landing Hill, the Rams get the veteran backup for starter Sam Bradford they wanted. Hill replaces Kellen Clemens, who signed with San Diego early in free agency.

The 34-year old Hill originally entered the league as an undrafted free agent with Minnesota in 2002 but didn't get the chance to throw a pass in a regular season game until 2007 with the 49ers.

For his career, Hill has played in 34 games with 26 starts, throwing for 6,381 yards, 41 touchdowns and 23 interceptions while completing almost 62 percent of his passes for a passer rating of 85.9. Coincidentally, some of Hill's best games have come against the Rams. He's started four games against St. Louis, all victories, and posted a passer rating better than 100 in three of those contests.

While Hill doesn't come to St. Louis with the same knowledge of coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense that Clemens had, he does represent a clear upgrade in talent and demonstrated production throughout the course of his career. Considering his ties to Cignetti, Hill should be able to get up to speed quickly and offer a solid alternative behind Bradford after he completes his rehabilitation from offseason foot surgery.

And though Hill is likely to handle the No. 2 duties in 2014, this probably won't preclude the Rams from using one of their 12 picks in May's draft on a quarterback. The Rams have maintained throughout the offseason that they'd like to add a young quarterback capable of growing into a top backup role behind Bradford. Having Hill for a season would allow whoever that rookie is to come in and learn for a season before having to jump into action should something happen to Bradford.

Likewise, Hill provides early-season insurance in case something goes wrong with Bradford's recovery from ACL surgery.

Much like the team's Tuesday addition of defensive lineman Alex Carrington, Hill is a solid, logical addition who isn't going to break the bank. The Rams have remained patient in free agency and though the approach has kept them from filling some of their major holes, it's starting to pay off in the form of solid depth at positions of need.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The free-agent frenzy that opened last Tuesday was one of the busiest and most expensive days in NFL history. But the St. Louis Rams stuck to their plan and mostly opted to sit on the sidelines.

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

Here's where we stand after five days:

Retained

Saffold
OL Rodger Saffold

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

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

LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar

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

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

Departures

Williams
OL Chris Williams

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

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

OG Shelley Smith

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

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

TE Mike McNeill

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

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

Finnegan
CB Cortland Finnegan

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

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

QB Kellen Clemens

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

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

Free-agency primer: Rams

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

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

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

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

In place: Apparently it can't be said enough but Sam Bradford is the starting quarterback and nothing that happens this offseason barring a major setback in his rehabilitation from knee surgery is going to change that. Coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have voiced confidence in Bradford at every turn. Although smoke screens are common at this time of year, there has yet to be anything resembling a reason not to believe them.

Pending free agents: Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis, Brady Quinn

What's needed: The Rams could use one, maybe two backups for Bradford. They were left short handed when Bradford initially suffered the injury and after it was official that Bradford's season was over, the team brought in two more signal callers in Davis and Quinn to backup Clemens.

Clemens surprised with his performance in the final nine games and might have done enough to earn a return to St. Louis. If nothing else, Clemens is a highly-respected part of the locker room and a valuable mentor for the team's young receivers as well as any potential quarterback addition the team might make in the draft.

In fact, if the Rams choose to keep three quarterbacks in 2014, Clemens would make a lot of sense as the early-season backup while he grooms another youngster to eventually take over as the No. 2 and potentially push Bradford long-term.

It seems unlikely Davis or Quinn will return as the Rams have made no secret of their interest in adding a young quarterback in the draft. That player could come as soon as the second round but likely will come from the middle (3rd-5th) rounds.

Possible fits: It's almost certain that the Rams will add a quarterback in the draft, meaning an outside free agent isn't likely to be in the offing. Clemens is the most logical candidate to return as a veteran presence but there is a name that could be out there who has some ties to the team. The New York Jets are expected to part ways with Mark Sanchez and Sanchez knows Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's system well.

Verdict: Clemens is a better fit than Sanchez for the veteran role, however. You can never rule out anything when it comes to the NFL but the guess here is that the Rams will draft a quarterback in the middle rounds and bring Clemens back to tutor him.

Rams to wait and see on backup QBs

February, 26, 2014
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It's become a sort of yearly NFL scouting combine tradition for St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher to be asked about the team's backup quarterback situation.

In 2013, Fisher wasn't shy about offering the team's plans behind starter Sam Bradford. Young Austin Davis spent a season under the apprenticeship of Bradford and Kellen Clemens in 2012, and the Rams had high hopes that he could become the developmental prospect that would serve as the primary backup in 2013.

Clemens
When asked about Clemens' future with the team then, Fisher indicated that Clemens' future was up in the air.

"Well, we've got Austin Davis," Fisher said. "I was really happy with his progress. Still there's a possibility that we would bring Kellen back. Kellen's an outstanding locker room guy, and very competitive. And if that were the case we'd probably flip things to where Austin would be (No.) 2, Kellen would be 3."

Before even waiting to see how Davis was progressing in Organized Team Activities and the offseason program, the Rams opted to bring Clemens back to the fold. From there, Davis never really seemed to take hold of the No. 2 job and make it his own.

Davis and Clemens competed throughout training camp and the preseason with Clemens ultimately winning the job and Davis released. It wasn't until Bradford suffered a season ending knee injury against Carolina that Davis came back, and actually became the No. 2 ... behind Clemens.

This time around, Fisher offered nothing even remotely detailed on what the Rams hope to do behind Bradford, though the position again figures to be up for grabs.

"We've got obviously two different ways to solve that second-to-possibly-third quarterback position, and that's our free agency process and also through the draft," Fisher said. "So we're just discussing."

All signs still point to the Rams adding a quarterback in the middle rounds of the draft. Someone like Georgia's Aaron Murray or Wyoming's Brett Smith might fit the mold of the mid-level signal caller the Rams could invest in.

Clemens is to be an unrestricted free agent. After his better-than-expected performance in Bradford's stead, bringing Clemens back cheap would be a logical move.

From my perspective, Clemens is worth bringing back because of his knowledge of the offense, locker room presence and ability to step in should Bradford find himself injured again. But the ideal plan would be to have Clemens helping groom a drafted quarterback who could eventually surpass him as the No. 2 quarterback at some point in 2014 and possibly even push Bradford in future seasons.
ST. LOUIS -- A week after losing starting quarterback Sam Bradford to a torn ACL, the St. Louis Rams caught no breaks in hosting the Seattle Seahawks on "Monday Night Football" in Week 8.

To the surprise of many, present company included, the Rams managed to keep it close on the strength of a stout defensive performance and the power running of rookie Zac Stacy. Making his first start of the season, quarterback Kellen Clemens struggled to get much of anything going against Seattle's top-ranked pass defense but appeared to catch a rhythm on the final drive as Stacy's running opened things up down the field.

Stacy repeatedly gashed the Seahawks all night, posting 134 yards on 26 carries and the Rams found themselves with a chance to steal the win as time ran down. After failing on three shots to take the lead, the Rams had fourth-and-goal at Seattle's 1 with four seconds left.

Given Stacy's performance, it seemed like a no-brainer that the Rams would at least use him as a decoy on the final play if not hand him the ball outright. Instead, Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Clemens later said they got a zero-blitz look in which the Seahawks were set to bring the house. So Stacy split out wide to the left alongside receiver Brian Quick in the slot. Stacy was followed by Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner with cornerback Brandon Browner on Quick.

With no threat of the run, Seattle brought the house at Clemens, who let the ball go as soon as he received the snap. The throw landed harmlessly as Quick struggled to get to the corner of the end zone to end the game. Seattle won 14-9 and the head-scratching play call denied the Rams their best chance at a second win in the NFC West division.
ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Rams need to select a quarterback in the 2014 NFL draft.

The ACL injury that cost Sam Bradford more than half the 2013 season highlighted the importance of finding a young quarterback with upside who can step in, play and give the team some long-term value.

In the meantime, veteran Kellen Clemens took the reins. To the surprise of many, present company included, Clemens exceeded his previous career performance and led the Rams to four victories in his nine starts, matching his career total as a starter from his previous dozen starts.

[+] EnlargeKellen Clemens
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesKellen Clemens played well enough this past season for the Rams to consider bringing him back in 2014.
While Clemens didn't put up any eye-popping numbers, he did enough to earn another shot with the Rams in 2014.

Whether that happens for the pending free agent remains to be seen, but for his (funny) part Clemens would like to return.

"I don't know," Clemens said. "I would certainly love to be here. I love this organization and the direction that we're heading in, but it's a little different than my senior prom. I have to have a date for this one. It's a true story, actually."

Wait, so how did that all work out?

"I actually had a blast," Clemens said, laughing. "I had a blast. It's a lot cheaper going solo, for those of you considering it."

The opposite is true when it comes to the prom that is NFL free agency. Without a dance partner, it would actually cost Clemens a nice chunk of change. Whether or not another girl will ask Clemens to the prom is hard to say but there's ample reason for the Rams to ask him to come back.

Statistically, Clemens' numbers were rather pedestrian compared to other starters around the league as he completed 58.7 percent of his passes for 1,673 yards, eight touchdowns and seven interceptions for a passer rating of 78.8 and a QBR of 38.2.

Those numbers mostly fall short of what you'd want from a starting quarterback but that's not the point. Clemens is a backup and proved to be a bit better in his role than many expected. Without Bradford (and even before his injury), the Rams became a run-heavy team hoping to create chances for big passing plays off the run.

When the Rams were able to get the run game going first, such as games against New Orleans, Chicago and Tampa Bay, Clemens was able to take advantage with big passing plays while still limiting the number of attempts. When the run game wasn't working, such as games against Seattle, Arizona and San Francisco, Clemens was unable to generate much offense.

That's not a difficult formula to understand as Clemens clearly has his limitations. Of course, finding a backup quarterback in the NFL without his share of limitations is a difficult exercise in itself.

To be clear, I'm not advocating Clemens return as the guaranteed backup to Bradford in 2014. The Rams must add a young quarterback to the mix via the draft and begin to develop him with hope of making him the backup in the short term with possible long-term starter potential.

The Rams carried three quarterbacks on the roster for most of 2012 and did so again for a spell this past season after Bradford's injury. Doing it again next season with Clemens as one of the three makes sense because he would provide a veteran option should Bradford and an anonymous rookie signal-caller be unable to start the season. More importantly, he could provide valuable guidance to said rookie.

After all, tutoring young players would be nothing new to Clemens.

"If I look back, I think the one thing that I will hang my hat on is that a lot of times you see a backup come in and guys don't continue to grow," Clemens said. "And I'm talking about the young guys that I mentioned before. I think that Tavon [Austin], Stedman [Bailey], Zac [Stacy], I think Jared [Cook], who was fairly new to this offense, I think they continued to grow even with me in there and so hopefully next year we see signs of that improvement and they'll be even better for Sam. I think that's really probably what I'll hang my hat on this year."

It's also another good reason for the Rams to bring him back for another go in 2014.

Three things revisited: Rams-Seahawks

December, 29, 2013
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A look at how the St. Louis Rams fared in three key areas of Sunday's 27-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

Slowing Lynch

Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch was a non-factor in the first meeting, rushing for just 23 yards on eight carries. Seattle clearly aimed to rectify not only his lack of production but also the small amount of touches he received.

While the Rams slowed Lynch in the early going, he got things rolling a bit as the Seahawks fed him more regularly. He finished with 23 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown.

By no means did Seattle dominate offensively but Lynch's performance was more than enough on a day in which the Rams offense was unable to sustain a drive until the game was out of hand.

A Better Clemens

[+] EnlargeKellen Clemens
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonTo have a chance against the Seahawks, the Rams needed a big game out of Kellen Clemens but didn't get it.
Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens made his first start in Sam Bradford's place against Seattle way back in Week 8. It was a rough start against the league's best pass defense as Clemens threw for 158 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions for a QBR of 16.3, the lowest total he's posted in a start this year.

From there, Clemens had his share of positive outings though none of them came against NFC West opponents. To have a chance against Seattle, the Rams needed Clemens to be much better than he was in that first matchup. He wasn't.

With no success in the run game, Clemens was under pressure most of the day and was skittish when he did deliver the ball. When all was said and done, Clemens finished 21-of-30 for 157 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions for a rating of 65.6. Much of that production came on a garbage time touchdown drive.

Against defenses of Seattle's caliber, there has to be an answer when the run game isn't working and, for all his intangibles, Clemens simply isn't the type of quarterback capable of providing it.

Closing Arguments

Rams defensive end Robert Quinn and Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman are widely regarded as two of the top candidates to land the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award and each had an opportunity to put the cherry on top of outstanding seasons.

While both players made their share of plays, neither put much of an exclamation point on his season with anything too flashy or gaudy.

Hampered by a lack of pass-rushing opportunities after his team fell behind early, Quinn managed just one sack and finished with 19, second most in the NFL this season behind Indianapolis' Robert Mathis.

Quinn added five tackles, two for loss in unofficial pressbox statistics.

Sherman had a quiet day with two tackles and a pass defended but didn't have many opportunities, as the Rams didn't throw his way much.

A strong case can still be made for both players for the award but neither did anything to definitively clinch it.

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
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A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 27-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks:

What it means: The Rams finish the season at 7-9, a half-game worse than they were a year ago, but after another manhandling at the hands of a division opponent, it's fair to wonder how far they have to go to keep pace in the NFC West. After piecing together a division-best 4-1-1 record against the NFC West last year, the Rams finished 2013 at 1-5 in the division on their way to a fourth-place finish. Although St. Louis made strides outside the division, going 6-4, that's not going to mean much if the Rams can't find ways to hang with the teams ahead of them.

More alarming, St. Louis was almost completely feckless offensively in its five losses to Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco this season. Four of those games came without starting quarterback Sam Bradford, but with so many stout defenses in the West, the Rams have to find a way to score more points.

Stock watch: Down: the Rams' running game. There was almost no chance the Rams would be able to match the 200 rushing yards they had in the first meeting between the teams, but to say they came up short of that mark would be a massive understatement. The loss of left tackle Jake Long and the other moving parts along the offensive line allowed Seattle to stack the box and completely shut down Rams back Zac Stacy & Co.

Stacy didn't even get the 42 yards needed to reach 1,000 for the season. When the Rams run the ball, quarterback Kellen Clemens can have success throwing. When they don't, you get a performance like Sunday's. The Rams finished with a measly 13 yards on 18 carries, an average of 0.7 per attempt.

Flag fest: It's not an unusual sight to see the Rams racking up penalties, but Sunday's game might have taken it to a new level. Make no mistake, Seattle had its share of penalties and the officials didn't have much control, if any. But the Rams again failed to maintain composure and piled up silly penalties, many of the 15-yard variety. When all was said and done, the Rams had 12 penalties for 87 yards. That total doesn't even account for another handful that weren't accepted.

What's next: The Rams head into what should be an interesting offseason. They're positioned well in terms of the NFL draft, with the No. 2 overall pick from Washington plus another first-round pick, but will have some serious decisions to make in regard to the salary cap. In the increasingly tough NFC West, they can't afford any missteps.

Rams preparing for extreme noise

December, 27, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- CenturyLink Field in Seattle has long been known for being one of the loudest venues in sports. Earlier this year, Seahawks fans helped make it official by setting the Guinness Book of World Records' mark for loudest crowd. Twice.

The raucous atmosphere is nothing new to the St. Louis Rams who play in Seattle every season but as the youngest team in the league for the second consecutive year, the noise figures to again provide a difficult challenge.

Despite that reputation, Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said the Rams haven't added any new tweaks to practice this week to prepare for the noise.

[+] EnlargeCenturyLink Field
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenCenturyLink Field, home of the Seahawks, regularly has some of the loudest crowds in sports.
“I think there’s no question in my mind it’s the loudest stadium in the league," Schottenheimer said. "There’s not much you can do. You’ve got to talk about maintaining your poise, and again it comes down to our guys just executing. It’s going to be loud and they’re going to have a hard time hearing, but that’s part of the deal and we simulate that the best we can. But we don’t put too much stock into it. We know it’s going to be loud, and that’s not going to surprise anybody when the 12th man, or whatever they do, comes out there and it gets real loud.”

Unlike many teams around the league, the Rams don't pump noise into their practices or do anything outside of their normal practice routine for road games. There's no definitive proof that adding noise to practices helps cope with it on game day but it's certainly something the Rams could have trouble with on Sunday.

Center Tim Barnes is making just his fourth career start and second on the road. Making adjustments and calls against Seattle's multiple defensive looks is difficult enough. Add in the noise which makes communication that much more difficult and the Rams could find themselves struggling to get snaps off or pick up calls at the line of scrimmage.

The Rams had zero offensive penalties in either of their past two games but 17 of their 29 offensive penalties for the season have come on the road. Seattle prides itself on creating false starts through noise and has benefited from 22 offensive penalties from opponents in its first seven home games.

Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens is well aware of the challenge that awaits.

"They’re a smart fan base," Clemens said. "They understand when to get loud. If I’m not mistaken, I think that in designing that stadium acoustically they also understood how to keep the noise down. It’s a great environment. It’s tough to play in. We’ll have to be dialed in because a lot of the communication that we would typically be able to do is going to be tough in the noise. We’re a veteran group, especially in the offensive line. So, an opportunity for us to go up and again, hopefully get a win in a very good football environment.”

The Rams have plenty to overcome to reach that victory in the first place. They can't afford to make it harder on themselves by allowing Seattle's 12th man to have an impact as well.

Rams-Buccaneers study session: Offense

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

- From the very first snap the offense took, there was no doubt what the Rams wanted to do against the Bucs. The plan was simple: run the ball, run it again and run it some more. That’s exactly what the Rams did in this one, though yards were a bit harder to come by than they were against New Orleans last week. The Bucs made it clear they knew the Rams wanted to run it, regularly loading the box with extra defenders. After watching some other Tampa Bay games, it was clear they missed safety Mark Barron’s presence, especially against the run.

[+] EnlargeKellen Clemens
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesFor the second week in a row, Kellen Clemens set a single-game best for completion percentage.
- Regardless, the Rams spent much of the game in power formations running between the tackles. Even after losing left tackle Jake Long three snaps into the game and turning over the right-guard duties to Shelley Smith, with Rodger Saffold moving to left tackle, the Rams continued to pound away inside. Smith did a pretty good job all things considered; Zac Stacy found his share of yards running inside to the right. Saffold was also solid moving over to left tackle, but he’s simply not as dominant in the run game on the edge as he is when he plays guard. Saffold's ability to combine strength and athleticism when he pulls makes him a destructive run-blocker as a guard. That’s neutralized a bit when he is already outside. Nice job in pass protection, though.

- Center Tim Barnes looked more comfortable as well, especially in the run game, though there was an obvious hiccup when the Rams somehow failed to send anyone to block defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and he waltzed in untouched for a sack. Aside from that play, McCoy was mostly held in check.

- For the second week in a row, quarterback Kellen Clemens set a single-game best for completion percentage. He was on target, got the ball down the field and didn’t make any bad decisions when throwing it. Another bonus, Clemens didn’t run himself into any sacks, as he seems to do on occasion. Overall a strong performance, except for his fumble in the red zone. He’d be the first to say it but the quarterback draw on which he fumbled was a puzzling call, and Clemens made it worse by not recognizing it was going nowhere and just going down to come away with three points. Quarterback draws with Clemens have been successful before, but that wasn’t the time or the place for it.

- One call I did like, and it wasn’t all that meaningful in the grand scheme of the game but one that had me wondering why teams don’t do it more often, was the fourth-down quarterback sneak Clemens executed to keep a late drive going. The Rams lined up with one receiver split wide and everyone else in tight in offset power-I formation. Before the snap, Clemens sent his tight ends in motion and spread the defense out. Tampa Bay’s defense audibled to account for the receivers on the outside, and then Clemens sneaked into wide-open space for an easy first down. I’d be curious to see a similar setup where the defense tries to call the bluff and see if Clemens has the freedom to throw there anyway. Either way, simple design and concept but well done.

- More good work from Cory Harkey not only as a blocker but also in his continued involvement in the pass game. He’s actually become a reliable outlet for Clemens for short gains to help move the chains through the air. The drops that plagued him early in the season have been absent lately.

- Speaking of good play calls: Rookie receiver Stedman Bailey continues to get more opportunities and make the most of them. After getting a sudden change off a turnover at Tampa Bay’s 27, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer called for a double reverse. It was a good call because it worked, obviously, but it was also well timed in that the Rams were in position to take advantage of that quick shift in momentum. The Rams blocked it up perfectly, to the point where it was almost shocking how easy it was. Not sure Bailey needed the dramatic leap into the end zone, but who are we to deny him the chance to enjoy his first NFL touchdown?

- Besides, how can anyone hold a grudge against a player who made the catch Bailey did for a 28-yard gain? When analysts talk about a player catching with his hands, a shot of Bailey hauling that one in should be the prime example. Bailey has done nothing to indicate his future is anything but bright.

- Receiver Chris Givens also made a nice catch deep down the sideline, climbing the ladder and getting his feet down for a big gain. One thing that he didn’t need, though, was the jawing with Darrelle Revis. Nothing wrong with not backing down from a challenge, but a little sense of place in relation to the opponent would be good. And that applies across the board. Rams defensive backs have been particularly guilty of it this year.

- They didn’t go for big gains but Brian Quick had a couple of catches in traffic with defenders all over him. That’s a good sign for a player who hasn’t taken advantage of his physical advantage over most defenders enough.

- Zero penalties for the offense in this one. In a game where yards were difficult to find, that’s a hidden number that can mean a lot.

Rams experience reversal in records

December, 20, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. – Although the St. Louis Rams came up short of a winning record and a shot at the postseason in 2012, they pointed to their performance in the difficult NFC West as progress.

The Rams went 4-1-1 against the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals last year, and that performance offered hope that with some improvement outside the division they could be in the mix in 2013.

Indeed, this season the Rams sit at 5-4 outside of the NFC West, with a chance to go to 6-4 if they win Sunday against Tampa Bay. Even with a loss to the Bucs, there would be tangible improvement in the team’s inter-division record, which was 3-7 a year ago.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelThe Rams have struggled to replicate the success they had against the NFC West last season.
But those strides really only mean something if done in conjunction with continued success in the division. That doesn’t have to mean another 4-1-1 record, but a reasonable facsimile would have been helpful.

Instead, the Rams sit at 1-4 against NFC West foes, with a trip to vaunted Seattle still waiting.

For their part, the Rams can’t quite put their finger on why they couldn’t combine improved performance outside the division with continued success in it.

“The NFL is weird,” guard Rodger Saffold said. “You can’t tell what’s going to happen. It’s nuts. At one point, we were undefeated in the [division] and then the next moment we’re down. But that’s what makes our division so competitive. This is competitive. It’s anybody’s game. It’s been nuts. It’s always back and forth.”

In fairness, the Rams find themselves in an NFC West that’s even better than it was a year ago. Through 14 weeks, the four teams have combined for a 37-19 record, the best of any division in the NFL. Seattle and San Francisco are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and Arizona is waiting to pounce on a playoff spot should someone in front of them slip up.

And though the Rams have long since been eliminated from postseason contention, they do have a chance to reach some benchmarks that would at least represent progress.

A win against the Bucs would lock up a winning record outside of the NFC West and allow the Rams to match last year’s win total with a game still to play. It would also keep them alive for a chance at a .500 record for the first time since 2006.

Those are goals the Rams still acknowledge harboring, but nobody will stray from the week-to-week cliché they take every game.

“We just want to finish up strong,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’re stressing improvement week after week after week.”

Quarterback Kellen Clemens added another incentive to the mix this week by mentioning that Sunday's game is a chance to finish strong in front of the home fans, another area that would represent progress. The Rams were 4-4 at home in 2012 (including a “home” game against New England in London). A win against Tampa Bay would leave the Rams at 5-3 at the Edward Jones Dome this year.

Despite that extra carrot, Clemens refused to look at what a positive result might mean for his team.

“It really doesn’t matter if we don’t win,” Clemens said. “So, all that stuff will play itself out, all the stats, all the neat little coincidences. But it doesn’t matter if we don’t win. So our focus in this locker room is just do our job Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, get some rest Saturday, and go out and win on Sunday.”

In looking closer at the Rams’ performance outside of the NFC West, there are a few notable reasons for an uptick this season.

First, St. Louis had the good fortune of facing the dreadful AFC South. That meant relatively easy wins against Jacksonville and Houston, plus a surprising but equally convincing win at Indianapolis. (Coincidentally, the Rams’ only home loss outside of the NFC West came against Tennessee, Fisher’s old team.) Fisher clearly knew his old division well and had his team ready to play.

More instructive, though, is the difference in turnover margin and running the ball. Against the NFC West the Rams are minus-3 in turnovers and average 99.8 yards on the ground and 3.99 yards per carry. Against opponents outside of the division, St. Louis averages 123.4 rushing yards per game and 4.55 yards per carry and is plus-13 in turnover margin.

Obviously, many of those numbers are the product of playing better teams on a regular basis within the NFC West. But Saffold also points to the idea that familiarity can be a blessing and a curse when teams know each other as well as the Rams know their division.

“I think that knowing that any given Sunday things can be different and preparing for the unexpected, that’s what helps you win games,” Saffold said. “Knowing the team can be harder than not knowing the team. You are never overlooked. It’s kind of crazy. Division games just seem so much more intense.”

Rams-Saints study session: Offense

December, 17, 2013
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ST. LOUIS – Some thoughts and observations on the St. Louis Rams’ 27-16 win against the New Orleans Saints, after reviewing the All-22 film.

  • The story of this game for the offense isn’t much different than what it was on the other side of the ball. This game was won at the line of scrimmage, where the Rams got an outstanding effort from their offensive line, tight ends and fullback Cory Harkey.
  • With the run game sagging like it did the previous two weeks, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and his staff made some tweaks to the run game to get Zac Stacy rolling again. The most obvious fix in this game? Using Stacy outside the tackles. Schematically, the Rams have been using mostly a potpourri of whams with Stacy; he’s gained most of his yards between the tackles. But yardage has been harder to find in that area recently. Getting Stacy outside is made easier with Rodger Saffold back at right guard. The Rams used Saffold on a variety of pulls and wasted no chance to get him out in space to clear out Saints linebackers. Saffold has quick feet and the power to completely wipe out smaller defenders. He was particularly noticeable on a 29-yard run by Stacy early in the game as well as Stacy's 40-yard touchdown run. All of that stuff about Saffold potentially being an elite guard in this league is coming to fruition. Nice job by Schottenheimer putting his players in position to do what they do best.
  • The rest of the line also deserves credit for the run game revving again. Tim Barnes was much better this week at center, Joe Barksdale and Chris Williams were solid and left tackle Jake Long was again extremely effective in the run game.
  • Tight end Lance Kendricks also played a strong role in Stacy’s touchdown run and a number of other solid gains. His acrobatic touchdown catch was icing on the cake on a nice day for him.
  • Stacy continues to impress. I have to admit, I wondered if he could be effective outside the hashes, but he showed a little better speed and quickness of foot than I expected when the Rams got him out in space. His hurdle leading to a 29-yard run showed more athleticism than we’d seen as well. The thing that continues to stand out about Stacy is his patience. He hits the hole but he also allows time for it to develop. That’s an instinctual thing that can’t be taught.
  • Like Kendricks, Harkey had another nice day. His touchdown rumble was well done, though he benefited from some awful tackle attempts, and he was stout as a blocker, per usual.
  • The other thing the Rams did schematically that made a lot of sense was move the pocket and keep the Saints from being able to focus their pass rush solely on the quarterback. Schottenheimer had plenty of bootlegs and play-action in the game plan. That, combined with solid pass protection, kept the Saints from getting much pass rush going.
  • Kellen Clemens had his most accurate day as a passer and was in total control from the beginning. You keep waiting for him to have a streak of five or six misses in a row, but it never happened. When the run game is rolling like it was, Clemens is so much more effective. He did a nice job of standing in the pocket and getting the ball to the right people to keep drives alive. I only noticed Clemens scramble himself into trouble one time against the Saints.
  • For most of the day, the Rams stuck to run-heavy, power formations, with only one or two receivers on the field. But there was little middle ground. They’d go five wide when they weren’t in jumbo ‘22’ packages and spread the Saints out. It helped keep them off balance.
  • Austin Pettis played only 13 snaps, but he made the most of them. He had four catches, three for first downs and played an integral role in keeping early drives alive.
  • Nice sight adjustment by receiver Chris Givens on a 31-yard catch-and-run early in the game. You can clearly see him alerting Clemens to an opening for a quick slant before the snap. That’s a positive sign of growth for Givens, who hasn’t had many of them this season.
  • Tight end Jared Cook didn’t do much in the pass game but had one of his better days as a blocker. He threw a nice block on Harkey’s touchdown and did some good work run-blocking as well.
  • In live action, it was hard to tell whether receiver Brian Quick should have hauled in the deep ball from Clemens that he just missed. It was a nice throw by Clemens; that should be acknowledged. But upon further inspection, it looked like a nice play by Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis, who got his hand in to knock the ball away before Quick could snatch it. Perhaps Quick could have done a little more to get it, and 50/50 balls have been hit or miss for Quick. But it was a nice play by Lewis.
  • The Rams were 7-of-14 on third down, but the key was their ability to get into manageable third-down situations. Five of their seven conversions came on third-and-5 or less, and they actually missed some easier chances when they only needed a yard or two to keep the chains moving.

Upon Further Review: Rams Week 15

December, 16, 2013
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ST. LOUIS -- A review of four hot issues from the St. Louis Rams' 27-16 victory against the New Orleans Saints:

Quinn again: Rams defensive end Robert Quinn had already established himself as the team’s best defensive player in 2013, and with each passing week he’s making a better case that he’s the league’s best.

Quinn
Quinn forced Saints coach Sean Payton to toss out the game plan early and continued to punish any blocker put in front of him throughout the Rams' victory. Quinn had five tackles, two sacks, a tackle for loss, two quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

For the season, Quinn leads the NFC in sacks with 15 and the NFL in forced fumbles with eight. This is the definition of a breakout season for one of the game’s emerging stars.

Stacy steps up: It’s no secret that the Rams’ success in 2013 has been directly tied to their ability to run the ball successfully. Rookie Zac Stacy has been the key to that success, and after a couple of down weeks, he rebounded nicely against the Saints.

Stacy rushed for a combined 97 yards in losses to San Francisco and Arizona the past two weeks. He had 106 in the first half against the Saints and finished with 133 yards on 28 carries with a 40-yard touchdown run.

Since becoming the starter in Week 5, Stacy has averaged 88.6 yards in the team’s five wins.

On target: Toughness and leadership are qualities Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens has regularly displayed since becoming the starter in Week 7. Accuracy is not.

So when Clemens started Sunday’s game by completing 10 of his first 13 passes, it seemed like just a matter of time before the ball started hitting the turf consistently. It never happened.

Clemens completed 14 of 20 for the game, a 70 percent completion rate which is the highest of his career to date. The Rams grabbed an early lead behind Stacy’s running, leaving Clemens with little to do, but he made the most of his opportunities, posting a 95.7 QBR.

Turnover time: It’s been said and written time and again that no single statistic is more indicative of a team’s performance than the turnover differential. That certainly holds true for the Rams.

St. Louis created three takeaways (two interceptions, one fumble recovery) and coughed up none on offense to finish plus-three against the Saints. That they won given that turnover output should come as no surprise. The Rams are plus-three or better in five of their six wins this season and have not lost when they’ve been on the positive side of the takeaway battle.

Roller-coaster Rams are still growing up

December, 15, 2013
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ST. LOUIS – Fourteen games into an NFL season, the task of trying to determine what, exactly, the St. Louis Rams’ identity is has been an exercise in futility.

One week the Rams can do what they did Sunday, taking it to the New Orleans Saints -- a legitimate Super Bowl contender -- for a 27-16 win. Another week they find themselves barely competitive against a division foe such as Arizona.

The highs can be extremely high; the lows can be exceedingly low. But perhaps now in the wake of another upset sprung on the Saints, we can all embrace the idea that the hard-to-peg personality of the Rams actually is what this team is all about.

At 6-8, the Rams have had more downs than ups on the roller-coaster ride that is their 2013 season. The inconsistent play from week to week has left them searching for answers in both winning and losing locker rooms on a regular basis.

“I don’t know,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “I really don’t. I can’t put my finger on it. I wish I had an answer. I don’t know what it is. Today we were able to come and make some plays early and get some bounces our way. Some of the other games it just seems like things landslide fast. So I don’t know why it’s been like that. Hopefully we can reflect and find a way to figure that out.”

Of course, when pressed on the reason for the ups and downs, the Rams refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the room: For the second year in a row, the Rams are the youngest team in the league.

Ask about it and you’ll get a steady chorus of how that isn’t an excuse. But it’s also a stone-cold truth that the Rams are as green as any team in the league, and with that youth comes a learning curve.

“It is what it is, it’s factual,” offensive lineman Rodger Saffold said. “We are a young team, that’s factual. As long as we’re not using it as excuses, it’s not a problem. This team is growing, they’re learning. This is going to be exciting. I said last week I thought we would come out here and try to get better, and I think we did.”

General manager Les Snead calls it a “grit” year, the year in which you have to suffer disappointing defeats but not get too high when things go as well, as they did Sunday against the Saints.

When a team is as inconsistent as the Rams, it can be easy to play armchair psychologist, to try to figure out why things are one way one week and on the opposite end of the spectrum the next.

For the Rams, though, the blueprint for success has actually been pretty easy to understand, particularly in their more dominant performances against the Saints, Indianapolis, Chicago and Houston.

“Sometimes it’s simpler than people think,” end Chris Long said. “You run the football, you don’t turn the ball over, you force turnovers and you stop the run and things are going to go pretty well for you. Follow that blueprint which coach does a great job of pushing on us and trying to make sure we do and we execute and we can be pretty good. We don’t execute and we’re not going to be as good. It’s simple. If we do our jobs and everybody plays hard, which they do every week here, we’ve got the right guys in the locker room for that, we can be as good as anybody.”

In the Rams’ six wins, they have rushed for an average of 141.8 yards per game on 4.6 yards per carry, while allowing just 82.3 rushing yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry. They’re also plus-17 in turnover margin, taking it away 20 times and giving it away just three. The result has been six wins in which they’ve outscored opponents by 104 points.

Duplicating that blueprint from week to week has been a task a little too big for the young Rams. Turnovers can be a product of luck, which makes them hard to count on, but the point remains that the Rams at least know what needs to be done to get victories.

“It’s a game of up and downs,” Saffold said. “We also need to continue to learn how to win. This is definitely big for us. We can play like we don’t have anything to lose because, honestly, we don’t.”

The franchise has been in rebuilding mode for much of the past decade, and the fan base deserves copious respect for its patience. Until things turn all the way around and the team returns to the playoffs, the cynicism that goes with so much losing will be warranted and continue. In the meantime, there is solace to be taken from winning games nobody expects them to win. Games like Sunday's, when the growth of a team is far more evident than in the losing weeks.

“They’re playing beyond their years, they really are,” quarterback Kellen Clemens said. “To see how they have progressed the last few months and even the last few weeks for those guys who are getting opportunities. It’s been great to watch. This is going to be a good football team for a lot of years because we have a lot of young talent that is really starting to hit their stride.”

You’ll know that to be true when Sunday’s stride becomes the same one you see on a weekly basis.

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