2009 St. Louis Rams Preview: Or, Steven Jackson's Man-Sized Shoulders
The Miami Dolphins finished the 2007 season with one win and a bleak future. After firing their head coach, they brought in an assistant coach from a more successful team as the replacement.
With the new regime in place, they drafted the highest-rated offensive tackle to solidify the line, acquired an accurate but less-than-flashy quarterback to lead the offense and cut ties with some of the team’s biggest stars, including a linebacker who had previously led the team in tackles in a season.
The new-look Dolphins went on to win 11 games in 2008 and earn a playoff berth.
For the St. Louis Rams, all that’s left to do is start hiking the football to Steven Jackson.
After a 2008 season in which the Rams won only two games, they followed an off-season plan that was eerily similar to that of the 2007 Dolphins.
The removal of interim head coach Jim Haslett paved the way for the hiring of Steve Spagnuolo, superstar defensive coordinator for the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Spagnuolo was brought in to revamp a defense that was 28th and 31st in the league in yards and points allowed, respectively, in 2008.
And revamp he did, saying goodbye to strong safety and locker room leader Corey Chavous, veteran DT La’Roi Glover and leading tackler OLB Pisa Tinoisamoa while bringing in one of his own, former Giant James Butler, to man the safety position.
He also drafted James Laurinaitis in hopes that he will prove himself to be the middle linebacker of the future. The Rams haven’t had a true middle linebacker since London Fletcher left for greener pastures in 2002.
But the defensive overhaul was only the beginning. On the offensive side of the ball, the Rams parted ways with WR Torry Holt and OT Orlando Pace, two fan favorites and two of the few remaining holdovers from the 1999 Super Bowl champions.
This off-season also saw the end of the Drew Bennett Era in St. Louis, a mere 15 games, 34 catches and $10 million after it began.
The rebuilding process started with the signing of C Jason Brown to anchor an offensive line that hasn’t been healthy in years.
For the second time in two years they held the second overall pick in the draft, and they used it on Jason Smith, a tight end-turned-offensive tackle from Baylor.
The Rams also brought in QB Kyle Boller to push incumbent Marc Bulger, who is a few years removed from his Pro Bowl days and in danger of being a cap casualty if his 2009 is as bad as his 2008 was.
The Rams may not realistically be in position to challenge for the playoffs like the 2008 Dolphins, but an improvement is certainly expected (if not altogether unavoidable) in 2009.
It starts on offense, and it starts with the line. With the signing of OG Jacob Bell last offseason, the Rams front five is expected to be much improved in ’09.
The Rams return starters Bell, Richie Incognito and Alex Barron to play along the Jasons, Brown and Smith. Mark Setterstrom, Adam Goldberg, John Greco and Roy Schuening all can contribute as well, but will most likely be used in reserve roles barring injury.
It’s been said that NFL games are won and lost in the trenches, and the Rams are hoping to win a few more this year with the new additions.
Behind the new line, the Rams hope to find an old Steven Jackson. Jackson hasn’t played a full 16 games since 2006 and yet he’s still managed to reach the 1,000 yard mark in each of the last two seasons.
The biggest difference since 2006 may not be on the ground, though. Jackson had 90 receptions for 806 yards in 2006, his first and only Pro Bowl appearance of his young career.
But in the two years since, he’s had only 78 receptions and 650 yards combined. Spagnuolo has stated an intention to commit more to the running game in 2009, so Jackson’s effectiveness is likely going to be directly linked to the team’s overall success.
Jackson carrying the load may be just what the doctor ordered for Bulger and his young group of receivers. The quarterback has had his own problems in recent seasons and needs a big year to ensure a job in 2010.
At his best, Bulger is an accurate passer who makes good, quick decisions. At his worst, he’s skittish and erratic, often holding the ball too long and taking unnecessary sacks along the way.
Jackson’s big 2006 helped Bulger also have a career year, so it stands to reason that a good Jackson will also produce a good Bulger.
Unfortunately for Bulger, the receivers he will be throwing to are largely unproven. The wide receiver corps is led by Donnie Avery. Avery, a rookie in 2008, had a good year as the second receiver behind Holt.
It still remains to be seen how good Avery can be, but with Holt now gone, Avery will have his chance to be the No. 1 receiver sooner than later.
Behind Avery is a group that consists of fellow 2008 rookie Keenan Burton, recently signed veteran Tim Carter, Laurent Robinson, whom they acquired in a trade with Atlanta, and rookie fifth-round pick Brooks Foster.
Bulger’s second-best option may very well prove to be TE Randy McMichael, whose signing is in danger of entering Drew Bennett territory if he doesn’t produce results soon.
If the Rams are going to be successful in 2009, someone other than Avery has to emerge as a weapon in the passing game.
Defensively is where the Rams are really going to have to show improvement, though. With the release of Tinoisamoa, the Rams lost their leading tackler in 2008, not a terribly impressive feat when your team goes 2-14, but it still is a loss, statistically speaking.
The addition of Laurinaitis allows Will Witherspoon to move back to outside linebacker, a switch that should benefit Witherspoon and the defense.
Chris Draft, arguably the odd man out before the release of Tinoisamoa, will almost certainly man the other OLB spot as the Rams lack any other proven players at the position.
Laurinaitis is the X-factor of the group. If he performs beyond his years, the linebacker corps could be a strength; if there’s a learning curve, it could be a long year.
If there’s one thing the Rams have failed to do well in recent years it’s draft and develop quality interior defensive linemen. Damione Lewis, Ryan Pickett, Jimmy Kennedy…the list goes on.
Adam Carriker hopes he’s the exception. Carriker, a first round pick in 2007, has been less-than-spectacular in his first two seasons at defensive tackle. He played defensive end at Nebraska, but the Rams saw him as better suited for the interior and drafted him with the intention of moving him inside.
Carriker still has time to prove he’s not another bust, but he’s got to show marked improvement in 2009 first.
Clifton Ryan, taken in the same draft as Carriker, has emerged as the other starter at DT, but the position is remarkably thin with the loss of Glover.
In fact, fourth-round pick Darell Scott (yes, Darell with an “a”, contrary to previous spellings that suggested his name was spelled “Dorell”) immediately becomes the team’s third tackle and recently acquired Orien Harris (in the deal with Cincinnati for Brian Leonard) is the team’s fourth option.
The team is deeper and more talented at the defensive end spot. Chris Long was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 draft and performed well enough in his rookie season to be considered a lock on one side.
Comparing his rookie numbers to Mario Williams’ in 2006, Long had 33 solo tackles and 4.0 sacks to Williams’ 35 solo tackles and 4.5 sacks.
Remembering that 2007 was Williams’ breakout year and the fact that Spagnuolo comes from a system known for developing defensive ends (see: Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, etc.), Long may be primed for a big 2009.
On the other side, Leonard Little, now the Rams’ longest-tenured player, will continue to be a force on passing downs. Victor Adeyanju is capable as a run stopper, and James Hall led the team in 2008 with 6.5 sacks. The two of them give some much-needed depth to the line.
The secondary is arguably the defense’s greatest strength going into the 2009 season. The Rams return free agents Ron Bartell and Oshiomogho “you can just call me O.J.” Atogwe, both of whom are considered rising stars at their respective positions.
The addition-by-subtraction of Chavous and the addition-by-addition of Butler is an upgrade at strong safety as well.
Opposite Bartell, the Rams have a number of capable contenders for the starting cornerback spot. The front-runner should be Tye Hill, who is only three years removed from being a first-round pick, but injuries have limited him to only 12 games total over the past two seasons.
Behind him are guys like Justin King, a second-year player out of Penn State, Jonathan Wade and this year’s third-rounder Bradley Fletcher.
King impressed enough in minicamp last year that he looked to have earned playing time, but an injury forced him to miss all of 2008. If Hill doesn’t win the spot, expect King to have something to do with it.
The kicking game was the only area in which the 2008 Rams actually excelled. Josh Brown went from tormenting the Rams as kicker for the Seattle Seahawks to scoring points for them, making over 30 field goals for the first time in his career.
Donnie Jones was kept busy in 2008 punting 82 times, but he averaged 50 yards per punt without having a single one blocked.
The Rams return both Brown and Jones, so kicking once again may be one of the few bright spots. The problem with trying to predict a team’s success is that you can’t foresee everything that will happen in a season, both with your own team and the teams around you.
Players get hurt. Players get suspended. Trying to look at a 16-game schedule and figure out which team is going to win each game is futile.
Will the Rams follow in the footsteps of the 2008 Dolphins and win 11 games? Probably not. But they will improve. They will win more than the two they did last year. And even when they don’t win, they will be competitive in a lot more games than 2008 as well.
So what’s a realistic expectation? I’ll give them six wins. If not for late collapses in back-to-back weeks at the end of 2008 the Rams would have finished 4-12, and this team, behind their rebuilt offensive line, should be able to finish off some of those games they couldn’t in ’08.
And if all else fails, there’s always the Wildcat.
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