St. Louis Rams: Tight End Coverage Will Be Key

Grant Halverson

I think there's one person in the NFL world who wouldn't mind if the hype of how great the St. Louis Rams defensive line may be could simply die away, and that's Jeff Fisher. He's spent the last two years adding to pieces-parts former Rams' head coach Steve Spagnuolo left behind, and done a pretty remarkable job. The problem though, is the NFC West is quite literally brimming with defensive talent across the board. Saying the Rams defensive front is "the best" will have the downright fearsome bands of defensive madmen in Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona simmering for a chance to slaughter Sam Bradford and Co., and prove just who really is "The Best in the West"...

Being ranked as highly as they are - by NFL pundits - is a balm to loss weary St. Louis Rams fans, but it adds pressure too. It will also shift offensive coordinator game plans, putting their focus squarely on a part of the Rams' defense that's unproven at the very least - the defensive secondary. What's more, the Rams will need to counter quick "bubble screen" passes, and double tight end sets. I think Jeff Fisher and Les Snead see the challenge of covering tight ends will be on the rise, and their recent draft picks paint a picture featuring strong safeties as more of a need than a center field/deep cover defensive back. Swarming around my cloudy mind is the prospect of - Gulp! - a kind of "bend, don't break" pass defense, with emphasis being put on the running game, and stopping short passes for small gains.

The giddy smiles of a few weeks ago - regarding the potential of the Rams defensive line - have faded a bit for me. While I love how deep in talent this unit appears to be, questions at other positions begin to peek out. For instance, based on what I can surmise, opposing team tight ends may very well be a key this year. Looking at the Rams linebacker corp and defensive backs, I began to consider the tight ends they'll be tasked to cover in 2014. Take a look:

San Francisco 49ers - Vernon Davis: In my mind, and based on his incredible talent set, he's one of the top 3 tight ends in the NFL. With 4.4/ 40 yard dash speed and size, Davis has been the only real receiving threat for the 49ers on a consistent basis. He's been "the guy" defensive coordinators have been game planning for when facing San Francisco the last five years. He has a 13.1 yard per catch average over the last 8 NFL seasons, and that's with defenses double teaming him - or at the very least chip blocking him - at the line on EVERY play. It's worked to an extent, but the 49ers have slowly added receiving options which could marginalize this ability to limit Davis. Trust me on this one: Jeff Fisher and Greg Williams have Vernon Davis high on there list of players to be concerned with this season...

Dallas Cowboys - Jason Witten - Destined for the NFL Hall of Fame one day, Witten may be getting long in the tooth now, but don't underestimate just how important he is to Tony Romo's offense. Witten has been a steadfast option for the Cowboys the last 11 years, and will be again in his 12th NFL season. His 879 career catches for 9,799 yards, 52 touchdowns - and an impressive 11.1 YPC average - mark Jason Witten as one of the very best tight ends in the NFL.

Denver Broncos - Julius Thomas - This is a monster Peyton Manning created. Thomas' 788 yards on 65 catches(12.1 YPC), yielded 12 touchdowns too. He's a beneficiary of Manning's ability to spread the ball around on any given play. The 2011 4th round pick out of Portland State exploded onto the NFL scene last season. He reminds me a bit of a younger Antonio Gates, with the ability to get down the field and make catches in traffic. A solid red zone threat, he'll wreak havoc on opposing defensive secondaries as long as he has Manning at the helm.

Arizona Cardinals - Rob Housler - Yes, they snagged Notre Dame's Troy Niklas in the recent draft, but that's not all they've done to insure Housler has both back up and challengers for the tight end position. John Carlson and Jake Ballard round out a stellar corp, and could signal a trend toward more double tight end sets in Bruce Arians' offense. They need to block for Carson Palmer to have any chance at surviving this season, and block they will. Housler is an offensive weapon many overlook due to his injury history. But I firmly believe he'd be a top 5 tight end in a different offensive scheme like New England's.

San Diego Chargers - Antonio Gates - Going into his 12th NFL, Gates isn't the tight end he used to be... Or is he? This is one of the best tight ends over the last decade, and any team who discounts Gates' ability to be a game changing factor does so at their own peril. His 719 career catches, and 9193 receiving yards for a 12.7 YPC are impressive. But it's his 87 career touchdowns that should keep defensive coordinators from taking the veteran Gates for granted.

Minnesota Vikings - Kyle Rudolph - Highly touted in the 2011 NFL Draft, Rudolf has been limited by quarterback performance in Minnesota. In 2012, when Christian Ponder decided to throw the ball Rudolf's way, the tight end from Notre Dame had impressive season numbers: 53 catches, 493 yards and 9 touch downs. Given the current quarterback situation for the Vikings, I can't help but think a health Kyle Rudolf will be thrust center stage once again. The Vikings are almost devoid of any valid wide receiver play makers too, which bodes well for a big season ahead for Rudolf...

Seattle Seahawks - Anthony McCoy, Luke Wilson and Zach Miller - Believe it or not, this may be the deepest in talent position on the Super Bowl Champion's roster. While McCoy's returning from an Achilles tendon injury suffered before last season began, he'd shown sparks in 2012 of being a solid red zone threat. Zach Miller is solid as both a blocker and pass catcher, and the second year Luke Wilson has shown sparks. I can't help but think this is a position head coach Pete Carroll will seek to both expand and exploit in 2014?

Philadelphia Eagles - Brent Celek and Zach Ertz - You might think the tight end position would be marginalized in Chip Kelly's fast paced offense, but it isn't the case. Celek, and the second year Ertz , have provided key moments for the Eagles. Combined, theses two tight ends tallied 971 yards, 10 TDs, and a 14.35 YPC, to go with 47 first downs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Brandon Myers ***Mike Evans?? - You're wondering why I have Mike Evans mentioned here, right? Well, the Texas A&M player is every bit tight end-sized, and I have to wonder if a sneaky offensive set with Evans position just inside a tight end to chip a defensive end, then flash out into the flats, is in the offing? Add in Tampa's other rookie - Seferian-Jenkins - and you have an intriguing duo who could present an incredible mismatch opportunity when they're on the same side. Don't discount Myers either; he's more than a bit capable of terrorizing opposing secondaries.

Washington Redskins - Jordan Reed - In nine games, Reed tallied an impressive 499 yards on 45 catches. The telling stat for Reed though, is his 30 first downs for a woeful Washington offense. Make no mistake: Reed and Robert Griffin III will be "best-est buddies" in 2014...

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The bottom line for the Rams' defense: Pass rushing is a great asset, but let's not forget just how wily NFL offensive coordinators can be. Pass coverage is something high of Jeff Fisher's list. But when you look at the Rams' defense as a whole, where do you see weaknesses other teams can exploit? Let me know in the comments...

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