The St. Louis Rams may find it difficult to keep pace with the Detroit Lions, if they simply rely on a diet of heavy running. The NFC North outfit relies on a prolific connection between Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson that can generate quick points at any time.
Scoring points of their own and keeping pace with the Lions, will be the Rams' biggest challenge. They can move the ball on the Lions, but for that to happen, they must use their personnel wisely and attack with deception and not be afraid to air it out.
Pounding the ball on the ground is one ploy, but why force the Lions to pass when that's their obvious strength? Keeping things on the ground also ignores the true weakness of the Lions defense, the secondary.
Detroitlions.com reports that key starters Louis Delmas and Chris Houston are both doubtful for the game. This is not a suggestion for the Rams to engage in a shootout with the Lions' high-powered offense, but they must be bold and trust Sam Bradford to take advantage of a wafer-thin defensive backfield.
Here are the three things the Rams offense must do to have success against the Detroit defense:
Attack the Lions' coverage schemes with play-action passes
The play-action pass should be the most important part of the Rams game plan for the Lions. Any team that faces the Rams and their Brian Schottenheimer-coached offense has to be expecting a heavy dose of the league's best running back, Steven Jackson.
The Rams can take advantage of this and trick the Lions into creeping their safeties up close to the line of scrimmage. It could prove to be a highly effective tactic against a team that runs as much cover-2 as the Lions.
Two-deep defenses are always concerned with being undermanned at the line of scrimmage, so their safeties tend to bite easily on well-executed run fakes. Another advantage is that with the corners rolled up tight in cover-2 schemes, play-action can cause hesitancy and lead to some big plays off double moves from the Rams wideouts.
Perhaps most important, creating uncertainty in the Lions defense and tricking the front into playing run, could buy quarterback Sam Bradford a little extra time in the pocket. Detroit boasts a ferocious pass rush, and pass-protection has not exactly been the Rams' strong suit, so far during Bradford's career.
Create favorable underneath matchups for Steve Smith
The Rams have to scheme ways to get Steve Smith free across the middle and isolated against safeties and linebackers. Smith is one of the most proficient underneath receivers in the NFL. He has excellent hands, runs precise slant routes and reads weaknesses in zone concepts very well.
Running some verticals, both on the outside with Brian Quick and on seam routes with tight end Lance Kendricks, will clear out space for Smith to operate in. Lions middle 'backer Stephen Tulloch frequently drops into the deep zones, as part of Detroit's Tampa-2 schemes.
That should give Smith one-on-one opportunities against a linebacker on intermediate routes. The Lions have decent pursuit speed at linebacker, but they shouldn't be able to stay with Smith if he catches the ball on the run.
Use some spread formations to involve the RBs in the passing game
Schottenheimer would be wise to create some spread looks by splitting a running back out wide. Jackson is a dangerous receiver and can operate well from a flanker position, as could fleet-footed rookie Isaiah Pead.
This will create more matchup problems for the Lions and may even force them to cheat their safeties down into short coverage. Bradford knows the spread system well, and creating some five-receiver looks pre-snap will throw Detroit's secondary off-guard and cause the Lions to adjust their rigid coverage looks.
The Rams have the potential to put points on a Lions defense that still appears underwhelming in the defensive backfield. They can use the obvious threat of Jackson to their advantage to create some favorable options in the passing game.
What Schottenheimer must do is get the Lions defense scrambling and attempting to adjust on the fly. Smith could well be the key, as he should be productive in the underneath zones.
The Rams should still make sure Jackson sees plenty of the ball. However, they can't pass up the opportunity to test the real weakness of the Lions defense, that secondary
If they can surprise the Lions with an early score, the Rams can let Jackson take over and keep this game close for a long time.
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