Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Rams between week 7 and 8


Back in the early summer, as we stepping away from the draft, I wrote a series of four articles for in which I set a series of four team goals. Each was chosen and designed with the absolute objective in mind to produce a turn around in 2010. What were those four goals?

1. Reduce sacks to 20 or fewer

2. Score 20 points per game

3. Run the West Coast right, or don't run it at all.

4. Develop a running back committee.

The Offense was the Problem...

Not one of these goals was defensive. All of them were (are) offensive goals. Why? Several reasons, really. I lay the corpse of the 2009 season at the feet of the Rams offense. The defense was way ahead of the offense in 2009.

Spagnuolo's defense got better and better as 2009 wore along. Nobody noticed, because my Rams kept losing, but the defense was on a constant uphill trek. They looked organized. They looked disciplined. They looked like they had confidence in their coaches, and the game plan. They were learning to trust each other and handle their responsibilities in the system. They were certainly shy on talent. They were constantly betrayed by offense that couldn't stay on the field. Also that offense turned the football over on a short field, putting the defense's collective balls to the wall. I had great confidence that Spagnuolo didn't need any pointers from me defensively.

The offense? Well, that's another story all together. The offense looked like shit. They looked like the 1976 Tampa Bay offense: a pack of keystone cops at a Chinese fire drill. I had no confidence that Pat Shurmur knew what he was doing. We were supposed to be implementing the WCO, for the 3rd consecutive year, and I could find no trace of Bill Walsh in that 2009 Ram offensive.

As I mentioned in my earlier piece, Bill Walsh must have been spinning in his grave (at 7200rpm) at the mere suggestion that the 2009 Rams were running his offense. Shurmur’s scheme looked like a bad version of the Ground Chuck Knox offense. To be frank with you, I wanted Shurmur gone, but if that was not to be, I wanted to give Pat an ear full.

Overall impressions in 2010

I've held off on evaluating the team until (almost) mid-season, because I wanted a significant pile of data to examin before rendering verdicts. As you all know, things are going pretty well this year, and better than I expected. The Rams are basically playing something close to .500 football. We already have more victories than I expected us to get all year long. We have been extremely competitive in all but one game. This is a surprising turn around in just about every expert's view. Most of us didn't think things would improve this quickly... or maybe at all.

The report on the teams 4 goals is generally favorable. First, I was quite correct in not setting defensive goals. Spagnuolo's defense is coming along just fine, thanks, just as I thought they would. They are the strength of the team. Second, the offense is looking quite a bit better, but we are not meeting our goals offensively. We are closer than I expected to be in most areas, but we are not where we have to be to have playoff seasons.

Goal #1 reduce sacks to 20 or fewer.

First, we are not meeting our goal for QB protection. Through 7 weeks of play the Rams have the 22nd ranked offensive line in the NFL. We have allowed 15 QB sacks and 32 QB hits. To put that in perspective, the Chiefs currently lead the NFL is pass protection, having allowed only 5 total sacks. The Bears provide the worst passer protection, allowing 31 sacks already. The Rams' line is on pace to allow 34 sacks this season. That is 14 higher than the target figure and 70% over the limit. Naturally, 34 sacks is 10 less than the 44 we offered up last year, and we are throwing the football a hell of a lot more. We have seen improvement. Still, much more improvement is necessary. To be on pace, as of game 8, the Rams could only allow 10 sacks. The figure is 15 already as of game 7.

Overall, flushing Barron and Icognito paid dividends this season. Young Rodger Saffold is developing at a very nice pace. His development reminds me a lot of Marcus McNeil, another 2nd round left tackle who hit it big quickly. Saffold has to improve his pass protection, but he is already detonating defenders on the run. This is pretty much what several Big-10 experts told me to expect before the season began: Rodger has a few problems in pass protection, but he is a road-grater on the run. This off season, the Rams are going to need to acquire at least one devastating offensive guard, similar to Carl Nix of the Saints.

As you know, I didn't think Sam would make it 7 games without suffering a season ending injury. I am glad he has not suffered an injury. I worry less about that now, but I still worry. As we know from Tony Romo's experience last night: a season ending injury can cut-down your QB at any second if your line is bad. Our offensive line needs to step it up. No free-running blitzers in the pocket. One bad hit is all it takes.

Goal #2: score 20 points per game

In terms of point, we aren't quite on pace either. Through 7 games the Rams have scored 120 points: An average of 17.1 points per game. That is roughly 6.2 points more per game than the 2009 Rams scored. We are on pace to score 273.6 total points, which is nearly 100 more than last season. This is an improvement, and it has already won a couple of contests, but not enough.

We have to move up and get those extra 3 points. Just one more field goal per game would have won at least two (2) more contests by this point in the season. The Rams would be firmly on pace for a playoff-birth in the weak NFC West had we simply been able to kick one additional field goal per game. If we could reach 320 points by the end of 2010, most teams would have to fight like hell to hang with us, and most experts would sense a dramatic turn-around in Rams.

So why has there been an improvement? Much of the credit goes to young Sam Bradford, but it is not quite as simple as a change at QB position. The offense changed drastically between 2009 and 2010. The Rams of 2010 have the 4th highest pass-attempt total in the league. Sam Bradford has thrown the rock 260 times, only 27 less than Drew Brees, who is #1 in pass attempts. If he continues at this pace, Sam will throw 594 passes by season end, provided he avoids injury.

Bradford is 13th in completions with 146, yielding a 56.15% completion rate. Brees is at the top of the completion list (200), and the completion percentage list (69.7). Sam has the 28th highest QB rating with 71.4. This is just 1 point higher than Marc Bulger at the finish of 2009. It is about 32 points lower than Peyton Manning. His score is about 16 points off the bottom of the league.

The main thing hurting Sam's passer rating is not the 9 TDs vs 8 INTs. Rather it is the low yardage per attempt and per completion. Sam is 18th in yardage with 1,388 yards. This gives him the 2nd lowest average per pass in the league, with just 5.33 yards per pass attempt, and 9.5 per completion. Welcome to the world of the WCO, a dink-n-dunk, nickel and dime, small-ball offense in which you almost always throw short. The terminal point for most WCO pass plays is within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. The result is that Sam has a low yardage per attempt and per completion figure. Ergo, his rating is lower than it might otherwise be. More importantly, the Rams would certainly score a few more points if they could produce a little more yardage on every pass.

The good news is that we are beginning to play the WCO correctly. The bad news is that we are beginning to play the WCO correctly. It's a good news/bad news situation. I would not choose this scheme if I were the man in charge, but this choice does seem to be paying to some dividends. We are stepping away from Ground Chuck, and we are starting to score and win more.

Most experts have commented that Sam's productivity is amazing given (1) his rookie status, (2) his adjustment to the WCO, (3) the fact that the Rams started with few receivers, and (4) the ones we did have are dropping like flies. Surely this is true. If the Rams were to acquire a dynamic receiving threat in the 2011 draft, or perhaps in free agency, there is a good chance those yardage numbers will increase, despite the short passing game. Certainly, the WCO has always relied on dynamic receivers to run after the catch. This is how WCO teams have always manufactured yardage. Right now, the Rams really don't have such a RAC threat. Lacking both solid protection, and dynamic receivers, he's going be shy on competition yardage. It is lamentable, but this is probably the best we can do inside the limits of 2010.

Given a couple of dynamic receivers in 2011, it is probable that Sam's completion percentage, his yardage per attempt, and c will all rise, even if the passing system remains exactly as it is now. More importantly, point production should rise. With more point production, we should have more victories.

The Running Back Committee

This brings us to the final goal: A running back committee. For better or for worse, we do not have a running back committee in 2010. This is not as crucial as I suspected during the off season, as we are throwing the football much more than I originally expected. Also, Steven Jackson seems to be a lot healthier than I expected.

The good news is that 27 year old Kennth Darby from the Alabama Crimson Tide has proven himself a worthy backup. The bad news is that we rarely see him on the field. I just wish we would see him in action a lot more often. Sparing Steve a few downs every game would help his health, and it would help him to be more effective in those moments when we do have to have him, such as the 4 minute drill at the end of the Charger game.


A lot of progress has been made this season. The Rams are far better than I expected, especially in the offensive line department. This is why Sam Bradford is still alive, and possibly even in the running for rookie of the year, although I still expect this to go to Jahvid Best.

Much more improvement is necessary. Better pass protection is paramount. Better protection will not just reduce sacks and QB hits. It will lead to more completions, more yards, and more points. All of this will add up to more wins.

Given the decent start, I would be disappointed if the Rams do not continue to play .500 football down the stretch. At this point, I think the Rams should finish with something like 7 to 9 victories, if everybody stays healthy.