The St. Louis Rams are going up against their toughest opponent of the year on Sunday, which is saying a lot considering they just finished off back-to-back games against the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers. Divisional games count as double in the NFL, especially in the NFC West filled with some of the toughest defenses in the league. The San Francisco 49ers are the only team in the division that the Rams have not played this season, after coming out on top against the Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks.
In both of those games, neither team scored over 20 points. In fact, there was only one team that scored more than a single touchdown in those two contests, and the was the Rams against the Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers played eerily similar games against divisional opponents, with a 13-6 win over the Seahawks and a 24-3 win over the Arizona Cardinals. Again, the games were a battle between the two defenses, although Smith playing well above his average against an injury plagued Cardinals secondary in their win.
So, how does the return of Amendola effect the upcoming game when the 9ers’ defense has been so strong? The San Francisco 49ers defense did not allow a touchdown pass from either John Skelton or Russell Wilson. They didn’t allow a rushing touchdown from either Marshawn Lynch or LaRod Stephens-Howling. If fact, they only allowed 3 field goals in those two games…
The difference between the Rams and the Cards and Seahawks is their dynamic on offense. The Seattle Seahawks rely on the running game to open up the passing game, hoping that Sidney Rice or Golden Tate can make their way behind the secondary for a big play. Marshawn Lynch has had 21 or more carries in 4 out of the 5 Seahawk wins this season, and 20 or less in 3 out of 4 of their losses. Likewise, 3 out of 4 of Seattle’s losses came when Russell Wilson threw 25 or more passes, while 3 out of 5 of their wins came in games when he threw 24 or fewer times. Seattle converts on 32.7% of their third down attempts and have passed for only 79 first downs (32nd in the NFL). The Cardinals… well, they are the Cardinals. They have allowed an astonishing 41 sacks this season. At that rate, they will end the season by allowing 72 sacks, which is the 4th highest amount in NFL history, with only the ’86 Eagle (104), the ’97 Cardinals (78), and the ’02 Texans (76) ahead of them on the list.
The Rams are different, at least this season. They do not heavily rely on the running game, in fact, some of the best rushing performances of the year for the St. Louis Rams have come in the last three games, all of which were losses. Aside from the game against the Washington Redskins, Bradford’s passing number are relatively the same in the wins and losses this season. The St. Louis offense does not count on the run or the pass to make it through games. So what type of game do they play? The Rams are a possession team in every sense of the word. The look at each drive in 10-yard increments, working their way slowly down the field with first downs, hoping to make it into field goal range before the offense stalls.
The one common thread in the Rams latest three game losing streak is the absence of Danny Amendola. Prior to his sudden departure due to injury, Amendola was on track to a “Pro Bowl”-esque year, leading the league in receptions, 1st down catches, and was second in the league in receiving yards. Moreover, Amendola had been leading the entire NFL in “yards per route run,” gaining, on average, nearly 3 yards on every single passing play that he was in the game. Amendola was also targeted 31.9% of the time when he ran a route, which also lead the league. Even sadder, despite missing the last 3 and a half games with the separated SC joint, Amendola still leads the team in receptions, targets, receiving yards, yards after carry, receiving touchdowns, and is second on the team in 1st down catches.
So what does his return mean to the Rams on Sunday? Well, for starters, it means that Sam Bradford will actually have a “true” possession receiver as an option to throw the ball to on every passing play. Gibson has been average, at best, in the last three games, contributing 15 catches for 197 yards and no touchdowns, despite being targeted more by Bradford. Givens has been a monster on the deep ball, but has only averaged 3 receptions per game since Amendola’s injury, being targeted 17 times. Amendola is that “in between” receiver. His presence on the field forces coverage to his side of the field, and causes coordinators to limit the number of times they blitz from the nickel spot and from the safeties. That effect was evident in the first, and only, two touchdown grabs for Brandon Gibson this season, coming on deep routes on the opposite side of the field, after coverage had rolled to help cover Amendola underneath. With Givens and Bradford now in-tune with one another, the deep ball will become that much more effective. Corners will likely have to play closer to the line of scrimmage to defend the short-to-intermediate passing game between Bradford and Amendola, relying on the slower safeties to help over top on the deep routes. If Givens has consistently taken the top off the of the secondary with a 10-15 yard cushion, how do you think he will fair when he only has to eat up 5 yards after his break?
Quick passing early will also lead to less pressure and fewer hits on the quarterback, which can convert into bigger plays down the field as the game progresses. A solid passing game leads to less defensive players “in the box,” which can open up the running game in the middle, and put Steven Jackson head-to-head against nickelback’s instead of the 49ers over-sized, outside linebackers. Amendola brings security back to the offense, forces coverages that benefit the receivers around him, and gives confidence to Sam Bradford. His return adds a dynamic to the offense that has been sorely missed in the last three game, and could be the “x-factor” necessary in any offense that is going up against a San Francsico 49ers defense. He may not add touchdowns at the end of every drive, but he can get the St. Louis Rams in a position to put points on the scoreboard on each possession. Against the 28th ranked passing offense, 12-15 points may be enough to put the Rams over the top, especially since the Rams have the personnel to line up man-to-man against the plethora of 49ers receivers and have faired well against second-tier quarterbacks (sorry San Fran, dominating the Bills and the Cardinals is not that impressive, especially given that he has only throw for 300+ yards 3 times in 78 games played).