It's been a frustrating 2013 for St. Louis Rams fans. We entered the season full of renewed hope that this might be the year the Rams break through. Through the first 10 games, we've seen uneven performances. One week it's the nearly flawless performances at Houston and Indianapolis; the next we see haplessness like against Tennessee and San Francisco.
In hindsight, we probably should have seen this coming. Several factors have contributed to both the uneven play and to the improvement we've seen in recent weeks.
1. Offensive line continuity. Success in the NFL starts up front. The Rams know this and tried to improve the line with the off season signing of Jake Long. But with the interior line struggling to stay healthy and Rodger Saffold missing most of the season so far with injury, it's been difficult for the Rams to develop the continuity necessary for a consistent offensive line.
There are still questions to be answered with this group to be sure. Saffold probably won't return next season and the Rams no doubt will spend one of their two first rounders addressing the o-line. But it finally appears that the Rams might be getting in a groove up front, which should bode well for the season's final six games.
2. Zac Stacy's pass blocking. The coaching staff knew Stacy could run. That's why they drafted him. But like a lot of rookie running backs, Zac Stacy struggled to pick up the nuances of NFL pass protection. Once he showed that he could be trusted in that role, he started to get the carries.
Since then, Stacy has been one of the premier rushers in the NFL. It would appear that the Rams have themselves a feature back to replace the departed Steven Jackson. Stacy hits the hole hard and almost always gets positive yardage. He's got soft hands out of the backfield, and now that he can pass protect at least a little bit, he's ready for full time duty.
It took awhile, but again, this is a positive omen for the St. Louis offense.
3. Changes in pass coverage and personnel. We all knew the Rams had an exceptional defensive front seven. The question was how the secondary would perform. Early on, it appeared that the Rams corners and safeties were offering the resistance of cardboard cutouts.
Cortland Finnegan's "injury" was the turning point. As all NFL cornerbacks not named Darrell Greene eventually find out, there comes a time when you can't cover any more. Finnegan reached that point.
When he went out and Trumaine Johnson came in, Tim Walton employed his corners in more press coverage. That little adjustment had a huge "trickle down" effect on the front seven. With the corners up tight and taking away the short routes, the defensive line now had more time to get to the quarterback. The result has been what we've seen over the last few weeks.
While opposing quarterbacks dropped back with impunity during the first part of the season, knowing that their "hot" reads would be their with the Rams' cushion, now they're having to wait just a hair longer, giving Robert Quinn and Chris Long the time they need to wreak their havoc.
The result has been turnovers, better field position for the offense and a more competitive team.
4. Maturity. The St. Louis Rams entered the season as the youngest team in the NFL. While we all hoped the coaching staff could have gotten them up to speed more quickly, it appears that the rookies and second year players are starting to make the necessary adjustments.
The aforementioned Johnson is looking much stronger as a corner than he did in the preseason. He's earned the starting nod over Finnegan. We also talked about Zac Stacy's growth.
On Sunday, we saw Tavon Austin emerge. As a punt returner, we saw Austin move vertically and not sideline to sideline. The result was an electrifying touchdown. We saw Austin used in crossing routes instead of just bubble screens. This is a clear result of improvement in route running, giving Brian Schottenheimer greater confidence in using Austin with more variety.
And let's not forget the hands. The receiving unit that led the league in dropped passes has become much more consistent over the past few weeks, giving Kellen Clemens some needed confidence.
At 4-6, it might be too little, too late to think the Rams could qualify for the playoffs this year. They've got a challenging schedule ahead of them and still much room to grow. But St. Louis fans should see a much more competitive brand of football over the final six weeks than what they saw in the first six. That's something to get excited about.
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