St. Louis Rams Will Be Improved, But Don't Start Buying Playoff Tickets Just Yet

Ron Clements@Ron_ClementsCorrespondent IMay 7, 2009

ATLANTA - DECEMBER 28:  Quarterback Marc Bulger #10 of the St. Louis Rams rolls out to pass against the Atlanta Falcons at Georgia Dome on December 28, 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

Marc Bulger has a new coach, a revamped offensive line, and some newfound optimism.

Following two seasons in which he was beaten up by both opposing defenders and media outlets, Bulger thinks new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur will provide some stability.

"I think Pat has a real knowledge of this offense," Bulger told media after new head coach Steve Spagnuolo lured Shurmur away from Philadelphia. "He was in Philly for nine years in the same system, same quarterback, same head coach, which gave him structure.

"When he's in meetings, he's controlled, he's deliberate and he's confident. He's not up there just saying things to say them. He has a complete understanding of the offense. It's nice if you have a question, you get an answer and it seems like every time it's right. It's going to be fun to learn from him."

While Bulger is looking forward to Shurmur's tutelage, another reason for him to smile is a bolstered offensive line. The Rams drafted Baylor tackle Jason Smith with the second overall pick in April's NFL draft and signed free agent center Jason Brown away from Baltimore.

The moves mean that Alex Barron will slide to his real position at left tackle and will provide some protection inside for guards Jacob Bell and Richie Incognito.

More importantly, it gives Bulger a solid quintet in front of him and should open up some running lanes for all-pro tailback Steven Jackson.

The Rams will need a strong running game, because what they lack are weapons on the outside. Over the last 12 months, St. Louis released aging, but productive receivers in Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt.

Bruce, a St. Louis mainstay and fan favorite, played for the rival San Francisco 49ers and former Rams coach Mike Martz. Holt, another fan favorite who spent 10 seasons in St. Louis after being drafted out of North Carolina State, signed this spring with Jacksonville upon his release.

Currently the Rams' top receivers are second-year player Donnie Avery, Travis Brown, and Nate Jones—not exactly a group that will scare opposing secondaries. Tight end Randy McMichael does provide a reliable outlet for Bulger. Avery's speed does give the Rams a deep threat, but inexperience could be the downfall of the Rams receiving corps.

Even though the Rams have addressed issues on the offensive line, they will struggle in the passing game. Because teams will undoubtedly put eight men in the box to force St. Louis into passing situations, the Rams must establish Jackson early and often.

A ball-control mentality in the running game will help a young St. Louis defense that found help in the middle with the second-round draft selection of Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis. The former Buckeye should give the Rams some needed toughness in the middle and will be counted on to morph into a defensive leader for the next decade.

Together with second-year defensive end Chris Long and third-year tackle Adam Carriker, the Rams have some young talent on its front seven. Laurinaitis rounds out what could be a very good linebacking corps with Chris Draft, Will Witherspoon, and Pisa Tinoisamoa emerging as St. Louis stars.

The Rams will need the front seven to put pressure on the quarterback because the defensive weakness remains the secondary. While corners Ron Bartell and Jonathan Wade made improvements last season and Oshiomogho Atogwe has shown promise in his four seasons, nobody in the St. Louis secondary is considered a lock-down cover guy.

There is no doubt that the Rams will improve on their two wins from 2008, but to expect this team to challenge the reigning NFC champion Arizona Cardinals or improving San Francisco for the NFC West crown is unrealistic. The Rams may win six games in 2009 - a big improvement over last year - but they still have too many holes to fill to expect much more.

The schedule doesn't help either, traveling from coast to coast in the first two weeks with games at Seattle and at Washington before the Sept. 27 home opener versus Green Bay.