NFC West: Miklasz Show

Chatting with Bernie Miklasz about the NFC West in general and the St. Louis Rams in particular has become a staple each Tuesday.

The run is ending this week after Bernie hosted his final show on 101ESPN St. Louis. Bernie isn't leaving, fortunately. He's recommitting to his main job at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The paper has created an expanded role for him through its website. We'll stay in touch and collaborate in new ways, I'm sure.

In the meantime, I wanted to share the audio link to our conversation Tuesday. This was a Rams-only conversation primarily about their draft, specifically how the team has changed on offense.

The chart below shows key receivers, tight ends and running backs for the Rams in their final game before coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead arrived. It also shows key players at those positions now. Some of the players from the 2011 regular-season finale were on injured reserve at the time. The last two receivers listed in the right column aren't key players at the position. I included their names to even up the chart.
Bernie Miklasz tricked his 101ESPN St. Louis guest -- me -- into saying the St. Louis Rams have had the worst offseason to date among NFC West teams.

We laughed about it Tuesday during our weekly conversation .

Let's just call the Rams' offseason the fourth-best in the division based on what we know. The Rams' move away from established players on offense has naturally raised short-term questions about whether the team will be better right away. Sometimes, though, the unknown is better.

The Rams made two high-profile additions, signing tight end Jared Cook and left tackle Jake Long. They're scheduled to make two high-profile acquisitions Thursday night when they use the 16th and 22nd choices in the 2013 draft.

St. Louis has parted with four players who participated in at least 95 percent of the Rams' offensive or defensive snaps last season. No other team has subtracted as many. Robert Turner, Barry Richardson, Craig Dahl and Quintin Mikell left the team for varying reasons. Brandon Gibson, Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola played fewer snaps, but they were arguably more valuable to the team that the others, with the possible exception of Mikell.

Those players represented the known, which can sometimes be more comfortable.

I'm interested in see what the unknown holds for St. Louis. It's also clear the team needs additional reinforcements, beginning with whatever players St. Louis adds in the draft.
Fred Robbins and James Hall combined to start 31 games on the St. Louis Rams' defensive line in 2011.

Rod Hood, Al Harris, Ben Leber and C.J. Ah You combined to make another 14 starts for the Rams' defense that year.

None of the six was on an NFL roster during the 2012 season. The Rams moved on at the right time, in other words.

I bring up those older players and their 2012 fates to frame the Rams' current plan to go with younger players when feasible. Not every coach has the kind of job security Jeff Fisher enjoys with the Rams right now, so we shouldn't automatically criticize past regimes for plugging holes with older players. Robbins and especially Hall were very good players for the Rams at one time. The other vets played roles.

But as the Rams put together a relatively inexperienced roster, the context can be helpful. Bernie Miklasz and I discussed that and other subjects around the NFC West during our conversation Tuesday on 101ESPN St. Louis. Hope you enjoy.
PHOENIX -- There are a couple sides to the Jake Long story this offseason.

Version one: The St. Louis Rams added a four-time Pro Bowl left tackle when Long agreed to a four-year contract with the team.

Version two: The Miami Dolphins let Long hit the market and sign elsewhere because they weren't convinced he could regain the Pro Bowl form he'd shown before injuries affected his play over the past couple seasons.

Bernie Miklasz and I sought the truth during our Tuesday conversation on 101ESPN St. Louis.

I separately caught up with Rams coach Jeff Fisher for comment on Long from the NFL owners meeting at the Arizona Biltmore. The Rams faced Long and the Dolphins last season. They studied him at length subsequently.

"Saw a really consistent player," Fisher said. "We played him in the middle part of the season and he had been playing real good. He struggled through some injuries late in the year, but there are no indications for us that we don't think he can get right back to his Pro Bowl production."
The recently shot photos from inside the San Francisco 49ers' new stadium got me thinking about another NFC West team with stadium ambitions. The St. Louis Rams have to hope they're snapping similar shots at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Bernie Miklasz and I touched upon the Rams' stadium situation Tuesday in light of Jason Cole's piece dismissing as unworkable the leading efforts to build a stadium in Los Angeles.

As Rams fans know, Los Angeles remains a perceived threat to lure the Rams away from St. Louis once the team's lease with the Edward Jones Dome goes year-to-year in 2015. Cole's report highlights the gap between the perceived and actual threat, at least the way things stand at present.

There was much more for Bernie and I to discuss during our latest conversation on 101ESPN St. Louis.

Potential free-agent fates for Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola were among the subjects we covered. We kicked off the discussion by following up my Sunday piece from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference focusing on the Rams' and 49ers' outlooks.

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

February, 26, 2013
We've been heavy on the Steven Jackson discussion following news of the running back's expected free agency. That will continue here as I pass along audio from my my Tuesday conversation with Bernie Miklasz of 101ESPN St. Louis.

Bernie and I touched on a few other mostly Rams-related subjects. Bernie has subsequently filed thoughts on what Jackson's departure might mean to the Rams. He notes that Jackson's touches and production suffered year-over-year declines recently.

The chart compares Jackson's rushing yards per season by age to NFL averages since 2000 for running backs with at least 150 carries in four or more seasons.

Jackson has outperformed the averages, but the rate of decline in recent seasons matches league averages for running backs of the same age. Those other running backs suffered a 23.9 percent decline from age 29 to age 30, the second-largest percentage decline in the chart. That percentage represented the difference from a 719-yard average at age 29 to a 547-yard average at age 30.

Jackson would fall short of 800 yards in 2013 if he followed a similar course. His yardage totals have declined by 12.9, 7.7 and 9.0 percent over the past three seasons.

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

February, 19, 2013
Bernie Miklasz asked for an opinion on Steven Jackson's future during our conversation Tuesday on 101ESPN St. Louis.

Jackson is the Rams' career rushing leader. If any one player represents the soul of the Rams, Jackson would be the one. He's put together a string of eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for a team that hasn't given him near enough help most of the time.

The Rams had nine players start on their offensive line last season. That total ranked tied for fourth-highest in the NFL. The team had nine starters on its line in 2011 as well. Seven of those nine did not start for the team in 2012. That's 16 different starters on the line over two seasons. The 2012 Rams got eight combined starts at three positions on the line from Shelley Smith and Joe Barksdale, players the team claimed off waivers in September.

Back to Jackson. What does his future hold? The odds seem in favor of the Rams and Jackson parting amicably. The Rams are getting younger and building through the draft. Jackson is scheduled to earn $7 million in salary this season. He can opt out of his contract, a stipulation the Rams granted him when the sides failed to reach agreement on a contract extension last year.

Jackson turns 30 in July. Running backs generally begin declining by about age 27. However, players 30 and older have reached 1,000 yards rushing in a season 44 times. Willis McGahee was the most recent to do it, gaining 1,199 yards for Denver in 2011.

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

January, 27, 2013
Passing along: the link to my weekly NFC West conversation with Bernie Miklasz of 101 ESPN St. Louis. We covered coaching changes in Arizona, what a bye week could mean for the San Francisco 49ers, whether Jim Harbaugh is too up-tight as a coach for Super Bowl week and what Rob Ryan's addition to the St. Louis Rams could mean for the team.

The Harbaugh question was not one I had considered in the context of this upcoming Super Bowl matchup against the Baltimore Ravens.

Bernie said he thought Mike Martz and some other Super Bowl coaches were too up-tight heading into the big game, and that their teams were affected negatively as a result. He wondered whether Harbaugh could fall into that category.

Harbaugh is intense. He can be abrasive. I'm not sure I would consider him to be up-tight. We'll get a better feel for this one as Harbaugh conducts his daily media appearances during Super Bowl week.

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

January, 10, 2013
Bernie Miklasz and I couldn't shut up during our latest conversation on 101ESPN St. Louis.

No surprise there.

We wound up adding a second segment to continue discussing Seattle's victory over Washington in the wild-card round and the upcoming matchups involving the Seahawks (at Atlanta) and San Francisco 49ers (vs. Green Bay).

Here's the audio , and here are some of the subjects we discussed:
  • Why an offensive-minded head coach makes sense for Arizona
  • Perspective on Chris Clemons' season-ending injury
  • Robert Griffin III's injury and St. Louis' trade with Washington
  • Why the Green Bay-San Francisco game is tough to handicap

While I've got you here, I'll pass along a chart I had intended to run separately. Seattle has had some troubles against the blitz recently, taking eight sacks over its past two games when opponents rushed five or more defenders. This chart shows how quarterbacks have fared against the Falcons' added pressure on third down this season. I filtered for third down after Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said Atlanta generally saved its pressure tactics for third down.

We're talking about relatively few plays per game, but some of the numbers are interesting. So is this one: Seattle allowed a league-low 27.0 NFL passer rating and collected nine sacks, tied for fourth-most in the NFL, when sending five-plus pass-rushers on third down. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan ranks 14th in passer rating (84.8) and 19th in Total QBR (37.0) in these situations. I wonder if we'll see more pressure tactics from Seattle as the team plays minus Clemons, its top pass-rusher.

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

December, 28, 2012
The Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams will rely heavily on their 2012 draft classes when facing one another in a Week 17 game at CenturyLink Field.

Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers will be chasing Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Robert Turbin. First, though, Brockers might have to get past Seahawks guard J.R. Sweezy.

If Brockers does his job well, teammate Janoris Jenkins might have a better chance of picking off Wilson's passes.

When the Rams have the ball, Seattle's Bruce Irvin will try to get sacks before the Rams can complete passes to wide receivers Brian Quick and Chris Givens. Teammate Bobby Wagner will be trying to tackle Quick, Givens, Daryl Richardson and possibly Isaiah Pead.

If those Seattle defensive rookies help stop the Rams' offense, we can expect St. Louis kicker Greg Zuerlein to line up for field goals.

Every player mentioned to this point was a 2012 draft choice for the Rams or Seahawks.

As the chart shows, each team has gotten offensive or defensive snaps from nine of the 10 players it drafted in 2012.

Those players have combined for nearly 6,000 snaps on offense or defense, to say nothing of their contributions on special teams. They have combined for nearly 200 games and more than 70 starts. And they have done it for teams with a combined 17-12-1 record, a sign of just how far the NFC West has advanced recently.

Bernie Miklasz and I discussed these draft classes among other subjects during our latest conversation on 101ESPN St. Louis. Here is the audio.

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

December, 19, 2012
Two things to know about the top two teams in the NFC West: They are 0-2-1 against the St. Louis Rams, and neither has won more than three games in succession all season.

The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks can affect change on both those fronts over the final two weeks of the season.

The 49ers, winners of two straight, do not get another shot at the Rams. But a victory over Seattle in Week 16 would give them their first three-game winning streak of the season. It would also put them in position to take a four-game winning streak into the playoffs.

The Seahawks had not won more than two games consecutively all season before their 50-17 demolition of the Buffalo Bills in Week 15. Their current three-game streak is the longest active one in the division.

Beating the 49ers would allow Seattle to join Arizona as the only NFC West teams to win four in a row this season.

Which brings us to the Rams. They had won three in a row before suffering a 36-22 home defeat to Minnesota on Sunday. This defeat was the Rams' third in their last four at the Edward Jones Dome. Green Bay and the New York Jets also beat them there. What to make of it? Bernie Miklasz and I discussed that subject and a few others around the division during our latest weekly conversation on 101ESPN St. Louis.

"In fairness to them, while there is no excuse for the lame performance they had (Sunday) being down 30-7 at halftime, they had won three pressure games in a row and that was the fourth one," Bernie said. "At some point, I have to remind myself this is still the youngest team in the league and they're still in a rebuilding mode. Maybe to ask them to win four pressure games in a row might be a little tough."

That is the reasonable view. It's just tough accepting home defeats against flawed opponents from a team that is 4-0-1 in the division, including 1-0-1 against the 49ers.

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

November, 29, 2012
Steven Jackson is back on pace for an eighth consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season thanks to a three-week run with 321 yards.

That run began with a 101-yard game during the St. Louis Rams' 24-24 tie at San Francisco. The Rams will be counting on more from Jackson when the 49ers visit the Edward Jones Dome in Week 13. The 49ers gave up a season-high 159 yards rushing to the Rams, 22 of them in overtime.

Bernie Miklasz and I discussed Jackson, among other things, during our latest conversation on 101ESPN St. Louis. Here is the audio. I also recommend checking out Rick Venturi's thoughts on how the Rams' defense matches up with the 49ers and Colin Kaepernick.

Bernie and I also discussed the 49ers' quarterback situation, the Seattle Seahawks' secondary and the Arizona Cardinals' coaching outlook.

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

November, 14, 2012
Bernie Miklasz and I focused solely on the St. Louis Rams during our weekly conversation on 101ESPN St. Louis.

There was plenty to review following the Rams' 24-24 tie against San Francisco at Candlestick Park in Week 10. There is much to consider moving forward as well, including how the Rams' better-than-expected showing against the 49ers has recast expectations for the immediate future.

Beyond the big-picture stuff, one oddity I raised was the Rams' continued failure to recover fumbles frequently enough.

The Rams have fumbled 14 times and recovered only four of them. They badly needed to recover rookie running back Isaiah Pead's fumble during a kickoff return after the 49ers scored to cut the Rams' lead to 17-14 in the fourth quarter. Instead, the 49ers recovered and scored on their next play, taking the lead.

St. Louis also failed to recover two fumbles by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The Rams have recovered only one of their opponents' six fumbles for a league-low percentage of 16.7. Arizona, meanwhile, has recovered seven of nine opponent fumbles for a league-high 77.8 percentage.

Chase Stuart has done related work breaking down the types of fumbles defenses are most likely to recover. This could bear a closer examination in relation to the Rams.

Mostly, though, the Rams need to force more fumbles overall. Their opponents are fumbling less frequently than any other team's opponents through Week 10. It's tough to recover opponents' fumbles without forcing them.

The Rams' next opponent, the Jets, have averaged 1.7 fumbles per game, sixth-most in the NFL.

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

November, 6, 2012
Bernie Miklasz and I just finished our weekly NFC West conversation on 101ESPN St. Louis.

We discussed every team in the division, with special focus on Rams quarterback Sam Bradford. I recommend checking out Bernie's additional thoughts on the Rams' defense, posted Tuesday, before listening in on our conversation.

I noted that Bradford, with a very solid 81.3 Total QBR score in fourth quarters and overtimes this season, trails only Peyton Manning, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford in that category. You might recall his 23-yard scoring pass to Brandon Gibson in Week 1. It broke a 13-13 tie in the fourth quarter at Detroit. Bradford also made fourth-quarter plays to beat Washington and rally at Miami.

We also went into greater depth on the comments Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. made about Bradford recently.

In discussing the San Francisco 49ers, I described them as a team built for the playoffs in at least one important way. Separately, when Bernie asked if there were anything misleading about Alex Smith's high completion percentage, I pointed to the 22 sacks Smith has taken this season while playing behind a very good offensive line. Some of those sacks should have been throwaway passes or completed passes.

The chart shows passing stats and Total QBR scores for quarterbacks with the most sacks since the 2011 season opened. Smith tops the list for most sacks.

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

October, 30, 2012
We occasionally hear coaches and players stress the importance of finishing.

Finishing drives. Finishing games. Finishing plays. Finishing blocks.

The subject arose Tuesday during my weekly conversation with Bernie Miklasz on 101ESPN St. Louis. We discussed how Rams quarterback Sam Bradford has fared as a finisher. That got me thinking about the goal-to-go passing stats cited here Saturday.

Bradford completed only one of his 16 pass attempts in goal-to-go situations last season. He's been better in 2012, but there's still significant room for improvement.

The San Francisco 49ers' Alex Smith could be Bradford's guide on the matter. Smith completed all three goal-to-go attempts for 19 yards and two touchdowns against Arizona on Monday night. He has completed 7 of 8 attempts with five touchdowns on goal-to-go passes this season. That marks dramatic improvement from last season, when Smith completed only 7 of 28 goal-to-go passes with three touchdowns.

What's making the difference? Superior pass protection and/or play design could be factors. The 49ers also have superior weapons this season. Smith's numbers are better when opponents rush five or more defenders.

Last season, Smith completed 1 of 10 goal-to-go passes with three sacks when pressured. He completed 6 of 18 when facing no pressure.

This season, Smith has been pressured on only two of his nine goal-to-go drop backs. He has completed 6 of 7 passes with four touchdowns when facing no pressure. He has taken one sack when pressured in these situations. He completed a touchdown pass on the other play affected by pressure.

The chart shows 2011 (when applicable) and 2012 goal-to-go passing stats for NFC West quarterbacks. Smith, Bradford, John Skelton, Kevin Kolb, Tarvaris Jackson and Russell Wilson are the quarterbacks listed.

Thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for the charting info.