When everyone else is zigging, sometimes the only way to get ahead is to zag.
That appears to be the philosophy of the St. Louis Rams this offseason. After selecting Greg Robinson with the second overall pick of the 2014 draft, Les Snead and Jeff Fisher revisited Auburn in the third round to select running back Tre Mason.
Mason and Robinson were staples of an offense in Auburn that ran its way to the BCS National Championship.
Interestingly, Robinson and Mason both have skill sets that suggest the majority of their value comes in the running game. Even though both can contribute in the passing game, neither projects to be a difference-maker in that area. That is somewhat rare in today's NFL.
Because the league has become more focused on passing attacks that spread out the defensive front seven and stretch the defense's secondary, speed has become more important than size on both sides of the ball.
No longer are two-down linebackers who are liabilities in pass coverage considered role players. Most of those kinds of players are unemployed. The two-gapping nose tackle in a 3-4 defense who can't rush the quarterback on passing downs is essentially extinct.
Eventually, this lack of size and resilience against the run will lead to more teams making their identity about running the ball. The Rams are getting a head start.
The most successful team in the NFL who builds their offense off of the run is the San Francisco 49ers. While the Seattle Seahawks ran the ball a lot last year, that was primarily a result of playing with leads in the fourth quarter.
Frank Gore is a pivotal piece of the 49ers' running game, but he is only part of the puzzle.
Just as important as Gore is the fact that the 49ers have multiple offensive linemen in their starting lineup who can execute impact blocks on the move. Facing an offensive line that can trap and pull from different spots makes it very difficult for front seven defenders to be aggressive.
Most teams don't have two impact blockers who can pull behind the line of scrimmage effectively without giving up quality in other areas. For example, Willie Colon of the New York Jets is able to pull and be an impact blocker, but he lacks consistency and discipline.
The running game is primarily built on the ability of the offense's guards. In St. Louis, that puts Robinson in the spotlight from day one.
Robinson was a left tackle at Auburn, but he will play left guard for the Rams. Even though he was labelled as a left tackle in college, Robinson's role wasn't similar to what your typical NFL left tackle does. He was protected by an offense that ran the ball an absurd amount of time, and when they threw off of play action, a regular occurrence, he often blocked down on the defensive tackle inside with the left guard.
In the NFL, most offenses are pass-heavy and left tackles must drop backward against defensive ends in space.
Because Robinson is a physical phenomenon and he proved to be a dominant run-blocker in college, his transition to guard in the NFL should be straightforward. He will be expected to immediately become a key component of the offense because of his potential relationship with right guard Rodger Saffold.
Saffold is a former starting right tackle and left tackle who moved inside for a stretch last season. He was signed by the Oakland Raiders to a big contract in the offseason, but he returned to the Rams after a failed medical exam.
During his first three years in the league, Saffold became an okay starter at right tackle and a shaky starter at left tackle. As soon as he moved into the right guard spot in Week 10 last season, things changed.
The 26-year-old's feet and technique on the outside were inconsistent. His physical talent was still evident, but it was often negated by his imbalance. On the inside, there is less of an emphasis on footwork and more of an emphasis on strength. Saffold struggled to move backward in pass protection, his most important job outside, but he relished moving forward from the inside.
Not only was he able to maul defensive linemen off the line and explode through linebackers on the second level, he could pull behind the offensive line to locate and trap defenders on the move. Saffold gave the Rams offensive line a spark. A spark that they hadn't had before.
Now, like the 49ers, the Rams are hoping that Saffold and Robinson can keep the opposition off balance with their unpredictability on every snap.
Too often analysts simplify the running game in relation to how the passing game is discussed. Running the ball isn't simple at this level. A huge amount of time is spent in designing blocking schemes that exploit and create space.
Last season, we saw a great example of this from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when they faced the Seahawks in the regular season.
Understanding that rookie Mike Glennon and a limited receiving corps was going to be overwhelmed by the Seahawks secondary, the Buccaneers focused on running the ball in the first half. While the Seahawks were dominant against the pass last year, their run defense wasn't spectacular.
That is because of their focus on quickness and coverage over bulk.
Even though the Buccaneers were drastically overmatched in terms of all-around talent, they were still very effective because of their creativity. Excluding quarterback runs, the Buccaneers finished with 34 carries for 192 yards, a 5.7 average per carry.
If Robinson and Saffold reach their potential, then the Rams only need the rest of their line to be reliable.
Jake Long should be reliable once he returns from his torn ACL. The former first overall pick is being eased back into the starting lineup, but when healthy he should start at left tackle alongside Robinson. Between Robinson and Saffold, veteran center Scott Wells will probably start.
Wells has struggled with injury and performance since he joined the Rams two years ago. It's unclear if he will be able to stay healthy, but he should expect to be more effective. Before this season, Wells hadn't played with guards of the quality he expects to play with this year.
Right tackle Joe Barksdale earned his spot with his play after initially being selected in the third round of the 2011 draft by the Oakland Raiders. The Rams picked up Barksdale during the 2012-13 season, before he became a starter in 2013. He is a reliable, if unspectacular, starting option.
The quality of the Rams' carries in 2014 should be dramatically greater than they were last year. Just as importantly, the quantity should be dramatically greater also.
When the Rams drafted Robinson, it was easy to argue that they were taking the best player available and that he immediately fit a need. When they selected Mason in the third round, that wasn't the case. Zac Stacy had established himself as a quality starter during the second half of last season.
Sure, he only averaged 3.9 yards per carry, but that number doesn't reflect his performance in difficult conditions.
Taking Mason in the third round isn't just telling because he is a running back, it's telling because he is a running back with a skill set that doesn't naturally complement Stacy's.
Mason may be capable of being an excellent receiving option and third down back, but he didn't show that at Auburn because he never got the opportunity. His primary value comes in his ability to run the ball. More precisely, his ability to run the ball between the tackles. That is where Stacy does his best work, also.
There are differences between Stacy and Mason. Stacy relies on his vision and quickness a lot more than Mason, whereas Mason punishes defenders with his power. Neither player is exceptionally explosive, but Mason appears more likely to take advantage of big-play opportunities.
Having two similar backs isn't a problem, but there are only so many snaps to give to the position.
While playing much of the season with their backup quarterback, the Rams ran the ball 426 times last year. That was 17th in the league during the regular season. Both Mason and Stacy are backs who could legitimately expect to carry the ball 200 times next season.
If both backs combine for 400 carries, that still doesn't account for quarterback runs, designed plays for Tavon Austin or even the potential workload of an Isaiah Pead or Benny Cunningham as the third-down back.
Two hundred carries for each of Mason and Stacy could even be lowballing the number. If the Rams really want to make their rushing attack their identity on offense, then they will likely have closer to 500 carries to share between their skill position players.
During his time as the Tennessee Titans head coach, Fisher ran the ball at least 500 times on five separate occasions.
|Season||Rushing Attempts||Rushing Yards||Touchdowns|
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Similarly, when Brian Schottenheimer was the offensive coordinator of the New York Jets, his offense ranked in the top 10 of rush attempts on three occasions in six years. Once his team ran more than any other, 2009, and once they had the second most attempts of anyone in the league, 2010.
The Rams inability to run the ball last season severely hampered Sam Bradford's ability to throw the ball.
Much like Eli Manning of the New York Giants, the Rams offense crippled its quarterback because defenses were able to just rush four players and drop seven into coverage. The best way to avoid those situations is to keep the offense in 2nd-and-short and 3rd-and-short situations on a regular basis.
With Bradford coming off a torn ACL and continued questions that need to be answered at the receiver position, the Rams should be excited about becoming a more run-oriented offense.
Presuming that all of the pieces perform as advertised, the Rams should expect to have one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL in 2014.
Actually, it's not improbable that they become the very best rushing attack in the NFL.
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