The St. Louis Rams are off to a solid start to the season with a pair of home victories, a 2-2 record and the chance to climb above .500 for the first time since 2006. So far, Jeff Fisher's team has been able to do that because of their success on defense, particularly with turnovers, and quality special teams play. Offensively, the Rams are struggling.
The offense made two notable achievements last week against Seattle, keeping the pressure off Sam Bradford and converting five third-and-long situations, the shortest of which was 10 yards. It was a fantastic accomplishment. It is not sustainable.
Blockers did their job, Sam Bradford made good throws, receivers caught the ball, and they converted those five third downs. Those were the only third downs they converted, five-of-13 for 38 percent, which perfectly matches their third-down conversion rate for the entire season so far.
Still, those dramatic third downs did manage to the Rams closer to the goal line, or as close as they needed to be for kicker Greg Zuerlein. In two trips to the red zone, the special teams was the only unit to come away with a touchdown, after Steven Jackson's score was called back when center Robert Turner held Seattle DT Brandon Mebane.
"We have to play better offensively," head coach Jeff Fisher said of his team, which hasn't scored a touchdown since Week 2. "We haven't been scoring touchdowns like we should and that's the reason."
Getting better on offense means getting better results on first and second downs, the kind of results that don't put a team in third-and-long situations.
"We'd like to score a touchdown on every possession," Bradford said. "I think it just comes down to execution, being better on first and second down, not having penalties down there, just finding a way to score."
Third downs are different, but only to a point. If the Rams can make plays on third-and-10, they should be able to make those same plays on first-and-10, second-and-eight, etc. The reverse is also true. At some point, the statistics on third downs will start to mirror the performance on the other downs.
"You want to stay out of third-and-longs," Fisher said. "Last week, we were in a number of them, but we converted. The odds of converting the third-and-longs are not nearly as good as the third-and-shorts."
Offenses are converted just 34 percent of their third downs against the Cardinals, and scoring just 15.2 points per game. Arizona has allowed just one rushing touchdown and only three passing touchdowns. Moving the ball and finding the end zone against a team like that could do wonders for the Rams offense.
"Once we get to that point when you're able to score against really good defenses, then, I think, you can expect good things out of this team," Fisher said. "That's been an emphasis for us this week, is just try to get the ball in the end zone."
Fisher's team is going to have to find its way to offensive production. As unsustainable as their production on third-and-long is, the ability to win games without scoring offensive touchdowns is just as difficult.