Rams offensive line excels again

Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports

The Rams have something we haven't seen in a long, long time: quality offensive line play.

In the eight seasons since hanging out our sign, TST has rarely seen a version of the St. Louis Rams offensive line worth celebrating. One of the consistent things coded into the team's DNA over the last decade has been the crummy offensive line play. Until this season.

On Sunday, the Rams offensive line kept Kellen Clemens free and clear from sacks. He was only hurried four times, and wasn't hit at all. Little wonder he completed 14-of-20 pass attempts for 158 yards and two touchdowns.

Runing back Zac Stacy was also the beneficiary of the improved line play, compiling 133 yards on 28 carries for a very nice 4.8 yards per attempt.

And this is an offensive line that's taken on several iterations since the beginning of the season.

So how did the Rams offensive line get to this point?

A new left tackle

Free agent signings haven't gone especially well for GM Les Snead, but the addition of Jake Long has been a success. The former first overall pick struggled through injuries before coming to the Rams. As the season's gone on, he's recaptured most of his Pro Bowl self.

Pro Football Focus has Long as the highest graded offensive lineman on the team, at 25.7. That number also makes him the fifth-highest graded offensive tackle in the NFL. His 14.8 grade from PFF as a run blocker leads all regular starting tackles.

He's gotten better as the season's gone along too. Over the last seven games, Long has allowed just two sacks, two hits and six hurries. He allowed four sacks, two hits and 16 hurries through the first seven games. The Rams haven't had this kind consistency from a blind side protector since Orlando Pace.

Middle men

The middle of the line has been the weakest spot for the Rams all season. But it's gotten better since moving Rodger Saffold to the inside and with Tim Barnes taking over for the injured Scott Wells.

Wells was efficient in pass protection, and two and a half games is still a small sample size for Barnes. However, the Mizzou product has allowed just two hurries in 155 snaps. He's also been an improvement as a run blocker, albeit still with a negative grade of -2.4, which does best Wells' -8.3 grade.

Saffold's move to the middle in place of Harvey Dahl has been a ray of light ... for the running backs. He's now made five starts at the right guard spot, including against a pair of the league's toughest defensive lines (Arizona and San Francisco). Saffold's allowed just three hits and four hurries as a guard. His run blocking has graded out positively too, except for Week 14 against the Cardinals. Also notable is that Saffold has yet to incur a penalty as an interior lineman.

Not bad at all for a guy who had never played guard before.

Meet Joe Barksdale

Picked up as a castoff last season, Barksdale found a home as the incumbent right tackle after taking over for an injured Saffold in Week 2. His play has improved with time. Barksdale has allowed just one sack in his last seven games. His run blocking grades have been so-so, -6.1 overall thanks to a couple games, but his pass blocking has been solid.

It looks like the Rams have found a right tackle and a winning combination for its front five, except ...

Change is coming

Saffold is due for unrestricted free agency. His ability to play guard as well as left and right tackle makes him an attractive target in a league suffering through a tackle shortage. It would be nice if the Rams could bring him back, but he struggles to play a full 16-game season and might find more lucrative offers than what the cap-strapped Rams can give him.

Barnes is an exclusive right free agent in 2014, which virtually guarantees that he'll be back, as long as he continues to play well, as an affordable part of the depth chart. He's earning a shot at the starting center job next year, but he'll compete with Barrett Jones for that.

Chris Williams, the starting left guard, signed a one-year incentive laden deal. Williams earns the lowest grade of the bunch, and the Rams will probably be in the market for two new starting guards if he and Saffold both leave. Shelley Smith has had plenty of playing time as a backup/platoon. He's also a free agent after this season.

Long is signed through 2017 on a $34 million contract, with just $16 million guaranteed. At 28, he should have a few good years ahead of him, at least, but the Rams would be wise to start thinking about an eventual replacement.

Barksdale has one more year under contract at a very reasonable rate, just $645,000 next season. But there's some question about whether or not the team views him as a long-term answer there.

There are some attractive options at offensive tackle in the 2014 draft, guys like Jake Matthews who would be worth a top-five pick. That would give the Rams quality depth and an eventual replacement for Jake Long. But that high draft pick could also fetch a small fortune in trade.

The Rams may opt for a new right tackle in 2014, but at the very least they can count on going into the season with holdovers at both tackle spots as well as the center. That's a plus, even if the jury's still out on two of those positions, but a second consecutive season of quality line play is still going to require some shrewd offseason moves.

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