NFL Nation: Jerious Norwood

Camp Confidential: Atlanta Falcons

August, 2, 2012
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- As you first watch and listen to the Atlanta Falcons in training camp, you quickly realize something is different.

They’ve got a bunch of marquee players (Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner, John Abraham and Asante Samuel), but the buzz isn’t about them. Instead, most of the talk is about two new assistant coaches -- offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. That’s understandable, because a lot of people thought the Falcons needed some major changes after they got thumped by the New York Giants in the first round of last season’s playoffs.

With offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey (now head coach in Jacksonville) and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (now defensive coordinator at Auburn) leaving, Koetter and Nolan are big storylines. They might not have star power all by themselves, but watch and listen a little more and you’ll see the two new coaches have plenty of star power behind them.

“Mike Nolan and Dirk Koetter have done a fine job of bringing their respective systems to the table and working with (coach) Mike Smith and the rest of the staff and developing a system that is melding well with all of our coaching opinions,’’ general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “It’s a collaborative effort. It’s not just one stamp from one coordinator or the other. It’s been really interesting seeing everyone come together on the respective sides of the football to develop this new system.’’

In conversations with Smith and Dimitroff, each repeatedly emphasized that key players (the guys listed above and a few others) have had extensive input into what the Falcons will do on each side of the ball. As soon as league rules allowed coaches and players to get together in the offseason, Ryan and Koetter began meeting regularly and discussing what the playbook should look like.

“There are a lot of things we’ve done well over the last few years, and the first thing Dirk asked me was what I liked and what I felt most comfortable with,’’ Ryan said. “Then, we took the things I said and looked at our production in those situations and some of it was surprising because we didn’t have as much success as I would have thought in some of the things I said I was most comfortable with, and we had some pretty good success with some of the things I didn’t necessarily think I liked.

"We also watched a lot of film of Jacksonville (where Koetter was offensive coordinator last year), and we talked a lot about why they did certain things at certain times. There was a lot of very good give-and-take. He’s extremely open to input, which is great for players, and I know he sat down and did the same thing with some other guys. But he also has his own opinions and is firm on his own opinions, and I like that about him.’’

The Falcons have been very public about some of the ways their offense will change. They said they don’t want Turner having to endure a 300-carry season. They said they want to use the screen pass more, after almost completely ignoring it in recent years. And they’ve made it very clear that they want to improve their downfield passing game.

What the actual playbook looks like is likely to be a combination of what both Koetter and the Falcons have done in the past.

The changes on defense are likely to be similar because Nolan also has consulted extensively with his key players. Nolan has spent 14 years as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, seven of them in the 4-3 defense and seven in the 3-4. The Falcons will continue to use the 4-3 as their base, but there could be some 3-4 looks and principles.

“We just have a lot of different things that we can do,’’ outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “We’re going to be aggressive. We’re not being passive at all. Our mindset is that we want to go out there and dictate. We don’t want to adjust to what an offense is doing. We want to put it on them to make changes.’’

That would be a change from the VanGorder days, when the Falcons had some individual talent and a fair amount of overall success, but never really had an identity as a defense. The Falcons will be different on both sides of the ball.

“When you have new eyes, so to speak, you get a different view,’’ Smith said. “We may have had a view that this guy’s strengths are A, B and C and his weaknesses are D, E and F, and a new guy comes in and, because he’s coming from a different perspective, he sees it differently. I think that’s interesting in terms of evaluating your roster because you have two new sets of eyes.’’

Maybe the eyes will have it. Maybe the new coordinators and new playbooks will be enough to help the Falcons win a playoff game for the first time since Smith, Dimitroff and Ryan arrived in 2008.

THREE HOT ISSUES

Jacquizz Rodgers
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireSecond-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers could play a larger role in the running game this season.
1. The running game with Turner’s limit on carries. Despite all the talk about the downfield passing game, I don’t think the Falcons want to suddenly just abandon the running game. Turner still is powerful and can help open things up for the passing game. The Falcons just don’t want to wear him out. They’ve used Jason Snelling at times to give Turner some rest, and Snelling will be involved again this season. But I don’t think he’s really the guy the Falcons are looking at to pick up a big chunk of Turner’s carries.

I’m almost certain they have big plans for second-year pro Jacquizz Rodgers, and I think those plans might be a lot bigger than people realize. That’s largely because Rodgers is bigger than the Falcons realized when they drafted him last year.

“Jacquizz is not little,’’ Smith said. “He’s short, but he’s thick. People projected him to be a third-down back, a change-of-pace back. I think the guy has the skill set to play on all three downs. One of the things that stood out to me more than anything is his ability to pass protect. A lot of times, your change-of-pace back, you’ve got to get him the ball and not ask him to be a part of the protection. I don’t think that’s the case with Jacquizz. I think Jacquizz is an all-around back that can play on all three downs.’’

Translation: The Falcons aren’t looking for Rodgers to be what Jerious Norwood once was. They want him to be more like what Warrick Dunn once was.

2. Positive reinforcement. I don’t know if they were veiled shots at Mularkey, VanGorder and former middle linebacker and defensive leader Curtis Lofton, but I think it was significant that Smith and Dimitroff repeatedly used the word “positive’’ when they talked about the coaching styles of Koetter and Nolan, and as they talked about the leadership qualities Samuel brings, and what kind of leader they expect Weatherspoon to become.

“Sean is such a positive guy,’’ Smith said. “He is vocal, but he’s never negative in the way he speaks. He’s always very positive.’’

Samuel was described in the same way. So were Nolan and Koetter.

I never sensed a lot of negativity from Mularkey, VanGorder or Lofton, but I also never sensed any of them were rah-rah guys. It sure seems like Smith and Dimitroff feel their team needed more positive reinforcement.

3. The pass rush. For far too long, Atlanta’s pass rush has consisted of Abraham and almost nothing else. Maybe fellow defensive end Ray Edwards steps up after an injury-filled season that limited him to 3.5 sacks. Or maybe reserves Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann produce more. But I get the sense Nolan isn’t looking to have only defensive ends rush the passer.

“The way practice is going right now, we’re really excited about getting the linebackers more involved in rushing the passer,’’ Weatherspoon said. “Even in seven-on-seven, we’re going. That will help those guys out there on the edge because now offenses are going to have to account for us all day. It’ll be better because we’ll be able to keep them on their heels.’’

And it won’t be just the linebackers. Look for the cornerbacks and safeties to also get plenty of opportunities to blitz.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Matt Ryan
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireIs this the season Matt Ryan puts it all together and joins the echelon of elite quarterbacks?
Time to fly. A lot of great young quarterbacks have seemed to hit a wall early in their careers. Even Peyton Manning had a reputation for not being able to win the big one early in his career, and look how that’s worked out. I’m not saying Ryan is going to turn into the second coming of Manning, but I think this is the year in which Ryan finally can earn a firm spot in the category of elite quarterbacks.

The guy has done some very good things in his first four seasons and he’s worked very hard to bulk up this offseason, so that he’s not worn down when the playoffs roll around. Ryan has a good arm, excellent mental skills and a strong work ethic. But, for some reason, he just hasn’t been able to take the next step. Last year, the Falcons brought in Jones to give him another weapon to go with White and Gonzalez. This year, they brought in Koetter, who has obvious instructions to get the most out of Ryan’s skills.

When you keep doing things the right way, sooner or later it’s all bound to click.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The offensive line. This was a big problem spot last year. Ryan frequently didn’t have enough time to throw the deep ball. The Falcons got rid of offensive line coach Paul Boudreau and replaced him with Pat Hill, who has a nice history with offensive lines. They also used their second-round pick on guard Peter Konz.

But were those two moves enough to bring dramatic improvement up front? Should the Falcons really be sticking with Sam Baker at left tackle? And even if they want to give Baker another shot, shouldn’t they at least have brought in a viable alternative in case he struggles?

I know a lot of fans think the Falcons should have done more up front. But the Falcons think they’ve done enough. We’ll find out who is right soon enough.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Falcons lost a steady return man when Eric Weems left as a free agent. They’ve thrown out a lot of names, including some undrafted rookies, as candidates to take Weems’ spot as the punt and kickoff returner. But this is a team with a lot at stake this season, and I don’t see the Falcons handing either job to an untested rookie. I think they play it safe and go with third receiver Harry Douglas as their punt returner. He could also be an option on kickoff returns. If not, reserve cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Christopher Owens, as well as Rodgers, could be possibilities.
  • Ever since he was drafted in 2010, I’ve been expecting to see some flash from wide receiver Kerry Meier. Part of that is because the Atlanta coaches still talk about the former college quarterback as a guy that can play just about any position. Meier missed his rookie season with an injury and didn’t get a lot of playing time last year. But I did see him make a couple of nice catches in camp and also saw him getting work as the backup holder on field goals and extra points. Meier may have a tough time getting much playing time at wide receiver because the Falcons are so deep. But Koetter might be able to throw off some defenses by lining up Meier at H-back, fullback and tight end at various times.
  • I don’t want to raise hopes artificially, but I saw defensive tackle Peria Jerry working with the first-team defense while I was at camp. He seemed to show a little of the burst that made him a first-round pick in 2009. But Jerry tore up his knee early in his rookie season and has been reduced to a role player. He’s getting the first-team work because Corey Peters is temporarily sidelined with an injury. Peters’ starting job will be there when he gets back. But the Falcons would get a tremendous boost if Jerry can give them some production as a backup.
  • Veteran center Todd McClure has been getting all the first-team work early in camp. But I think the Falcons would be wise to take a long look at Joe Hawley and maybe even start him in a preseason game or two. McClure is 35, and there is no question he’s slowing down. I can see a scenario in which McClure wears out or gets hurt as the season goes on, and Hawley gets thrown into the starting lineup. The better long-term approach might be to go with Hawley as the starter and have McClure as a fallback option.
  • I don’t know what the Falcons are going to do about a No. 3 tight end after Gonzalez and Michael Palmer. They have six tight ends in camp. At least while I was there, the one that seemed to stand out was Tommy Gallarda. He looks like he can catch the ball a bit. More importantly, he’s 6-foot-5 and 259 pounds and looks like he can block.
  • A lot of fans are excited about third-round pick Lamar Holmes. They believe he could end up beating out Baker for the starting left tackle job in training camp. That’s not going to happen. The Falcons are going to give Baker every benefit of the doubt. If he’s injured or really struggles, they’ll turn to Will Svitek. Holmes is viewed as a project, and it could be a couple of years before he gets on the field.
  • Since the arrival of Samuel, the common assumption among many fans is that Dunta Robinson will be the nickelback and Samuel will start opposite Brent Grimes. That’s not as automatic as most think. Yes, Robinson will play the nickel position, lining up inside against slot receivers on passing downs. But that doesn’t mean Robinson won’t be starting and playing the outside on running downs. Samuel’s age, 31, is a concern, and the Falcons may not want to overuse him. They may start Robinson and, when they go to the nickel package, insert Samuel on the outside and slide Robinson inside.
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

Any team with Steven Jackson at running back should be set. But for the first time in too long, the Rams have promising young depth behind the only NFL running back riding a seven-year run of 1,000-yard rushing seasons.

Second-round choice Isaiah Pead provides badly needed speed and energy in a change-of-pace back. Seventh-round choice Daryl Richardson also impressed during organized team activities and minicamp practices.

The Rams had their reasons for employing veterans Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood as Jackson's backups last season. Reliability and experience meant more during a lockout-shortened offseason, particularly with the Rams' expectations surging some after posting a 7-9 record in 2010. Even this offseason, re-signing Williams or making a run at free agent Cedric Benson might have invited favorable reviews on those players' reputations.

Youth will be served under first-year coach Jeff Fisher. It should almost always be served at running back, anyway. Pead and Richardson offer speed and shiftiness. They give the Rams something they haven't had in the backfield: variety and depth with upside.

My first inclination was to profile the Rams' wide receivers for this piece. We've gone over that ground. Running back was another position with the potential to exceed expectations, at least from a depth standpoint. Now, it's up to the players to prove it.
Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch topped 1,200 yards rushing last season. Steven Jackson (1,145) and Beanie Wells (1,047) also exceeded 1,000 yards for NFC West teams.

With LaDainian Tomlinson set to retire, I've put together a chart showing how many 1,200-yard seasons 10 current and former NFC West backs would need to match him in career rushing yards (13,684).

For example, the St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson has 9,093 career yards. He would need 4,591 yards to catch Tomlinson. Jackson would need 3.8 seasons (61.2 games) to catch Tomlinson if Jackson were to average 1,200 yards per season from this point forward.

Tomlinson was pretty impressive, in other words.

2012 NFC West UFA scorecard: update

March, 16, 2012
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Michael Robinson's expected re-signing with the Seattle Seahawks would give the team a league-high four re-signings in the unrestricted free-agent market.

Red Bryant, Paul McQuistan and Heath Farwell previously re-signed.

Seattle and the other NFC West teams have added only two UFAs from other teams, however. I've put together UFA scorecards for each team in the division. Ages are in parenthesis. Here goes ...

Seattle Seahawks

UFA unsigned (age): defensive end Raheem Brock (33), defensive lineman Jimmy Wilkerson (31), safety Atari Bigby (30), quarterback Charlie Whitehurst (29), linebacker Leroy Hill (29), linebacker Matt McCoy (29), defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (28), linebacker David Hawthorne (26), running back Justin Forsett (26), linebacker David Vobora (25)

UFA re-signed: Farwell (30), Robinson (29), McQuistan (28), Bryant (27)

UFA added: none

UFA lost: tight end John Carlson (27)

Franchise player: none

Comment: Forsett has provided value, but the Seahawks will want to add a power back as depth behind Marshawn Lynch, who re-signed before free agency. Mike Tolbert, a free agent from the San Diego Chargers, could be worth a look if the running back market remains soft. Tolbert weighs 243 pounds, has 21 total touchdowns over the past two seasons, and caught 54 passes in 2012. The price would have to be right after Seattle committed to Lynch.

San Francisco 49ers

UFA unsigned: fullback Moran Norris (33), tight end Justin Peelle (33), safety Madieu Williams (30), quarterback Alex Smith (27), receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (26), guard Chilo Rachal (26), safety Reggie Smith (25)

UFA re-signed: cornerback Carlos Rogers (30), linebacker Tavares Gooden (27)

UFA added: none

UFA lost: guard Adam Snyder (30), linebacker Blake Costanzo (27), receiver Josh Morgan (26)

Franchise player: safety Dashon Goldson (27)

Comment: Randy Moss and potential addition Rock Cartwright do not appear in the listings because they were not unrestricted free agents. Re-signing Alex Smith and finding additional receiver help appear to be the top priorities. The 49ers are showing little outward urgency on either front, however.

Arizona Cardinals

UFA unsigned: defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday (36), kicker Jay Feely (35), long-snapper Mike Leach (35), outside linebacker Clark Haggans (35), outside linebacker Joey Porter (34), offensive lineman Floyd Womack (33), punter Dave Zastudil (33), tackle D'Anthony Batiste (29), safety Sean Considine (29), guard Deuce Lutui (28), safety Hamza Abdullah (28), tackle Brandon Keith (27), receiver Early Doucet (26)

UFA re-signed: none.

UFA added: Snyder (30)

UFA lost: cornerback Richard Marshall (27)

Franchise player: defensive end Calais Campbell (25)

Comment: The Cardinals have been in a tough spot. They would have faced criticism had they declined to pursue Peyton Manning. They could now face criticism for sacrificing the first week of free agency while waiting for Manning. The reality is that Arizona probably wasn't going to be all that aggressive in the market this offseason, anyway. It did hurt losing Marshall to the Miami Dolphins after coordinator Ray Horton called him the Cardinals' defensive MVP.

St. Louis Rams

UFA unsigned: cornerback Al Harris (37), quarterback A.J. Feeley (34), offensive lineman Tony Wragge (32), linebacker Brady Poppinga (32), punter Donnie Jones (31), offensive lineman Adam Goldberg (31), guard Jacob Bell (31), receiver Brandon Lloyd (30), cornerback Rod Hood (30), running back Cadillac Williams (29), defensive tackle Gary Gibson (29), receiver Mark Clayton (29), tackle Mark LeVoir (29), tight end Stephen Spach (29), safety James Butler (29), tight end Billy Bajema (29), quarterback Kellen Clemens (28), running back Jerious Norwood (28), linebacker Bryan Kehl (27), linebacker Chris Chamberlain (26), cornerback Justin King (24)

UFA re-signed: none

UFA added: cornerback Cortland Finnegan (28)

UFA lost: none

Franchise player: none

Comment: The Rams are not looking to re-sign many of their own free agents. They want to turn over the roster, and that is happening in a big way. The team's failure to secure playmaking help for quarterback Sam Bradford stands out as the biggest theme to this point. Finnegan was a welcome addition, but he isn't going to score many touchdowns.

The chart below shows a general overview.

First look at Rams' 2012 free agents

February, 7, 2012
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The St. Louis Rams have 20 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.

I'm not sure any of them qualify as players the Rams absolutely must bring back, particularly with a new coach and new schemes on both sides of the ball.

Receiver Brandon Lloyd would help fill a need, but at what price? Would he fit as well in a new offense after producing at disproportionate levels to this point when paired with former coordinator Josh McDaniels, now in New England?

Guard Jacob Bell played for new coach Jeff Fisher in Tennessee. He might have more value to the new staff than he had to the old one; McDaniels wanted more powerful guards, such as Harvey Dahl.

This item, like the previous one for Arizona, expands upon Brian McIntyre's lists. I've added columns for offensive and defensive snap counts from 2011, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information. The final column shows how much each player's previous contract averaged.

Update: Punter Donnie Jones is also an unrestricted free agent. His previous contracted averaged not quite $1.2 million.

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Receiver Danny Amendola, listed with the restricted free agents below, has not played since suffering an elbow injury in the 2011 season opener.

Final Word: NFC South

December, 23, 2011
12/23/11
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Bob Donnan/US PresswireMatt Ryan has thrown seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions in the Falcons' past two games.
Ryan's on fire: The Falcons appear to be getting hot at the right time. In the past six quarters, against the Panthers and Jaguars, Atlanta has outscored opponents 65-14. Quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown seven touchdowns and zero interceptions in those two games. Ryan also is playing for a spot in the record books. He is 42-18 in his career. Joe Flacco, who also entered the league in the 2008 draft, is 42-20. Each already has won more starts in his first four seasons than any quarterback since the Super Bowl era started in1966.

Monday Night Fever: The New Orleans Saints have all sorts of streaks going. They’ve clinched a playoff berth for the third straight season. They’ve won at least 11 games in each of the past three seasons. They’re on a six-game winning streak. That ties them with the Patriots for the longest active winning streak in the NFL. Finally, the Saints have the NFL’s longest active winning streak in “Monday Night Football’’ games. They’ve won six straight and haven’t lost since a 2008 game against Minnesota.

The “other’’ record: Understandably, most of the talk surrounding the Saints has to do with Drew Brees’ pursuit of Dan Marino’s record for passing yards in a season. But another member of the Saints is chasing history. That’s second-year tight end Jimmy Graham. He’s on pace for 99 catches and 1,338 receiving yards. The NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end is 1,290, set by San Diego’s Kellen Winslow in 1980. Graham also has had at least five catches in six straight games.

Making history: Even in a season that hasn’t been filled with wins, the Carolina Panthers have a chance to make some very positive history. Running back Jonathan Stewart needs to gain just 6 rushing yards to reach 600 for the season. Fellow running back DeAngelo Williams already has 717 yards and quarterback Cam Newton has 609 yards. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last two teams to have three 600-yard rushers in a season were the 2006 Falcons (Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood) and the 1978 Patriots (Sam Cunningham, Horace Ivory and Andy Johnson).

Losing at historic rate: Some unflattering notes on Tampa Bay’s eight-game losing streak. It’s the longest active streak in the NFL and the first time the Bucs have lost eight straight in a season since 1987. If the Bucs lose to the Panthers and make it nine straight, it will set off some more statistical bells. The Bucs haven’t lost nine straight in a single season since starting 0-9 in 1985.

Why Brooks' fine exceeded one for Cole

December, 9, 2011
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Two NFL fines against NFC West players from Week 13 raise questions in relation to previous ones.

@kylekinzie read my tweet about the $15,000 fine against the San Francisco 49ers' Ahmad Brooks' for roughing the passer and wondered why that fine doubled what the league assessed against Philadelphia's Trent Cole.

A couple reasons come to mind.

One, Brooks was previously fined $10,000 for a 2010 hit on Denver Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton. That fine, like this one, was for hitting a quarterback in the head/neck area. Fines escalate with each new offense. That explains why this fine against Brooks was so substantial. Two, the $7,500 fine against Cole was for throwing Seattle's Russell Okung to the ground, not for the season-ending injury Okung suffered in the process.

Separately, the league fined St. Louis Rams running back Jerious Norwood $7,500 for a chop block against the 49ers' Parys Haralson. The NFL had not fined the 49ers' Frank Gore for the chop block committed against Baltimore earlier in the season. Norwood's actions were more consistent with those the league wants to eliminate. Gore committed a chop block only in the technical sense; at no point did his actions put an opposing player at heightened risk.

Final Word: AFC West

November, 11, 2011
11/11/11
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 10:

[+] EnlargeKansas City's Matt Cassel
Dak Dillon/US PRESSWIREKansas City's Matt Cassel has completed 33 of 49 passes for 383 yards and two touchdowns on play-action plays.
Cassel excelling in play-action: The Broncos will have to try to find a way to limit Kansas City from executing play-action plays. Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel is eighth in the NFL in play-action passing, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Cassel has completed 33 of 49 passes (a solid 67.3 percent) for 383 yards and two touchdowns on play-action plays.

Denver’s receivers are not dynamic: The Chiefs’ secondary is not preparing for an overly explosive group of receivers. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Denver is 31st in the NFL in yards after the catch. Just 606 of its 1,515 receiving yards -- 40 percent -- have been gained after the catch.

No coaching drama: The Broncos-Chiefs first meeting of last year is most remembered for Kansas City coach Todd Haley pointing his finger at now-former Denver coach Josh McDaniels and refusing to shake his hand after a lopsided Denver win. I’d be shocked if Haley and new Denver coach John Fox engage in any shenanigans after Sunday’s game.

Can Denver continue QB-RB ground attack? The Broncos would love to have the same ground attack they enjoyed in Oakland last week. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Denver quarterback Tim Tebow and running back Willis McGahee became the first quarterback-running back combination to rush for 100-plus yards each since 2006, when Michael Vick (quarterback) and Jerious Norwood (running back) accomplished the feat. McGahee had 163 yards and Tebow had 117 yards.

Can Chiefs protect Arrowhead? If the Chiefs, 4-4, are going to stay in the AFC West race, they need to protect their home field better. Last week, the Chiefs were beaten, 31-3, by previously winless Miami at home. It was the second time this season that Kansas City lost at Arrowhead by at least 28 points. It’s been a recent problem. Kansas City has lost at home by at least 28 points four times since 2009. Before then, it had just one home loss by that many points in the history of Arrowhead Stadium.
Brandon Lloyd's arrival in St. Louis has coincided with Steven Jackson's fuller return to health over the past two weeks.

The offense has gone through quite a transition.

With an assist from Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information, I've put together a chart showing how playing time has changed for the Rams' skill players over the last two games.

Some of the changes are injury related (Jackson is healthy, Danny Amendola is on injured reserve). Some are roster related (Lloyd added, Mike Sims-Walker subtracted). Some are a little more complicated (Lance Kendricks seeing the field less frequently).

Of course, A.J. Feeley has taken over for the injured Sam Bradford at quarterback. The offensive line has changed since Adam Goldberg replaced an injured Jason Smith at right tackle.

A few quick thoughts:
  • Rookie Greg Salas is getting significantly more playing time. The team successfully targeted him on a fourth-and-2 play against New Orleans on Sunday. He appears to be gaining momentum. Fellow rookie wideout Austin Pettis has seen his playing time fall.
  • Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui has gained snaps at Kendricks' expense. Kendricks has sometimes struggled with dropped passes, but I haven't figured out for sure why his playing time has diminished. A healthier Hoomanwanui would account for some of the change. The team has run 10 snaps of a grouping with Lloyd, Jackson and all three tight ends.
  • Receiver Danario Alexander was inactive with a hamstring injury against New Orleans. Against Dallas, he played 13 snaps with a group featuring Lloyd, Jackson, Billy Bajema and Hoomanawanui. That five-man combination has played more snaps than any other featuring Lloyd. The runnerup, with 11 snaps, features Brandon Gibson, Kendricks and Salas instead of Bajema, Hoomanawanui and Alexander.
  • Again, this offense remains in transition. We can safely say Lloyd is the focal point at receiver. Salas and Hoomanawanui have been gaining, while Pettis and Kendricks have fallen back some. But the combinations will continue to evolve, particularly once Bradford returns from his high-ankle sprain. Bradford and Kendricks developed a quick connection at training camp.

The chart shows percentages of all offensive plays, whether or not a player was active, sorted by change from the first six weeks.

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Wrap-up: Eagles 31, Rams 13

September, 11, 2011
9/11/11
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Thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 31-13 defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles in their Week 1 matchup Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome:

What it means: The Rams have played only one game and they're already limping along with serious injury-related question marks. Losing to the Eagles wasn't a big surprise. Losing multiple starters to injury, including quarterback Sam Bradford (finger) and running back Steven Jackson (quadriceps), put a cloud over the early portion of this promising Rams season. Happiness is only one victory away in the NFL, but this was a tough opener for the Rams. They're a lesser team heading into Week 2 and possibly much lesser depending on how these injury situations play out. The rest of the NFC West has to feel better about its chances in the division.

What I liked: The Rams started quickly and gave the home crowd plenty to cheer about, creating the type of environment the team has sought to re-establish at home. The Rams were ready to play. They held Michael Vick to 42.3 percent completions (11-of-26) in the first half. That was about as good as the Rams could have hoped for, and they were rolling when Jackson broke a 47-yard touchdown run on the team's first offensive snap. Safety Quintin Mikell, making his Rams debut after signing from Philadelphia in free agency, came out swinging. He made a physical tackle on the perimeter early, hit Vick later in the same series and collected a sack as well. The Rams also got decent production from their running game.

What I didn't like: Bradford took far too much punishment. He weathered the hits as well as could be expected, and the Rams will not always be facing such a formidable opponent. But no quarterback will last long if subjected to the pounding Bradford took in this game. One sack led to a fumble and a 56-yard return for an Eagles touchdown. That was critical because the game was close into the fourth quarter. On defense, the Rams could not stop the run, a major disappointment after they tailored their offseason acquisitions around becoming tougher in that area. The Eagles topped 200 yards rushing, breaking open the game with LeSean McCoy's 49-yard scoring run.

Injuries of note: Injuries piled up for the Rams. Bradford (finger), Jackson (quadriceps), right tackle Jason Smith (ankle), receiver Danny Amendola (dislocated left elbow) and cornerback Ron Bartell (stinger) left the game. The Rams were already thin at cornerback. Losing Bartell made them paper thin. Mikell suffered from cramping. Jackson lasted only two carries, making it impossible to shake off concerns about his durability. Losing Jackson so early was a colossal disappointment for the Rams even though the team was better positioned to play without him after signing Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood in free agency. Losing Bradford late was even worse. Amendola's injury was a tough one as well. He's not a big-play threat, but he's exactly the type of receiver coordinator Josh McDaniels wants for his offense. Bartell's injury midway through the fourth quarter might have been the back breaker.

What's next: The Rams visit the New York Giants on "Monday Night Football" (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Camp Confidential: St. Louis Rams

August, 22, 2011
8/22/11
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Unfazed by the NFL lockout and energized by a new offense, Sam Bradford shatters perceptions of him as a young player scrambling to make up lost ground.

"We’re going to push the ball down the field," the St. Louis Rams' second-year quarterback says with some excitement. "I think we’re going to be aggressive."

Building steadily for the long term isn't the focus for Bradford and the Rams' new offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels. They're living week to week, play to play.

It's a mindset change for Bradford and any quarterback transitioning away from a West Coast offense. Kevin Kolb is going through a similar adjustment after leaving Philadelphia for Arizona. Instead of honing a timing-based system designed to out-execute any defense, they're learning to change up their plan, sometimes dramatically, for each opponent. And they are reveling in the possibilities.

"We are not going to just keep the same stuff in from week to week and say, 'This is what we run, stop it,'" Bradford says. "We could come in and we could have 30 new plays in on Wednesday and they’re all designed to attack what the defense’s weakness is."

McDaniels retained portions of the offense Bradford learned as a rookie last season. The terminology for personnel groupings is largely the same. McDaniels also inherited most of the staff from former coordinator Pat Shurmur. But this will not be a 1-2-3 progression passing game to the degree it was last season. Bradford said he likes the changes in part because the new offense more closely resembles the one he ran at Oklahoma.

"Last year in the West Coast, you started in the same place every time, and no matter what the coverage is, you just kind of work through it and find the open guy," Bradford said. "This year, we still have progression plays where it is like that, but it’s a lot more, 'OK, if the defense gives us 2, this is exactly what we want. We’re going to work off the 'Mike' and we’re going to high-low it and we’re going to go right there. I really like that."

In another big change, Bradford will take over responsibility for making all of the pass-protection calls at the line of scrimmage. He previously leaned on his offensive line to make adjustments based on where specific defenders were lining up. That means Bradford, still only 23, will carry a heavier mental burden against a formidable schedule. The Rams play the Eagles, New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints among their first seven opponents. They'll find out quickly whether Bradford is ready for the new responsibilities.

"Giving it all to me, it’s definitely a lot more, but at the same time, it almost makes it easier once you get everything figured out," he said, "because you know exactly what could happen with all the different scenarios."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesSteven Jackson's role will change in Josh McDaniels' one-back offense.
1. Steven Jackson's role. The Rams' Pro Bowl running back has been an outspoken advocate for running behind a fullback in a traditional two-back offense. Jackson realized life would change as McDaniels installed what will be primarily a one-back system. He expects a less regimented running game and less reliance on pounding the ball between the tackles. More of his receptions will come by design instead of on checkdowns, flares and the like.

"This offense allows me to open my whole repertoire of talent and put on display the things I can do outside the tackles," Jackson said. "You don’t have a fullback and I hate to lose Mike Karney, but at the same time, it allows me on a bigger stage to show my overall talent as a football player."

The Rams ran one-back offenses earlier in Jackson's career. He'll have to set up his blocks instead of relying on a fullback to clear the way. A basic play called "Big Jab" illustrates the differences. It's a strongside run masquerading as an inside-zone play to the weak side. The back must freeze the weakside linebacker with his eyes long enough for the offensive lineman to reach the second level.

"Things like that, you can’t pick up on a live game, of course, but on the coaches’ film, it makes a difference," Jackson said.

2. The thinking at wide receiver. The Rams ran out of viable receiving options during their forgettable Week 17 defeat at Seattle last season. With an ascending young quarterback in place and multiple Rams receivers coming off injuries, this offseason seemed like a good time for the organization to invest heavily in a dynamic receiver.

Sidney Rice was available, but the Rams didn't flinch when the division-rival Seahawks signed him to a five-year contract. The Rams signed Mike Sims-Walker to a one-year deal and went to camp with a mostly undistinguished group.

"A lot of people think we have to have some guy that runs 4.25 [in the 40-yard dash] and weighs 230 pounds and he’s 6-foot-5," McDaniels said. "You don’t have to have that guy. You can do it different ways and that is what we are going to try to do."

Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, Sims-Walker, Austin Pettis and Greg Salas are heavy favorites to earn roster spots if healthy. Mardy Gilyard, Donnie Avery and Danario Alexander are fighting for one or two roster spots. None commands double-team attention or special game planning from opposing defensive coordinators.

Tight ends factor heavily into the Rams' plans for the passing game. The team envisions a "12" personnel grouping with Lance Kendricks and Mike Hoomanawanui at tight end with two wideouts and Jackson in the backfield. If teams stick with the base defense, the Rams expect Kendricks and Hoomanawanui to create coverage mismatches. If teams choose to play nickel, they can prepare to see a 6-foot-3, 240-pound running back coming their way. Either tight end could shift to fullback for another dimension.

3. Seeking to upgrade run defense. The Rams shelled out top dollar for only one free agent this offseason. Safety Quintin Mikell, who broke into the NFL with Philadelphia when current Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo ran the Eagles' secondary, brings a physical presence. The Rams are paying him $6.5 million per year because Spagnuolo pretty much had to have him.

[+] EnlargeQuintin Mikell
AP Photo/Jeff CurryThe Rams hope Quintin Mikell (27) can help improve the team's tackling in the secondary.
"I don't know if anyone else would be able to feel this or see this, and I can't remember when he was a rookie if he already had these mannerisms, but he plays the game like Brian Dawkins," Spagnuolo said. "His mannerisms, the way he's a knee-bender. He plays fast, he loves the game, he's matured."

Sitting in his office following a recent practice, Spagnuolo cued up a 2004 play he shows annually to defensive backs. Green Bay, facing first-and-goal from the Philadelphia 7-yard line in a 2004 game at Philadelphia, hands off to Najeh Davenport around the right side. One of the Packers' big tight ends engages No. 46 for the Eagles at the line of scrimmage. Before this year, Spagnuolo never revealed No. 46?s identity to his Rams players. It’s Mikell, far lighter than his opponent, disengaging from the block and cutting down Davenport for a 1-yard loss."

"Boom, bang, bang, get out of here, and make the tackle," Spagnuolo says, taking on the voice of narrator. "I want to teach the smaller guys that size isn't a big deal, that it's about power and leverage, and if you run fast at 200 pounds and a 300-pounder is running slow, you can do that."

The Rams gave up too many long runs last season. They're expecting Mikell and fellow defensive newcomers Justin Bannan, Daniel Muir, Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga to upgrade that area.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Gibson's development at receiver. The Rams have felt better about their restraint at receiver in part because Gibson, 24, showed up for camp ready to build on a 53-catch 2010 season. Gibson and the tough, steady Amendola have been the two best receivers in camp.

"Gibby has had a great camp," Bradford said. "He looks faster than last year. He looks more confident."

Gibson's 83-yard touchdown reception against Tennessee in the Rams' preseason game Saturday night was more than twice as long as any pass he's caught in a regular-season game.

"His route running has been great, he’s picking up schemes, learning how to block and he’s more of a complete receiver than he was," said Mikell, Gibson's former teammate in Philadelphia.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Jerome Murphy's broken ankle. Bradley Fletcher and Ron Bartell arguably give St. Louis the best starting cornerback tandem in the division, at least until Patrick Peterson gets up to speed in Arizona. Depth is a concern after the Rams lost Murphy. Al Harris, 36, adds toughness and experience, but there isn't enough depth to comfortably weather another injury at the position. The Rams would be wise to monitor the waiver wire for cornerbacks and consider potential trade options as the regular season approaches.

[+] EnlargeHarvey Dahl
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonThe Rams expect Harvey Dahl to give the offensive line more of an edge.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Rams added veteran right guard Harvey Dahl to upgrade their talent and give their offensive line an edge. NFC West fans should remember Dahl. While with Atlanta, he enraged then-49ers coach Mike Singletary to such a degree that Singletary got into a verbal sparring match with Dahl during a game. The Rams would have reason to celebrate if Dahl's mean streak rubbed off on third-year right tackle Jason Smith.
  • Dahl's reputation as a brawler created an image in my mind of a player supplementing average talent with toughness. Dahl is better than that physically. He looks more like a tackle than a guard, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing about 305 pounds. He has thicker legs than Smith and has showed good athleticism in camp. McDaniels favors big guards.
  • Veteran newcomers have transformed the Rams from one of the NFL's youngest teams to one of the older ones, based on average age. The team took advantage of a flooded market in free agency. Most veterans signed one-year deals without salary-cap ramifications beyond this season. With so many veterans taking one-year deals around the league, a similar market could await next offseason. Teams like the Rams can have it both ways. They're relying most heavily on a young core featuring Bradford, Smith, Rodger Saffold, James Laurinaitis, Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Fletcher and others. But they also have veteran depth.
  • Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood are giving Jackson something he hasn't had in the recent past: veteran backups who command respect through their accomplishments. Jackson: "Yeah, coming here, they had their hands full. I think between my mentality on the field and how I felt as a player about the organization and what I would like to see, I think I kind of showed them in a way without saying it, 'Go fill the other areas of need and I’ll take care of the running back position. I can hold down the fort and when we feel comfortable enough, then go get another running back or two.' "
  • Laurinaitis is seeking to become more aggressive now that he has a fuller grasp of the defense entering his third season under Spagnuolo. ESPN credited him with four tackles for loss in 2009 and eight last season. Laurinaitis wants that number to climb. "We would rather have tough, physical play where you are attacking downhill than being assignment perfect every time," he said.
  • Long made an interesting observation about players the Rams have added in recent years. Several were coming off recent Super Bowl victories. Fred Robbins, Poppinga and Harris are three. Long: "I don’t think that’s an accident."
  • Quinn has a chance to play about 40 percent of the defensive snaps if all goes to plan. The Rams aren't counting on him for every-down production as long as veteran James Hall remains productive. Quinn couldn't have a better mentor. Hall, 34, still goes out to practice early for one-on-one work with retired defensive tackle La'Roi Glover.
  • Kendricks' addition through the draft raised questions in my mind about whether Hoomanawanui still figured prominently in the Rams' plans. He does. Bradford shot me an are-you-crazy look when I shared those thoughts with him at camp. "There is definitely a place for him," Bradford said.
  • Jackson's carries per game could fluctuate more in McDaniels' offense because so much of the plan hinges upon what the opposing defense offers. Jackson: "That is exactly what this will represent."

Wrapping up big day from Rams camp

August, 17, 2011
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- It takes only a few minutes with St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford to realize an offseason framed ominously by a lockout and offensive scheme change hasn't fazed him.

Bradford appears so much more comfortable, so much more confident, so much more prepared for what awaits him when the regular season gets going in 26 days.

"This year, I've got a year under my belt, I've seen different defenses, knowing what they can do in those defenses, understanding football," Bradford said Wednesday night. "If I had to learn this system last year, I think it really would have been a struggle because there is so much more put on the quarterback in this system."

I'll be expanding on Bradford's responsibilities, the Rams' new direction on offense, which players stand to benefit, the overall feel of the team and how veteran newcomers have supplemented the defense. I'll be staying in St. Louis through the team's preseason game Saturday night. Our "Camp Confidential" piece on the Rams is scheduled to run Monday.

Rookie receiver Austin Pettis caught my attention during red-zone drills Wednesday. The defense had been giving the No. 1 offense problems, batting away passes and even picking off Bradford on a deflection. But on the final play of the period, Bradford threw what might have been his highest-velocity strike of the day.

Pettis caught it, allowing the offense to finish strong. Earlier, Pettis caught a deep ball from Bradford behind the coverage.

After practice, Steven Jackson held court and offered thoughts on what veteran running backs Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood would offer him during games. The focus has been on how Williams and Norwood might give Jackson a few additional plays of rest. Jackson emphasized what they'll offer between possessions.

"I think they bring the ability of fresh young eyes that know and understand the game at the speed that it is right now," Jackson said. "So, years previous, I had younger guys where I had to actually come off the field and maybe mentor, tell them what I saw. Now, I can lean on those guys to be an extra coach on the sideline."

Wednesday was a huge gathering day, with interviews packed between practices. Lots to digest.

Reassessing Steven Jackson's role

August, 4, 2011
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Projecting Steven Jackson's role within the St. Louis Rams' offense became a little trickier once the team added two experienced backs in Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood.

The Rams had fewer viable options at the position in past seasons, forcing Jackson to carry a heavier load. Not that Jackson was complaining. He wanted to be on the field, and fans sometimes wanted him carrying the ball even more. But when the Rams did give Jackson a rest, and especially when they lost him to injury, backups such as Kenneth Darby, Keith Toston and Chris Ogbonnaya did not necessarily command respect from opposing defenses.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonCould Steven Jackson see his role change with the addition of Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood?
Jackson will still get the vast majority of touches among Rams running backs. Williams and Norwood have had injury problems in the past, but they should be fresher when called upon this season because Jackson will remain a focal point on offense. Williams started nine games in Tampa Bay last season, but he was best known as the Bucs' third-down back as LeGarrette Blount emerged. The speedier Norwood could factor on kickoff returns. He has also lined up as a slot receiver in years' past.

I suspect the Rams added Williams and Norwood primarily because they weren't comfortable with their other backups stepping into the lineup as starters if an injury sidelined Jackson for stretches. Williams has been an every-down back, so he could carry the load on early downs in a pinch. Norwood projects as a change-of-pace backup with special-teams value.

Jackson has averaged better than 1,300 yards rushing and 48 receptions over the past two seasons. He set a career high with 90 receptions in 2006. He wants a bigger role in the receiving game and thinks new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can help make that happen.

"That’s definitely part of my game that I've been missing the last couple of seasons," Jackson told reporters early in camp, before the team added Williams and Norwood. "I'm looking forward to having that challenge, proving to the rest of the league that I’m more than just a downhill, first- and second-down kind of running back. I think if anyone could help me re-establish myself as a franchise back, an all-around back, I think Josh will do that."

Since 2001, when McDaniels began his NFL coaching career with New England, his teams have produced 1,000-yard rushers only twice. Corey Dillon (1,635 yards) and Antowain Smith (1,157) both reached that mark with New England. Also during that time, Kevin Faulk owns the highest single-season receptions total for a running back with 58. He had 507 yards rushing that season. Faulk is the only running back with more than 37 receptions in a season for teams featuring McDaniels as a coach.

Of course, McDaniels has never worked with a back quite like Jackson.

This will be a storyline to follow all season for the Rams. Questions abound. Is Jackson declining and would he benefit from fewer carries? Will McDaniels funnel more of the offense through quarterback Sam Bradford? Will Williams or Norwood siphon off touches from Jackson?

What Cadillac Williams offers Rams

August, 3, 2011
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The St. Louis Rams rounded out their depth chart at running back by reaching agreement with veteran Cadillac Williams.

Williams joins the recently signed Jerious Norwood behind starter Steven Jackson. Adding Norwood seemed a little odd because the team still did not have a No. 2 power back. Williams fills that role. He is a hard runner and could give the Rams another physical presence in the backfield. Norwood adds more of a speed dimension when healthy.

Those last two words -- when healthy -- come up frequently in relation to Norwood and Williams. Norwood missed all but two games last season. Williams has not missed a game over the last two seasons. He missed 22 over the 2007 and 2008 seasons.

Williams started nine games for Tampa Bay last season, but the Bucs often limited his role to passing situations. Coach Raheem Morris lauded Williams for accepting his role in the best interests of the team. There will be no doubt about the hierarchy in St. Louis, where the depth chart at running back has long read, "Steven Jackson and then everyone else."

Williams, 29, suffered severe knee injuries during the 2007 and 2008 seasons. He has not averaged better than 3.9 yards per carry in a season since 2005, his rookie year.

The Rams have been seeking depth at running back, but it's unclear how much of the workload they'll lift from Jackson's shoulders. Jackson has 907 carries over the past three seasons, trailing only Adrian Peterson (960) and Chris Johnson (925). He has 1,490 carries since 2006, most in the league.

Evening links around NFC South

August, 2, 2011
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- I've spent the day watching the Carolina Panthers practice and doing interviews. Now, it's time to catch up on the headlines from around the entire NFC South.
  • Former Atlanta running back Jerious Norwood agreed to terms with the Rams and he’s not the only former NFC South runner who could end up in St. Louis. Jim Thomas reports, Tampa Bay free agent Cadillac Williams remains on the Rams’ radar. The Bucs have said they would like to bring Williams back. But, presumably, that’s only at the right price and only if they can’t find someone better. According to league sources, the Bucs made overtures toward Darren Sproles before he agreed to terms with New Orleans.
  • The Saints agreed to terms on a contract that will keep tight end David Thomas with the team. This one’s significant. Although second-year pro Jimmy Graham figures to be the main pass-catching tight end, Thomas is an all-around tight end, who can contribute as a blocker and receiver.
  • D. Orlando Ledbetter lays out the scenario on Atlanta restricted free-agent cornerback Brent Grimes, who has yet to sign his first-round tender. Basically, the Falcons have the right to match any offer Grimes receives and would receive a first-round pick as compensation if he leaves. The Falcons also could sign Grimes to a long-term contract.
  • Stephen Holder supplies a refresher course on the rules of safety Tanard Jackson’s suspension. He’s not eligible for reinstatement until Sept. 22 and cannot practice with the Bucs during training camp. Jackson was in the final year of his contract when he was suspended last year for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. As a result of that, the remainder of his contract rolled over to this year and the Bucs still have his rights. In the meantime, Tampa Bay appears content to open the season with Sean Jones and Cody Grimm as the starting safeties.

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