St. Louis Rams: Gregg Williams

W2W4 revisited: St. Louis Rams

November, 17, 2014
11/17/14
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Looking back at three things to watch from the St. Louis Rams' 22-7 win Sunday afternoon against the Denver Broncos:

1. The best defense: Any time you play Peyton Manning and the Broncos, it's imperative to try to run the ball and keep your offense on the field so he has to spend more time on the sideline. This year, that's been easier said than done with Denver's top-ranked rushing defense entering the game. But the Rams offered the right prescription in the form of a surging offensive line and rookie runner Tre Mason. Mason finished with 113 yards on 29 carries, both career highs for the youngster and the most rushing yards by a back against Denver this season. With Mason and the ground game getting it done, the Rams controlled the ball and the clock, winning the time of possession battle 35:50 to 24:10.

2. Getting after Manning: Unofficially, the Rams had two sacks and four quarterback hits but make no mistake, Manning found himself under duress for most of the day. The Rams had 12 pass breakups on the day with five of those coming from end Robert Quinn and linebacker Alec Ogletree. The Rams didn't entirely abandon the blitz, bringing it at Manning 21 times, but it was mostly effective when they did. Both sacks came on blitzes and one of Manning's two interceptions also came against the blitz. Regardless, Manning looked mostly uncomfortable with so many bodies in his face and he finished with a QBR of 17 when the Rams brought extra pass rushers.

3. Turning to Hill: In going back to Shaun Hill as the starting quarterback, Rams coach Jeff Fisher hoped he would have a steady hand capable of making big plays when the opportunity presented itself but, more important, wouldn't turn the ball over. For one game, at least, Hill was exactly what the doctor ordered. He was unfazed by pressure and even made something out of nothing a few times as he finished 20-of-29 for 220 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 102.7 and a QBR of 69. His 63-yard touchdown pass to receiver Kenny Britt was the team's first completion of the season on a ball thrown 40 or more yards in the air and the longest play from scrimmage for the Rams this season. Most important, Hill didn't turn the ball over and the Rams finished plus-2 in turnover margin.

Morning Ram-blings: Monday game balls

November, 17, 2014
11/17/14
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Good Monday morning after another interesting week in the NFL, especially for fans of the St. Louis Rams.

By now, we already know the Rams have a knack for stepping up when the competition is toughest. They did it again Sunday in their 22-7 win against the Denver Broncos.

But there were plenty of other shining performances Sunday and, knowing that, our 32 NFL Nation reporters did what we do every week and handed out game balls for the best and brightest of Sunday's efforts.

I gave mine to defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for designing a picture-perfect game plan to shut down Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and Denver's offense.

Of course, I could have chosen just about any Rams defender or running back Tre Mason or receiver Kenny Britt, etc. It's not often there are so many to choose from but anytime you hold a Manning-led team to seven points, you have to get my game ball.

I.C.Y.M.I.

A roundup of Sunday's Rams stories appearing on ESPN.com. ... We began the day with a look at how thin the Rams' secondary was going into the game and how they planned to handle it. ... Rapid Reaction offered quick-hit thoughts and observations on the Rams' victory. ... Locker Room Buzz provided the Rams' thoughts on a few topics, including the formula to win with this current team. ... We then explored how the Rams' defense got it done against the Broncos. ... Mason had his first 100-yard rushing game and gave the Rams exactly what they needed on a day when the run game had to be rolling. ... Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and I handed out game balls in video format.

Elsewhere:

Legwold gives his quick thoughts and reaction from the Denver side.

Jim Basquil and Mark Schlereth break down Sunday's game.

The Rams' upset was worth a second look so Basquil and Eric Allen took a deeper dive.

At 101sports.com, ESPN NFL Insider Chris Mortensen gave some interesting thoughts regarding the Rams and Los Angeles.

At stltoday.com, Jeff Gordon handed out his weekly grades.
video

ST. LOUIS -- Bundling up before heading into a snowy evening, St. Louis Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis paused when a reporter mentioned to him that his team could have pitched a shutout against the Denver Broncos on Sunday.

"Should have pitched a shutout," Laurinaitis quickly corrected.

Indeed the Rams' defense, perhaps playing as well as any group in the league over the past three weeks, could have held Peyton Manning and the high-octane Broncos scoreless in the Rams' stunning 22-7 victory at the Edward Jones Dome. As it was, they held Denver to its lowest point total since Manning arrived in 2012. It was also the first time since Week 13 of 2001 that Manning had attempted 20 or more passes and his team scored seven or fewer points.

[+] EnlargeAaron Donald
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsThe Rams consistently pressured Peyton Manning, including this fourth-quarter sack by Aaron Donald.
For coordinator Gregg Williams' defense, there have been signs of reaching Max Q the past two weeks but shutting down Manning & Co. served as the ultimate notice to the rest of the league that the Rams are not a team, especially not a defense, you want to see on the schedule over the season's final six games.

"The scheme is built so that, if everyone is on the same page, you can play really fast," Laurinaitis said. "I think the last few weeks we have been able to just come in and play extremely fast and trust each other and know we don’t have to be perfect but let’s be aggressive. The light bulb is kind of switching on but we have got to keep that thing on, I don’t want it to run out."

If the Rams can find a way to duplicate Sunday's combination of scheme and execution, the light bulb should be able to burn brightly for the rest of the season.

Although the Broncos had 397 total yards, the Rams held them to 28 yards on 10 carries. Over the past two weeks, they've allowed just 56 rushing yards on 32 carries, which is the best two-game stretch against the run in franchise history. In making that group so one-dimensional, the Rams were able to throw a variety of tricks at Manning.

Instead of the usual two or three checks that Laurinaitis can make out of certain offensive looks, the Rams had six or seven. On defensive tackle Aaron Donald's fourth-down sack in the fourth quarter, Laurinaitis got called out as the MIC linebacker by Broncos center Will Montgomery. Laurinaitis had shown blitz but offered a subtle change at the line of scrimmage, switching the side where he lined up in an effort to create enough confusion to throw the Broncos off.

At the snap, Montgomery took the bait and end Robert Quinn peeled around the inside to Manning. Quinn was unable to bring Manning down, but Donald cleaned it up for a sack.

And the tweaks weren't just based out of blitz looks, either. On cornerback Trumaine Johnson's fourth-quarter interception, the Rams showed a normal Cover 3 look before the snap, something Manning had probably seen plenty of times in his tape study. But Williams had installed a different coverage from the same look earlier in the week and Manning threw down the right sideline where Johnson made an acrobatic interception.

"As long as all 11 are on the same page, we’ll be all right," Laurinaitis said. "That’s a great job by the defensive coaching staff knowing it would come to that and the best part about Gregg Williams is he gives me the freedom to call stuff if I don’t want to check and the feeling of the play just isn’t right, we play the call. A couple of times it happened and a couple of times he checked. It was the combination of a great game plan and just executing."

Of more importance than the yardage, the Rams held Denver to 4-of-12 on third down and 0-for-3 on fourth. They also had two interceptions, two sacks, four quarterback hits and 12 pass breakups. Of those dozen breakups, five came from Quinn and linebacker Alec Ogletree near the line of scrimmage.

Even when Manning completed a pass, a member of the Rams' secondary was there to greet him with a crushing blow such as Rodney McLeod's big hit (and subsequent penalty) on Denver receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

"It energizes us but, also, they know," McDonald said. "The offense knows that you put that ball up, you’re going to feel it. I think that’s something we take pride in, being a physical defense and offenses knowing that it’s not sweet [out there]."

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

November, 16, 2014
11/16/14
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ST. LOUIS -- A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 22-7 victory over the Denver Broncos at the Edward Jones Dome.

What it means: The Rams can play with and beat anybody in the NFL. Seriously. With Sunday's win, they now own victories against three of the four 2013 conference finalists: the Broncos, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. After nearly half a season of waiting and wondering when coordinator Gregg Williams' defense would ascend to an elite level that would allow the Rams to compete with anyone, his group has taken off in the past three weeks. Beating Peyton Manning and the league's top offense is the ultimate sign that this defense is capable of keeping the Rams in and potentially winning any game left on the schedule. It didn't hurt that quarterback Shaun Hill played mistake-free football, the special teams were strong, and the Rams offered Denver no help in its comeback attempt. At 4-6, the Rams have an uphill climb to get into the postseason, but at worst, they are the team none of the league's contenders want to play down the stretch.

Stock watch: Up -- Running back Tre Mason: It's been tough sledding in the past couple of weeks for the Rams rookie, but he found a little momentum against the league's stoutest run defense entering Sunday. Mason rushed for 113 yards on 29 carries, the most yards by a runner against the Broncos this season. While Mason hit some big runs, including a 27-yarder in the third quarter, he also did plenty of dirty work between the tackles. He's the future for the Rams at running back, and the future is now.

Conversion turnaround: After his team went 1-of-10 on third down last week against Arizona, Rams coach Jeff Fisher pointed to the lack of conversions as a primary reason for his offense being stuck in the mud. The Rams apparently found some solutions as Hill found himself using his feet, creating space and finding receivers to keep the chains moving. They finished 6-of-17 on third down, which not only was crucial in keeping their offense on the field but also keeping Manning & Co. off it.

Game ball: Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- It took longer than most had hoped, perhaps too long for the Rams to make a genuine playoff run, but Williams' group is playing with the confidence and swagger of a top-five unit in the league. The defense shut down the run (10 carries for 28 yards), pressured Manning (two sacks, four quarterback hits), piled up 12 pass breakups and, most important, allowed just seven points. Were it not for a first-half coverage breakdown, Williams' crew would have pitched a shutout.

What's next: After a one-week cameo at home, the Rams head back to the West Coast to finally end the eight-game stretch facing all teams with 2013 winning records with a trip to San Diego.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- With only three weeks between meetings with the San Francisco 49ers, the St. Louis Rams didn't have the time nor the inclination to change much of what they do.

Instead of creative X's and O's, the Rams' 13-10 win against the Niners came more on the back of execution than anything else. Late last week, Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams made it clear that the biggest takeaway from the first meeting, a 31-17 Rams loss, was more about figuring out better ways to deploy his defenders.

So it was that Williams took an unusual tact to get his defense ready to play the Niners a second time.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesThe Rams blitzed Colin Kaepernick frequently and recorded eight sacks in a victory over the Niners.
“Scheme is one thing but how does scheme change within the opponent?" Williams said. "The same technique doesn’t work against a certain cat that you’re getting ready to play against. So, that familiarity helps a little bit. In fact, we had our own players this week a part of our meeting. It started the first week, we’ll have a scout or we’ll have coaches give a scouting report on the opponent. Had the players do that this week because they’re familiar. Especially when it’s that close. There’s a good remembering part of it.

"Now, you also have to stay ahead of the curve on what are they doing. What do they do the second time you see people? Does their game-ready sheet change a little bit? Will they show us some different packages? So, all that thought comes in to play. But the familiarity part of it I think helps the players a little bit understand the battle they’re getting ready to go against on their individual battles.”

Nowhere was that understanding more easily observed than the constant and relentless pressure Williams dialed up with blitz after blitz. By the time the day was done, Williams had called for 22 blitzes against San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Co.

Or, as San Francisco tackle Joe Staley so eloquently put it, "they were blitzing, like, a s--- ton."

That the Rams were blitz happy should be no surprise. Williams has made a career of forging exotic blitz looks and generating pressure on the quarterback. The Rams rank first in the NFL in blitzes per drop back at 45.3 percent.

It was the Rams' success that was more shocking for the 49ers. In the first meeting on Oct. 13, the Rams blitzed 11 times and registered no sacks as Kaepernick went 5-of-10 for 97 yards and two touchdowns with a rush for 23 yards.

Clearly, Williams and Co. identified some opportunities to get after Kaepernick on a more consistent basis by bringing more than the Niners could handle. On the team's 22 blitzes, the Rams got home for three sacks and dropped Kaepernick after just a 2-yard gain. Kaepernick did complete 12-of-18 passes with a touchdown, but he came under fire more often than not.

Even the threat of the blitz appeared to make Kaepernick a little weary as the Rams finished with eight sacks. Kaepernick also mishandled a pair of snaps, including one on a third down when it appeared he was looking for the pass rush when the shotgun snap came.

“We were just getting after it," defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. "We were rushing the passer like we know how. We were a little bit more comfortable out there today and things started opening up for us.”

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

October, 13, 2014
10/13/14
11:44
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ST. LOUIS -- A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 31-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at the Edward Jones Dome.

What it means: The broken record that is Rams football over the past decade remains in heavy rotation. Like the Week 3 loss to Dallas, the Rams once again jumped out quickly -- to a 14-0 lead -- only to see the Niners snatch it away with 24 unanswered points. And, once again, the play that changed the game came on a coverage breakdown resulting in an easy touchdown pass. This time it happened to be receiver Brandon Lloyd grabbing an 80-yard touchdown past cornerback Janoris Jenkins just before halftime. It was an inexcusable play both for Jenkins and the coverage scheme. It really sums up the Rams' season to this point. The Rams are who they are, a team that gives up a lot of big plays and doesn't make nearly enough of its own to nullify those mistakes. St. Louis is 1-4 and just getting started on the toughest part of the schedule.

Stock watch: Down -- Cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Jenkins is in his third season. He has been a starter in each of those seasons. He has showed signs of growth along the way. But he still continues the awful habit of getting caught staring into the backfield. He has been on the wrong end of plenty of big plays in his three seasons but none worse than Lloyd's touchdown at the end of the first half. Should he have had safety help over the top? Yes. But he should also be far enough along in his career to know that he can do just about anything except let a receiver behind him.

#LackCity: After drafting rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald in May, some overzealous types projected the Rams to have the "new Fearsome Foursome" playing on the defensive line and the Rams' marketing team went to work on a Twitter campaign referring to St. Louis as #SackCity. Well, the Rams are now five games into the season and have a grand total of one sack. That's not a typo. One sack in the first five games is the worst start to a season in NFL history.

Game ball: The many members of the Greatest Show on Turf who were honored at halftime. Let's just operate under the assumption that many of the players who won a championship 15 years ago would still have performed better than what the Rams offered after the first quarter and a half.

What's next: The Rams now have the pleasure of staying home for a short week of preparation before hosting the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday afternoon. After Seattle's loss to Dallas on Sunday, that sounds like a barrel of laughs.

Aaron Donald ready for expanded role

October, 11, 2014
10/11/14
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams wasn't shy about his praise for rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald when asked about him Saturday afternoon.

Kampman
Donald
Williams pointed to Donald's ability to quickly acclimate to the NFL game in the first four weeks and his professional approach as reasons he's been impressed. Apparently, he's been good enough to merit an expanded role against the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night.

“He would be a guy that I hope you guys have a chance to take a good look at this week," Williams said. "He’s had a really, really good week of practice. Looking forward for him to get a chance to have opportunities to play the way we want him to play. It’s the same way he played in college. He’s a very quick, instinctive player. He feels very comfortable in what we’re doing. This week for whatever reason, it felt like the light came on a little bit more for him, even a little bit more."

Through his first four games, Donald has been coming off the bench as part of the team's defensive line rotation. He's averaged right at 25 snaps per game in those appearances, mostly in pass situations.

Donald has fared well enough in those limited opportunities that his getting more chances was a matter of when, not if. According to Rams' coaches review of the game film, Donald has been one of the team's most productive defensive linemen and clearly the most productive among the interior group. Their reviews have Donald down for 20 tackles, the team's lone sack, four quarterback pressures and four quarterback hits.

Clearly, Donald has been better than just a situational role player and from the sound of it, he'll soon be used as such.

"I feel like I've been improving each week, getting better, getting better, getting more comfortable out there," Donald said. "Come game time, things are slowing down out there for me so I'm excited about this week. I'm ready for it. This is what I've been working for. It's my time so I'm just going to try to get out there and fly around."

Beyond his early production in games, Donald has also left a positive impression with how he carries himself in the locker room. According to Williams, Donald is one of the first players in and last players to leave in nearly every situation. Donald regularly arrives at Rams Park up to two hours before he's supposed to so he can watch extra film, a practice he began at the University of Pittsburgh and has brought with him to the NFL.

"It’s fun to be around him and you guys don’t get a chance to see it as much as I do, is that he’s the first one here in the morning," Williams said. "He’s the first one in the meeting room. He’s out here on the practice field before the guys set the practice up. He takes this thing seriously and it’s fun to be around that kind of a guy. Hopefully success wise, he gets a little bit of success and he’ll only prosper.”

Camp Confidential: St. Louis Rams

August, 14, 2014
8/14/14
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- As one of the few training camps in the league at which music doesn't regularly blare through temporary speaker setups, the soundtrack to the St. Louis Rams 2014 camp is limited to the sounds of pads cracking and the ensuing trash talk.

It's a drastic departure from last year's camp, when the Rams attempted to turn their offense into a spread-based passing attack flinging the ball all over the field.

That experiment failed miserably but also cleared the path for the Rams to forge their current identity, which is regularly on display on the Rams Park practice fields.

At an early August practice, the sight of running back Zac Stacy and tight end Cory Harkey consistently dropping their pads and creating collisions with defenders set a physical tone that manifested into a fight between cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and receiver Austin Pettis.

As residents of the NFL's toughest and most physical division, the NFC West, the Rams permanently adopted the approach they used in the season's final 12 games. Which is to say, they want an offense based on a power-rushing attack and an aggressive defense.

If that plan sounds similar to what Seattle and San Francisco do, it's because it is. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

"Obviously, that's the way we're built," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "We've always been built that way. That's what we're going to be based on -- play great defense, run the football. Our play-action game comes off of that."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Defensively, the Rams have the pieces in place to be one of the league's elite groups in 2014. Coordinator Gregg Williams gives Fisher's Rams the chance to move from a middling group to a top-10 or even top-five unit in the NFL. Even without Williams' aggressive guidance, the Rams have combined for more sacks than any team in the league over the past two seasons. With the additions of defensive tackles Aaron Donald and Alex Carrington, the defensive line is the deepest and best in the league. Defensive end Robert Quinn is already one of the best pass-rushers in the league and should get better. That group should be good enough to wreck game plans on a weekly basis.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Jeff Roberson/AP PhotoSam Bradford is on track to be fully recovered from injury when the regular season begins, and he has an offensive line with the potential to be among the league's best.
2. The aforementioned shift to a run-centric offense should be buoyed by the offseason addition of No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson and running back Tre Mason, as well as the retention of guard Rodger Saffold. With a line built to run the ball and an offense that now knows what it should be, the run game should be better and more consistent.

3. The advancements in modern medicine should benefit the Rams, as quarterback Sam Bradford and left tackle Jake Long are on track to be ready when the season begins. Both are coming off major knee surgery, but you'd hardly know it from watching them move around on the practice field. Bradford is facing a huge season and knows this is the time to finally prove he's the long-term answer at quarterback. Long played at a Pro Bowl level for most of the past season, especially in the run game, and is critical to ensuring that Bradford stays healthy. Having both back this early would have been a big surprise in the past but is a welcome sight in St. Louis.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. For the second straight season, the Rams' offensive line has the potential to be among the best in the league. But the dark injury cloud hovering over that projection remains. Long, center Scott Wells and Saffold are each either coming off an injury, have a lengthy injury history or both. Although line coach Paul Boudreau has a gift for making it work with whoever is playing, he has a group of question marks behind the starters. Guard Davin Joseph is the only backup on the line with substantial experience.

2. Among the many positions in which the Rams are young, perhaps none are of greater concern than the secondary. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins is headed into his third season and third as a starter, which makes him the elder statesmen of the group. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson and safeties Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald have experience, but they've also been spotty in terms of performance. The Rams are banking on the pass rush to help the secondary, but it's unrealistic to think the defensive backs won't have to stand on their own in key moments.

3. Attempting to project what any team will do in a season based on the previous year's result is a fool's errand, but it's hard to ignore the on-paper strength of the Rams' schedule, particularly in the NFC West. Like last year, it's possible the Rams will be better than the past season but left with nothing to show for it in terms of record or postseason appearances.

OBSERVATION DECK
    [+] EnlargeSam
    Michael B. Thomas/Getty ImagesThe media circus expected to engulf Rams rookie Michael Sam at training camp has not materialized.

  • All that talk about defensive end Michael Sam being a distraction for this team has been just that: talk. Sam has earned nothing but positive reviews from his teammates and coaches for his work ethic and desire to improve. He still faces a battle to make the roster, but aside from a couple days of increased media attention, the circus many expected has never materialized.
  • Once again, the Rams are almost wholly unproven at wide receiver, but they believe they are ready to change that this year. Kenny Britt has been a pleasant surprise, both in performance and leadership, and has had a particularly positive effect on Brian Quick. Breakout is a relative term with this group, given that the Rams won't be airing it out like other teams, but big plays will be needed to complement the run game.
  • The Rams will miss young receiver Stedman Bailey as he serves a four-game suspension to start the season. He's been the most consistent wideout in camp and looks poised for a much bigger role upon his return.
  • Donald might not start, but he is going to play a lot. He has wowed coaches and teammates with his advanced technical skills and maturity. Some in the organization believe he could become Defensive Rookie of the Year.
  • Looking for an undrafted rookie or two who could win roster spots? Look no further than tight end Alex Bayer and defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks. Both flashed potential in the spring, and it has carried over into training camp and the preseason.
  • Although Stacy and Mason garner most of the attention at running back, Benny Cunningham should not be overlooked. The Rams like him a lot, and he returned to St. Louis bigger, stronger and faster. He's another year removed from a serious knee injury and could play a more integral role in his second season.

W2W4 revisited: St. Louis Rams

August, 9, 2014
8/09/14
5:30
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Looking back at three things to watch from the St. Louis Rams' 26-24 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Friday night.

1. An aggressive defensive approach?

Much was made of Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams taking on his former team but, as could be expected in the preseason, that anticipation fell flat. Despite talk all week about Williams dialing up exotic blitzes to get after his old squad, the Rams were every bit as vanilla as coach Jeff Fisher promised during the week.

Williams didn't completely shut off the blitz faucet but chose his spots here and there and ultimately stuck to basic coverages and schemes. Perhaps the most intriguing thing the defense did was use end Robert Quinn exclusively on obvious third-down (and one fourth down) passing situation. That resulted in about five snaps worth of work for Quinn, who did manage to generate pressure on a couple of them.

2. Sorting out the running backs

After getting nicked up earlier in the week, Zac Stacy did handle the starting running back duties. And yes, the job still appears to be his as he got the bulk of the work with the starting offense Friday night. Stacy was solid, too, carrying four times for 22 yards before calling it a night.

The Rams followed their practice script in divvying up the rest of the carries with Benny Cunningham coming in second followed by rookie Tre Mason and Chase Reynolds. Isaiah Pead spent the evening in street clothes, perhaps because of the hand injury that has cost him time in camp. Cunningham also had some good moments, carrying five times for 24 yards.

Mason was the busiest of the backs, getting 15 carries for 51 yards. He struggled to get much going early but he was also working behind the third-team offensive line. He had a couple of long runs late, including one called back for holding and actually had a couple of strong moments picking up the blitz. Chase Reynolds got work in Pead's absence with six carries for 46 yards, though 38 of those came on a well-designed and executed fake punt. He also had a catch for 10 yards and showed up on special teams. Pead looks to be falling further behind.

3. First glance at Sam

Defensive end Michael Sam found himself on the field early and often, entering the game with a little more than five minutes to go in the first quarter. He had a couple of moments that caused Fisher to take notice, namely a quarterback hurry and a run stop and earned some time on special teams as well. He played through the first half and into the third quarter before calling it a night. It was a solid if unspectacular first step for Sam though some of his competition for a potential roster spot also offered some positives. End Ethan Westbrooks posted three tackles and Sammy Brown had two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit.

W2W4: St. Louis Rams

August, 8, 2014
8/08/14
12:00
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints open the preseason Friday night at the Edward Jones Dome. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET on the NFL Network. Here are three things to watch for from the Rams' end:


1. An aggressive defensive approach? The preseason opener doubles as the first opportunity to see the highly-anticipated Rams' defense under the guidance of coordinator Gregg Williams. To add to the intrigue, Williams is facing his former team, the Saints. Reunions happen all the time in the NFL but rarely do they come with the hard feelings that apparently still exist between Williams and the Saints. Williams, of course, was part of the Saints' staff and the supposed ringleader of the bounty scandal which resulted in his yearlong suspension and similar punishments for Saints coach Sean Payton and assistant Joe Vitt. Williams is known for his aggressive, exotic blitzes and while it normally is common procedure to hold back on those things in the preseason, Williams is anything but conventional. He undoubtedly has plenty of schemes he'd like his charges to work on in the preseason, but it'll be worth keeping an eye on the defensive approach to see if Williams goes a little above and beyond the usual vanilla preseason tactics.

2. Sorting out the running backs: It doesn't look like there's much competition for the Rams' starting running back job as Zac Stacy has been largely handling those duties in camp. But the Rams have some things to figure out behind Stacy and coach Jeff Fisher said earlier this week he'd like to get each back about a half-dozen carries in this game. Benny Cunningham is the leader in the clubhouse to be Stacy's primary backup, but preseason games present prime opportunities for players to make moves up the depth chart, especially at this position. Cunningham has been sharp in practice, but rookie Tre Mason has also had some good work, especially this week. Isaiah Pead and Chase Reynolds also remain in the mix. Each back will get his chance to make an early statement as the Rams work through building their depth chart at the position.

3. First glance at Sam: Rookie defensive end Michael Sam has had his share of ups and downs in training camp, starting off strong and leveling off of late. But Sam figures to get an extended opportunity to make a good impression Friday night. The Rams, under Fisher, have rarely played their starters much in the first preseason game and with valuable backup end William Hayes still working back from offseason surgeries, Sam should get a lot of snaps. It's expected Sam will work at left end on defense but also keep an eye out for him on special teams, particularly on the return units where coach John Fassel believes Sam has major potential. Of course, Sam is going to get plenty of competition for a roster spot so the other backup ends are also worth watching, especially undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks.

Morning Ram-blings: Bad blood?

August, 8, 2014
8/08/14
8:00
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- More often than not, any drama going into NFL preseason contests are the direct result of a desperate search to find something, anything that can make the exhibition season more interesting.

And usually, whatever build leads into those games falls flat when the games actually begin. But as the St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints prepare to open the preseason Friday at the Edward Jones Dome, there's one storyline that really is worth watching even if it doesn't manifest into anything during the game.

[+] EnlargeWilliams
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonIt bears watching if Gregg Williams will have anything special planned for the Saints, even if it is just the preseason.
That storyline centers on Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams coaching his first game in St. Louis against his former team, the Saints. Coaches and players meet their former teams all the time, but few of those meetings come with the strange and awkward history of Williams and the Saints.

Williams, of course, was at the heart of the New Orleans bounty scandal that earned him a year-long suspension and a similar punishment for Saints coach Sean Payton. Thursday, ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett offered a look back at just how the Williams-Saints marriage ended and why there could be bad blood between the two sides heading into this game.

Contained in Triplett's piece is even further detail on the ending of Williams' tenure in New Orleans, courtesy of Nola.com.

Clearly, the two sides didn't end on good terms, and Williams does have a history of being more aggressive in the preseason than other coordinators. But Rams coach Jeff Fisher has made it clear he wants his team to keep it simple in the preseason, so it's entirely possible this will be much ado about nothing.

But if any preseason storyline is legitimately intriguing in this first week, it's this one.

I.C.Y.M.I.

A roundup of Thursday's Rams stories appearing on ESPN.com: In the Ram-blings, we opened the day with a look at the rising cost of keeping average quarterbacks. ... Next, I provided a closer look at the man who could be the biggest competition for defensive end Michael Sam, defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks. ... From there, I teamed with Triplett to offer a glance at Saints quarterback Ryan Griffin, who was nearly a Ram last year. ... Finally, we closed the day with notes on how the Rams plan to approach the preseason in the simplest of ways.

Elsewhere:

  • Triplett also offered Payton's thoughts on Sam and how he echoed Bill Parcells in his comments.
  • At stltoday.com, Jim Thomas writes that kicker Greg Zuerlein isn't enthusiastic about the proposed change in the distance of extra points.
  • Columnist Bernie Miklasz says it's time to recalibrate expectations for quarterback Sam Bradford.
  • At theMMQB.com, Peter King gives his take on the Rams after a brief visit to St. Louis.
  • In that same space, Andy Benoit took a deeper look at the Rams' chances in 2014.
WilliamsAP Photo/Jeff RobersonGregg Williams expects his players to be aggressive in whatever scheme he deploys.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Much is expected of the St. Louis Rams' defense in 2014.

The Rams have spent the past three offseasons bolstering the talent on that side of the ball, regularly spending premium picks to keep building. Coach Jeff Fisher is defensive minded and he has an experienced coaching staff capable of leading the group.

In the offseason, Fisher finally got the man he wants to lead it all when he brought in Gregg Williams to be defensive coordinator after a series of stops and starts.

Now, Williams' greatest task is figuring out how best to use the talent that's in place so he can take a group that has been solid, if unspectacular, and make it the foundation upon which winning is built.

At the top of the to-do list is paramount for any coach worth his salt when he works with new players: Figuring out what their skills are so they can be best utilized.

And though the Rams offer great defensive promise in 2014, that process is still a work in progress.

“Improving, but it’s not there yet," Williams said. "One of the things, in the spring, I let the assistant coaches set all the depth charts. Obviously they set them the way I like them to set. I let them. I didn’t have any discussion with them."

In the time since the players and coaches departed for summer hiatus, Williams had plenty of conversations with himself. While most of the coaching offices were empty as the rest of the staff took a much-needed vacation, Williams remained in St. Louis. Aside from a quick stop at his annual charity golf tournament, Williams stayed in the laboratory cooking up schemes and options for his charges.

"I was here every day," Williams said. "I was here Saturday, Sunday, Fourth of July, going back through and getting ahead of a lot of things. Watching films and studying people that I don’t have time to study once the season starts. But the big thing, I went back and re-watched every single practice, every single drill. I’m a lot more familiar with these guys, but until the pads came on, that was the next step. And until we play a preseason game, that’ll be the next step. It’s ever changing. It’s moving on, but I’m getting a lot more familiar with them.”

That familiarity is the key to how fast the defense will coalesce. The best coaches find ways to tailor their schemes to the players rather than attempting to shoehorn players who might not fit into a hard and fast scheme. So while many expect Williams to play nothing but press coverage with a physical approach from the corners, he may ultimately decide that's not how they're best deployed.

That isn't to say he's leaning that way, just that making broad assumptions about what the defense will look like at this point is getting ahead of ourselves a bit. The Rams are still about only halfway through camp's version of defensive installation so there's plenty of room and time for tweaking.

At this point, the one thing we do know for sure is that Williams wants to be aggressive. That means a greater emphasis on takeaways and continued attempts to get after the quarterback. And with a defensive line he calls the best he's coached, Williams has more creative freedom to concoct schemes he's never used before.

“I tell the players all the time, and I’ll tell you guys: There’s not going to be any magic dust," Williams said. "There’s not going to be any LeBron James magic dust. That’s not going to happen. What’s going to happen is these players are going to play aggressively. They’re playing for somebody and with somebody that’s on the same page as them. Nobody’s going to hold them back. We’re going to go and we’re going to play aggressive.

"If you want to make sure that you always have a fail-safe excuse about making a mistake, make it aggressively. That’s been the fun part of seeing them all of the sudden be so robotic. They’re a talented group of players, but I want them to play instinctively. I want the coaches to coach instinctively. Jeff’s allowing that to happen, and I’m happy that he’s allowing that to happen because that’s the way I’ve always been.”

Camp preview: St. Louis Rams

July, 17, 2014
7/17/14
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NFL Nation's Nick Wagoner examines the three biggest issues facing the St. Louis Rams heading into training camp.

Sam Bradford's status: It's a familiar refrain that will be repeated ad nauseam for much of the offseason and camp, but it's the most basic and simple truth about the Rams in 2014 and the future: They'll go as far as quarterback Sam Bradford can take them. On the bright side, Bradford appears to be on schedule for a return to health from his season-ending knee injury, and the Rams expect him to be close to or at full speed for the start of camp.

That means Bradford will get a third season in coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense and the opportunity to get the Rams into the mix in the NFC West division. It's safe to assume the Rams won't ask Bradford to carry the freight for what will likely be a run-heavy offense, but they also will need more from Bradford than what was required of backup Kellen Clemens. The Rams have clearly abandoned the spread approach they were installing this time last year, but they will almost certainly be more balanced than they were after Bradford's injury in 2013.

The Gregg Williams effect: Much was expected of the Rams' defense in 2013 after it performed well enough to keep the team in games, especially divisional games, in 2012. But the group not only didn't take a step forward but regressed slightly under coordinator Tim Walton. So when the Rams had the opportunity to land Gregg Williams this offseason, they took it.

Now, the expectations are even higher after bringing Williams aboard and spending a first-round pick on defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Williams is expected to bring an array of exotic blitz packages and an aggressive approach to a defense that should be able to create consistent pressure. How that manifests itself in this training camp will go a long way toward determining the team's 2014 success.

Stability on the offensive line: The Rams made some major moves along the offensive line in the offseason in an effort to compete with the big, physical defensive lines around the NFC West. They used the No. 2 pick on Auburn's Greg Robinson and signed guard Rodger Saffold to a lucrative contract extension. On paper, an offensive line of (from left to right) Jake Long, Robinson, Scott Wells, Saffold and Joe Barksdale could be one of the better units in the league with a good mix of experience and potential.

But for the second straight year, that group faces the pressing question of whether it can retain some semblance of stability in the face of injury. The presumptive 2013 starting five played just 295 of the offense's 968 snaps, checking in just above 30 percent. Only three lines around the league spent less time together. Wells and Long are recovering from season-ending injuries, and although the Rams expect both players to be ready for the start of the season, it's fair to wonder how many games and what type of production they'll get. Saffold also has a lengthy injury history even though he has yet to suffer any serious ailments since moving to guard.

There are some intriguing young players behind the starting five, including Barrett Jones, Tim Barnes and Brandon Washington, but if the Rams are to be the powerful, run-heavy offense they aspire to be, they'll need the starting five in place as often as possible.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Finding new St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams on the practice field is only as difficult as the ability to hear. Even if you don't spot him right away, you can follow the voice.

Whether it's the guttural scream of "Come onnnnn" at the outset of every snap or the occasional not fit for print dressing down for whichever player made a costly mistake after the play, Williams isn't too hard to find.

"I love it personally because it eliminates the margin for error," rookie defensive back Lamarcus Joyner said. "You need someone that is going to help you chase perfection knowing that it will never be caught, but in the process excellence will be achieved. He says that all the time. You need people like that in the driver’s seat."

That Williams is back in the driver's seat was a surprising offseason revelation, one that didn't seem possible after his close friendship with coach Jeff Fisher seemed to cool after Fisher's first attempt to bring Williams to St. Louis didn't work out. Any remaining hope seemed further removed when Fisher fired Blake Williams, Gregg's son, after a season together in 2012.

[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Gregg Williams
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson"He's the main voice in the room," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said of Gregg Williams. "He can coach every position."
But here they are at this week's final organized team activities, about to put the finishing touches on Williams' first offseason program in St. Louis. And in the four-plus months since Williams has arrived, he's wasted no time putting his imprint on the defense. He's worked so fast that Fisher has even asked him to pump the brakes on occasion.

"He’s the main voice in the room," Fisher said. "He can coach every single position. You can see the change. You can see the energy. I’ve had to back him down just a little bit.”

If what's been patrolling the sidelines during OTAs is Williams in toned down mode, one can only wonder what it would like without the governor on. In creating what Williams likes to call the "organized chaos" of practice, Williams likes to push the tempo and intensity as much as possible.

At a couple of recent practices, Rams defenders have participated in a number of old-school drills under Williams' watchful eye.

One such drill emphasizing ball pursuit requires five players to do up-downs -- dropping to the ground, bouncing up -- hitting a blocking sled and then asked to sprint to the sideline where three footballs are lined up about 10 yards apart.

Any player who doesn't get to the ball is punished by having to do 10 more up-downs. It's a grueling drill but one that certainly tests the mettle of those involved.

Make no mistake, when the Rams aren't doing drills, Williams is concocting ways to best deploy his new group. That's been his top priority during the OTAs considering those practices have provided his first chance to work with his new players up close.

Williams is pleased with the talent he sees on the field, but he's also working through ways to be flexible if a player does something better or worse than he initially suspected. This is the time of year when Williams can discover what his players can and can't do, and instead of shoehorning them into roles they might not be capable of handling, he can adjust those roles accordingly.

“Until I’m out there with them, I really don’t get a good feel of, ‘How do you maximize the personnel?’" Williams said. "I think the best coaches in the league -- and I’ve always been able to do some of these things -- is how do you maximize the strengths of each and every guy? Everybody’s got weaknesses -- you, me, them, all of us do -- and everybody has strengths. That’s why we play so many packages of people.

"We’re going to package to situations, package to personnel the other team is bringing on the field and then package to our strengths. It’s a young group of guys but it’s fun to see them have tremendous strengths that I didn’t know about until I got out here and had a chance to compete with them.”

While Williams and Fisher are like-minded in their approach to defense and the scheme will remain similar, there are plenty of tweaks that come with Williams' presence. Even during OTAs, the Rams defense has been using a variety of different alignments, formations and personnel in the course of an average practice.

Aggressive and attacking are the two adjectives most commonly associated with a Williams defense and there are no signs that the descriptors will change in St. Louis.

"He’s old school in a way, but he’s updated in all the ways that matter," end Chris Long said. "His schemes are just awesome and unique. He puts us in positions to make plays and confuse the offense. That’s what you want to see on defense because you can play as well as you want, but if the scheme is not exactly right it can be hard sometimes. You just have the faith that with him the calls are going to be the right calls and he’s intense and he’s going to bring it."

As for any lingering hard feelings about the initial fallout in 2012 or anything that happened in the interim, there doesn't appear to be any leftover residue. Other coaches speak glowingly of Williams, and Blake Williams even paid a visit to Rams Park for a recent practice.

A Missouri native, Williams clearly feels comfortable in St. Louis in more ways than one.

"I can't tell you guys how happy I am to be back in Missouri and how happy I am to be back in St. Louis with a good group of guys to coach and a good group of guys to coach with," Williams said. "It's a lot of fun. And being out here on the grass and getting into the actual practices and getting into the competitions makes me even happier than I can ever get."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Like the rest of their NFL brethren, the St. Louis Rams are closing in on the completion of organized team activities. Some have already finished but those that haven't will do so this week.

For the Rams, that means a busy week including four OTAs. But in a different approach than the rest of the league, the Rams will not cap the week with a mandatory minicamp. They also didn't do a rookie minicamp, per se.

That's because coach Jeff Fisher has a slightly different philosophy when it comes to the offseason program. In years past, Fisher has mentioned that he likes to find a balance between doing enough to get the requisite work in while also not pushing his players too far in the spring. Beyond that, the Rams get mostly perfect attendance for all of the "voluntary" portions of the program. That allows them to get most of what needs to be done accomplished in the 10 OTAs they are allotted.

Now in the third year under Fisher, the Rams also have some sense of stability which also makes skipping the minicamp a little easier to understand. The fact is that OTAs are the football practice equivalent of the NFL scouting combine. Players aren't wearing pads and contact is almost completely forbidden. The important part of the OTAs is installing schemes on both sides of the ball.

It's important for the rookies and newcomers to get a chance to translate what they see in meeting rooms on the field but the majority of the roster already has a working knowledge of the scheme. When training camp arrives, the Rams will do it all again but get to do it with pads on in a more realistic facsimile of actual football.

There are, however, still a few things that will be worked out this week. Here's some of what we'll be watching entering the final four (two open to media) practices.

1. The biggest tweak in terms of the installation and understanding of the schemes is the addition of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. The base defense is similar as Williams and Fisher share similar ideals when it comes to defense, but Williams is undoubtedly adding some wrinkles to the mix. While the Rams won't get into specifics of what those wrinkles are, some have popped up repeatedly during the OTA practices with occasional confusion apparent.

Williams' early imprint on the defense is obvious for most of the practices whether it's old school ball pursuit drills or his own unique style of "encouragement."

"There’s no doubt," Fisher said. "He’s the main voice in the room. He can coach every single position. You can see the change. You can see the energy. I’ve had to back him down just a little bit.”

2. For the most part, Williams has had his primary defensive pieces in place for the OTAs, but the Rams have been a little thin at one spot: safety. Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald are the projected starters and they've been steady in their spots but injuries to Matt Daniels, Christian Bryant and Maurice Alexander have left little in the way of depth. Cody Davis has gotten some valuable reps with the second-team defense and even rookie Lamarcus Joyner is getting work at safety while the others work their way back. Nobody is going to win a job or a roster spot at this time of year but those extra reps can be valuable in getting a little head start for training camp.

3. There's probably not much more that needs to be said on the recoveries of quarterback Sam Bradford and tackle Jake Long as they bounce back from knee surgeries. But that doesn't mean we won't monitor them as we go through the week. Bradford has been doing his share in practice and the Rams believe he'll be ready to start training camp. Long's workload is harder to judge but he's done some work on the side that appears encouraging, especially when it comes to lateral movements. Fisher has said Long's targeted return is midway through the preseason. We'll keep tabs on both players as we go through this final week.

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