The St. Louis Rams entered the 2014 season with a stable of young, talented backs and the expectation of employing a 'Ground and Pound' type offense. With 2013 surprise player Zac Stacy leading the charge, the Rams were expected to have a bruising ground game, with Benny Cunningham and rookie Tre Mason sprinkled in. Once Sam Bradford went down in the Preseason, the 'Ground and Pound" offensive scheme seemed all but assured. Halfway through the season and that hasn't necessarily been the case. Through the teams first 8 games the offense has attempted 268 passes to only 201 rushes. That is a 57% pass to 43% run ratio, not exactly leaning on the ground game. Not only is the team nearly 60% pass so far in 2014, but the RB by committee (RBBC)approach has made this group a difficult one to judge. The team is averaging 4.0 yard per carry, but naturally that total will include QB scrambles and dives up the gut by Tavon Austin, so how has each RB performed in 2014.
Zac Stacy - C
Zac Stacy was a pleasant surprise during the 2013 season, rushing for nearly 1,000 yards in just over 12 games of NFL action. Even before the season ending injury to Bradford, it was expected Stacy could carry the ball 20+ times per game (when healthy) for the Rams. Using the 5'9" 224 pound bruiser 20+ times a game to wear down a defense sure sounded like a good idea to me, but Stacy hasn't had 20 carries in a single game this season. In fact, the last time he had even double digit carries was week 4 against the Philadelphia Eagles (11 carries). Stacy has a grand total of 13 carries over the past 4 games, with zero carries against both the Seattle Seahawks and second San Francisco 49ers game. The RBBC approach has certainly impacted Stacy, but he has also been dealing with minor injuries as well. So far he has 66 carries for 257 yards (3.9 ypc) and 1 TD, certainly not the productivity anyone expected heading into the season.
Benny Cunningham - B-
Benny Cunningham has been used almost entirely as a 3rd down and change of pace back in 2014. This is no real surprise, as everyone expected Zac Stacy to be the workhorse of the offense, giving way to Cunningham on 3rd down. Cunningham has averaged about 8 touches per game, with roughly 2/3 of those being rushes. With 64 combined touches Cunningham has contributed 340 total yards and 3 TDs. Surprisingly enough Cunningham has just 5 more receptions(20) than Zac Stacy (15). Benny is also averaging a mere 3.9 yards per carry so far this season, perhaps the first indication our Offensive Line has underwhelmed in the running game. Cunningham is pretty much playing the exact role we all expected, and doing a fine job, not out performing expectations but not disappointing either.
Tre Mason - C+
Tre Mason saw his first NFL action on Monday Night Football against the 49ers. His very first career touch was a 12 yard reception in which he steamrolled a 49ers defender to turn a 9 yard catch into 12 yards. For a guy who is only 5'8" and 207 lbs, he runs with tremendous power and always seems to finish his runs well by running "behind his pads". So far Mason only has 49 rushes, but 37 of those came in the Seahawks(18) and second 49ers (19) game. The game against the Seahawks was somewhat of a breakout performance, toting the rock 18 times for a total of 85 yards (4.7 ypc) and a TD. Yes there was the foolish fumble following his game sealing first down run, but the early indicators were that Mason was to be the starter sooner than later. Mason still struggles somewhat in pass protection, and hasn't been utilized much as a receiver (3 total receptions), but his quickness/burst and surprising power means its likely just a matter of time. On the season Mason has 49 rushes for 222 yards (4.5 ypc) and 1 TD, while his ypc average is best among RBs, he may be benefiting from the insertion of Greg Robinson into the lineup at the same time. Mason only gets a C+ since he has really only been a contributor for 1/4 of the season, but his arrow is definitely trending up!
Position Group Overall - C+
The Grades I have handed out to each individual runningback, and the position group as a whole, may seem a bit harsh so let me explain. The grades are as much about what we as Rams fans expected from the position in 2014, as it is about their actual production. No it isn't necessarily the running back groups fault that Tavon Austin has 17 rushes on the season (although it feels like 50 dives up the gut), or that the Rams have passed nearly 60% of their plays. If you look at rushes by only the 3 primary ball carriers, the Rams RB group has carried the ball a mere 159 times or 33.9% of the Rams total offensive plays in 2014. Let that sink in for a moment, despite a stable of young talented backs, the Rams have either thrown or handed off to secondary ball carriers on 66% of their plays. When looking at the top 3 RBs productivity, they average 4.1 yards per carry, while not eye popping numbers it is definitely enough production to help sustain a competent offense. If the Rams QB play continues to regress, you could see the team rely more on the running game.
The Rams RB group has been just about what you would have expected (save for Stacy's workload), no big surprises or disappointments. The hardest thing to figure about this group is how they will be used, as Jeff Fisher still hasn't committed to one RB as "The Guy". If the defense continues to improve like we saw at San Francisco (Santa Clara really), all 3 of the primary ball carriers may see their workload increase as the Rams transition to the Ground and Pound style we expected. The arrow on this group as a whole should be trending up as well. Thanks for reading and as always, Go Rams!!!