St. Louis Rams: Cory Harkey

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- With the NFL draft and free agency complete, the St. Louis Rams' 53-man roster will likely come mostly from the players already on the team.

With organized team activities (OTAs) less than a week away, we take a look at where each position stands heading into next week. The next in the series continues today by examining the tight ends.

Who returns: Jared Cook, Lance Kendricks, Cory Harkey, Justice Cunningham

Who is new: Alex Bayer, Mason Brodine

Who is gone: Mike McNeill

Projected starters: Cook, Harkey (when team uses two-back sets)

Pending competition: The Rams found roles for their top three tight ends in 2013 with Cook carrying the water as the primary pass-catching option, Harkey acting as a primary blocker who also lined up as a de facto fullback and Kendricks doing a little bit of both. All three should remain in those roles again this year with expectations increased across the board upon the return of starting quarterback Sam Bradford. The most likely competition to develop will for a fourth spot on the roster. The Rams have high hopes for Cunningham, whom they coveted before landing him late in the season from Indianapolis. Brodine is attempting to transition from defensive end and would be a prime candidate to handle blocking duties because of his size but will need to prove capable of making the switch first.

Outlook: The Rams will look to Cook as one of Bradford's primary receivers in hopes that another year together can allow Cook to deliver on the expectations that came with his 2013 free-agent contract. Cook still set franchise records for production from a tight end but he'll seek more consistency in Year 2. Harkey was a pleasant surprise last year as he emerged as a solid blocker inline but also out of the backfield. He even contributed as a pass-catcher on occasion. Kendricks got lost in the mix with the other two playing so much but still offers versatility and was productive in the red zone, scoring four touchdowns. Cunningham could be a surprise as a replacement for McNeill and does bring some skills in the passing game. Overall, this is a steady if unspectacular group with plenty of variety.

Rams draft preview: Tight end

April, 29, 2014
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The NFL draft is set to begin May 8 and the St. Louis Rams hold 12 picks in this year's selection process. For the next week and a half, we'll take a look at a different position every day with what the Rams have in place at a position, what they need, when they might address it and some possible fits.

We continue the countdown with a look at tight ends.

In place: Jared Cook, Lance Kendricks, Cory Harkey, Justice Cunningham

What's needed: The Rams invested heavily in the position in 2013 free agency when they handed a lucrative contract to Cook. He didn't meet the lofty preseason expectations he created but was still the most productive tight end in franchise history. He should be even better with a full season of Sam Bradford throwing him the ball.

Harkey is the de facto fullback and designated blocker while Kendricks does a little bit of everything. Cunningham was a late-season pickup but one the Rams eyed all year and could well make the roster.

With that quartet in place, tight end is one of the few positions on the team where there's no obvious move to make in terms of adding a piece. The Rams lost Mike McNeill to Carolina in free agency but have high hopes for Cunningham. Perhaps they'd take a look at a tight end in the late rounds with one of their compensatory picks as a possible eventual Kendricks replacement. Kendricks is scheduled for unrestricted free agency after 2014.

Possible fits: North Carolina's Eric Ebron is the top prospect in the draft but probably a bit too repetitive with Cook for the Rams to consider early in the first round where he is expected to go. It's a solid tight end class later in the first and into the second round with players like Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Texas Tech's Jace Amaro, among others. Some late-round options that could be appealing include Tennessee State's A.C. Leonard, Missouri Western's Reggie Jordan, Massachusetts' Rob Blanchflower and USC's Xavier Grimble.

Verdict: Unless the Rams see a great value with a tight end in the late rounds, the guess here is that this position won't be addressed in the draft. The Rams do need to add a few bodies at tight end to get through training camp and the preseason but they could probably do that without having to use a draft pick. They do have 12 picks and if they keep all of those choices or add more through trade, maybe the odds of drafting a tight end increase. Either way, any significant additions here would come as a bit of a surprise.
The free-agent market is scheduled to begin March 11 and teams may begin negotiations with those poised to hit the market beginning March 8. We'll countdown to that with a position-by-position look at what the Rams have in place, who is set to hit the market, what they might need and who might fit the bill.

In place: The Rams spent big money last offseason to bring tight end Jared Cook to St. Louis from Tennessee. Although technically listed as a tight end, Cook was the de facto replacement for Danny Amendola as a super sized slot receiver.

Lance Kendricks and Cory Harkey remain under the team's control for 2014 and join Cook as one of the groups where the Rams seem most settled heading into the offseason.

Pending free agents: Mike McNeill (restricted)

What’s needed: At first glance, the Rams seem to be pretty well set at tight end with the three under contract each bringing a different flavor to the table. Cook will continue as the primary pass receiving threat from the position while Harkey handles in line blocking and fullback duties and Kendricks does a little bit of everything.

However, the big picture beyond 2014 is a little more up in the air. Kendricks is scheduled for unrestricted free agency after 2014 and Harkey will be restricted. McNeill is a favorite of head coach Jeff Fisher and the Rams could likely get him back at the lowest tender number.

Tight end is still far from a pressing need going into the offseason but if the right opportunity presents itself, it's something that could at least earn a second look.

Possible fits: The biggest free agent prize of all is New Orleans' Jimmy Graham but the Rams obviously won't be in that market. Instead, if the Rams wanted to make an addition here it would likely be from the bargain bin. Matthew Mulligan, who was with the Rams in 2012 as a blocking specialist is the type of player who would fit that bill but the Rams replaced him last year and seemed content with Harkey in that job.

Verdict: I don't expect the Rams to make any free agent additions at this position with the possible exception of retaining McNeill on a low tender as a restricted free agent.

Rams-Buccaneers study session: Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rams-Saints study session: Offense

December, 17, 2013
12/17/13
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ST. LOUIS – Some thoughts and observations on the St. Louis Rams’ 27-16 win against the New Orleans Saints, after reviewing the All-22 film.

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

Matchup breakdown: Rams-Niners

November, 30, 2013
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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

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.”

Long
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.

Smith
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.”

Harkey
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.

Bowman
"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.
HarkeyPat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsAs Cory Harkey's role as a blocker has expanded, the Rams' running game has taken off.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- It is NFL custom for successful running backs to take care of the offensive linemen, tight ends and fullbacks who open holes for them during the course of the season.

But what happens if the two backs you have created so much space for are both rookies? Taking it further, what if one is a fifth-round pick and the other an undrafted free agent?

Such is the position of Rams tight end/fullback Cory Harkey.

“We haven’t been out to eat yet but we’ve been talking about it,” Harkey said, laughing. “We don’t get on them that much about it.”

If the Rams running game continues rolling like it has, maybe it’d be best if Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham came up with a creative way to say thank you, with Harkey at the top of the gift-giving list.

Perhaps lost in the mix of the Rams’ revamped rushing attack is the revelation that Harkey has been since he began playing much more. Sure, the Rams installed Stacy as the starter after the Week 4 debacle against San Francisco but Harkey also became a far more integral cog in the attack in the immediate aftermath of that game as well.

Through the first four weeks, Harkey played a grand total of 11 snaps, mostly at tight end while the Rams pursued packages with more receivers and fewer tight ends.

After coach Jeff Fisher decided his offense needed a new direction, one in which the running game would become more of a focal point, he also decided that one of the directions to take would be directly behind the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Harkey.

Of course, for that to happen, Harkey would have to become more versatile than his usual role as an inline blocker at tight end. Fisher and tight ends coach Rob Boras had Harkey doing some experimental work at fullback during the spring and summer as Lance Kendricks missed time with an injury.

Harkey’s task became turning those practice repetitions at fullback into game-time production, something he hadn’t done since his first two years at UCLA. He turned to fellow tight ends such as Kendricks and Mike McNeill, players who have experience doing a little bit of everything, for advice on how to become a more well-rounded player.

“Coach talked to me before all this happened about me doing some stuff out of the backfield but I want the team to be good, I want to be good, I want to be successful,” Harkey said. “So I knew I was going to do whatever I can to help this team win. This has been that role for me.”

That role has continued to expand every week, as Harkey grows more and more comfortable in his new surroundings. He played 38 snaps against Jacksonville just a week after the Rams decided to rev up the running game. In the seven games since that San Francisco loss, Harkey has averaged almost 31 snaps per game.

[+] EnlargeZac Stacy and Cory Harkey
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonCory Harkey, right, has helped pave the way for Zac Stacy's breakout rookie season.
Harkey has still done some work attached to the line of scrimmage as a tight end but he can regularly be seen leading Stacy or Cunningham through the hole and instigating head-on collisions with linebackers and defensive backs. He’s even chipped in six catches for 53 yards and a touchdown though he’s also responsible for three drops.

Adjusting to moving in space and covering up defenders remains a work in progress but evidence of Harkey’s growth was on display last week against Chicago.

Witness Harkey’s big block on Chicago linebacker James Anderson to clear Stacy for an 11-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage. Or Harkey taking on and locking up Bears end Shea McClellin on the edge to lead Stacy for a 35-yard run.

“For me it’s just that and you have got to stay low every play, get a good push on guys,” Harkey said. “You are going against guys who are a little bit more athletic and also strong and big so just having good leverage, good knee bend and being able to bring some pop.

“I’m getting used to it. I think it’s been a good place for me. I am still trying to do everything, in-line blocking and everything. I think they like what I can do back there so it’s been good.”

Indeed the Rams are quite pleased with what Harkey is bringing to the table both in terms of production and intangibles.

“Cory’s done a great job,” Fisher said. “He stepped up when Lance was down. He’s doing a lot of different things. He’s lining up at the tight end position. He’s our move guy at fullback, and he’s really got a good sense for that and feel for that as far as attacking linebackers and DBs.”

Much like his thankless position on the field, Harkey also doesn’t get much credit for what he brings to the huddle and locker room, either. The soft-spoken Harkey is always polite and humble in interviews but never strikes you as a fiery leader type.

Quarterback Kellen Clemens said Harkey is actually a bit of a sparkplug for the offense.

“I love Cory Harkey,” Clemens said. “I absolutely do. He’s very versatile. He’s very smart. He’s a very hard worker. You love to play with guys like Cory Harkey. The other thing that he does that I think goes unnoticed sometimes is he brings a lot of energy. He’s kind of a pump-up guy sometimes. He has a very, very unique role on this football team and he fills it and we’re very glad to have him.”

In some ways, Harkey fills a unique but evolving role in the NFL at large. True fullbacks have been headed toward extinction for some time but more and more teams are looking for tight ends with the versatility to do both. Kendricks did a lot of it last year and he still does but Harkey has joined him in their many movements.

Although it’s taken some getting used to and Harkey is still a ways from having mastered the position, he’s got the first requirement of playing fullback down, for he really enjoys high speed collisions.

“It’s pretty fun,” Harkey said. “I like it. I think some of the tight ends will agree that I kind of like that action so it’s good.”

Rams-Bears study session: Offense

November, 26, 2013
11/26/13
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ST. LOUIS -- A look back at the St. Louis Rams' 42-21 win against the Chicago Bears after reviewing the All-22 film.

Big play: Rams receiver Tavon Austin runs 65 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead on the third offensive play of the game.

Austin
The Rams lined up with tight end Lance Kendricks at fullback offset left, receivers Austin Pettis and tight end Jared Cook bunched left in the slot. Receiver Chris Givens lined up wide right with Austin in the slot and quarterback Kellen Clemens under center with no running back.

The Bears lined up with four down linemen, all three linebackers in the box, with a cornerback up near the line of scrimmage on the receivers bunched left. Cornerback Tim Jennings started 3 yards off of Givens to the right with two safeties playing deep.

Before the snap, Austin motioned into the backfield as linebacker James Anderson creeped to the right a couple steps. At the snap, the Rams' offensive line fired off blocking to their left as Kendricks came across the formation into the right flat. Bears defensive end Shea McClellin and Anderson bit hard as Austin took the ball from Clemens quickly and pivoted back right with Kendricks in front. Kendricks got in the way of Jennings to shield him away from Austin. The key play came from Givens, who took on incoming safety Chris Conte. Givens took out Conte and McClellin with one block as Austin ran between the two blocks.

At Chicago's 45, Pettis squared up a perfect block on Bears linebacker Khaseem Greene to wipe out the last real threat. Austin's speed took care of the rest to give the Rams a lead they would not relinquish.

Hidden play: Quarterback Kellen Clemens hits tight end Jared Cook for 29 yards to Chicago's 30 on first and 20 from Rams' 41 with the Rams up 27-21 and 5:30 to go in game.

The Rams lined up with a receiver split wide left, a receiver split wide right, two tight ends bunched right attached at the line, Benny Cunningham at running back and Clemens under center.

The Bears came out with two corners playing off coverage, three linebackers in the box, four down linemen and two high safeties.

Before the snap, Cook motioned left just off the line of scrimmage but attached. Clemens took the snap and faked a handoff to Cunningham. The Bears rushed four but got no pressure as the Rams got strong blocks on the edge from Kendricks against McClellin and left tackle Jake Long against Julius Peppers.

Cook ran down the seam untouched with Anderson on him at the beginning but with no contact at the line, Cook wasted no time getting behind him. It appeared the Bears were supposed to be in basic Cover 2 but middle linebacker Jonathan Bostic never dropped into the middle deep of the field. Cook got in between the linebackers and the safeties. Clemens locked onto Cook right away with Givens and Austin running deep down sidelines. Clemens stepped up in the pocket and fired a strike for a big gain and a first down after a costly penalty.

It was the only pass of the Rams' final touchdown drive but it was a big one to help set up Cunningham's 9-yard touchdown run.

Other observations:
  • When a team rushes for 258 yards, 213 of those before contact, it's pretty clear what's happening. What happened in this one was a thoroughly dominant performance by the Rams offensive line. The Rams' front five has really taken to the run-heavy approach and it was especially evident in this one.
  • Much of that rushing success has been directed to the left side where Long has been on a roll for the better part of the past six weeks or so. Long set the tone early, crashing to the second level against Greene and opening a big hole for Stacy on the first play from scrimmage. He also controlled Peppers all day. I noted just two times when Peppers seemed to register any semblance of a victory against Long. He had no sacks.
  • Rodger Saffold was every bit as impressive his second time out at right guard as he was the first. The opinion that he could be an elite guard looks like it's panning out in the small sample size we have. Will be interesting to see how he fares against the Niners this week.
  • It bears another mention: The work of the Rams receivers and tight ends blocking is night and day from early in the season. Cory Harkey, in particular, caught my eye in this one. He's lining up all over the place and opening huge holes in the run game, especially when he steps into the modified fullback role.
  • While the blocking set the tone, Zac Stacy and Cunningham also deserve credit for their work. Both showed good patience as the holes opened and then good burst through those holes. Cunningham clearly has a little more juice than Stacy but that's OK because it allows the Rams to have two backs of similar stature with different styles. Easier to change pace that way.
  • It was a good day for offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Obviously, his job is much easier when the running game is working but he had a nice rhythm calling plays and had excellent designs for plays.
  • Speaking of which, how about Austin's touchdown run? You would be hard pressed to find a coach willing to draw up a play which actually calls for a runner to stop his motion and reverse field but it speaks to Austin's speed and athleticism that not only did the Rams feel comfortable designing the play but then to have it work so well. That's the game-changing ability that was advertised with Austin.
  • We'd be remiss not to mention just how bad the Bears' run defense is and was in this one. Linebackers appeared out of position on a regular basis, McClellin overpursued almost everything and both safeties, especially Conte, struggled mightily in run support.
  • Clemens had some really rough moments, including one pass that appeared to slip out of his hand and go directly into the ground. But he's doing a couple of things that are allowing him to have success. Although he's not completing many passes, he's making the ones he does hit count. He's not afraid to push the ball down the field and so when he does throw an accurate ball that hits, it goes for a big gain. Part of that is his ability to feel pressure, climb the pocket and deliver in the face of pressure. He'll never be the type to string together six or seven completions but so long as he can make the one or two he does hit count like he has recently, he'll be just fine.
  • Rough go for Givens aside from his big block to spring Austin. He missed a couple of catchable balls and couldn't get his feet down on a deep pass down the sidelines. That's a play that has to be made.
  • Have a feeling Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce were smiling somewhere on Stedman Bailey's 19-yard catch on a well-run dig route. That route was the bread and butter of Holt and Bruce for many years.
  • Cook has been a bit more involved since Clemens took over. The Bears made the mistake of allowing him a free release multiple times and Cook took advantage.

Rams-Jaguars study session: Offense

October, 8, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A look back at the St. Louis Rams' 34-20 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars after reviewing the All-22 film.

Big Play: Rams quarterback Sam Bradford hits receiver Austin Pettis for a 31-yard touchdown to seal the victory.

[+] EnlargeAustin Pettis
Scott Kane-USA TODAY SportsAustin Pettis hauled in a perfect pass from Sam Bradford to seal the Rams' win over the Jaguars.
The Rams lined up in '21' personnel with two receivers, one tight end and two running backs. Jacksonville had four linemen and a linebacker at the line of scrimmage with a single high safety in the form of Josh Evans.

At the snap, Bradford faked a handoff to running back Daryl Richardson with fullback Cory Harkey sliding down from the left side of the formation to the right to pick up a blitz. Richardson also picked up another blitzing linebacker to create time for Bradford.

Pettis got a free release against cornerback Will Blackmon and did a small stutter step before accelerating to Blackmon's outside shoulder. Pettis quickly gained a step on Blackmon and Bradford dropped a perfect ball over his left shoulder for the touchdown.

Bradford's throw was pretty close to perfect and Pettis did a nice job of hauling it in but extra credit goes to Richardson and Harkey for picking up the blitz as well as they did.

Hidden Play: Bradford narrowly misses a deep ball to receiver Chris Givens.

With a 24-13 lead near the end of the third quarter, the Rams had a golden chance to hit a big play to effectively put the Jaguars away but just missed it when Bradford and Givens couldn't connect.

In '12' personnel with two receivers split right, two tight ends stacked left and a running back to the left in the backfield, the Rams lined up against Jacksonville's defense in its base 4-3 alignment with one cornerback on the left side and two high safeties.

At the snap, Givens got a free release to the inside against Blackmon, who presumably was to have safety help over the top. Jacksonville safety Johnathan Cyprien, who otherwise played well, got lost on the play and took a step toward the line as Givens raced down the field to the post.

Bradford didn't see Givens right away and the pocket closed in around him from the left side with end Tyson Alualu and tackle Sen'Derrick Marks providing pressure. Bradford took a couple of little hops before letting it go and as he threw, the pressure appeared to force him to take something off the throw.

By the time the ball arrived, Blackmon was able to recover and time it up to break up the pass.

Other observations:
  • Bradford had a couple of other issues with the pocket, including a third-quarter play where he didn't send the pressure quick enough and tripped over left tackle Jake Long's foot for a sack.
  • Tight end Lance Kendricks isn't completely healthy but he looked much better against the Jaguars. He was solid in his blocking and made some plays in the passing game. He was on the field a lot, too, playing 66 snaps.
  • Speaking of tight ends playing a lot, the Rams are using Harkey more and more. He played more snaps than Jared Cook and had good moments blocking. He also had a drop in the passing game, which won't help get more looks there.
  • Harkey also provided a glimpse into the world of working with so many young skill players on offense. During one sequence in the fourth quarter, Bradford signaled for Harkey to go in motion three times before he turned around to tell him to move.
  • Receiver Brian Quick also continues to work his way into the mix more. He played more snaps than Tavon Austin and had a couple of nice grabs. On one, he saw the pocket collapse around Bradford and did a good job of coming back to the ball, making himself available and hauling in the catch for a 17-yard gain.
  • Shelley Smith played about a third of the snaps at left guard and Chris Williams handled the rest. There didn't seem to be much dropoff between the two. Both were solid in the run game and just OK in pass protection. As I mentioned this morning, it seems inserting Smith is intended to have him ready in case a tackle gets hurt and Williams has to shift outside.
  • Richardson still doesn't look healthy to me. He ran a little better in this one but he looks a bit tentative hitting the hole, not at all like the guy we saw last year. Also, plays designed to throw him the ball just don't seem to do much. It's clearly not his forte.
  • Obviously the Rams are trying to get Tavon Austin going in the pass game but Bradford missed a golden opportunity for a touchdown to Cook on a play where Austin dropped a short pass at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Defenses throw a lot of attention at Austin on plays like that and it seems to allow chances to hit elsewhere.
  • Nice power running from back Benny Cunningham late when Zac Stacy was off the field with a rib injury.
  • Stacy was as expected. Powerful, breaking tackles, all the things you could see live showed up on film. He also did a nice job when asked to pass protect.
  • Bradford was mostly solid for the day. He did miss a couple of opportunities but he took care of the ball and didn't make any huge glaring mistakes.
  • The offensive lineman who looked the best to my eyes? Right tackle Joe Barksdale. He was solid in all aspects but caught my eye a couple of times in the run game, especially. He appeared to give up a sack but that was about it in terms of anything from the man across from him.

Morning Ram-blings: NFC Best?

September, 14, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Over at Grantland, Bill Barnwell took a deep look at the evolution of the NFC West, offering a timeline of the events that have taken the division from one that was won by a 7-9 team as recently as 2010 to one that now boasts two Super Bowl favorites in San Francisco and Seattle and two up-and-coming teams in the Rams and Arizona.

It's hard not to agree with the sentiment that the NFC West is now the best division in football, or at least one that should garner such consideration. It's been something of an amazing turnaround given that fans and media alike used to derisively refer to it as the "NFC Worst."

The addition of energized former college coaches Pete Carroll in Seattle and Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, along with well-respected NFL veterans such as Rams coach Jeff Fisher and Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, has brought a certain cachet to the division in addition to the improved rosters.

Better quarterback play has also been at the root of the turnaround, with Sam Bradford, Carson Palmer, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick representing huge upgrades over the likes of Shaun Hill, Charlie Whitehurst and John Skelton.

To me, the turnaround in the division started with defense and grew from there. All four teams have gradually built defenses that already have been top-10 units or are on their way to being in the mix. It's made for some hard-hitting games and left teams in other divisions black and blue.

It's not just Barnwell who has taken notice, either. The nation will get some up-close looks at the strength of the NFC West on a big stage in coming days and weeks. The 49ers and Seahawks take center stage on Sunday night, and the Rams meet San Francisco in a Thursday night showdown on Sept. 26. That's just the tip of the iceberg.

I.C.Y.M.I.

Your daily roundup of anything you might have missed Friday from this corner of cyberspace. ... We started with a look at the Rams' emphasis on hidden yards and the importance of yards after the catch in this offense. ... From there it was an injury update on end Chris Long, who did not practice Friday and is questionable for Sunday. ... We followed with a look at the rest of the injury report, including the status of running back Daryl Richardson. ... Finally, we took a look at what a Rams victory would mean to a group that hasn't started a season 2-0 since 2001.

Elsewhere

The always-prolific Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dived deeper into what could become an interesting debate on the Hall of Fame possibilities for running back Steven Jackson. From there, he offered an interesting take on Tom Brady dealing with struggling wide receivers and compared those issues to the problems Rams quarterback Sam Bradford has had in his first few years in the league. Finally, Miklasz joined fellow columnist Bryan Burwell for a breakdown of the Rams-Falcons matchup.

Post-Dispatch Rams writer Joe Lyons gave a quick look at the anticipated return of tight end Cory Harkey against the Falcons.

Over at stlouisrams.com, fantasy writer Matt Lutovsky believes receiver Chris Givens could be a sleeper this week as Atlanta shifts its attention to tight end Jared Cook.

Richardson misses Wednesday practice

September, 11, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams running back Daryl Richardson didn't practice Wednesday because of a foot injury, according to the team's injury report.

Richardson appeared to tweak his left foot midway through Sunday's game against Arizona and Rams trainers evaluated him on the sideline. He did return to finish the game, though.

Asked about Richardson on Wednesday, Rams coach Jeff Fisher said he expected his starting running back to return to the mix in short order.

"Oh, yeah, he'll practice tomorrow," Fisher said. "He just needed some rest."

Elsewhere on the injury report, the Rams got some good news with the return of tight end Cory Harkey. Harkey had been out since the third preseason game against Denver with a knee injury. He was listed as a full participant on the injury report.

Safety Darian Stewart did not practice and cornerback Quinton Pointer was limited as both continue to deal with thigh injuries.

For Atlanta, the injury report looks like this:

DNP: DT Jonathan Babineaux (knee), OT Sam Baker (knee), WR Julio Jones (knee), WR Roddy White (ankle).

Limited: S Thomas DeCoud (knee), DT Peria Jerry (knee), DE Cliff Matthews (neck), CB Asante Samuel (thigh), LB Sean Weatherspoon (knee)

No surprises on Rams' inactive list

September, 8, 2013
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ST. LOUIS -- We already knew four of the names that would appear on the St. Louis Rams' inactive list Sunday, but none of the three others that appeared came as much of a surprise.

Safety Darian Stewart (thigh), cornerback Quinton Pointer (thigh), linebacker Jonathan Stewart (hip), and tight end Cory Harkey (leg) were ruled out Friday because of their injuries.

On Sunday, the Rams added offensive linemen Barrett Jones and Brandon Washington, and defensive end Gerald Rivers to the list.

Without Jones and Washington, the Rams have three active backups for the offensive line including tackle Joe Barksdale, guard Shelley Smith, and center/guard Tim Barnes.

Rivers' absence leaves the Rams with William Hayes and Eugene Sims as backups at defensive end.

Four injured Rams to sit Sunday

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams made no changes to their injury report Friday afternoon save for the ones required by the league.

In what came as no surprise, the Rams ruled the four players who have not practiced all week and didn't go again Friday out for Sunday's game against Arizona.

Those four players are safety Darian Stewart (thigh), cornerback Quinton Pointer (thigh), linebacker Jonathan Stewart (hip) and tight end Cory Harkey (leg). Of the group, only Darian Stewart had projected as a starter entering camp.

Rodney McLeod replaced Stewart after he suffered the injury against Green Bay in the second preseason game and hasn't looked back. He's expected to start in Stewart's place alongside rookie T.J. McDonald.

Pointer's injury leaves Trumaine Johnson and Brandon McGee as healthy backups at corner while Stewart's leaves the Rams with just undrafted rookies Daren Bates and Ray Ray Armstrong behind the starting trio. Without Harkey, the Rams have Jared Cook, Lance Kendricks and Mike McNeill available for game day at tight end.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Unlike most of their NFC West division brethren, the Rams made it out of the preseason in relatively good shape in terms of injuries.

After watching Seattle and San Francisco lose receiver Percy Harvin and Michael Crabtree, respectively, and Arizona guard Jonathan Cooper's season ending knee injury, the Rams have to feel pretty good about their lot on the injury front.

That luck can turn at a moment's notice, but for now the Rams don't have any of their major contributors dealing with any ailments.

Thursday's injury report looked the same as it did Wednesday from a Rams' perspective.

Tight end Cory Harkey (leg), safety Darian Stewart (thigh), cornerback Quinton Pointer (thigh) and linebacker Jonathan Stewart (hip) did not practice for the second consecutive day. Also worth noting, Harkey walked around on the sidelines without the use of crutches.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A week ago there was a chance that the St. Louis Rams could carry as many as five tight ends into the regular season opener against the Arizona Cardinals.

The odds of that happening have probably increased a bit since that time. Blocking specialist Cory Harkey suffered a leg injury in last week’s game against Denver and the Rams released backup Colby Prince on Monday afternoon.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher has not offered much on the extent of Harkey’s injury, but he indicated Monday that Harkey wouldn’t miss extended time.

“We got good news on Harkey,” Fisher said. “That’s all I can say.”

On the bright side, Lance Kendricks is nearing a return from offseason knee surgery and his return should help make up for the loss of Harkey.

Including Kendricks and Harkey, the Rams will obviously keep Jared Cook as well. That leaves three other options -- Mike McNeill, Zach Potter and Philip Lutzenkirchen -- competing for one or two spots.

Of more importance, though, is getting Kendricks up to speed in an evolving offense that he hasn’t been able to participate in at all during the offseason.

The Rams relied fairly heavily on multiple tight end sets in 2012, but the combination of Kendricks and Cook should increase those numbers this year.

Last year, the Rams had 143 rush attempts and 60 pass attempts out of two tight end formations and 12 pass attempts with 29 rush attempts out of three or more tight end sets.

Kendricks is the key to that, though, because of his ability to play attached to the line as a blocker, in the slot as a receiver or in the backfield as a fullback. While Cook brings a play making element to the position the Rams haven’t had in a long time to the position, it’s Kendricks who is the sort of glue guy that can help keep the offense humming.

On Monday, Kendricks participated in some team drills for the first time in this camp though by his own admission it was some light work. By his own admission, the biggest thing for him moving forward will be to get up to speed on some of the offensive tweaks made so the offense can be as multiple as offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer wants it to be.

“Especially with Jared here, things shifted a little bit,” Kendricks said. “Things are just a little bit different. So my role isn’t exactly going to be exactly what it was last year. So learning the new wrinkles and stuff is kind of what I’ve been doing.”

Kendricks said he is unlikely to play this week against Baltimore, though he expects to go through the pre-game routine of warming up. The last hurdle for him will be to get some contact and get back in the flow of actually playing before the Sept. 8 opener against Arizona.

For his part, Kendricks fully expects to be back at full speed for the opener. Having him back in the mix sooner than later could go a long way toward determining the rate at which the offense becomes what the Rams have envisioned.

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