NFL Nation: Jake Long

With the NFL owners meetings convening in Orlando this week, much of the discussion will center on potential rule changes and points of emphasis for the 2014 season. For fans of the NFL draft, the biggest news coming out of central Florida will be the compensation selections which are also expected to be announced.

In addition to the chance to finalize the draft order, teams can also pick up valuable selections anywhere from the end of round three to Mr. Irrelevant at the close of round seven.

Before we do our best to try to project what the St. Louis Rams will receive, let's attempt to explain a few things pertinent to the discussion of compensation picks.
  • The NFL does not disclose the exact formula it uses to divvy up the picks. All picks are awarded based on the previous year's free-agent market so in this case, the Rams' extra picks will be based on players like Danny Amendola and Jared Cook rather than the many free agents they've lost this year.
  • What we do know about the formula is that it's based on a balance of what a team gained and lost the previous season. Picks aren't just handed out because a team signed less free agents than it lost. How those players performed, how much they played and how much money they made is more important than sheer attrition. So if you lose four backups and sign one starter, it could theoretically even out and gain you nothing depending on how those backups perform and the differential in money.
  • Only unrestricted free agents who had that designation based on the natural course of their contract expiring are eligible to be factored into the formula. Restricted or exclusive rights free agents who do not receive tenders from their team are ineligible to be counted. Likewise for veterans who are released before the start of the new league year. What's more unclear is how players who come to some sort of opt-out agreement are counted. Using an example for the Rams, running back Steven Jackson technically opted out of his contract and chose to leave but the Rams enabled that despite Jackson not meeting the requirements to automatically trigger the voidable year. Still, Jackson was categorized as an unrestricted free agent and played 398 snaps in 2013, which should qualify him for this exercise.
  • The new Collective Bargaining Agreement only allows for a total of 32 compensatory picks to be handed out. That's not per round but total so as to limit the draft to no more than the equivalent of a full eight rounds.
  • Compensatory picks cannot be traded.

Here's the breakdown of free agents lost and gained with regular season snap counts from 2013 included:

2013 free agents lost: Amendola (542 snaps), Jackson (398 snaps), offensive lineman Robert Turner (379 snaps), receiver Brandon Gibson (245 snaps), cornerback Bradley Fletcher (881 snaps), safety Craig Dahl (84 snaps), receiver Steve Smith (0 snaps, signed with Tampa Bay and retired soon after). (Note: Turner and Gibson finished the season on injured reserve)

2013 free agents gained: Offensive tackle Jake Long (818 snaps), tight end Jared Cook (691 snaps).

Projection: The Rams obviously lost more free agents than they signed in 2013 but Long and Cook were not only clearly the highest-paid going in either direction but the most productive and reliable in terms of play time. Fletcher played the most snaps while the rest of the list struggled with injuries which limited their opportunities. Dahl was mostly a special teams player for the 49ers. Few of the free agents the Rams lost should factor in a significant way aside from Fletcher and, perhaps, Amendola.

Without knowing the full details of how the picks will be handed out, this is simply an educated guess, but while I do expect the Rams to receive some sort of compensation, I wouldn't expect it to be much. The guess here is the Rams will receive one, maybe two, late-round selections likely in the seventh round with a sixth-round choice as the probable best case scenario. The team already holds nine picks in this year's draft and could gain more by trading down but either way, they'll have no shortage of chances to make picks come May.
A large portion of the 320 players that participated in an NFL Nation confidential survey about which non-teammate they’d like to see play in a Super Bowl didn’t get their wish.

Three Jaguars players did, though.

Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson topped the survey with 59 votes, narrowly edging out Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez (56 votes), who retired last month after 17 years in the NFL.

Obviously neither was able to make to the Super Bowl this year, but three of the players named by the 10 Jaguars players polled did: Denver’s Terrance Knighton and Demaryius Thomas and Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch. It’s not a surprise that someone named Knighton because he was the Jaguars’ third-round pick in 2009 and one of the most well-liked players in the locker room during his four seasons in Jacksonville.

The interesting thing about the Jaguars’ responses was that no player was named more than once. In addition to Knighton, Thomas and Lynch, seven other players were named: Jake Long, Brandon Carr, Julio Jones, Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Peterson and Michael Vick.
ST. LOUIS -- As the offseason approaches, there's no spot on the St. Louis Rams' roster with more questions than the offensive line.

Of the five linemen who opened the season as starters in 2013, it's possible that none will be available for opening day in 2014.

[+] EnlargeRodger Saffold
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceRodger Saffold's versatility on the offensive line is a major reason why the St. Louis Rams will work to retain the fourth-year pro in 2014.
Rodger Saffold and Chris Williams are set to become unrestricted free agents. Center Scott Wells and right guard Harvey Dahl are under contract, but with salary cap numbers projected at $6.5 million and $4 million, respectively, either or both could become salary cap casualties.

To top it off, left tackle Jake Long suffered a torn ACL and MCL in Week 15 against Tampa Bay and at the very least would be cutting a return for the opener awfully close.

Put simply, the Rams have much to figure out in free agency and the draft.

"That's what the offseason is for," general manager Les Snead said. "We have got a plan so it's not a stressful situation. It's something that has got a lot of moving parts that we've got to address and keep them from moving."

As is often the case with offseason plans, Snead declined to elaborate on what the Rams' strategy for the line is moving forward. Regardless, it's probably a safe bet the Rams will be making some changes and adding some new pieces one way or another.

While decisions on Wells and Dahl may be the first order of business, figuring out a way to retain Saffold is the one piece of the puzzle Snead made clear the Rams are looking to figure out.

Saffold moved to right tackle in the offseason and started the year there before a knee injury cost him four games. He returned and began rotating with his replacement, Joe Barksdale, for a few weeks before settling in at right guard when Dahl suffered a knee injury.

There, Saffold showed the ability to be a potentially elite guard. Coach Jeff Fisher even acknowledged that Saffold's unique skills when pulling made him a good fit for the spot long term.

Asked directly if Saffold's versatility makes retaining him an important cog in the offseason plans, Snead acknowledged that it did.

"I would say yes," Snead said. "You love versatility on your offensive line. Take it broader than that, a lot of times you're keeping seven and eight up on game day, so when you've got a lot of versatility you can keep seven up and now your special teams are stronger."

The question then becomes how Saffold is valued around the league and whether teams see him as a guard or tackle and pay him as such. Snead believes the delineation of value among the line spots has blurred in recent years, making that an issue that may not matter much when it comes to Saffold.

"I think today in the NFL, it's not like it (used to be)," Snead said. "Now you see right tackles getting paid if they're really good, you see guards getting paid if they're really good. A lot of teams probably, it's not utopia so your best two players might be your right tackle and right guard so those teams usually pay them. I think it's a little broader now."

One more way for the Rams to fill possible line vacancies is from within. Snead expressed confidence in the development of rookie lineman Barrett Jones and the Rams have other young linemen such as guard Brandon Washington and tackle Mike Person in whom they've invested plenty of time and effort.

Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has proved more than capable of bringing along young linemen and putting them in position to succeed. Barksdale's success in 2013 is a prime example.

The Rams will add to the line in the offseason, likely through the draft. Whether they use a high pick on a lineman remains to be seen, especially given Fisher and Snead's short two-year track record of not drafting linemen early.

Still, with the Rams having an extra first-round pick and likely obvious needs on the line, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them make it a priority in this draft.

By the time the draft rolls around in May, the Rams will have a good handle on what form the line is set to take. The contract situations will be decided and free agency will be complete.

For now, it's obvious Snead and the Rams aren't worried about the possible line alterations.

"One will be a rehab situation; one is an unrestricted free agent," Snead said. "Of any group I was most proud of, it was that group this year. I have a heart for offensive linemen because that's your basketball team. It's not just one great player. It's five guys working together."

The question for the Rams in 2014 is who those five will be.

Upon Further Review: Rams Week 16

December, 23, 2013
ST. LOUIS -- A review of four hot issues from the St. Louis Rams' 23-13 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

Crown him: In this space last week, we made a strong case for why Rams defensive end Robert Quinn should be the leading candidate for the NFL's defensive player of the year. Quinn only added to the résumé against the Bucs, racking up three more sacks and six tackles. In the process, Quinn became the franchise's single-season leader for sacks, besting Kevin Carter's previous record of 17 by one.

[+] EnlargeRobert Quinn
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsWith three sacks of Bucs QB Mike Glennon, Robert Quinn moved into the league lead with 18 on the season.
Quinn's 18 sacks now lead the NFL in that category, and he remains tied with Indianapolis' Robert Mathis in forced fumbles with seven. Despite constant double- and triple-teams, Quinn kept battling against the Bucs and proved once again why he should be the leader in the clubhouse. Teammates William Hayes and Chris Long carried Quinn off the field to chants of "MVP, MVP" at the end of the game. No player has wrecked more offensive game plans in 2013.

Don't forget Ogletree: Rams rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree hasn't been as prominently mentioned in the defensive rookie of the year contest as Quinn has in the defensive player of the year battle, but maybe he should be. Ogletree added eight tackles, half of a sack and two forced fumbles to his tally against Tampa Bay.

For the season, Ogletree has 110 tackles, 1.5 sacks, an interception return for a touchdown, six forced fumbles, eight pass breakups and five batted passes. His half-dozen forced fumbles trail only Quinn and Mathis in that category.

Losing Long: Not all of the news from Sunday's game was positive for the Rams. They lost left tackle Jake Long to a knee injury three plays into the game, and coach Jeff Fisher said there's concern that it's a torn ACL. That would mean a long road to recovery for Long, leaving the Rams with even more questions on an offensive line that figures to have plenty in the offseason.

Rodger Saffold ably filled in for Long against the Bucs and continues to show his value through not only his versatility but also his ability. Saffold's pending free agency now becomes an even more pressing issue for the Rams as the offseason nears.

Rookie ramblings: The Rams have had no problem relying on rookies to produce all season, as they are the league's youngest team for the second year in a row. That production has been hit or miss from week to week but Sunday's game provided a glimpse into what could be when this year's group reaches its potential.

Ogletree is something of a given in terms of production at this point; so is running back Zac Stacy, who provided his fourth 100-yard rushing game of the season Sunday. Now, others are starting to become more prominent. Receiver Stedman Bailey had three catches and rushed for a 27-yard touchdown. Safety T.J. McDonald had six tackles and a sack.

That doesn't even include top pick Tavon Austin, who didn't play because of an ankle injury. If the growth of this year's class from Week 1 to now is any indication of the future, this draft class might be the type of foundational group that leads to big things for the Rams in the future.

Rams would be wise to invest in Saffold

December, 22, 2013
ST. LOUIS – Before Rodger Saffold III stepped on the turf at the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday afternoon, he received some sage advice from his father, Rodger Saffold II.

“It’s kind of crazy,” Saffold said. “He called me and said, ‘God forbid anything happens, just be ready.’ I was like, ‘OK, so obviously I’m probably going to be playing tackle again.’ So of course after the first series I’m playing tackle for the rest of the game.”

Breaking down the precognitive powers of Mr. Saffold will have to wait for another time. For now, it’s more important to look at what the younger Saffold means to the Rams both in light of the injury to left tackle Jake Long and in the longer term.

[+] EnlargeRodger Saffold
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonIn light of Jake Long's injury, keeping Rodger Saffold should be the Rams' top offseason priority.
Three plays into Sunday’s 23-13 win against Tampa Bay, Long suffered a right knee injury that required him to be taken off the field on a cart. After the game, Rams coach Jeff Fisher said the team fears Long has a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Long’s status will be confirmed in the next 24 hours, but if Fisher is acknowledging that as a possibility, it’s probably the case. That injury would mean a long road to recovery for Long, the team’s prized free-agent signing in March.

It also means that Saffold should become the single-most important offseason priority for the Rams. After starting at right guard for the fifth time this season, Saffold hopped over to left tackle on the team’s first drive after Long left the field.

Despite the musical positions Saffold has played all season, he remained unfazed by the move, making the switch and holding up just fine as quarterback Kellen Clemens was sacked just once and hit only three times on the day.

“Rodger is a great asset for us,” Clemens said. “To have the ability to go from right guard to left tackle, I don’t know if any of you have ever played offensive line but your footwork is different, your calls are different, he’s a true pro. We are really lucky to have him. He gives us a lot of versatility there on that offensive line.”

Versatility is a fine quality, but plenty of linemen around the league have played multiple positions in a pinch. The Rams had a lineman named Blaine Saipaia in 2004-05 who played nearly every position on the line and even took snaps at tight end.

But standing in at many spots is one thing. Having the type of success Saffold has enjoyed is something different entirely.

Saffold has started eight games this season, five at right guard and three at right tackle. Before this season, he had started 35 games in his NFL career, every one of them at left tackle.

That makes moving back to his old position something akin to riding a tricycle, but it also makes moving to other spots where he isn’t as comfortable more difficult.

“Right guard is a position I was never used to playing,” Saffold said. “I have a lot of experience playing left tackle, and I think that’s what saves me the most. When I had to go back and forth to right tackle I was able to practice it all through OTAs, all throughout training camp and that helped me too. It’s basically just the experience of playing the game that allows you to move.”

In Saffold’s case, there’s a lot more to it than that. At 6-foot-5 and 332 pounds, Saffold’s strength and quickness make him a powerful run-blocker, particularly inside, but also more than capable as a pass-blocker against speedy edge rushers.

“The thing about Rodger, you all may not know this but he’s probably one of the most athletic guys on the team,” running back Zac Stacy said. “So with that his versatility is a big key in this game. He’s able to play inside [and] outside, so he did a great job today being in a tough position trying to move to tackle. Hopefully he can keep that going.”

With only one game remaining, next week against Seattle, the Rams should be fine simply plugging Saffold in for Long at left tackle. What the future holds beyond that is more important in determining how the Rams’ offseason shapes up.

Saffold is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the outset of the new league year. His extensive injury history could make teams, including the Rams, a bit wary, though his turnaround since an early season injury is rare.

By now, it’s quite clear that Saffold’s value when healthy should be enough to land him a healthy payday. Even before Long was hurt, a strong argument could be made that Saffold was the team’s best offensive lineman. He’d been particularly adept at guard, with all the makings of an elite player on the interior.

Some would argue that Saffold could make more money as a pure tackle on the open market since it’s a higher-profile position. Teams might also look at Saffold and want to offer him a big contract as a top guard.

Whether it’s as a top guard or an above-average tackle is beside the point. The point is that Saffold can be any and all of those things at the drop of a hat. That’s where his true value lies.

And, after losing Long to a potentially long-term knee injury, that value should be greater to the Rams than anyone else.

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

December, 22, 2013

ST. LOUIS -- A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 23-13 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

What it means: The Rams had many opportunities to put the Bucs away early but couldn't get out of their own way. Still, the Rams found a way to win a game in which they didn't overwhelmingly claim the turnover battle. The defense dominated, and the offense was just good enough to overcome its offensive miscues.

The real takeaway here is the Rams have matched their win total from 2012, and we can probably safely say this team is better now than it was then. For a team that has long eyed 2014 as a potential breakout season, the importance of improvement can't be overstated.

Stock watch -- up: Offensive lineman Rodger Saffold -- Maybe more accurately, this should be "price up." The Rams lost left tackle Jake Long to a knee injury on their third offensive play of the game. Saffold moved over from right guard to left tackle and held up just fine. If Long's injury is serious, the price to retain Saffold might have just gone up. There aren't many linemen in the league who can play so many spots and perform like Saffold. The Rams already had plenty of reason to retain Saffold. Now it may be imperative.

Stock watch -- down: Red zone offense -- The Bucs entered the game eighth in the league in red zone scoring defense, a little known fact that has helped them stay close in many games. The Rams were 19th in scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Those numbers held Sunday and enabled Tampa Bay to keep it close. The Rams were 1-of-3 on their trips to the red zone, including a costly fumble on a strange quarterback draw call for Kellen Clemens. A game that easily could have been in hand early was far more interesting because of the Rams' inability to convert.

Defensive dominance: The Rams faced the league's worst offense in terms of yardage output, so this was a game they should have dominated. But the Rams haven't always done what they're supposed to do in 2013, especially on that side of the ball. They shut down the run game, racked up seven sacks and two fumble recoveries, and held the Bucs to a measly 170 yards of total offense on the day.

Robert Quinn led the way again with three sacks to set the franchise record for a season with 18.

What's next: The Rams wrap up the regular season with a trip to Seattle to enter the Seahawks' House of Horrors. The Rams under coach Jeff Fisher have played the Seahawks close in their three meetings, including the season finale last year in Seattle. The question will be whether Seattle coach Pete Carroll elects to play his starters if his team has the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage wrapped up. Either way, the Rams will be looking to finish .500 or better for the first time since 2006.

Mock draft: Matthews makes sense, but ...

December, 18, 2013
ST. LOUIS -- Everything about Todd McShay's selection of Texas A&M left tackle Jake Matthews for the St. Louis Rams in his initial 2014 mock draft Insider makes sense. But that doesn't make it a slam dunk.

Premier tackles can be hard to find, and although the Rams have their left tackle in Jake Long under contract for the next three years, the addition of a player such as Matthews would give Long a solid partner for the time being while also providing the Rams a long-term solution on the left side.

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M tackle Jake Matthews meets one of the Rams' needs and would be a smart first-round pick.
Joe Barksdale has played well at right tackle since stepping in for Rodger Saffold in Week 3, but it remains to be seen whether he's done enough to earn the job on a full-time basis. There are worse things than having a proven and reliable player like Barksdale as the third tackle moving forward.

In early projections, Matthews is regarded as the best tackle in the draft and a plug-and-play starter from day one. Given the Rams' primary needs -- offensive line, secondary and wide receiver -- Matthews likely represents the best match of need and value for a potential No. 2 overall draft choice.

Digging deeper, Matthews makes sense on a level beyond his talent and the Rams' needs. Rams coach Jeff Fisher has a history of passing on offensive linemen with his first-round picks, but if ever a player were to alter that, Matthews could be the one. Matthews is the son of Bruce Matthews, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman who played for Fisher with the Oilers/Titans from 1994 to 2001.

That doesn't guarantee anything, but it stands to reason that those ties could act as a tiebreaker if it comes down to it.

Of course, for all the reasons Matthews to the Rams is logical, there's one big X factor that would stand in the way: a freakish, 6-foot-6, 274-pounder who goes by the name of Jadeveon Clowney. South Carolina's superstar defensive end would be available at No. 2 in McShay's scenario, with Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater going to Houston at No. 1. Having Clowney on the board would present the Rams with a pair of options even more intriguing than Matthews.

The first would be to actually draft Clowney. While the Rams are loaded at defensive end, Fisher abides by the idea that you can never have too many pass-rushers. A line featuring the likes of Robert Quinn, Chris Long, William Hayes and Clowney would be an absolute nightmare for opponents. Would it be a long shot? Maybe, but never say never when it comes to Fisher and premium pass-rushers, especially a difference-maker the caliber of Clowney.

The other, more likely, option would be the Rams using Clowney as trade bait to bring back another haul of draft picks and move down in the draft. Fisher and general manager Les Snead have not been shy about pulling the trigger on trades in their two drafts together. Heck, they own this pick because of the deal that sent the No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft to Washington.

It's unlikely the Rams would get a return on par with what they got for that selection, but the market for Clowney or even the next-best quarterback likely would land them some more quality draft spots while not forcing them to move down too far.

In what amounts to the Rams' ideal world, they could make such a trade and still land a player such as Matthews or Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins. Either way, last year's trade with the Redskins figures to be the gift that keeps on giving in St. Louis.

Rams still plagued by penalties

December, 9, 2013
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Buried in a mountain of yellow flags, the St. Louis Rams found themselves searching for answers Sunday after accumulating 11 accepted penalties for the second consecutive week.

"We have really got to stop the dumb penalties and that's all on players," Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "Coach (Jeff Fisher) can say it until he's blue in the face, but that's on players to internally say ‘Hey, we have got to be smarter because we are just killing ourselves.'"

The extent to which the Rams are killing themselves can be seen in the many different ways of looking at how their continued penalty problems set them at a disadvantage in games.

Through Sunday's games, the Rams sit third in the NFL in total accepted penalties with 98, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Those penalties have cost the Rams 807 yards of field position, the sixth-highest number in the league.

Looking deeper into those numbers, the Rams have yielded a first down 38 times from a penalty. The defense has committed 45 infractions, most in the league. That also means all but 10 have resulted in an immediate first down for the offense.

C. Long
"It is a big deal," defensive end Chris Long said. "We need to be more disciplined, myself included. I've had some penalties this year. We play emotionally right on the edge and some of them are obviously up for debate whether they're legitimate or not but that's not my argument to make. It is an issue. There's a lot of those I'm sure we can control."

For the record, it's not just the defense drawing flags, the offense has 29 (26th most in the NFL) and the special teams has 24, which is still the most in the league.

After posting a season-low four penalties in a 21-point win against Chicago, the Rams hit their season high of 11 against San Francisco and followed with an encore against the Cardinals on Sunday.

While opponents have been racking up penalties as well, it's no coincidence that the Rams' net of 79 more penalty yards than opponents the past two weeks has led to a scoreboard differential of minus-30.

Against Arizona, the problems were especially pronounced for a defense that has featured plenty of clutching and grabbing in the secondary but also the occasional emotional outburst that leads to a 15-yard penalty such as end Robert Quinn's mistake for throwing his helmet.

The defense committed seven penalties against the Cardinals.
"That's the most difficult thing to overcome," linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. "We came in here at halftime and said no more penalties in the second half or at least no more jawing and stuff, let's get back to playing ball. Defensively I thought we played better in the second half but it hurts when you do that. When you have that many penalties you are extending drives, you are keeping the offense on the field and they are scoring points."

It's worth noting that officiating in 2013 has been spotty at best. ESPN Insider Mike Sando discussed that notion at length in his Monday morning column.

In Sunday's game, there was an unnecessary roughness penalty against Eugene Sims on a dead ball that hardly anyone in the building knew was dead at the time of the penalty. Instead of allowing common sense to take over, the penalty was enforced.

Despite the calls that have gone against them, there are plenty of teams around the league making similar arguments today.

And it's not like the Rams were the picture of discipline in 2012, either. They had 130 penalties last year, most in the league. That trend continued in this preseason when assurances were made that the problem wouldn't persist because the infractions were being committed by player who weren't going to be on the roster when the season began.

"Things go fast and things move fast," Laurinaitis said. "Sure there are bad calls but there are bad calls every game. You have got to be able to overcome them as a team and I just don't think we were able to overcome our calls today. We really hurt ourselves and I don't think we were able to put the fire out and overcome them. That's the frustrating thing."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams left tackle Jake Long has cleared the concussion protocol and looks poised to return Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.

After suffering the head injury last week against San Francisco, Long began the process required to return from the concussion soon after. He didn't practice Wednesday and was limited Thursday before taking part in Friday's practice at full speed. On the team's official injury report, Long is listed as probable for Sunday.

"I'm feeling great now and I'm ready to get back in," Long said Friday afternoon.

Long's impending return combined with the potential for normal starting right guard Harvey Dahl to get back in the mix could create some interesting offensive line permutations against the Cardinals. Dahl has been out with a knee injury, but practiced all week and is also listed as probable. That leaves something of a logjam on the offensive line given the success of Rodger Saffold at right guard in Dahl's stead.

The Rams could opt to rotate Saffold into multiple spots or potentially rotate Dahl in, but either way, they have some choices to make in terms of the offensive line for this one.

Elsewhere on the injury report, linebacker Daren Bates also received clearance from concussion protocol and is likely to return this week.

Here's the full Friday injury report:

Out: Center Scott Wells (leg)
Questionable: Cornerback Brandon McGee (foot)
Probable: Long (concussion), Bates (concussion), Dahl (knee), defensive end Eugene Sims (neck)

Rams' Jake Long makes progress

December, 5, 2013
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams got a little break from head coach Jeff Fisher when he gave them a "sleep in" Thursday, pushing back all meetings and practice for the day.

That meant a late afternoon practice ending early Thursday evening. Apparently, the later start time also was helpful in allowing some of the Rams recovering from injury to make positive progress. Heading up that list is left tackle Jake Long, who participated on a limited basis Thursday after sitting Wednesday as he goes through the concussion protocol.

Long still has obstacles to clear to return Sunday against Arizona but so far he seems to be following the same steps that three concussed Rams followed last week. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson, left guard Chris Williams and running back Zac Stacy returned from concussions after a week in which they did nothing Wednesday, were limited Thursday and then did everything in Friday's practice. Long has now done the first two but has the third and final piece of that puzzle to complete to get back against the Cardinals.

Linebacker Daren Bates is also attempting to return from a concussion and like Long was upgraded from not participating to limited Thursday.

Here's the full rundown of Thursday's injury report:

Did not participate: Center Scott Wells (leg)
Limited participation: Long, Bates, cornerback Brandon McGee (foot)
Full participation: Defensive end Eugene Sims (neck), guard Harvey Dahl (knee)

Of note for Arizona, quarterback Carson Palmer's status remains a bit tenuous after he was limited for a second day in a row with a right elbow injury. Receiver Michael Floyd (ankle) and running back Andre Ellington (knee) practiced on a limited basis after sitting out Wednesday.

Matchup breakdown: Rams-Niners

November, 30, 2013
ST. LOUIS -- Three individual matchups to keep an eye on as the St. Louis Rams take on the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.

Rams' front seven vs. Niners running back Frank Gore

Perhaps no individual player of the past decade has been more of a thorn in the side of the Rams than Gore. While the Rams have had their games where they’ve kept him in check, Gore seems to have a knack for finding just the right time to drive a stake through the Rams’ chances with a touchdown or big play.

In the first meeting, the Rams limited Gore for much of the first half until he took a fourth and 1 carry 34 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-3 San Francisco. That play effectively zapped the Rams of their energy and Gore went on to a big day, finishing with 153 yards on 20 carries.

The Rams' run defense has had its share of ups and downs in the games since, but aside from poor performances against Tennessee and Houston it has been much improved.

Gore's production has been limited a bit by lack of opportunities but it's possible San Francisco is trying to conserve him for the stretch drive. It's probably a safe bet to expect a heaping helping of Gore on Sunday.

"He's not getting the carries right now," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "He’s probably hoping to get more. I think they’ve gone, in the last four games, like 19, 18, 13, 13. They’re very effective in the running game and he’s still got a lot of ability.

“I would expect to see a lot of runs, yes.”

Rams left tackle Jake Long vs. Niners linebacker Aldon Smith

The Rams managed to miss Smith in the first meeting as he dealt with off-the-field issues and took a leave from the team.

But Smith returned in Week 10 against Carolina and has been working his way back into the mix every week since. Smith had two sacks last week against Washington and appears to be rounding back into form.

Contrary to what some might have said, Long was one of the few Rams who performed fairly well in the first meeting of the year against the Niners.

But the Rams have dramatically altered their offensive approach since that game, and Long has been quite good since they started operating out of a more power run heavy scheme.

The challenge will be greater this week with Smith on the other side. Long struggled mightily against Dallas' DeMarcus Ware in Week 3 and had some hiccups against Indianapolis’ Robert Mathis. The Niners’ 3-4 defense more closely resembles what the Colts do than Dallas, but in Smith, Long should face a similar challenge in terms of athleticism and speed off the edge.

Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens even joked this week that he wouldn’t mind if Long and the Rams got a little help from the holiday.

“If he’s taking his time (getting back up to speed), that’s fine,” Clemens said. “Maybe he has a little too much turkey on Thursday, that'd be just fine.”

Rams tight end Cory Harkey vs. Niners linebacker NaVorro Bowman

For all of the players who notched dominant performances in the Niners’ win the first time the two teams met, perhaps none imposed his will more than Bowman, San Francisco’s “other” inside linebacker, who might also be its best defensive player.

Bowman was all over the place in that first meeting even without running mate Patrick Willis there to work as his tag team partner. He finished the game with six tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a pass breakup but he was even more active than that line indicates.

"He's a veteran guy," Clemens said. "He can diagnose plays and they did a good job -- because (LB Patrick) Willis was out -- they did a good job of putting Bowman in the spot where he was going to be most effective. He knows where the ball’s going to go a lot of times. Willis is the same way. They’re very good players. They get their guys lined up. They get their guys in the right spot and make plays. We’ll have to account for them."

That most of Bowman’s pressure that came up the middle was especially disconcerting for the Rams. The onus of handling that pressure falls on any number of players, but Harkey might be one of the players the Rams need to step up the most.

Harkey has developed into the team’s ultimate hybrid, playing a lot of fullback in addition to inline tight end duties. He’s been a key cog in the running game and needs to be on point in the efforts to neutralize Bowman.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- You’d be hard-pressed to find an offensive lineman who prefers pass blocking to run blocking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rams-Bears: Matchup breakdown

November, 23, 2013
ST. LOUIS – A look at three individual matchups to watch in Sunday’s game between the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears.

Rams left tackle Jake Long vs. Bears defensive end Julius Peppers

A couple years ago this might have been one of the premiere individual battles you could find anywhere in the NFL. Make no mistake, Long and Peppers are still very good players but they might not be at the level they once were.

Still, this is one of the most important matchups in this game. Peppers’ combination of speed and athleticism remains even if the numbers aren’t jumping off the page as they once did.

“He’s a great player, day in and day out,” Long said. “He’s got such long arms, he’s got power, he’s got speed to take down the edge, so it’s a good battle to go up against him. I’m excited. It’s going to be fun.”

Through the first 10 games, Peppers has posted 29 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception returned for a touchdown.

Long has struggled against elite rushers this year, particularly with Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Ware, a player not unlike Peppers in terms of size and skill set. But Long has also been much better in the past month or so since the Rams switched to a more run-heavy attack.

If the Rams can get the run game going – an area Long can help jump start – it should allow for the Rams to keep Peppers off balance and Long to dictate the matchup.

Rams cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson vs. Bears receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall

There’s no receiver combination in the league more physically imposing than Jeffery and Marshall. That duo has caused nightmares for opposing defenses with its ability to outjump and outmuscle opposing corners for the ball.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Marshall has 64 catches for 828 yards and eight touchdowns this season while the 6-3, 216-pound Jeffery has 54 catches for 818 yards and three touchdowns.

There isn’t a cornerback duo in the league equipped to match Marshall and Jeffery in terms of sheer size.

“It’s a matchup issue,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “They’re very, very talented. Both quarterbacks Jay [Cutler], obviously was playing well before he went down, but Josh [McCown] does a really good job putting the ball up to them. They’ve got confidence. These guys can outjump and outreach. We’ve got a battle on our hands, but our corners … ‘Jenks’ is a leaper and ‘Tru’s' got length, so we’ll just see how it goes.”

At 5-10, 198 pounds, Jenkins is the smaller of the Rams’ options and must be on top of his game in terms of timing his leap. He’s had mixed success in those situations this year but hasn’t faced a challenge of this size just yet.

Johnson has improved in 2013 and at 6-2, 208 pounds is more suited to take on players like Marshall and Jeffery.

The Rams have been more aggressive in coverage in recent weeks, playing more press coverage at the line of scrimmage. That may be the best way to keep the Bears duo from winning jump balls. A good jam at the line of scrimmage can throw off timing and allow the Rams defensive line to get after McCown before he can get the ball down the field.

Rams punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein vs. Bears returner Devin Hester

Rams fans still have nightmares about Hester’s game in St. Louis in 2006 when he returned two kicks for touchdowns.

Much has changed in terms of Hester’s role since then as he no longer contributes much to the offense and has even been in the mix as a cornerback. But he remains Chicago’s primary returner with a strong kick return average of 28.23 yards and 13.25 yards per punt return to go with a touchdown.

“He’s not playing any offense, but he’s still very, very dangerous,” Fisher said. “I think, considering the fact that his role on offense has been reduced or limited, he’s going to be more inclined to bringing the ball out and has that desire to make plays. So, it makes him very dangerous and they’ve always had great confidence in him.”

The onus falls on Hekker and Zuerlein to help neutralize the player who is probably the most dangerous returner in league history.

Hekker has been as good as any punter in the league so far in 2013, leading the league in net punting with an average of 43.51 yards.

Zuerlein hasn’t yielded much in the way of returns, either, averaging 65.88 yards per kickoff, fifth most in the league. The coverage units have been good in this regard, too, as Rams opponents have started an average of 80.4 yards from the end zone on their drives, second furthest away in the league.

Rams lose Harvey Dahl to MCL injury

October, 30, 2013
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher announced Wednesday that starting right guard Harvey Dahl is going to be out for a bit with a medial collateral ligament injury in his left knee.

Fisher had said Tuesday that Dahl was having some additional tests done on the knee after he left Monday night's game against Seattle and did not return.

“The big thing with the report we got back from the doctor was that Harvey’s going to miss some time," Fisher said. "[I] don’t know, a couple weeks, perhaps, with an MCL.”

Shelley Smith replaced Dahl against the Seahawks, and will step in for Dahl while he's out. Smith has started six games in his career, including two in place of Dahl after he suffered a season-ending arm injury in 2012. So far this season, Smith has spent time alternating with guard Chris Williams on the left side.

On a short week with little recovery time, the Rams had a lengthy injury report Wednesday, though only Dahl's appears to be anything too serious.

“We have some guys that did not practice today that’ll probably practice tomorrow," Fisher said. "Some may not practice until Friday."

Here's the full rundown:

Did not participate: OT Jake Long (knee), RB Zac Stacy (foot), Dahl, RB Daryl Richardson (foot), C Scott Wells (thigh), WR Austin Pettis (thigh)

Limited: QB Kellen Clemens (right shoulder), S Darian Stewart (foot)

Full participation: RB Benny Cunningham (ankle)

Of note for the Tennessee Titans, safety Michael Griffin (quadriceps) and tackle David Stewart (shoulder) did not participate in Wednesday's practice.

Rams starting to form an identity

October, 13, 2013
HOUSTON – It was only 18 days ago that the St. Louis Rams were coming off two blowout losses and searching for anything that could remotely be defined as a team identity.

The minimum expectation for any team under the tutelage of coach Jeff Fisher is an innate toughness, the ability to deal with problems head on. Such toughness -- which seemed to build over the course of the 2012 season -- appeared to have vanished after the Sept. 26 drubbing at the hands of San Francisco.

A win against Jacksonville the following week showed that the Rams could do what they needed to against an inferior opponent. But a team personality that the Rams could lean on when times were tough still had not bubbled to the surface.

They aren’t there yet, the personality is still in the developmental stages, but for the first time in the 2013 season, the Rams gave a glimpse of what they hope the finished product will become with a resounding 38-13 win against the Houston Texans on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeDaren Bates
AP Photo/Eric GayThe Rams have come together since a pair of big losses and are showing a newfound toughness.
Now sitting at 3-3, the Rams seem to have dug themselves out of their early-season hole, and all things remain possible.

“It was important to us to speak life into our team, after the Thursday game [against the 49ers],” Fisher said. “I think we did that. We sent them off and gave them a little break and brought them back and just started over.”

On Sunday, the Rams showed plenty of signs that their toughness was back, that they could stand toe-to-toe with a physical team such as Houston and not back down. It served them well in 2012 against division foes Seattle and San Francisco, and it did again against the Texans.

Whether it was hard-nosed rookie running back Zac Stacy pushing the pile and picking up yards after contact or quarterback Sam Bradford standing tall in the pocket to take a hard hit from Houston linebacker Brooks Reed as he delivered a strike to tight end Jared Cook for 34 yards to set up a touchdown, the Rams refused to let Houston pummel them.

There was no better example of the attitude the Rams are looking to engender than the reaction of guard Harvey Dahl when Texans linebacker Brian Cushing jumped on Bradford after he slid for a 4-yard gain in the second quarter. Dahl immediately popped up and got in Cushing’s face, with not-so-pure intentions clearly on his mind, before tackle Jake Long restrained him from acquiring offsetting penalties.

It was a small thing in a game of big plays, but when forming an identity, it can be the small things that count the most.

“That’s what I love about Harvey, that’s what I love about all those guys upfront,” Bradford said. “I know they’ve got my back. To see something like that happen, I think that’s a big step for this team, a big step for this offense, and I couldn’t be happier or more proud to play for those guys up front.”

That same mentality was evident in the other phases of the game as well.

On special teams, the penalties mostly evaporated and the unit found a way to score one of the rarer touchdowns in football: a fumble return while covering a kickoff. The play happened because safety Rodney McLeod hit returner Keshawn Martin with reckless abandon and linebacker Daren Bates – fresh off running over a would-be blocker – was simply looking for something else to hit.

The Rams' defense struggled to stop Houston running back Arian Foster from ripping off big chunks of yards, but they managed to find ways to keep the Texans out of the end zone and hold them to field goals. They also created three more takeaways after grabbing three last week.

“We knew the key to this game was holding them out of the end zone and finding ways to get turnovers,” middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “We knew they were going to get yards. They are tough to defend. We just needed to find ways to keep them out of the end zone and get the ball back for our offense.”

The fact that the Rams are the league’s youngest team is not lost on anyone; they were last year as well. They don’t and won’t use it as an excuse for any failures, but after their successes they can point to it and realize there’s still plenty of growth to come.

After the loss to San Francisco, it was fair to wonder if the Rams’ season would be lost by the time they started to progress again. Fisher told his team that it was starting fresh, that the first four games of the season were nothing more than an extended preseason.

The message was received loud and clear, and now, though the team’s identity is still far from formed, that personality is starting to peek from behind the curtain.

“I believe if you want a head coach in a fistfight, I’ve got Jeff Fisher,” defensive end Chris Long said. “Even in a really tough time, and the last couple weeks have been really tough trying to find an identity as a team to try to fall back on like we thought we were building last year, having him as our head coach and knowing the guys that he’s brought in, the right type of people to help you dig out of this hole and to get to .500, the sky is the limit for us. It’s one game. Now, we’ve got to duplicate this next week.”




Sunday, 2/2