Can the St. Louis Rams finish with a winning record - and compete for a playoff berth - in 2015? If the Rams can show marked improvement in 5 key areas, the answer to the question may very well be a resounding "YES".
A Tale Of Two Teams
There was a semblance of Jekyll (the first half) and Hyde (the second half) in most of the Rams' games last season. The teams' point differential in the first half of games: plus 58. In the second half of games: minus 88. The Rams were leading or tied at the half in 11 games last season. The Rams' record was 6-5 in those games. The Rams lost all 5 games where they were behind at the half. In fact, the Rams haven't won a game in the past two seasons unless they were tied or winning at half-time.
The following is a breakdown of the Rams' points scored/points allowed in 2014 by quarter:
- 1st Q - 95-42
- 2nd Q - 98-93
- 3rd Q - 48-106
- 4th Q - 83-113
Four issues stand out from the statistics and 2014 scoring breakdown:
- The Rams played winning football in the first half of most of their games...and losing football in the second half.
- For two full seasons, the Rams were unable to mount a comeback from a half-time deficit to win a game.
- The Rams' defense appeared to be stronger in the first half of most of their games.
- The third quarter was easily the Rams' worst over the course of the season, especially on offense.
For the most part, the issues can be attributed to the Rams' less-than-stellar offense (especially QB play) and being out-coached by opposing teams. As noted last week, the Rams' defense actually ranked 5th in the NFL in points allowed (when adjusted to eliminate touchdowns scored by opponents on fumble/interception returns and on special teams).
The solution to the 3rd issue is keeping the defense off the field, so the unit isn't gassed in the second halves of games. It entails improving time of possession and the number of sustained drives by the offense. These are goals Jeff Fisher will be attempting to achieve this coming season with a more balanced, run-heavy, ball control offensive philosophy.
To rectify the remaining three issues, the Rams are banking on numerous changes made to the offense in the offseason: a new offensive coordinator (Frank Cignetti), establishment of a clear offensive identity, and the additions of QB Nick Foles, RB Todd Gurley, plus 4 skilled rookie run-blockers. In 2014, the Rams were victimized all too often by opponents' half-time adjustments, mediocre QB play at critical times, erratic play calling, stalled drives and questionable second-half game management.
It's a widely held belief that winning the turnover battle is important to a teams success on the field. Turnovers have played a significant role in the Rams' fortunes over the past two seasons. The Rams counted 13 wins in the 2013-14 seasons combined. In 9 of those victories the Rams had a positive turnover differential (and a zero differential in the other 4 wins). They didn't win a single game in the last two seasons without at least being on even terms in the turnover battle.
No facet of the game hurt the Rams more in 2014 than turnovers. The Rams coughed up the ball 27 times last season (24th in the NFL). 8 fumbles/interceptions were returned for touchdowns (by far the worst total in the league). Six of the eight were in the 4th quarter. QB play was the chief culprit. QB's Austin Davis and Shaun Hill combined for 16 interceptions and 4 lost fumbles last season.
The Rams acquired QB Nick Foles from the Eagles in the offseason. The Rams are looking for Foles to produce numbers closer to his 2013 results (2 interceptions in 317 attempts) than his 2014 results (10 interceptions in 311 attempts). The Rams' move to a more ground-based attack should result in fewer turnovers this coming season. In 2014, the Rams' RB's were responsible for only 4 lost fumbles. Ball control and ball protection are precisely what Jeff Fisher wants from his offense in 2015.
The Rams led the NFL in penalty yards last season (1139). They were penalized 257 yards more than their opponents (3rd-worst in the league). For a team that would like to keep the ball on the ground, penalties all too often force that team into a passing situation. Penalties kill drives, contribute to bad field position and can change momentum in a game.
The Rams just don't have the kind of offensive firepower necessary to easily negate the effects of a high-volume, ill-timed number of penalties. They'll need to be a smarter and much more disciplined football team in 2015: minimizing costly penalties while still retaining their "edginess" and aggressiveness.
Running The Football
For all the talk of "Fisherball" and a strong rushing attack, the Rams haven't exactly run the ball down opponents' throats during Jeff Fisher's tenure. 2014 was no exception. The Rams ranked 20th in the league in rushing yards per game (102.2), and were tied for 16th in yards per carry (4.1).
The Rams' selections in the 2015 NFL Draft made one thing abundantly clear: they will emphasize the running game this coming season (and beyond). Selecting RB Todd Gurley and four run-blocking offensive linemen leaves little doubt about what the Rams' offensive identity will be in 2015. The Rams are gambling on a powerful rushing attack to help solve their offensive woes. The young offensive line gelling and maturing quickly holds the key to a successful running game for the Rams in 2015.
The goal for the offense should be to reach the number 50 in any game (a combination of pass completions and rushing attempts totalling the number 50). To successfully establish the running game and balance the offense, the breakdown of rushing/passing plays and yardage should look close to the following:
Rushing: 32 attempts - 4.3 ypc - 138 yards rushing.
Passing: 29 attempts - 18 completions - 62% completion % - 212 yards passing.
Total Yards: 350 per game - Points Per Game: 23.0
As Jeff Fisher noted shortly after Day 2 of the 2015 NFL Draft:
"We're trying to become more physical on offense. We did that today. We got two guys who are gonna go downfield and finish blocks -- and clear space for that guy we got last night to do what he does. It's not complicated: Hand it off, run play-action passes, get the ball out quickly, keep your defense off the field."
Secondary coach Chuck Cecil summed up Fisher's thoughts in his own words:
"We're gonna be going old-school on 'em."
Winning Early & Often
For the Rams to have a legitimate shot at a winning season (and a playoff berth) they must get off to a strong start. Under Jeff Fisher, the Rams' record in the first five games of the season has progressively worsened from year-to-year: 3-2 in 2012, 2-3 in 2013 and 1-4 in 2014.
The Rams begin their 2015 regular season with a tough slate of games:
- Week 1 - vs. Seattle
- Week 2 - @ Washington
- Week 3 - vs. Pittsburgh
- Week 4 - @ Arizona
- Week 5 - @ Green Bay
4 of the 5 teams made the playoffs last season (all but Washington). Given the quality of their opponents to start the season, a 3-2 record is realistic and attainable. After those 5 games, the Rams enter the softest part of their schedule, with home games versus Cleveland, San Francisco and Chicago, plus road games at Minnesota and Baltimore.
If the Rams can get off to a 3-2 start, a 7-3 record after 10 games is an attainable goal. The Rams can't afford to (again) begin the season with a 1-4 record. If they falter early, the Rams will be hard pressed to finish the season with better than a .500 record. How the Rams fare in their first five games will likely set the tone for the remainder of the season. I believe the key word in this area is "preparation".
That's on Jeff Fisher and his coaching staff...it's what the dog days of summer have been all about.