Surprising everyone with a 4-4 record, the St. Louis Rams enjoyed a solid first half to the 2010 season. Nobody thought that this team, with a rookie quarterback and major needs in key areas of the roster, would be vying for the NFC West title. And here they are. Head coach Steve Spagnuolo has the Rams playing well but still needing to pass some tests. Over the next few days, TST is going to take a look at each personnel unit at the halfway point, looking at how each group is performing, their strengths and weaknesses and an outlook for the second half of the season. Today, we start with the offensive line.
Miracle of miracles, the Rams have had, mostly, a healthy offensive this year, and it's made a big difference. Through week 7, the starting five combination of LT Rodger Saffold, LG Jacob Bell, C Jason Brown, RG Adam Goldberg and RT Jason Smith has gelled, functioning with an abundance of unit cohesion. Last week was the first game in which the Rams started someone else at one of those spots: Renardo Foster in for Jason Smith, who was dealing with a concussion.
Most impressive of all perhaps is the play of the offensive tackles. Draftniks scratched their head and some even groaned with the Rams selected Indiana OT Rodger Saffold with the first pick of the second round. That was especially true because lots of scouting reports had Saffold pegged as a right tackle in the NFL. Hearts warmed to the idea as camp progressed, but there were still plenty of disbelief that the rookie could be the team's starting left tackle. Sure enough, the kid has impressed us all. Rookie moments have been few and far between, save for some penalties here and there. More importantly, he doesn't get beat all that often in pass protection. Saffold has been the best offensive tackle taken in the draft (though that could change with time) and you can make a case that he's had the biggest impact of any second round pick.
Effusive praise of Saffold is meant to take nothing away from Jason Smith, who picked up where he left off from his injury shortened rookie season. Smith could play left tackle, but his run blocking acumen has made him an asset on the right side. Can he stay healthy enough to have a fruitful career?
The veterans in the middle of the line have been stout. Though the run blocking numbers could be better, they have done quite well in short yardage, trench warfare. Adding third year man John Greco to the mix at RG has given the unit some girth and allowed them to play the matchups well with opposing defenses.
When the Rams signed Sam Bradford to a gazillion dollar contract, it was a significant investment in the franchise's future. It made the offensive line's job that much more important as they were the ones most directly responsible for protecting that investment.
Opponents have sacked Bradford a total of 17 times, a mid-range number. However, when you factor in just how much the Rams have passed this year, they have a sack rate of just 5 percent, according to Football Outsiders. That's the eighth best sack rate in the league. And Bradford himself has been responsible for several of those sacks. If the trend continues, this will be the first time since 1999 that the Rams have allowed fewer than 40 sacks.
All things considered, it's hard to find any glaring weaknesses. In terms of the unit's weekly contribution, the run blocking could be better, but it's nothing to cause alarm.
Depth stands as the offensive line's biggest concern. At guard, the Rams have a useful starting trio that could shuffle around should one of the starters have to miss time. Behind Jason Brown there is Hank Fraley, a veteran with plenty of starting experience at center. However, Fraley does not play well against bigger defensive tackles.
I was pleasantly surprised at how well Renardo Foster played last week in place of Smith. That was a strong Carolina defense, albeit not one with a damaging pass rush. Adam Goldberg can also slide out an play tackle, but should the Rams lose a starter for a stretch of time it could be a real problem.
Second half outlook
This unit keeps playing better as the season progresses, one of the advantages of health. If they can stay healthy, the Rams can continue to move the ball and pursue their strategy of eating up the clock and letting the defense do its work. Injuries could present a setback, and any setback could quickly take the Rams out of the race for a division title.
Rams GM Billy Devaney and Spagnuolo pursued a rebuilding strategy that started by repairing the lines, particularly the offensive line. It left the team bereft of offense last year, but it made it that much easier to insert a talented rookie QB and start competing again.