The Miami Dolphins face the St. Louis Rams this Sunday looking to turn last week's victory over the Cincinnati Bengals into a winning streak with a victory over the Rams. As we get ready to watch the game, it's time to get to know the Rams a little better.
Joe McAtee, who writes as 3k on Turf Show Times, SB Nation's St. Louis Rams blog, traded questions with me this week (and, if you are observant, you may notice I had six questions for our five questions trade). Head over to here site to see my answers to his Dolphins questions. But, first, here are my questions about the Rams, with his answers:
Kevin Nogle (KN): Obviously, this offseason featured the Jeff Fisher saga, with both the Rams and the Dolphins being the favorite to land him. The Rams got Fisher, while the Dolphins brought in Joe Philbin. Philbin is doing some great things in Miami, things like adding accountability and changing how the team prepares for each week, and has been pretty impressive this season. How are Rams fans feeling about Fisher, and can you see the difference between the Fisher regime and the Steve Spagnuolo Rams?
Joe McAtee (JM): Well, wins are a panacea in sports, and the Rams have needed some for a while now. Building on the optimism of the preseason, the Rams are sitting at 3-2 with their first winning record since 2006. In short -- JEFF FISHER IS GOD HERE IS MYLADYWIFE AND FIRST BORN I PLEDGE FEALTY. Ahem, excuse me. What I meant was, the fan base is excited. The difference is palpable; this team plays with much more emotion and attitude than Spags' teams, something you could also say about the personalities of both coaches.
To be fair though, both HC Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead were in a much better position to succeed in year one than their predecessors, Spagnuolo and former GM Billy Devaney. Fisher and Snead took command of a team with a franchise QB, Sam Bradford, two premier defensive ends in Chris Long and Robert Quinn and a defensive centerpiece in MLB James Laurinaitis. I've argued that Fisher's and Snead's job was not to rebuild the team but build around the components they already had. That wasn't the case for Spags and Devaney who had to wipe the entire roster, save for RB Steven Jackson, and fill the top tier positions. For the most part, they succeeded in doing so with their first and second round picks, though the holes at offensive tackle are a huge blemish on both of their resumes. The big difference between the last regime and this one is that the late draft picks and free agent moves this year haven't just plugged holes or filled out the 53-man roster; they've improved the team.CB Cortland Finnegan is playing as well as any CB in the NFL right now. Chris Givens was a speed WR drafted in the fourth round and has already added a new dimension to the offense. OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar has been a crucial pick up to provide some talent alongside Laurinaitis. And the Rams filled out their special teams headliners with two rookies - K Greg Zuerlein, drafted in the 6th round, and P Johnny Hekker, a UDFA out of Oregon St. Zuerlein broke the Rams' record for the longest field goal only to break it again later in the same game. In doing so, he was named the NFC Special Teams player of the week; Hekker took the award from him after his week 5 performance. For the Rams to get such good play from rookies at any position that didn't come from the top of the draft is something Rams fans aren't accustomed to.
So yes, the difference is obvious, and the early record reflects that.
KN: The Rams seem like a strange team this season. They are 30th in passing yards, 22nd in rushing yards, 12th in passing defense, and 18th in rushing defense. Despite ranking in the bottom half of the league in almost every category, they are sitting at 3-2, one game out of the NFC West lead, and are coming off a win over everyone's favorite bandwagon team right now, the Arizona Cardinals. Are the Rams a product of a (relatively) easy schedule early in the season, or are they better than their stats are showing so far this year?
JM: I think they're better than their stats in a couple areas that don't really get much love from the average fan. For example, field position. The Rams' pass defense is one of the best in the NFL - don't let the yardage fool you. The combination of a consistent pass rush with Long and Quinn coupled with the extraordinary coverage from CBs Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins (another rookie playing very well) and Bradley Fletcher will make it difficult on any quarterback. The running defense isn't that strong, but it's not nearly the eye-burning level of horrible it was in 2011. Put it like this -- it's been proficient. By season's end last year, Rams opponents had ran the ball 26 times more than they had thrown it. Through five games this year, they've thrown the ball 51 more times than they've ran it. I can get down with that.
The problem is that the offense is a dysfunctional grouping of disparate talents that lacks cohesion or identity. The offensive line lacks talent at pretty much all five spots, so the Rams frequently use multiple tight ends in the running game and even in the passing game will chip TEs and the RBs to give Bradford time to take five-step drops. Most worrisome is that for at least the next month, the Rams will be without Danny Amendola who suffered a dislocated collarbone last Thursday. Speaking of which...
KN: Wide receiver Danny Amendola was really THE offensive weapon for the Rams this season, and is likely out for at least a month. Amendola's stats are so far above everyone else on the team, that he has more than double the next closest player in receptions, targets, and yards. How do the Rams respond to losing him? Who is the next guy to step up?
JM: To this point, Amendola makes up more than 37% of all Rams receptions and 1/3 of the targets. The biggest topic this week in looking ahead at TST has been how the Rams' offense will operate without him.I don't think this offense had found its footing with him, so there's no way of knowing what they'll do without him. There are some generalities I guess I could offer. Givens will continue to get a couple of deep looks to keep safeties honest at the back and keep corners off the line. Brandon Gibson will pepper the game with a handful of 8-12 yard catches. Bradford will spread the ball around to multiple WRs and TEs. Beyond that? I just don't know. The question for Rams fans is if someone from the group of WRs Steve Smith, Austin Pettis and rookie Brian Quick or TE Lance Kendricks elevates their game to a yet to be seen level. It's not impossible, but there's a reason it's yet to be seen.
KN: Steven Jackson has not looked like Steven Jackson this season. He is currently on pace for just over 850 yards this year, which would snap his streak of seven straight 1,000 yard seasons. Has time caught up to Jackson? Is it a shift in offensive philosophy due to Fisher's regime (even though Fisher is thought to be a run first coach)? Is he injured?
JM: Well, he got hurt in the second game against the Redskins and has been dealing with a groin injury since. Moreover, the Rams finally have young talent on the roster behind him. Daryl Richardson, a 7th round rookie (theme!), has provided an unexpected spark since the preseason. He is a north-south runner in the the extreme. I'm not sure he's made a single cut in the backfield this season. The last factor has been the run/pass discrepancy. Throwing out a fake FG pass from Hekker, the Rams have passed the ball 146 times; Jackson and Richardson have rushed 113 times. Even that number is a bit skewed because the Rams went to the run heavily in the second half against the Cardinals after Amendola's exit. It's really been a passing team, ESPECIALLY early -- the complete opposite of how you guys have approached the 1st quarter.So while the yardage isn't what it has been, if you look at the context why, it's not that shocking. Jackson's still a beast who, for the last four years, has faced stacked boxes since the passing offense has been so poor. I wouldn't be surprised if the Rams lean on him on Sunday to ease the passing game along in Amendola's absence.
KN: Other than Amendola, how are the Rams health wise? Any big names that might not play?
JM: For the most part, things are good. The offensive line is the only real other area of concern. LT Rodger Saffold is still out with a knee injury, though he's close to returning. He might come back on Sunday. Rookie guard Rok Watkins is on IR. Unfortunate one that, as Watkins is a massive human being. And veteran C Scott Wells who the Rams signed in FA from Green Bay is also on IR with a foot injury. Quintin Mikell suffered a concussion on Thursday but is on track to go this weekend. Maybe the only other injury of note is Mario Haggan, our WLB who sits in nickel packages; he sat out practice yesterday, so he might be inactive on Sunday. It's rare that a Rams team is this healthy this deep into the season.
KN: If you are devising the game plan on how to beat the Rams, what do you do on offense? On defense?
JM: Run as much as you are comfortable given your offensive scheme and depth chart (which for you guys is a hell of a lot). Then run a bit more. It's the smart move both because the Rams are weak there, but also because of the Rams' D. The Rams are tied for third in the NFL with eight interceptions; I don't see why teams why try to beat that right now until the Rams prove they can stiffen up their run defense some.Defensively, I would suggest blitzing and trying to keep up the pass pressure both the Dolphins and Rams have exhibited this year (both teams have 15 sacks). Without Amendola, the Rams don't have a player who as a Ram has excelled in quick passing routes. Bradford has elite accuracy, so giving him time to find even the tightest window just isn't wise. That was the Redskins' plan, to keep plenty of players in coverage while rushing just four or five the majority of the game. It didn't work in the slightest as Bradford had, statistically, the best game of his career. A week later, the Bears sent pressure from all sides and Sam was 18/35 for just 152 yards and two late picks when the Rams were really desperate. It's a simple blueprint that if you have the players to execute works. I'm worried, because I think the Dolphins do.For me, this game comes down to two factors in the first half and whatever adjustments get made based on that. They're both related to Miami's offense and St. Louis' defense, as given how strong your rushing defense has been and how poor our passing offense has been even with Amendola, I'm not expecting much from the Rams in the air. I think it could be similar to the Rams-Seahawks game two weeks ago. As the Dolphins attempt to set up the rushing attack on Sunday, can the Rams win a few of those battles to either force mistakes from Tannehill or a punt or two with ground stops? I think you guys need to be very careful about passing situations. If the Rams can stop two runs in a row to set up a 3rd and 7 or longer, Chris Long and Robert Quinn are just going to tee off. That's where the Rams have really won games. If they can't get to that point, then the 2nd half adjustments have to find ways to get there.Should be a fun game to see played out.
A big thank you to Joe for agreeing to do this and for helping us get to know the Rams a little better.