When Eugene Sims was flagged for a personal foul on the “late hit” to Darren Sproles at the start of the game on Sunday, most in Rams Nation likely got that same feeling of “here we go again.” As it turns out, the day was far from typical, with the St. Louis Rams rocketing to a 24-3 lead early in the contest, and playing keep away for the remainder of the game. Dissecting the wins is always more entertaining than the losses, so let’s jump right in…
1. Kellen Clemens completed 70% of his passing attempts for 158 yards and two touchdowns. His QBR, the quarterback statistic that ESPN commonly pushes, was 95.7 out of 100, and his quarterback rating, the stand measure for signal callers, was 126.7. Clemens did nothing to “wow” the audience, but he was as efficient as you can possibly be on gameday. His performances since the loss of Sam Bradford should cement his spot on the Rams roster for as long as Brian Schottenheimer and his offensive system are still in St. Louis.
2. While Eddie Lacy may be the front-runner for “best rookie running back,” Zac Stacy would be the close “1a” option, and is easily the most impactful late-round selection from the 2014 NFL Draft class. Stacy has now topped 100 yards rushing in 30% of his starts, and is averaging a legitimate 4.2 yards per carry on the season. Assuming the Rams’ rookie can stave off injury, St. Louis may have found a way to (yet again) seamlessly transition from one franchise running back to the next… oh yea, and Benny Cunningham isn’t bad either!
Yesterday, Stacy rumbled for 133 yards on 28 carries, including a breakaway 40 yard sprint that essentially sealed the game for the Rams.
3. You cannot run the football without a dominating offensive line, as Steven Jackson can attest. Yesterday, four out of five starting offensive linemen registered a positive run blocking grade. Moreover, Jake Long and Rodger Saffold both ranked among the Top 3 overall run blockers at their position on Sunday… something that has been a regularity for both players this season. While Jake Long should have his ticket to Hawaii already punched, St. Louis is still trying to figure out where Rodger Saffold fits into this offensive line equation. Assuming they can find the money, it would be hard to imagine Les Snead and Co. letting the former 2nd-rounder walk after his performance at guard late this season…
4. While there will be a handful of other players leading the conversation, Robert Quinn showed yesterday why he is the Defensive Player of the Year. Against the Saints, he registered 5 tackles, 2 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, 10 total quarterback disruptions, and 3 defensive stops. He also forced two critical penalties on New Orleans, and single-handedly led to the benching of LT Charles Brown midway through the second half.
Quinn is currently second overall in the NFL in sacks, first overall in quarterback disruptions (sacks, hits, and hurries), first overall in forced fumbles, and has only missed two tackles this entire season. Moreover, according to Pro Football Focus, he Quinn currently registers the highest pass rushing grade in the NFL, and ranked third among 4-3 defensive ends against the run.
5. Typically, we save Johnny Hekker for last. This week, with the understanding that he is somehow ranked 10th overall in Pro Bowl voting, we thought he should get moved up. Once again, Hekker completely neutralized one of the most potent returners in the NFL. Hekker rocketed four punts for a 41.8 yards average. On those kicks, the coverage team allowed zero return yards. There is no rational explanation for Hekker not getting an invitation to the Pro Bowl this season, leading all punters in net yards and allowing the fewest return yards of any punter in the NFL with at least 20 return attempts.
6. After Sunday, it would be hard to argue that the St. Louis Rams do not have the best tight end rotation in the NFL this season. There is no other team in the league with two players in the Top 15 in touchdown receptions among tight ends, and that doesn’t include the under-appreciated contributions of Cory Harkey, who put his talents on full display yesterday against the Saints. Not only are all three players a threat in the red zone, but all three are also used as in-line blockers, as well as out of the backfield as make-shift fullbacks. Roster depth is vital for team success and sustainability throughout the long, bumpy season. With these players in tow, the Rams are certainly set at the tight end position.
7. Yesterday, it was finally revealed that Jeff Fisher had, in fact, essentially take over the St. Louis Rams defense. With that in mind, it is not surprising that we have seen Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson playing more aggressively (to a fault, in some cases) on the outside, and more two-deep safety looks, with Darian Stewart, Rodney McLeod, and T.J. McDonald rotating in at safety. It is also not surprising that the Rams have begun playing more out of the nickel, with Jo-Lonn Dunbar playing only 35% of the defensive snaps over the past two games.
Without Cortland Finnegan in the lineup, Rodney McLeod is getting some extensive work as the nickelback, and has performed admirably against some of the better wide receiver corps in the league. However, the true difference makers in the defense have been…
8. Alec Ogletree and James Laurinaitis have been lights out this season, and could certainly compete for the top linebacker duo in the league when in the nickel package. Against the Saints, Ogletree was targeted 13 times in coverage, but allowed a mere 46 receiving yards, even while playing a “soft” zone for a majority of the final three quarters. Laurinaitis was also impressive, given the coverage scheme and his assignment, mirroring the dynamic trio of New Orleans’ running backs for much of the game. With two of the linebacker positions sewn up into the foreseeable future, the St. Louis Rams can now be more “liberal” with their selections in April. With an outstanding nickel duo, there is no reason the Rams couldn’t bite on an elite pass rushing prospect like Anthony Barr, should they choose to stay high in the order!
9. While it would be nearly impossible to verify that the Rams are putting Tavon Austin on ice for the remainder of the season, it would certainly make sense to shelf the rookie sensation at this point. Foot/ankle injuries can be tricky, and can linger for a player’s entire career if not handled appropriately. We should trust that Fisher will make the right move.
10. Thanks to a questionable “go for the win” call by Mike Shanahan, the St. Louis Rams are now sitting alone in the No.2 overall spot in the 2014 draft order. Assuming the Washington Redskins don’t do anything crazy… like win… the Rams shouldn’t have to rely on any strength of schedule battles to earn their pick. Thank you Mike Shanahan, thank you very, very much!