With the Rams’ official return to their ancestral roots at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum next season, fans should brace themselves for scores of articles by media members that are quickly scrambling to get up to speed on what makes our Rams tick. Unfortunately, many of these scribes and talking heads (as evidenced by their lack of gray hairs) have yet to actually watch a full 60 minutes of Rams action. That’s somewhat understandable since the Rams rarely appeared on the game of the week in recent years, while a nauseating amount of Chargers football was being jammed through local televisions on a weekly basis.
Nonetheless, if you are looking to get up to speed on the Rams and didn’t have access to the Sunday Ticket last season, expect some rough sledding for a year or two. Old-time Rams fans who couldn’t handle the 20-year jaunt through the Midwest will need to sift through misinformation delivered by media members, who haven’t had to look beyond Kobe and Kershaw to fill their columns over the last few years. But if you’re looking to blend-in with the die-hards who routinely burn 16 maddening Sundays a year rooted in front of flat-screens in sunless caves across the Southland, here is your crash-course:
What to be excited about
The Rams defense is young, talented, and it can really hit. Gregg Williams and his blitz-happy schemes have kept opposing quarterbacks shuttling to and from locker rooms for the last two seasons. The Rams drew a fair share of criticism for their aggressive play last year, but it’s debatable whether the loosely used term “dirty” is actually deserved. What isn’t debatable is that the defense is close to being a top 1o unit.
The defensive line is stacked with first-round picks and gets more notoriety than any other group on the team. Aaron Donald emerged as an absolute monster inside last season and was consequently named NFC Defensive Player Of The Year. Whether teams sent one or two linemen his way, Donald was simply unblockable. Undersized but strong, Donald works from a low center of gravity to penetrate backfields on seemingly every play. Rarely has an interior lineman been such a threat on the pass-rush as Donald was in 2015. Donald lines up next to big Michael Brockers, who is developing into a very solid run-stopper.
Outside of Donald and Brockers are ends Robert Quinn & Chris Long, and their super-backups William Hayes and Eugene Sims. Quinn is one of the premier pass rushers in the league, turning in 19 sacks two seasons ago. Chris Long, son of former Raider Howie Long, has motored to a steady career, but his contract may need to be renegotiated for him to remain part of the Rams’ plans in Los Angeles. Backups Hayes, Sims, and DT Nick Fairley are all unrestricted free agents.
After Donald and Quinn, weakside linebacker Alec Ogletree may be the best young talent on the defense. Before being struck by an ankle injury against Arizona, Ogletree was a heat-seeking missile, tallying huge tackle totals on a weekly basis. Following Ogletree’s injury, hybrid linebacker/safety Mark Barron stepped up and did a masterful job. Gregg Williams loves having Barron at linebacker where his speed and versatility are on full display. In the middle, stalwart James Laurinaitis has been a steady leader for the defense. His contract may be an issue moving forward as the Rams shuffle the deck to keep as much of their young talent as possible.
The Rams young defensive backfield really improved last season. Free Agent corners Trumaine Johnson (seven interceptions) and Janoris Jenkins will be looking to cash in after turning in solid seasons last year. Should the Rams elect to let one of the walk, then third year corner E.J. Gaines will look to fill the void. Gaines had a promising rookie campaign, but missed the entire season last year due to a foot injury. USC alums may remember T.J. McDonald, son of former NFL-great Tim McDonald. T.J. is a punishing hitter who plays alongside much-improved free safety Rodney Mcleod. Expect to see contributions from LaMarcus Joyner, Maurice Alexander and Marcus Roberson in nickel and dime sets.
On offense, Rams fans can be excited about watching budding superstar Todd Gurley carry the ball. Gurley seems to have a knack for patiently finding lanes and exploding through them with an incredible burst. Although he missed the first two weeks due to a recovering ACL, Gurely still amassed 1,106 yards and was named PFWA rookie of the year.
Speed demon Tavon Austin is the Rams’ other exciting piece on offense. Until last season, the Rams struggled figuring out how to utilize the skill set of the undersized, but ridiculously elusive Austin. However, in 2015, the Rams used a variety of run plays, trick plays, and short passes to put the ball in his hands and let him create. Austin’s hands aren’t the greatest, but if the Rams are able to get the ball to him behind the defense more often next season, it would go a long way toward stretching the defense for Gurley’s ground attack.
What to grumble about
Jeff Fisher’s lack of progress has the natives restless in Ramland. Fisher had an immediate impact upon arrival, pushing the beleaguered Rams to a competitive 7-8-1 record in his first season in St Louis. However, while stocking up on talent, partly made possible by the RG3 trade, Fisher and GM Les Snead decided to stick with oft-injured Sam Bradford and a series of lackluster offensive coordinators. Under Fisher’s watch, the Rams have turned in three 7-win seasons and a 6-win season. Fisher may have been retained to provide stability throughout the relocation process, but his job will be on the line if the Rams aren’t able to punch beyond mediocrity this season.
Greg Robinson, the Rams’ second overall pick in 2014, has yet to show that he is a true NFL left tackle. A road grader at Auburn, Robinson has not yet refined his skills to become a reliable pass blocker when taking on premier end rushers. If he could make strides this season, the Rams’ young improving line would be far more impressive moving forward.
Quarterback is a big question mark for the Rams, and this year’s draft doesn’t appear to offer a clear-cut answer. Before the 2015 season, the Rams traded Sam Bradford for Nick Foles, who had enjoyed a big season with Chip Kelly in Philly in 2013. Unfortunately, Foles struggled to produce with the Rams and former offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti. Case Keenum started the last four games and went 3-1. Keenum’s arm strength is below average, but he is a gritty player that can extend plays and create. The Rams will likely bring him back to compete next season.
The Rams have been dealing with the uncertainty of relocation and half-empty stadiums the last few seasons, but all that will change. We’ll see if that new-found stability, along with the natural maturation of a very young team, translates into a more consistent effort next season. Health provided, look for the offensive line to continue to gel for an offense that will need to establish some sort of stability at the quarterback position. While Gurley is a real talent, he won’t be able to produce in a one-dimensional offense, so the Rams will be making an effort to revive their incompetent pass-attack. Former Titans offensive coordinator Jason Michael has been brought on board and is expected to focus on the passing game, under current offensive coordinator Rob Boras.
Last season, the Rams beat the Seattle Seahawks twice and took down the eventual division champion Arizona Cardinals in Glendale. If the team achieves any semblance of consistency with a slight uptick from the offense, they will compete for a playoff position.
Skye Sverdlin has contributed many historical pieces to Rams talks along with in-depth interviews with Ram great like Dick Vermeil and Keith Lyle.
Follow Skye on Twitter @Skyeattolah.