A colossal shift has taken place for the St. Louis Rams. The hiring of Jeff Fisher and Les Snead has proved to be the best decision this franchise has made in years. St. Louis' 2-2 record and third-place standing in the NFC West says nothing about how far this team has come mentally and how it battles each and every week.
Under previous regimes, the Rams used to fold like a book late in games, which would describe why they were 15-65 over the last five seasons. Coach Fisher's team has the opportunity to be above for .500 for the first time in 2,107 days. Think about that for a minute. Has there ever been a team that has gone that long in between winning records?
With the way this team plays at home, it's no doubt that Thursday could be the start to a new streak. They haven't won back-to-back games since Week 13 of the 2010 season.
Coaches in the past have tried to instill a tough mindset into this team, yet everyone had failed. Even though it's early, Fisher might have finally done it. And without a doubt, their toughness shines through on the defensive side of the ball.
Currently, the Rams have the 11th-best pass defense in the NFL. However, they are second in the league with eight interceptions and tied for first with only two passing touchdowns allowed. According to Advanced NFL Stats, cornerback Cortland Finnegan has the highest win probability added. Meaning, he has the greatest impact on the outcome of the game for St. Louis.
With the NFC West being the new black and blue division, let's take a look at what kind of game plan it will take to beat the undefeated Arizona Cardinals.
When the Rams Are on Offense
Even though Brian Schottenheimer's offense didn't manage to score a touchdown in its win over the Seattle Seahawks, it was still hard not to like his offensive attack. St. Louis replicated the Packer's second-half plan of attack from the Monday Night Football fiasco.
The quick passing game neutralized Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin off the edge. Neither player recorded a quarterback sack or hit on quarterback Sam Bradford. Only Jason Jones and Alan Branch managed to sack Bradford with pressure up the A-gap.
St. Louis' futility on the offensive line has also played into the way Schottenheimer calls a game. Week 3 against Chicago had to put him over the edge. So, it's no surprise that more slants, drags and crossers are being run by the Rams' wide receivers.
Until Rodger Saffold and Scott Wells return, I expect this to be the common them weekly. Cornerback William Gay has been a liability opposite of Patrick Peterson, so I fully expect Bradford to pick on Gay. Whether it's Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson or Chris Givens, it doesn't matter. Attacking a team's biggest weakness has always been the name of the game in the NFL.
Here is a perfect example of how the Rams offense beat Seattle's press man, Cover 1 defense. The Seahawks are one the most physically intimidating defenses around, and to be honest, it's rare to catch them napping. Given the fact the deep passing game has been lacking, Fisher thought he would give the youngster a shot.
Givens is lined up at right wide receiver against Richard Sherman, one of the best cornerbacks in the game. He is running a 9 route on this play. Initially, he struggles to get off the jam, but then he gives an inside move to the cornerback, which gives him the leverage to make his move downfield.
Yet beating the bump is only the first step. After he beats the bump, he then starts to make his way back towards the sideline. By doing this, it forces the safety over the top to cover more ground. When the ball is in the air, Sherman has done a nice job of recovering, but by then, it's too late.
Bradford's throw is beautiful and on the money. I would have to agree with Mike Martz on this one; that was definitely the best ball Bradford has thrown of his young career. By play's end the Rams' offense has advanced the ball 52-yards downfield.
The Cardinals like to play a lot of Cover 1 and single high safety as well, so there's no question we could see some of these same downfield shots tomorrow night. Gay would be the defensive target on these throws as Peterson hasn't allowed a throw of 30 yards or more.
Arizona's defense has proved they are one of the best in the game, but they can be beat, and the quick passing game may just be the answer again this week.
When the Rams Are on Defense
With St. Louis' secondary playing at such a high level, I have a feeling we will see Arizona rely more on its ground game. It hasn't needed to through the first four weeks, as Ray Horton's defense has kept it in every game.
So, you may ask, why this week? The Rams are currently 26th against the run; that's why. And things don't appear to be getting any better. Marshawn Lynch had a field day in Week 4 against eight and nine-man fronts. Coach Whisenhunt's backfield isn't nearly as talented as Seattle's; neither is his offensive line, but when he sees a rival team do it, he will figure out a way to do it himself.
Ryan Williams has been the most productive back in an unproductive backfield. He has carried the ball 44 times for a 131 yards. Obviously nothing to write home about, but he's all they have. He has shown good burst and vision on outside runs, but consistent blocking upfront has not been reliable enough.
The stat gurus at Pro Football Focus have Arizona's offensive line as the least efficient run-blocking unit in the entire NFL. They also have them as the least efficient pass-blocking unit as well. So, I guess, pick your poison? Regardless, they are undefeated, even with the 31st-best offense in the NFL.
This video above is a perfect example of what the Cardinals run game looks like when they do carve up running lanes. Williams has plenty of room to operate, and he shows off that burst and vision I was talking about before.
Every team except the Lions have had success running at the Rams defensive ends, so one can only expect Arizona to do the same. Chris Long and Robert Quinn are both at the top of PFF's ranking of worst 4-3 defensive end run defenders. Quinn is tied for the worst, and Long is fifth from the top. And it doesn't help that the interior defensive line isn't any better.
Even the return of Michael Brockers didn't help against the Seahawks. In fairness, Brockers was still a little banged up and he even at one point re-aggravated the injury. But that's no excuse because it's likely that he will play in ankle pain all season long. He played 45 snaps, and that may be his ceiling until the ankle is 100 percent.
With the run game needing a fix, teams are going to pound the rock on St. Louis until it gets it right. So, without question, the game plan for Coach Fisher's defense will be to put the jaws of life on Williams and the run game.