When the Rams welcome the division rival Arizona Cardinals into the Edward Jones Dome this Sunday, it will mark the start of Year 2 in the Jeff Fisher/Les Snead regime. No one really knew what to expect in their inaugural campaign. But after nearly making the playoffs at 7-8-1, going 4-1-1 in the tough NFC West, expectations are raised this time around.
Here are a few things to look for in Week 1:
The unveiling of the new weapons: Ever since free agency and the draft when the likes of Jared Cook were signed and Tavon Austin was drafted, we’ve heard so much about this new vertical passing game the Rams will employ under offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. But in four preseason games, we hardly saw it. Cook was targeted just a handful of times and caught five passes. Austin didn’t see all that much more action either. But most importantly, we didn’t see them take too many chances down the field save for one 50+ yard reception by Chris Givens in the first preseason game against the Browns.
This Sunday, we’ll finally get a chance to see what this organization has had in mind all these months. Are we going to see Austin line up in the backfield on some plays as a running back? Are we going to see them let Cook just flat out fly down the field and attempt to burn his man for a score? Is this going to be the second coming of the greatest show on turf or just a slightly more fast paced offense than we’ve seen the last couple seasons?
The running game and how it’s divided: We all know Daryl Richardson is going to get the start in the backfield and that Isaiah Pead is suspended for the first game of the year. But we’ll find an awful lot about this rushing attack by the amount of work Zac Stacy and even Benny Cunningham get. First off, will both of those guys even be active for the game? And if they are (one has to be as the top backup to Richardson) how many carries will they get? This is a team that has solely relied on one guy - Steven Jackson - for the past decade to carry the full load. And Richardson doesn’t exactly have a lot of experience under his belt as a former 7th round pick out of Abilene Christian. He played in every game last year but saw just 98 carries and managed 475 yards out of them.
The next question is...how much will this running game even be featured? From the notes listed above with all these new weapons, are we going to see a team that is completely reliant on the passing attack and only uses the run game to set up the pass? I would not put it past the Rams to only rush Richardson and someone else (Stacy?) about 15-18 times over the course of the game and just chuck it down the field the rest. This is a new offense. It’s not dink and dunk and hand it off to #39 all day long. We’ll know a lot about the future of this offense based on how much they run it and when they do who gets it?
Breaking in two brand new safeties: Last year’s combination of Quintin Mikell and Craig Dahl contributed to the Rams defense having the 15th ranked passing defense in the NFL at 225 yards allowed per game. Both of those guys are gone and two new ones are in. Those would be second year player Rodney McLeod and rookie third round draft pick T.J. McDonald. McLeod saw very limited time last season after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Virginia. He made 12 total tackles in 16 games. McDonald, on the other hand, comes from USC where he had a very up and down career. At one point as a junior he was extremely highly rated and looked the part of possibly a first round pick. But as a senior, the son of former St. Louis Cardinals safety Tim McDonald was less than stellar. He had a lot of problems in coverage despite being so big and fast. Jeff Fisher said the only person they sweated out during the draft process was McDonald. They genuinely were worried he wouldn’t make it to their selection in the third round. Fisher says part of McDonald’s struggles at USC last year were for reasons beyond his control and things that were fairly easily correctable.
Either way you look at it, the Rams have two brand new safeties that didn’t exactly come into the NFL with a whole lot of pedigree. One, McLeod, wasn’t even drafted while the other, McDonald, had a rough senior season in college. If you’re defensive ends like Robert Quinn and Chris Long are getting to the quarterback and wreaking havoc then you don’t need your secondary to be all out superstars. But not everyone is making something happen on every single play. The Rams will need their new safeties to make some plays for them. And at this point it remains to be seen if they’re up for the challenge.