Though numerated, the following is in no particular ranking by importance. Here’s my take on what it’s going to take for the St. Louis Rams to make the playoffs, a few things that could crush those hopes, and problems that hindered them from getting there in years past:
What It’s Going To Take
1. The Leadership of Sam Bradford: This is no longer a football team who looks to a veteran, eight-time 1,000 yard rusher to pave the way. The #1 overall pick from 2010 has full control of the Rams offense, and they’ll go as he does. The Rams are still very young offensively, though. Three years of NFL experience trumps that of many of his offensive components. It’s his team now. The time has come for Sam Bradford to shine.
2. Winning the Winnable Games: Specifically the home games. The Dome will need to be rockin’ for all of the home games, and the offseason excitement surrounding the team should leave few seats empty come September. Playing in the NFC West is no excuse, though. The Rams must win games at home: Arizona Cardinals (9/8), San Francisco 49ers (9/26), Jacksonville Jaguars (10/6), Seattle Seahawks (10/28), Tennessee Titans (11/3), Chicago Bears (11/24), New Orleans Saints (12/15), and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12/22).
That is to say that the Rams need to win the majority of the them. They owned the NFC West in 2012, going 4-1-1 on the year. A step back could be back-breaking, considering two of the West’s teams are already being penciled into the playoffs.
3. A Top 10 Defense: There’s so much momentum from 2012 that this one may just be a given. It will need to be. The Rams defense was needed to keep the team in the majority of their 7 wins in 2012. It also kept many of their 8-1 losses/ties within grasp. The front seven for the Rams looks to be one of the more respectable units in the entirety of the league. There’s promise in the secondary, but youth/inexperience are a slight concern. If the coaching staff feels comfortable fielding the projected starters, (Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, T.J. McDonald, and Darian Stewart) then you should too. Time will tell, but it looks as though the Rams are going to have a Top-10 defense, and it’s going to be that way for a several years.
4. A Mystery Man at Running Back: At this stage of the offseason, the Rams haven’t named a starting running back. They may not have by the time the season rolls around. It looks as though the Rams look to use a running-back-by-committee approach in 2013. With Steven Jackson gone, though, the Rams are going to need someone to step up in a big way. Filling Jackson’s shoes isn’t a necessity per se, but having a reliable back who can punch it in at the goal line is. The roster battle that’ll take place between Isaiah Pead, Daryl Richardson, and rookie Zac Stacy will provide one of the most interesting offseason story lines. Each has differing levels of skill sets and gives defenses a different look, but one will stand above the rest as the season progresses.
What's Bound To Break
1. Losing At Home: As aforementioned, winning in the division will be no easy feat. And though the Rams performed admirably in 2012, there are no guarantees for the season to come. Losing home games to their NFC West opponents would be devastating. The Rams have the 3rd toughest strength of schedule in the league this year, and trying to win on the road - especially against the aforementioned opponents - could extinguish playoff aspirations sooner than players, coaches, or fans would like. The Seahawks and 49ers both finished with 11 wins in 2012… not winning home games in the division would certainly put the Rams in a precarious position.
2. Inability to Adapt on Offense: A strength can’t be a weakness can it? Do you remember all of the Jets fans stopping by TST to rejoice when the Rams chose Brian Schottenheimer as their offensive coordinator? Well, their opinions - as well as yours and mine - will mean very little in relation to the Rams offense in 2013.
The word ‘bolster’ fails to adequately accompany a Rams offense which acquired Jake Long, Jared Cook, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, and Zac Stacy in the offseason. Couple those acquisitions with those of 2012 - Brian Quick and Chris Givens - and Sam Bradford has been provided some very respectable options. It’s a luxury for sure. With the top-end speed the majority of his wideouts possess, Bradford should have minimal problems targeting an open receiver in the upcoming season… given a moment to do so, of course.
How will he spread the wealth, though? How much of that is his decision? Bradford has the ability to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage, but it’ll be Brian Schottenheimer’s play-calling that will engineer drives down the field. Schotty hasn’t received much praise - from either Rams or Jets fans - for generating explosive offenses. For a guy potentially eyeing a promotion - as soon as 2014 - this would certainly be the year to flex his skills.
Sam Bradford isn’t the only member of the Rams whose been provided a bevy of new weapons. The onus of making this offense one of the league’s most dynamic is also on Brian Schottenheimer.
3. Inexperience: It’s all over the field. Chris Givens and Janoris Jenkins were stellar as rookies. If sustained success/improvement are the expectation in their second seasons, they’ve set the bar high in their outstanding rookie campaigns. And although there’s nothing to indicate anything other than progress, Givens and Jenkins should be the least of Rams’ fans concerns.
There’s little more than speculation at who’s going to start at Left Guard. Even if it is ultimately filled by 2012 5th round pick Rokevious Watkins, his less-than-one-quarter of NFL stats don’t scream ‘proven.’ The running backs have a total of 108 carries in the NFL, and Austin Pettis - coming into his 3rd season - is the team’s ‘veteran’ wide receiver. Speaking of veterans, center Scott Wells (32) and guard Harvey Dahl (31) are outliers in terms of average age on the offense (25), which ranks as 6th youngest in the NFL.
The defense is no exception. The Rams defensive front appears as stout as they come. The front seven does still include a rookie, a 2nd year DT, and a 3rd year DE. Janoris Jenkins looks to be one of the steals of the 2012 draft, and a perfect compliment to Cortland Finnegan. Depth at corner - coupled with more questions than answers at safety - could spell the weak point in the Rams defense.
The inexperience - on both sides of the ball - doesn’t have to be a weakness. It could just as easily prove to be a strength - and at some positions - it’s already an upgrade. "Proven" just isn’t a fitting word to describe the players, and there’s far too little playing time [for some] to assume otherwise.
4. The Dreaded ‘I’ Word: If you take a look at the Rams' depth chart, the starting bunch looks legitimate. After that, there’s some concern - on both sides of the ball - at who can step in and execute. The offensive line is a particular unit which has struggled to consistently stay healthy. Uncertainty at left guard isn’t as major a concern when everyone surrounding them is healthy. But if the status of Jake Long’s tricep, Scott Wells’ knee, or Rodger Saffold’s knee/back/neck/pectoral take a turn for the worse, so do the Rams chances at succeeding. And for my next trick, I will now successfully exit this paragraph without use of the dreaded ‘i’ word.
No Room To Blame
1. Competent Coaches: From Jeff Fisher all the way down, the Rams now have a competent bunch of NFL caliber coaches. For the first time - under the Fisher regime - the team will have a defensive coordinator. Gelling all aspects of an already promising team won’t provide you the opportunity to point the finger at the coaching staff’s ability to prepare the Rams for game day.
2. Inadequate Weapons: No brainer. The offense will be facing some of the most indomitable defenses in the league, but it’s got the explosive components necessary to turn the tides. Finding out how to utilize them might be a tougher feat than realizing success when the ball is in their hands.
3. Craig Dahl: If there was one polarizing figure from the Rams 2012 squad, it was safety Craig Dahl. He’s gone now. What does it mean for the Rams? Having seen the results of the offseason and draft, it means the coaching staff feels comfortable with Darian Stewart as Dahl’s replacement. I’m not sure what took so long, and I’m guessing most Rams’ fans feel the same. Much like the desired results of the upcoming season, progress is the minimal expectation at strong safety for the Rams. Stewart has some relatively small shoes to fill.