The St. Louis Rams are a quarter of the way through the 2013 season, so just like in school, it's time to give them a report card. To no one's surprise, this won't be the type of report card the Rams will be anxious to take home to mom and dad.
First quarter grades aren't final, but they are a good indicator of progress. Bright students will take their first quarter grades, even if they're bad, and use them to make improvements. Not so bright students ignore progress reports and continue the slide toward failure. Which will the Rams be?
The Rams are 30th in average yards per game, 28th in points per game, 28th in time of possession and 31st in rushing. Only the passing game ranks in the upper half in the NFL, and that's only because they've had to play from behind in all four of their games so far. If there was a grade below F, we would consider giving it to the Rams' hapless offensive performance so far.
There's plenty of blame to go around. We've already speculated on Brian Schottenheimer's fit with this team, but in fairness to him, his personnel haven't exactly been helping.
It starts up front. The Rams are getting absolutely no push from their interior line in the run game. Sam Bradford has been sacked 11 times and hit 20 times in four games. Bradford is beginning to show signs of shell-shock, hurrying throws and throwing off his back foot. Rodger Saffold's injury has certainly not helped, but Jake Long hasn't provided the blind side protection the Rams signed him for.
Daryl Richardson and the running backs haven't helped by auditioning for Dancing with the Stars in the backfield. Isaiah Pead missed game one with suspension and was deactivated Thursday night for unknown reasons.
The receivers have contributed to the offensive futility by dropping a whopping 20 passes in four games. First round draft choice Tavon Austin has five of those, most in the NFL.
Sam Bradford looked strong when he received decent protection in the first two weeks. He's absorbed all 11 sacks and the lion's share of his hits the last two weeks. While any quarterback is going to perform better with a clean pocket, those who dwell in the "elite" category that Bradford aspires to (and for which he's being paid) find a way to excel even when the pocket breaks down.
We'll start with the disclaimer that the defense has been left on the field far too long. St. Louis ranks 25th in opponent time of possession, a reflection of the offensive ineptitude. Still the defense has come up short in big moments.
The opponent's 47 per cent third down conversion rate is inexcusable, especially with the Rams generally winning on first down and putting teams in negative down and distance situations. Part of that problem has clearly been the decline of CB Cortland Finnegan. We saw that Thursday night when he twice surrendered completions on third and double digits on a Niners touchdown drive.
Another part of that has been the defensive scheming, however. Tim Walton's decision in the first three games to provide 10 yard cushions in medium yardage third down situations made the pickings easy for opposing quarterbacks.
The front seven has played well for the most part. Robert Quinn is a monster on the edge and rookie Alec Ogletree is showing himself a difference maker. His mistakes have been those of youth and over-aggressiveness that should dwindle over time. James Laurinaitis has played well in the middle both against the run and pass.
The injury to TJ McDonald will hurt an already struggling safety group though. Don't be surprised if the Rams bring back JoLonn Dunbar this week as his NFL mandated suspension has been served.
Special teams: C
The kickers are the good news. Greg Zuerlein is perfect in field goals and extra points and P Johnny Hekker is fourth in the league in net punting yards. He's put seven punts inside the 20 and his coverage team is allowing only 2.6 yards per return, fourth best in the NFL. That's enough to move the special teams unit's grade up to passing.
The special teams offense, however, has been dreadful. Tavon Austin, who was drafted in part for his game-changing ability as a punt returner, is averaging a woeful 3.2 yards per return. Until Austin learns to go north-south on his returns instead of east-west, that number won't get much better. Austin's speed is only valuable going vertical. Even a linebacker on special teams can get a bead on him with the proper angle while Austin is dancing and running sideline to sideline.
It's the penalties that have killed the Rams on special teams. While the Rams are in the middle of the pack with respect to total penalties per game, so many of those have come in the return game, pinning the Rams already conservative offense beneath the shadow of their own goal post. Going into Thursday night's game, the Rams ranked 30th in the NFL in starting field position, much of that due to penalties incurred during the return game.
This report isn't pretty, but it's reflective of where the Rams are at the quarter pole of the 2013 season. The next four games feature home games with Jacksonville and Seattle sandwiching road visits to Houston and Carolina. The Rams will be hard-pressed to improve on these marks by the mid-term. If they don't, we'll be talking 2014 draft choices by Halloween.
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