Things could look a little more exotic when the St. Louis Rams take the field next week against the Dallas Cowboys. Head coach Jeff Fisher hinted at his defense mixing things up a little more, moving beyond the vanilla fronts and arrangements. The reason for opening a different chapter in the playbook is simple: Fisher wants his team to get better on third downs.
"We're kind of caught between a rock and a hard place because if I was to look at one area that we really need to improve upon, it's third down efficiency," Fisher said on Sunday. "We've got to get better on offense and got to get significantly better on defense. We're allowing over 61 percent conversion rates on defense which will do you no good during the regular season."
On offense, the Rams were 4-for-12 on third downs this week against the Chiefs. The first team offense converted one of three third down opportunities, when Bradford hit Lance Kendricks for an 11-yard pass on third-and-nine on the third offensive series.
Kansas City converted 5-of-11 third downs against the Rams defense. The Chiefs starting offense converted four of five third down attempts, including a third-and-15 and a third-and-one on the same drive, the one that ended with Hillis punching in a touchdown on third-and-one.
To some extent, third downs are just another down. Sam Bradford and Rams offense did not convert a third down at all on their opening drive, but they did open that drive with two first downs for a total of 53 yards. On the second drive, Bradford, throwing under pressure on third-and-12, hit Steve Smith over the middle for 10 yards. The Rams converted the fourth-and-two for a touchdown.
None of this is meant to suggest that third downs do not matter. They do, and Fisher notes that they can be trickier to work with in the preseason because his teams are working from a limited portion of the playbook.
"But the issue, the other side of the coin is that we're also not doing the things that we would do during the regular season to try to get off the field on third down because those are the things that you kind of hold back," Fisher explained. "That will be an emphasis this week."
The Rams success, according to Fisher, in other areas do point to improved efficiency.
"I thought tackling was good," Fisher said. "Our penalty numbers are down. We're averaging four per game and as I said last week, we're still looking at the tape to identify those that are not called and make sure we get those corrected so players understand."