Rams midseason report card: Running backs

Andy Lyons

We are now at the midway point of the 2013 NFL season. The Rams have played half of their schedule, compiling a 3-5 record. How have the Rams running backs performed in the first half of the season? Do the Rams [and their fans] miss Steven Jackson, and what he brought to the team? Now that Zac Stacy is firmly entrenched as the feature back, will the Rams' rushing attack become more consistent [and powerful] in the second half of the season?

Robert Burns wrote a poem in 1785, "To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough". The penultimate stanza contains a famous line that has been quoted [when paraphrased into English] through the ages: "The best-laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry". That one line is a perfect summation of what has transpired with the Rams' running back position - and rushing attack - this year. It's the key to understanding, assessing, and grading the unit half-way through the season.

March 14, 2013. On this day the Rams' backfield changed forever. Steven Jackson signed with the Atlanta Falcons, after 9 outstanding seasons with the Rams. The Rams had visions of a committee approach in the backfield, and Jackson sharing touches with Darryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead. Jackson left for Atlanta on the premise of continuing to be a feature back. To compensate for the loss of Jackson, and his power back capabilities, the Rams drafted RB Zac Stacy in the 5th round of the 2013 NFL draft.

The committee approach was touted by both Jeff Fisher and Brian Schottenheimer well into the summer.

Jeff Fisher on the committee approach:

"I've usually had a guy, but that's what the competition is about, and that's what camp's for and preseason games are for. It's not going to be out of the question that we don't play two or three of them quite a bit. We may not end up with a 'bell cow' like we've had last year in (Jackson) and previous years, and just let them all play."

Brian Schottenheimer's thoughts in the summer:

"You need multiple backs in this league. We’re going to try to play to their strengths. With (Jackson) last year, it was a little different. It was harder to do the committee because every time you took him out, you knew you were missing his leadership and his toughness. This year I think we’ve got nice pieces to try and blend in and differently attack people.’’

By the end of training camp and the preseason, Daryl Richardson clearly stood out among the other running backs. He was named the starter for Week 1 of the regular season. Any notion of a committee approach was quickly put to rest, from the opening game onward. Notwithstanding the Dallas game [missed due to injury], Richardson received the bulk of the carries through the Week 4 game against San Francisco. The accompanying chart presents Richardson's rushing statistics in the first 5 games:

Opponent Attempts Yards Average
Arizona 20 63 3.2
Atlanta 10 35 3.5
Dallas 0 0 0
San Francisco 12 16 1.3
Jacksonville 13 48 3.7

Richardson has been ineffective and unproductive this season - as his statistics reveal - which contributed significantly to the Rams' anemic rushing attack in the 1st quarter of the season. The Rams' scheme (spread-type offense), de-emphasizing the running game, and poor blocking all contributed to the lack of a rushing attack in the first four games. The game against Jacksonville marked a turning point for the Rams' offense [and the running game]. The Rams went back to a smash-mouth, conservative offense that emphasized the run [with the pass used to keep the offense balanced]. Lance Kendricks, Cory Harkey, and Austin Pettis played extensively in run support. When Richardson proved ineffective in that game, the Rams turned to Zac Stacy to provide a spark. They haven't looked back. The accompanying chart presents Zac Stacy's rushing statistics in the last 4 games:

Opponent Attempts Yards Average
Jacksonville 14 78 5.6
Houston 18 79 4.4
Carolina 17 53 3.1
Seattle 26 134 5.2

As noted by Ryan Van Bibber, in an article for TST on Thursday:

"Running back Zac Stacy has become the team's most important offensive contributor over the last four weeks. With quarterback Sam Bradford out for the rest of the season, it's not a stretch to think that Stacy's role will only get bigger over the second half of the season."

"Stacy is getting a bundle of his yards after contact. According to Pro Football Focus, 213 of his 348 rushing yards, 60 percent, this season have come after contact. He had 71 yards after contact last week against Seattle, and he also broke five tackles."

"The rookie's average yards after contact per attempt is a whopping 2.8 yards, better than Marshawn Lynch's 2.6 yards. That's good enough for the fifth-best total in the league."

"And don't overlook his broken tackle total or 15 in just 76 rushing attempts so far this season. That's the 10th most broken tackles of any running back in the NFL right now."

What of Isaiah Pead, who was supposed to be an integral part of the running game this season? Pead was suspended for Week 1 of the regular season, and appears to have found his way into Jeff Fisher's doghouse. He has been mostly ineffective in his brief appearances this year. A question mark, shrouded in mystery, wrapped in an enigma. Pead's future with the Rams has come into question. He is not likely to see much playing time the remainder of the season.

Both Chase Reynolds and Benny Cunningham have remained at the bottom of the depth chart, contributing mostly on special teams.

The accompanying chart presents the rushing statistics for the entire Rams running back corps to-date:

Player Rushing Yards Average TD's
Zac Stacy 348 4.6 0
Daryl Richardson 215 3.1 0
Benny Cunningham 46 2.7 0
Isaiah Pead 21 3.0 0
Chase Reynolds 0 0 0
Totals 630 3.7 0

The accompanying chart presents the receiving statistics for the Rams' running backs through the first 8 games:

Player Receptions Receiving Yards YPC TD's
Daryl Richardson 14 121 8.6 0
Isaiah Pead 9 61 6.8 0
Zac Stacy 7 40 5.7 1
Benny Cunningham 2 23 11.5 0
Chase Reynolds 0 0 0 0
Totals 32 245 7.6 1

The Rams running backs have had some success as receivers out of the backfield. The Rams will be looking for more consistency and production in this area as the remainder of the season unfolds.

At mid-season, the Rams rank 24th in the NFL in rushing yardage [86.8 yards-per-game]. The emphasis on the running game is expected to continue through the remainder of the season, especially given Sam Bradford's season-ending injury. If the offensive line can continue to block effectively, and Zac Stacy can remain healthy, the Rams' rushing attack should flourish for the rest of the schedule. Zac Stacy has given every indication of continuing to mature and increase production in the second half of the season. The Rams may have found their replacement for Steven Jackson. Let's hope that best-laid plan does not go awry.

Mid-Season Grade: C
Potential Season-Ending Grade: B
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