St. Louis Rams: Five Keys to Success in 2009
When talking about keys to success, some are obvious.
A quarterback must throw the ball accurately. A tailback must be agile. A linebacker must wrap up.
But the less obvious are things that may not happen in the spotlight, things that don't garner the national attention but are just as vital to a team's success.
The big keys to success for the St. Louis Rams aren't cryptic—everyone knows the offense runs through Steven Jackson and opposing offensive linemen target Leonard Little as the player to watch on the Rams defense.
But two players do not a team make.
Good teams are instead comprised of multiple players with specific skills all working together to better the whole.
If the Rams are going to win in 2009, of course Jackson and Little will be key.
But it will also require others to step up and contribute, sometimes with skills they haven't yet shown and in ways they've struggled to previously.
Other times, it's showing the ability to revert back to a form they have shown previously, whether it was in college or a year they had particular success.
In any case, here are five variables that will be vital to any success the Rams have in 2009.
1. Marc Bulger's Brain
Bulger's accuracy is going to be his moneymaker, but before Bulger even attempts a pass he must first decide where the ball is going and do it quickly.
This quick decision-making is amplified in Pat Shurmur's new West Coast Offense scheme, where a quarterback may only get three steps to decide which receiver should get the ball.
Bulger has been below his career average of 62.6 percent in each of the past two seasons, so it stands to reason that when he struggles, so does the team.
With a tailback like Jackson, Bulger won't be asked to carry the Rams, but he will need to be closer to his career average than he has been lately if the team will contend.
And it starts with his decision-making.
2. Alex Barron's Feet
Barron's struggles at right tackle haven't gone unnoticed by the St. Louis fans.
Barron draws a lot of ire for his inability to stay on the snap count and keep from drawing yellow flags. In 2008 alone, Barron had seven false starts and 11 penalties for 51 yards in total.
Now he's moving back to the left side, a side that may be more natural for him but, a side that is also arguably the most important position on the field.
The left tackle protects a right-handed quarterback's blind side. The precise reason so many high first-round picks are used on franchise LT's.
Barron's false start propensity, along with the implementation of a new offense in St. Louis, could make for a long year for the former first round pick.
But if he can harness the new offense and keep his feet firmly planted in the ground, Barron could make Rams fans forget (if only for a moment) departed left tackle Orlando Pace.
3. James Laurinaitis' Intelligence
Laurinaitis is still getting up to NFL speed and trying to digest the playbook, so at the moment he is playing with the second team in practices.
But you'd have to assume that will change once everything comes together for the middle linebacker, selected with the 35th pick in last month's NFL Draft.
Laurinaitis will be asked to fill a big spot in the new Rams defense. The middle linebacker is often referred to as the "quarterback of the defense," and in new head coach Steve Spagnuolo's pressure-intensive defensive scheme linebackers are often used as blitzers as well.
Whether Laurinaitis will be asked to rush the quarterback or stay back and defend the pass, he will have a lot on his mind.
So, his reads will be crucial in making the right play—taking the right angle or defending the right receiver.
Laurinaitis won a Butkus Award and Academic All-Big Ten Conference honors in his junior year at Ohio St. Therefore, his smarts on and off the field are unquestioned. It's just a matter of making the transition to the big time.
The sooner Laurinaitis makes that transition, the better for the Rams defense.
4. Ron Bartell's Hands
Bartell is making a claim for "best cornerback you've never heard of."
After starting just one game in 2006, Bartell has steadily improved his play to the point of being one of the Rams' top priorities this offseason.
He had nine passes defended in 2007 and more than doubled that number in 2008, finishing with 19. He only recorded three interceptions last year and has only has eight for his career.
Bartell is becoming a top corner in the area of defending passes, but he'll need to start converting those PD's into INT's if he's going to get the recognition as one of the top corners.
More importantly, he'll need to start generating those turnovers to get the ball back to the Rams offense. The Rams only had 12 interceptions and were -5 in the turnover-to-takeaway department in 2008.
Those numbers need to improve in 2009 if the Rams are going to win. As the No. 1 cornerback, Bartell will need to be the catalyst.
5. Donnie Jones' Leg
Jones was one of the few Rams who had job security after the 2008 season.
While the Rams suffered to a 2-14 record, Jones quietly led the NFL in yards-per-punt with an average of 49.6 yards.
Often, Jones' task was to simply kick the ball as far as he could due to the Rams poor field position.
But Jones also had only seven touchbacks, compared to 21 punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
With an improved offense expected in 2009, Jones should be asked to show off more of that finesse.
It's understood how important field position is in the scheme of a game.
With Jones and kicker Josh Brown, the Rams should have two of the best.