The Rams' most reliable player - over the past eight years - will no longer be lining up in the team's backfield. Steven Jackson will carry the load for the Falcons, and the Rams now look to a trio of young running backs to move the team downfield. Jackson had rushed for 1,000+ yards for eight consecutive years; something only five other rushers [Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Thurman Thomas, Curtis Martin, and LaDainian Tomlinson] have ever done. It appears that streak - at least as it pertains to the Rams - will come to an end.
Jackson wasn’t the only rusher in the NFC West to eclipse the 1,000 yard mark last year. Both Marshawn Lynch [1,590 yards] and Frank Gore [1,214] easily surpassed the milestone, and have done so for two consecutive seasons. Contrarily, the Cardinals - who battled injury at the position - were lead by LaRod Stephens-Howling, who amassed 356 yards in 2012.
Consider their inability to run the ball addressed. One of the Cardinals’ less talked about [more so underrated] 2013 offseason acquisitions was grabbing free agent RB Rashard Mendenhall. New head coach Bruce Arians was on NFL Network’s "NFL AM" on Wednesday morning, and spoke very highly of a now healthy Mendenhall…
He took me personally to a Super Bowl, and I know what he can bring to the table as a runner and a pass protector and also a receiver. He's an every-down player. And I think he's looking forward to having an outstanding season.
It’s clear that Arians’ familiarity with Mendenhall - dating back to being his offensive coordinator in the Steelers' 2009 Super Bowl run - has set him apart from Ryan Williams. Williams was drafted 38th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, and has only played in 5 games since.
Mendenhall is looking to bounce back from an achilles tendon injury which kept him sidelined for the majority of the 2012 season. Prior to that, the Cardinals’ newest rusher was putting together consecutive 1,000+ yard campaigns of his own in Pittsburgh. From 2009-2011 [despite missing one game], Mendenhall rushed for 3,309 yards [1,103 yds per] and 29 TD’s.
Whether or not Mendenhall is able to get back to the caliber of play he was in Pittsburgh remains to be seen. If he’s able to stay healthy, he could join Lynch and Gore in the 1,000+ yard club in the NFC West. The Rams - barring a breakout season by one of their youngsters - will look to spread the ball between Isaiah Pead, Daryl Richardson, and Zac Stacy; making it unlikely the team will have a 1,000+ yard runner for a 9th consecutive year. (I won't mention the fact none of the Rams' current running backs have a single NFL touchdown between them...)
Does it really matter [to the Rams] whether or not Mendenhall is able to rush for 1,000 yards? In the grand scheme, no. Having a running back that can eclipse the 1,000 yard mark isn’t a prerequisite for a postseason run, though it can’t hurt your chances. What it does mean though, is the Cardinals have seriously bolstered their run game heading into the upcoming season, and are primed for a 2013 campaign that matches the impressiveness of their off season.
Having added a pair of guards [Jonathan Cooper and Earl Watford] in April’s draft, the Cardinals solidified their offensive front, and set the stage for Mendenhall to return to being one of the more productive rushers in the league.
And though cohesion won’t occur instantly, given a multitude of personnel changes, Mendenhall is one of the new offensive weapons that could make the Cardinals a dangerous team in 2013. Assuming the Rams are going to easily sweep the season series with the Cardinals would be a mistake.
The NFC West is a tough division.