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St. Louis Rams Have the Pieces to Be a Playoff Team in 2015

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystDecember 3, 2014

St. Louis Rams running back Tre Mason smiles on the sidelines during the second quarter of an NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

If the St. Louis Rams win two of their final four games they’ll finish with seven wins for the third straight season. That's not awful or impressive. It's consistently between those two extremes and therefore maddeningly average.

Being an average team often leads to more mediocrity. The cycle is difficult to escape, but the Rams have already loosened those shackles. They can triumphantly break free in 2015.

Although the Rams' record says they're an average team right now, they're not an ordinary team. Even against an awful opponent, ordinary teams don’t win 52-0. And they certainly don’t beat the Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.

Howard Balzer @HBalzer721

Rams last two home games have outscored Denver and Oakland 74-7 and neither ran a play from the red zone.

They have four core pillars in place, each showing impressive growth this year. As another average season winds down and the wish casting begins again for a rebuilding team, know this: The foundation has been laid for a playoff appearance next year.

Only one key ingredient is missing, an absent piece so face-slapping obvious (hint: The guy who throws the ball) I’ll pause that discussion for now. First, a look at the areas of strength waiting for that one missing link.

The Rams will make the playoffs in 2015 because their pass rush brings pain

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There was a time not so long ago when the Rams’ pass rush—the team’s supposed defensive hammer it would use to exterminate quarterbacks—barely existed. Over the first five games of their season they registered only a single sack.

That was a record and the worst kind of history. The sudden collapse was baffling, because although an injury to defensive end Chris Long wasn’t helping matters at the time, the Rams still employ Robert Quinn. He finished second in 2013 with 19 sacks, and St. Louis also spent a first-round pick on QB-eating defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

Yet over a quarter of the season went by with only that single sack. Worse, the Rams weren’t even getting much pressure to the pocket and were on pace for 44 fewer hurries than their total a year ago.

There was cause for alarm and enough panic to warrant stocking storm cellars with canned goods.

Now? It’s all a memory.

The Rams' pass rush, and an awakening
Time PeriodSacks
After five games in 201311
After five games in 20141
Next seven games in 201426
Rest of season in 201342
Source: NFL.com

That’s an average of 3.7 sacks per game since Week 7. Of that total during a sudden pass-rush reawakening nine have come from Quinn, including three multi-sack games. The sizzling recent seven-game stretch also includes a game when the Rams recorded eight sacks (a Week 9 win over the 49ers) and another with six (a Week 13 win over the Oakland Raiders, who had allowed only 12 sacks previously).

Long is back and healthy now, so over the final four weeks the Rams will showcase an even stronger pass rush, the same one they had hoped would give quarterbacks a comfy grass/turf seat all season.

With a sprinkle of luck from the injury powers above, that’s exactly what will happen next year, especially as Donald continues to grow. Though he’s not monstrous in size for his position, his mere presence is imposing. Donald’s explosive acceleration has led to 18 run stops, tied for sixth at his position, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), even while everyone above him has played at minimum 48 more snaps in run defense.

Donald also leads all rookies with six sacks. He may be small at 6’1” and 285 pounds, but he’s damn strong. Big-man strong.

Sam Monson @PFF_Sam

Aaron Donald...too small to play the run, deal with double teams. Yeah, right... #Rams https://t.co/XLMT0h9qLP

Donald is among the favorites to win Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, though 49ers linebacker Chris Borland is still pushing for that hardware as a tackling menace.

The Rams will make the playoffs in 2015 because their run defense is suddenly suffocating

Equally impressive is what’s happening behind Donald and the Rams defensive line.

Early in the season Rams linebackers were getting torched on the ground, resulting in a ballooning and pretty gross average of 155.0 rushing yards allowed per game over the first three weeks. For a time it looked like no matter what did or didn’t happen with the rest of their roster, a flailing run defense would be the Rams’ ultimate undoing.

But now that per-game average has fallen to 111.2 (16th), which includes stuffing some pretty prominent running backs.

Running against the Rams is suddenly hard
PlayerYardsYards per carry
LeSean McCoy (Week 5)813.4
Marshawn Lynch (Week 7)532.9
Frank Gore (Week 6)382.4
Frank Gore (Week 9)493.5
C.J. Anderson (Week 13)293.2
Source: NFL.com

On that list are three top-10 rushers from 2013, one of whom led the league with 1,607 yards (LeSean McCoy). The fourth name belongs to a now-upstart second-year Denver Broncos running back who’s quickly added another powerful dimension to a juggernaut offense. C.J. Anderson has run for 335 yards over just his past two games.

Yet he’s still part of a group that collectively averaged 50 rushing yards per game against the Rams.

The Rams will make the playoffs in 2015 because Tre Mason is legit

For far too long Rams head coach Jeff Fisher wouldn’t call Tre Mason his starting running back. It was either strategy or stubbornness, or maybe a bit of both.

But it didn’t matter because being the starting running back is a mere title. What you do whenever you’re given the football means much more, and Mason has been a tiny tank.

He’s only 5’8”, which leads to concerns about his durability. But the Rams have Benny Cunningham and Zac Stacy to share the load and pounding. Mason is averaging a manageable 15.2 carries over his eight game appearances.

I want you to really absorb how little Mason has played compared to his running back peers around the league after not seeing the field until Week 6. Keep doing that, and then note how many chunk gains he’s logged with far fewer opportunities.

Mason is tied for sixth with six 20-plus yard runs on only 122 carries. Alongside him are the Eagles' McCoy (242 carries) and the Steelers' Le'Veon Bell (216 carries).

The Rams buried Mason on their running back depth chart, and he didn’t receive double-digit touches until Week 7. Yet he’s still accounted for 674 total yards, 89 of which came on one run against the Raiders Sunday.

It was the second-longest touchdown run in Rams history, according to ESPN Stats and Information, and it came during a game when he finished with 164 yards from scrimmage while scoring three times.

But Mason wasn’t done there with his history making in Week 13.

Gil Brandt @Gil_Brandt

Tre Mason is 5th player in NFL history to have 100+ yards on 4 or fewer carries. #OAKvsSTL

The Rams will make the playoffs in 2015 because their young receivers are finally maturing

Over the past three drafts the Rams invested three picks in the third round or higher on wide receivers. When a commitment is made to youth on that level, you’d like the young blood to re-energize your offense quickly.

That didn’t happen, so at worst after some time to develop, the Rams’ youthful projects would return quality production, right? Finally (and mostly), the answer is yes.

Brian Quick was selected with a second-round pick in 2012. He was deemed worthy of that pick because of his height (6’3”) and ability to use it while being a red-zone threat, winning contested balls.

It took time for his physical qualities to translate into something meaningful. But before Quick’s season was cut short due to a torn rotator cuff in Week 8 he caught 21 balls for 322 yards over the Rams’ first four games, an average of 15.3 yards per reception.

His injury led to more playing time for Stedman Bailey, who’s already established a new single-season receiving high despite being on the field for only 38.8 percent of the Rams’ offensive snaps overall, according to PFF.

Bailey finished with 100 yards on only five catches in Week 13. Those yards came early too. Really early.

Jim Thomas @jthom1

W/5 catches for 100 yards in the first quarter Sun, Stedman Bailey became 1st Rams receiver w/100 yards in opening quarter in 15 seasons.

He's now totaled 189 receiving yards over the past two weeks, and of that, 82 yards have come after the catch, per PFF. He has breakaway speed and is elusive in space, which also accurately describes fellow wideout Tavon Austin. Somehow finding the offensive ingenuity to effectively use the athletic gifts Austin provides is the next frontier in St. Louis.

But first the Rams need something else.

Now, about that missing piece…

The Rams need a quarterback about as bad as the Grinch needed a moderately sized heart. The Austin Davis experiment ended in flames after mangled pass-rush management, and Shaun Hill is a fine journeyman 34-year-old placeholder or backup but nothing more.

A decision needs to be made with Sam Bradford, who has the worst injury luck imaginable. And it shouldn’t be much of a decision at all because he’s due to be paid a base salary of $12.985 million in 2015, per Spotrac. That’s a gargantuan sum for a quarterback who’s torn his ACL in back-to-back years and will have missed 31 of a possible 80 regular-season games.

Hill is on a one-year deal but could be re-signed cheaply if he’s needed as a bridge quarterback. Or maybe if he agrees to a sizable pay cut Bradford is better suited for that role. But the need to find stability at the position in next spring’s draft is urgent.

It likely won't come through free agency, with the quarterback cupboard set to be in its usual near-empty state.

Brian Hoyer is a temporary solution right now with the Browns, and he would be in St. Louis too. Ryan Mallett is still a relative unknown with his lack of in-game experience. If the Eagles don't re-sign Mark Sanchez he wouldn't be appealing, assuming Brian Schottenheimer is still overseeing the Rams offense. That marriage already ended in a messy divorce when the two were with the New York Jets. Regardless, the chances of Sanchez leaving Philadelphia are dwindling with each effective week as he replaces an injured Nick Foles. His price his rapidly climbing too.

Maybe a trade and gamble on a still-young-though-unraveling Robert Griffin III will happen in the near future? That would be both daring and comical. 

Forecasting the draft is difficult in early December. But a likely mid first-round pick (St. Louis would currently select ninth overall) could put the Rams in Marcus Mariota territory, though snatching him might require either a trade up, or a slight tumble during the draft evaluation process. Looking a little deeper, UCLA's Brett Hundley may be available further down.

A solution could take some aggression or creativity on draft day. But without one, the Rams risk wasting prime years from the likes of Quick, Bailey, Mason, Quinn and Donald. The even greater risk without a quarterback? Remaining average in the standings once again when the assembled talent is capable of so much more.

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