For years and years, since the great Orlando Pace started on the inevitable downward slide of his career, the St. Louis Rams have been left with a barely-there offensive line. Quarterbacks sentenced to rely on the whatever rotation cast of blue and gold blockers had the end of their careers expedited. Things started to get better in 2012.
Last season and 2010 are the only two seasons since 1999 that the Rams allowed their quarterbacks to be sacked fewer than 40 times. No coincidence that Sam Bradford started all 16 games in those seasons.
The 2013 Rams are on pace to allow 40 sacks. St. Louis quarterbacks are getting sacked on 6.9 percent of all drop backs, which ranks 17th in the league. That's slightly higher than last season's sack rate of 6.2 percent. Most of the progress last year came in the season's second half, and if the current trends hold up for the Rams, that could again be the case.
Jake Long set a new record for the longest MRI this spring, the first step toward a four-year, $36 million deal. Long's addition has made a difference for the Rams. The biggest difference that Long's made, however, has been his contributions as a run blocker. His 8.7 grade as a run blocker leads all offensive tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
As a pass blocker, Long hasn't been a noticeable improvement over the assorted faces that rotated in and out of the position last year. Rodger Safflold, Wayne Hunter and Joe Barksdale allowed a total of eight sacks and a combined 35 hits and hurries. Long has allowed four sacks, two hits and 17 hurries. There's no question that the former first overall pick has helped the Rams offensive line, just not at the level you'd expect based on his contract.
On the other side, Rodger Saffold's transition to right tackle is incomplete. Once again, injuries have limited his workload. He's back now, but the Rams are still using Joe Barksdale for the majority of the reps there. And that's been beneficial. Oakland's former third-round pick leads the entire unit with a 5.8 grade as a pass blocker. It certainly looks as though the Rams have found a long-term replacement on the right side of the line. Saffold is due for free agency after this season.
Had the Rams known Barksdale was the answer at right tackle, they could have left Saffold as the starting left tackle this season ... if only they could have counted on him to stay healthy for a full year. At any rate, that would have allowed the front office to focus its attention on the interior, where another guard would go a long way toward upgrading the overall unit.
Chris Williams has done the bulk of the work at left guard. He's been above average as a run blocker, but below average as a pass blocker. He's been fine as a fill-in, but is not a long-term answer the Rams need. Harvey Dahl has manned the other guard spot, or he did until injuring his MCL in Week 8 against Seattle. Dahl's clearly on the downward trajectory of his career, and his $3.5 million salary next season, the last year of his deal, will be an easy target for clearing cap space. Shelly Smith replaces Dahl on the right side. In limited work, Smith's done well as a run blocker. An extended audition should give the Rams a better idea about his value to the team going forward.
In the middle, a healthy season from Scott Wells has produced the kind of results the Rams expected when they signed him to a $24 million free agent deal in 2012. He's allowed just four pressures, including one sack, through eight games. His run blocking hasn't been anything special. The Rams have rookie Barrett Jones waiting in the wings to take over once Wells can't handle the job. Wells turns 33 in January, and is signed through 2015.
The front five hasn't gotten enough credit for its run blocking. According to Football Outsiders, the Rams line is producing 4.02 adjusted line yards, the seventh-best mark in the NFL. Where they've struggled has been a poor cast of running backs, not capable of taking advantage of the holes opened up ... until the offense finally turned to Zac Stacy.
All in all, the 2013 version of the Rams offensive line is the best starting the five the team's had since the GSOT days. So why are they giving up more pressures?
No team has allowed pass rushers a free shot at the quarterback on an unblocked rush. Rams quarterbacks have been pressured a total of 37 times by unblocked rushers through eight games, according to Pro Football Focus. Nearly half of those have resulted in a QB knockdown.
Pass rushers are getting unfettered access to the pocket for two reasons, scheme and personnel. Unlike last year when the Rams were forced to use tight ends and backs to give the rotating cast of replacement tackles assistance, the offensive game plan hasn't called for as much of that. Plus, when you're running more four- and five-receiver, empty backfield sets, like the Rams did so often in the early part of the season, there's no one left to block.
The skill position players have also left a little to be desired as blockers. Lance Kendricks hasn't blocked as well as he has in the past. We won't even mention Jared Cook's "work" as a blocker or his tendency to disappear at the first sign of contact.
Blocking well will be even more important through the second half of the season, with the Rams leaning on the running game (hopefully) and Kellen Clemens having taken over for Sam Bradford.
But don't let the team's disappointing start fool you, there's real progress being made up front. The question now is whether or not they can build on that through the last eight games.