At 5-6-1 the St. Louis Rams are considered long shots to make a playoff push, but as the current No. 10 seed they will need to try and push their way up four spots to guarantee playoff contention. With four games left to play, it's critical they extend their current two-game winning streak to six by season's end.
Jeff Fisher has this team playing better than they have played in recent years, yet it will be crucial for the organization to take that next step by winning on the road—something they haven't become familiar with quite yet.
Three of their final four games are on the road, so there's no better time to start winning on the road. The playoffs start now for St. Louis and its first test will be the 5-7 Buffalo Bills.
Let's take a look at the Rams' must-win matchups for Sunday's game.
When the Rams Are on Defense: All 11 Defenders vs. C.J. Spiller
Without question the Rams defense has improved against the run week by week, yet this week may prove to be their biggest test. Chris Long and the boys will be taking on the most elusive running back in the NFL, C.J. Spiller.
Heading into Week 14, Spiller has forced 36 missed tackles on 137 attempts according to the stat gurus at Pro Football Focus. At the rate of one forced missed tackle every 3.8 attempts, Spiller has the best ratio of any running back in the NFL.
Moreover, he leads the NFL in yards per carry. Right now he is averaging 6.6 yards per carry, which is 0.4 yards better than Adrian Peterson's 6.2 yards-per-carry mark. Eagles running back Bryce Brown could also be put in the discussion, yet he has only carried the ball about half as much as Spiller.
Ever since Week 5 the Rams' run defense has really turned around—through the first four games of the season Coach Fisher's club surrendered 541 yards (135.25 yards per game) on the ground, but in eight games since then they have only allowed 832 yards (104 yards per game).
A significant improvement that has helped them become the league's 13th-best defense against the run.
However, they will have to combat the Bills' unique play-calling and combative efforts in getting Spiller the ball. Buffalo is one of the run-heaviest teams out of the shotgun, so it's worth noting something the 49ers did to keep the Bills' run game in check Week 5.
San Francisco would stay in the 4-2-5 nickel look when Buffalo was in shotgun, but it would either play the safety or cornerback in position with the linebackers. Even if the corner had a wide receiver responsibility, he would often hand the coverage off to the safety in an effort to slow down the run game.
Obviously, different looks and personnel groupings dictate matchups, but I could really see the Rams deploying this same methodology with Cortland Finnegan close to the line of scrimmage. Finnegan has been one of St. Louis' best run-defending defensive backs so far this season.
When the Rams Are on Offense: Barry Richardson vs. Mario Williams
I know, I know, many of you are probably thinking Mario Williams, really? But I challenge you to go and watch from Week 9 until now. He looks like a totally different player that has decided he needs to earn his fat paycheck before he becomes the laughingstock of Buffalo.
Since Week 9, Williams has piled up 18 quarterback pressures—six quarterback sacks, one quarterback hit and 11 hurries. Still not what you would quite expect from a guy who just received $50 million in guaranteed money in the offseason, but it's better than the seven games prior to Week 9.
During that stretch he only registered three sacks—not to mention two of them came against Arizona Cardinals rookie right tackle Bobby Massie. Which means his two-sack performance against the Cards is nothing to write home about considering Massie has allowed 13 sacks through Week 13.
Williams' recent surge in production spells bad news for quarterback Sam Bradford and offensive tackle Barry Richardson. Like Massie, Richardson has had his own pass-protection problems this year. He has been worked over for six sacks, nine hits and 19 hurries.
On the plus side, his play has improved over the last four weeks.
When people said Williams' wrist injury was a bad excuse in relation to his poor play, I had a hard time agreeing with them just because defensive linemen used their hands so much in effort to shed blocks and split double-teams.
Two weeks ago against the Colts, Williams saw plenty of double-teams because of Winston Justice's shaky play at right tackle. So I cued up the film from that game just so I could see how he beat double-teams inside and out—nevertheless I found this particular pass play interesting.
As this play above begins to unravel you can see Justice is left all alone against Williams on the edge in space, but as soon as Williams starts to make his way back inside the right guard slides down to help the right tackle. Unfortunately, it doesn't help much as you already know the end result, but pay attention as to how he splits the double-team.
Williams uses some quickness and speed to work his way back up field to pursue Andrew Luck, yet more than anything it takes strength and quickness from his hands to split the double-team. He has to be quick enough with both hands to swat and bat down their efforts to slow him down.
Justice is a very comparable player to Richardson, so it might not be illogical to think Williams will have a stout game against the Rams. For the sake of Bradford's health, let's just hope they find a way to neutralize the $50 million man.
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