The last time the New York Jets traveled to the Edward Jones Dome, Mike Martz was still roaming the sidelines and Marc Bulger was taking snaps from under center. A lot has changed since 2004—the Rams are on their third head coach, but they finally appear to be in the right hands with Jeff Fisher and Les Snead at the helm.
Coach Fisher has already led St. Louis to more wins at 3-5-1 than they had through the entire 2011 season. Things haven't been easy for the Rams in 2012—their offensive line hasn't always been up to snuff, particularly due to injury, and at times their defense has had trouble stopping its opposition between the 20s.
However, things could be a lot worse. Essentially, you could be the Jets. They are 3-6 and unraveling in the worst way right now. Let's take a look at which matchups the Rams will need to win if they plan on moving to 4-5-1 on the season.
Even though Rams left guard Shelley Smith will only be making the third start of his young career, he has already had a couple of matchups that have thrown him into the fire. Week 7, he and Joe Barskdale tried to keep quarterback Sam Bradford clean as Clay Matthews was furiously coming off the edge.
One week later it was the rookie pass-rushing phenom Chandler Jones that needed to be kept in check. And finally last week Justin Smith and Aldon Smith of the 49ers forced Smith into his first truly bad game of the season. He surrendered two quarterback sacks, three quarterback hits and two quarterback hurries.
Unfortunately, things don't get any easier this as he will be squaring off against arguably the best 3-4 defensive end in all of football. Sure, we all know how good J.J. Watt is, but if you haven't had the opportunity to watch Muhammad Wilkerson do yourself a favor and take my advice. He is quite simply one of the most disruptive players in the NFL.
According to Pro Football Focus, Wilkerson has 31 plays where he single-handedly accounted for an offensive failure. If you're not familiar with PFF's grading system, an offensive failure could be a sack, a tackle for loss, a stop for no gain on fourth-and-one—anything that stops the opposing offense from gaining positive yardage.
His 31 defensive stops rank second-best in the NFL behind Mr. Watt. Wilkerson may not be the same pass-rusher Watt is, yet he can still hold his own in that area as well. He has collected a total of 17 quarterback pressures through the Jets' first nine games. Not astronomical numbers in any way, but impressive nonetheless, considering he has already logged 530 snaps this season.
So, what can Smith do to slow down the second-year player from Temple? He will need to have help on the inside from either Robert Turner or Rodger Saffold. It will depend on if the tight end stays in to block on the outside or not. If that's the case Saffold can chip down a little bit just to slow down Wilkerson.
Only Mike Iupati from the 49ers has shut him down entirely this season, so it would be wise of Smith to pull up game film from Week 4 to see how Iupati kept him at bay. Regardless, this will definitely be a matchup the Rams will need to win if they want any shot at getting the ground game going.
With one pass-rushing situation proving to be crucial for the New York Jets, another proves to be crucial for St. Louis. However, Rams defensive end Robert Quinn might have a little bit tougher time come Sunday than Wilkerson will have against Smith.
Without a doubt, Quinn's development from year one to year two has been exactly what they hoped for when they drafted him in 2011. Last year he flashed as a pass-rusher by garnering six sacks, nine quarterback hits and 21 hurries. Not bad numbers by any means, considering Quinn wasn't an every-down rusher and he was only 21 years of age last season.
Moreover, he didn't play the run all that well and at times lacked the strength to work his way up and down the line in pursuit situations. Fortunately for Coach Fisher, Quinn is now a more consistent player all around. He shows the ability to get to the quarterback almost every snap and his play against the run is average. Struggles still pop up from time to time, but very few care to focus the run game when a player has nine sacks, seven hits and 20 hurries through nine games.
With teams throwing the ball around more than ever before, clubs aren't as focused on stopping the run like they were in year's past.
Granted, not much has gone right for the Jets this season on either side of the ball, yet here and there they have a few standout players that go unnoticed by the mainstream media. I mentioned Wilkerson in the previous slide, but let's talk about D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Quinn's matchup on Sunday.
When you turn on the tape and break down his numbers, you may have a hard time finding a better pass-blocking offensive tackle in all of football. On the season he has only given up 13 total quarterback pressures—zero sacks, three hits and 10 hurries. And by looking at his schedule it's easy to see he has had some pretty battles through Week 10.
He stonewalled guys like Chris Clemons, Chandler Jones and Aldon Smith. With two All-Pro players in Ferguson and Nick Mangold up front, one would think Mark Sanchez would be a better quarterback by now.
Can Quinn garner pressure on Ferguson and force him into allowing his first sack of the year, or will the left tackle's impressive no-sack streak from 2011 continue on into Week 12?
The last matchup may prove to be the most crucial for St. Louis' defense, but which matchup will prove to have the most impact based on the Rams' skill positions? There's no question it will be the effectiveness of Brian Schottenheimer's wide receivers.
Outside of Danny Amendola, no one has really separated themselves. Brandon Gibson is hit or miss based on the week, Steve Smith has been a big-time non-factor and Chris Givens makes at least one big catch weekly, yet he hasn't shown the ability to get open consistently.
Brian Quick is another wideout who St. Louis so dearly wants to be able to rely on, but they simply can't because of his inability to find his way on the field. In terms of his development, the organization has been quite mum; however, a couple of writers who cover the team closely think Quick is struggling to learn the playbook.
Despite being unable to learn the playbook at a quick pace, he has shown flashes of talent here and there. Last week against the 49ers he scored a 36-yard touchdown on the Rams' opening offensive drive of the game. Unfortunately by game's end he only finished with seven snaps to his name, although his role might increase this week with Austin Pettis dealing with a toe injury.
All of these questions about a reliable target for Bradford bring me to the next question. Who will step up and get open on the outside against Antonio Cromartie? We all know Amendola will dominate the slot, but with Cromartie having a career year Bradford will need more than just Amendola.
Opposing quarterbacks only have a 43.5 percent completion percentage when throwing in Cromartie's coverage. Not to mention their quarterback rating is a measly 58.7. Pro Football Focus has him graded out as its third best cover corner with a plus-10.2 grade. Only Charles Tillman and Richard Sherman have better numbers in coverage.
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