The latest Las Vegas over/under betting line - on 2014 regular season win totals - has the St. Louis Rams at 6.5 wins. As one might expect, the over/under line for the Rams went spiralling downwards after the injury to QB Sam Bradford. Are the Rams destined to finish under .500 for an 8'th consecutive season? Or - if the Rams excel in a number of key areas - can they overcome the loss of Bradford, beat the oddsmakers, and post a winning record?
Winning the turnover battle
It's a widely held belief that winning the turnover battle is important to a teams success on the field. As Jeff Fisher noted:
"You win games when you force turnovers on defense. You never get tired of preaching turnovers, that’s one of the key factors in wins and losses."
The Rams finished with 7 wins in 2013. The team had a positive turnover differential in 6 of those wins, and a zero differential in the other victory. The Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks led the NFL in turnover differential last season. The Rams' ranking improved significantly in 2013, with the team finishing 9'th - plus 8 - in turnover differential.
A dramatic increase in forced fumbles/fumble recoveries was the primary reason for the climb up the rankings. Additionally, the Rams' offense held on to the ball quite well in 2013, allowing only 21 giveaways [10'th best in the NFL]. Expect much of the same from the offense in 2014. The defensive numbers should be even better this season, now that Gregg Williams is the Rams' defensive coordinator.
Controlling the line of scrimmage
I'm a firm believer in one of the oldest tenet's in the NFL: Football games are won in the trenches. After the draft, Rams GM Les Snead shared his thoughts on the teams' first round selections:
"Football teams, you build from the inside out. I always say that's when you are building your foundation."
"We felt like Greg was a piece of the puzzle that's going to help us control that line of scrimmage. In our division, you have got to be physical. All three of those teams have really good front sevens."
The Rams spent considerable resources this offseason upgrading both the offensive and defensive interior lines. Jermelle Cudjo, Harvey Dahl, Chris Williams, Matt Conrath, and Shelley Smith were not re-signed/released. In their place, the Rams re-signed Rodger Saffold to play right guard, selected OT Greg Robinson and DT Aaron Donald in the 2014 NFL Draft, plus signed DT Alex Carrington and OG Davin Joseph as free agents. Promising UDFA DL Ethan Westbrooks also made the 53-man roster.
The Rams' offensive/defensive lines now boast an amazing amount of highly drafted talent. 8 players on those lines were selected within the top 33 of their respective drafts: Jake Long, Davin Joseph, Greg Robinson, Rodger Saffold, Aaron Donald, Chris Long, Michael Brockers, and Robert Quinn.
The Rams' defensive line may be the best in the NFL. The offensive line - if it can stay healthy - has the potential to be a top-ten unit. In an article for Football Perspective, Chase Stuart notes the abundance of talent on the Rams' current lines, drawing favorable comparisons to the Rams' lines of the 1970's.
The Rams will play ten games this season against teams with potent rushing attacks. The Rams themselves will feature a power-running game. They now have the talent to consistently win the battles in the trenches, and control the line of scrimmage.
Ascendancy in Year 3
According to Rams GM Les Snead, the third year is the key one for teams that make massive changes after a coaching and philosophical change:
"If you look at all the teams that build something that lasts -- even the 49'ers under Bill Walsh -- it's usually somewhere in Year Three that they catch on and get in their window."
The Rams are now into Year 3 of a complete rebuild under Jeff Fisher and Les Snead. As Rams GM Les Snead so keenly observed, many rebuilding teams begin reaping the benefits of a successful long-term plan in Year 3. The Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers are recent examples of teams turning the corner in Year 3 of successful rebuilds. The Rams are building a young, talented team, one that will be able to sustain excellence - and win consistently - for many years to come. The window will be opening this year.
The complementary passing game
Make no mistake about it, the Rams' passing game isn't likely to resemble "Air Coryell" this season. But for the Rams to have a successful season, it doesn't need to. Every team in the league knows the Rams will run the football. That was going to be the case even before Sam Bradford's season-ending injury. An offensive scheme more along the lines of "Ground Chuck".
The Rams do need some semblance of a passing game to keep defenses honest. An efficient passing game will help balance out the offensive attack, and prevent defenses from stacking the box, anticipating the run. The Rams have the pieces in place to pull it off.
QB Shaun Hill brings a steady, veteran presence to the Rams' offense. He'll be able to move the offense more efficiently than Kellen Clemens did in 2013. WR's Kenny Britt and Brian Quick have looked impressive throughout the offseason [the Rams may have found their No. 1 WR]. Both Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey should be more productive in their 2'nd NFL seasons. Look for Jared Cook to improve on his 2013 numbers.
Roster depth and avoiding injuries
Roster depth - and avoiding the injury bug - are keys to a successful season...for any team. The Rams head into the 2014 season with their deepest, most talented roster since the arrival of Jeff Fisher and Les Snead. However, there are concerns regarding depth on the OLine, and defensive back-seven. The Rams must stay healthy to have any chance at a winning record this season.
The third element
Special teams play is a crucial - yet often overlooked - component of a teams' success in the NFL. I envision the Rams being involved in many close, low-scoring, defense-dominated games this season. Games where field position, ball control, and field goals take on added importance. In these types of games, special teams play can be the difference between winning and losing.
Luckily for the Rams, their special teams units are among the best in the NFL. They boast a strong kicking game - with Greg Zuerlein and John Hekker - plus a dynamic, dangerous punt/kick returner in Tavon Austin. The return/coverage units are young, talented, physical, and aggressive. I expect continued improvement - in all aspects of special teams play - this season, as the units will be more talented - and experienced - than in 2013.
Although I'm not a huge fan of advanced statistical analysis, it's interesting to note what others think - statistically - of the Rams' special teams units. Football Outsiders - in its annual special teams ratings - ranked the Rams 4'th overall in special teams play for the 2013 season. For the ratings, FO uses their signature statistic - DVOA - an acronym for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average:
Getting off to a fast start
The Rams begin their 2014 regular season at home against the Minnesota Vikings. In Week 2, they visit Tampa Bay, to play the Bucs. Then they're back at home to face the Dallas Cowboys. Although each opponent will be a stern test for the Rams, all three games are eminently winnable. Following a bye in Week 4, the Rams face a brutal 8-game stretch. All 8 games feature teams that made the playoffs/won 10 games in 2013.
Starting the season 3-0 would put the Rams in a position where an overall winning record becomes a reasonable - and attainable - goal. Beginning the season on a winning note builds momentum heading into the most difficult part of the schedule. For the Rams' young roster, success will breed confidence. A psychological barrier - and doubts about winning - must be overcome when a team loses their franchise QB for the season. A 3-0 start would erase any doubt about the teams ability to win this year without Sam Bradford. Conversely, an 0-3 record entering the bye week will likely mean the Rams are in for a long season.
Football is the ultimate team sport. The loss of Sam Bradford - while devastating - doesn't automatically translate into another losing season for the Rams. The Rams can overcome the loss of Bradford, and finish with a winning season. All it will take is success in some key areas...and the ultimate team effort.