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The 2014 St. Louis Rams: Real Signs of Progress?

The 2014 St. Louis Rams represented the third year of the Jeff Fisher/Les Snead rebuilding project. This was the season they had earmarked for a breakthrough, the year where the boatload of draft picks from the RGIII trade finally put it together. This was supposed to be a playoff season, or at the very least a team in the thick of it til the final week. Having missed that mark, has this team made real progress in 2014?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 season was the year the St. Louis Rams were supposed to break out.

Sure, they reside in the brutal NFC West, but with a healthy Sam Bradford and the Sack City defense there was a real feeling they could contend for a playoff spot. The Rams' offense even had a different feel to it in the preseason, and Sam Bradford was looking poised for the breakout season his 2013 injury cut short. Of course, it was only the preseason in incredibly limited duty, but Bradford was looking sharp. Bradford went 13/21 (62%) for 178 yards with one touchdown, zero interceptions and zero sacks.

Let's take a look at what the yards per attempt numbers say about Bradford's 2014 preseason vs his career numbers. Bradford has long been known as the checkdown king among Rams fans (career 6.29 ypa), but in the 2014 preseason he was averaging a healthy 8.48 ypa. While it is purely speculation, it sure appeared Bradford finally had weapons he felt comfortable airing it out to.

Then, it happened.

August 23, 2014, in Cleveland. The Rams' best hope for playoff contention went down with a second tear to the same ACL. Bradford wouldn't be the last big name player to hit the IR in 2014, but he was the first and it all but signaled the end of the Rams 2014 breakout aspirations.

The loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday Night Football finally eliminated the Rams from playoff contention. Yes, they were all but eliminated prior to that game, but it made it official. So while there are still some things for the Rams to play for in 2014, they fell short of their ultimate goal. For me personally, if the only thing the Rams manage to accomplish the rest of the season is beating the Seahawks in week 17, than I would be happy with a season sweep over the previous season's Super Bowl participants. If that victory happened to damage the Seahawks playoff seeding and/or eliminate them from the playoffs, well that's just icing on the cake! Moral victories aside there appears to be plenty of progress made from this young Rams team, even if it doesn't show up in the win/loss total.

Let's take a look at some of the things that should give Rams fans hope for 2015. The Rams defense may have taken some time to find a rhythm, but they have really started to show the "dominant" potential we were all talking about leading up to the season. There are so many developments from 2014 that the team should build off of in 2015. The defense finally seems to be getting the hang of Gregg Williams' scheme (and he of how to best utilize his players), and the results have been quite impressive. Two consecutive shutouts certainly catch the headlines, but the team hasn't allowed a red zone TD since Week 10 against the Cardinals. That stretch includes not allowing a single red zone snap to the Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, and Washington Redskins.

More than just the addition of Williams as the DC has been the development of young players. Whether it is Alec Ogletree developing more consistency down the stretch, Robert Quinn showing his borderline dominance of LTs on a weekly basis, or the emergence of TJ McDonald as one of the better safeties in the NFL there are lots of young players stepping up. Of course when discussing the youth in St. Louis one must focus on the Rookie class, headlined on the defensive side by Aaron Donald and EJ Gaines (steal of the 2014 draft IMO). Gaines was a 6th round draft choice, yet he has started at CB the entire season and has more than held his own. While Gaines has been the gem of the Rams draft, Aaron Donald has been the wrecking ball. The rookie defensive players in the history of the NFL who have had as much consistent success as Donald has in 2014 would be a very short list. Even before becoming a starter along the defensive line a quarter of the way through the season, Donald has had at least one "Holy Sh**!" moment per game. He is currently riding a consecutive games with a sack streak that is 5 games long, and has 8 sacks total on the season. If Donald doesn't win DROY, it will be due to his place as a DT where eye-popping stats are more difficult to come by than at say LB. For the defense, it's hard not to imagine what could have been this year if Chris Long hadn't hit IR and Donald had been a week 1 starter.

The Rams' offense also showed some signs of progress in 2014, even if that is a bit harder to believe. Coming into the season it was expected the team would rely on the broad shoulders of Zac Stacy to carry a ground and pound offense. The offense lacked proven wide receivers, and Stacy seemed to be poised for a big year. As we all know now Stacy was hurt by the timeshare and weak interior OL play, but in the end the big play ability of Tre Mason and well rounded skills of Benny Cunningham put the Rams in a better position entering 2015. The real progress, or signs of it anyway, has come at the WR position.

Yes, I know the Rams will still fail to have a 1,000-yard receiver, but the stable of Stedman Bailey, Brian Quick, Kenny Britt, and Tavon Austin certainly looks much more formidable heading into 2015 than it did in 2014. Quick's breakout campaign was cut short due to injury, and Bailey's was hampered by the suspension. However, each has shown the ability to dominate a game at various points in the season. If the Rams can retain the entire WR corps there is certainly reason to believe the Rams offense could be more than just average next year. Yes, the team has huge question marks along the offensive line (especially C and G), and obviously at the most important position in football, but improvements in the backfield and out wide signal progress nonetheless.

The special teams unit deserves honorable mention here. While it doesn't appear Johnny Hekker will break the NFL record mark he set last season, he has still had a fine campaign. The unit has also cut down on the ridiculous penalties which have crippled them in the past. Tavon Austin has shown plenty of flash in the return game, and really appears to be getting more comfortable at the NFL level. The one negative to the special teams has been the uneven play of Greg The Leg. His performance against the Redskins certainly was the low point of his career, but wasn't the only rough patch he hit in 2014. I would be surprised if the team moved on from The Leg, but I imagine the leash has been shortened somewhat.

Overall, the team suffered some major setbacks (Bradford, Jake Long and Chris Long to IR) in 2014, and also managed to squander prime opportunities (Dallas and first 49ers games anyone). Even with the loss of perhaps the two most important players on the roster for the season (QB and LT), they were competitive in every game except the Vikings and Chiefs games. Most of those games they weren't just competitive, but actually had possession of the ball late in the game with a chance to win.

If the offense can find a way to cut down on the number of return touchdowns they surrender (Rams lead NFL in 2014) in 2015, this defense could win a lot of games without major offensive contributions. It may not be what any Rams fan wants to hear, but there is certainly real hope for "Next Year".

Thanks for reading and as always, Go Rams!!!