Burning Questions for St. Louis Rams' 2013 Season

Steven Gerwel@Steve_GerFeatured Columnist IVAugust 30, 2013

Burning Questions for St. Louis Rams' 2013 Season

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    You may recall that I covered several burning questions for the St. Louis Rams prior to training camp, but things have changed since then, so this is an updated version. 

    There haven't been any radical changes with the team since the start of training camp, but we've had a few mild surprises that have altered the way Rams fans view the upcoming season. 

    With that in mind, here's a new list of burning questions for the Rams' 2013 season.

Can Tavon Austin Hold Up for 16 Games?

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    As Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out following the draft, it's irresponsible for analysts to automatically assume the 5'8", 174-pound Tavon Austin is an injury risk because of his size, as there have been numerous undersized players in the past who went on to have long, productive careers. 

    I agree with Miklasz's logic, and there don't seem to be any blemishes from Austin's college career indicating an injury problem. However, having seen Austin on the field in person, it's absolutely breathtaking how small he is compared to the other players. 

    It's hard to believe that a crushing hit from a linebacker wouldn't have a devastating effect on his body. 

    Austin is a dynamic weapon on offense and special teams, so an injury would be a difficult obstacle for the team to overcome. His speed and big-play ability cannot be replaced. 

    I realize an injury to Austin is not something Rams fans want to think about, but surely I'm not the only one curious to see how Austin holds up after 16 games' worth of punishment. 

    And if Austin goes down, it won't be the offense alone that feels the sting, because the scouting department will take heat as well.  Fans will suddenly begin to question the logic that led to using a top-10 pick on a 5'8" receiver. 

    I'm in no way against the Austin pick, and I'm as excited as anyone to see him play on Sundays, but I'm simply pointing out that if Austin fails, the backlash will be more severe than it would be if he were a 6'4" prototype receiver. 

    Not only does the offense depend on Austin's health and productivity, but the general manager's reputation highly depends on it as well. 

    However, a productive rookie year will put our collective concerns to rest. 

Can Will Witherspoon Replace Jo-Lonn Dunbar for Four Games?

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    Jo-Lonn Dunbar is facing a four-game suspension for a PED violation, according to NFL.com, and the loss will certainly be an obstacle for the defense to overcome. 

    Dunbar was a key part of the St. Louis defense in 2012 and was arguably the most productive linebacker on the team. The man filling his shoes for the first four games is 33-year-old Will Witherspoon. 

    Witherspoon does not have Dunbar's speed or playmaking skills, but he's a seasoned veteran with plenty of starting experience, so he'll avoid rookie mistakes and mental errors. 

    Witherspoon's ability to play up to par will be an important factor early in the season. 

    Of course, rookie Alec Ogletree will help solidify the unit, and he's a luxury they didn't have in 2012. But still, the Rams will need a solid performance from Witherspoon to survive the first four games. 

Will the Run Game Spoil the Season?

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    Every year, I promise myself not to overreact during the preseason, but every year, there seems to be a glaring preseason flaw that's impossible to overlook. 

    This year, it's St. Louis' run game that has me nervous for the season opener. 

    Daryl Richardson is an explosive runner and is the most productive back on the roster, but he's undersized and is overwhelmed in pass protection. 

    Isaiah Pead is a better every-down back, but he struggles with indecisiveness when running the football, and his ball security is shaky at best. The former second-round pick has been unproductive on the ground and has struggled to adapt to the speed of the game at the NFL level. 

    Meanwhile, Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham are rookies, so they're total unknowns. 

    The blame doesn't fall entirely on the backs, especially because the run-blocking has been brutal, but the lack of production has been frustrating. 

    The Rams must piece together something that resembles a run game if they want to succeed in 2013. What we've seen this preseason just won't cut it. 

Can Greg Zuerlein Maintain His Confidence?

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    Greg Zuerlein was perfect through the first five games of 2012—he nailed all 13 field-goal attempts, including kicks from 56 and 60 yards. 

    In Week 6 at Miami, he broke his streak after missing three of five attempts. In the final 11 games of the season, Zuerlein made just 10 of 18 attempts. 

    He was a stone-cold killer in the first five games, but the Miami game clearly messed with his psyche and threw him off course for the remainder of the season. 

    Zuerlein has the best leg strength in the league, second to none. If his accuracy levels out, he'll be an unbelievable weapon for the St. Louis offense in 2013. 

Can Sam Bradford Execute?

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    Sam Bradford doesn't stand out on the field like a superhuman. He doesn't generate electricity like RGIII, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers or Cam Newton

    Then again, neither do Eli Manning and Joe Flacco. Matt Ryan didn't exactly light up the sky during his early years, either.

    What the Rams need from Bradford is not excitement, but execution.

    He doesn't have to sweep the media off their feet and become their new Favre-like sweetheart. He just needs to make the right throws at the right time and cut back on mistakes.

    If he can accomplish that, the Rams will win games, and that's all that matters. If that happens, the fame and attention will come naturally.

    The Rams don't need Bradford to be everyone's favorite fantasy pick. They just need him to be a reliable keystone on offense.  

    If Bradford can be Mr. Reliable on offense and forget about being Mr. Flash, the Rams will be a tough team to beat. 

Can Offensive Line Veterans Stay Healthy?

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    The Rams have a lot of talent on their starting offensive line, but there's some concern regarding their health. 

    There's still a battle for the starting left guard job, but among the four starters penciled in for the opening-day roster, none of them were healthy for 16 games last season. 

    Jake Long, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl and Rodger Saffold missed a combined 21 starts in 2012. Also, their median age is 29, so they're not exactly a collection of youth, either. 

    The Rams already have a questionable run game. If the first-string blockers start dropping like flies, the offense will go down the toilet in no time. 

    If the veterans on the line can stay relatively healthy for the majority of the year, it should be a fun season. If not, things will get frustrating. 

Can Youth at Safety Hold Up Against Today's Pass-Happy League?

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    With Darian Stewart and Matt Giordano battling injuries, the likely opening-day duo at safety will be rookie T.J. McDonald and second-year pro Rodney McLeod. 

    Both players have promising upside and have the potential to solidify the defense up top, but they have a lot to prove. 

    McDonald is a hard hitter, but he has missed a few tackles this preseason. McLeod has played well in Stewart's place, but his coverage has been inconsistent. 

    The real concern, however, is whether or not these youngsters can hold up mentally against today's complex, fast-paced aerial attacks.

    Don't be surprised if both players get burned early and often.

    And no, I don't mean we're going to relive the days of Justin King, I'm just saying that hiccups will happen.