Rams preview: Spagnuolo brings some fire
By Jim Thomas and Vinnie Iyer, SportingNews
3 hours, 42 minutes ago

Since the passing of his mother, Georgia Frontiere, in January 2008, Chip Rosenbloom hasn’t had the benefit of a honeymoon period. Four games into Rosenbloom’s first season as St. Louis Rams owner, he fired coach Scott Linehan – marking the first time in more than 40 years the franchise had made an in-season coaching change.

At Christmastime, longtime team presidents John Shaw and Jay Zygmunt stepped down – Zygmunt entirely, and Shaw was reduced to a role as a senior advisor.

The Rams landed one of the league’s hottest assistant coaches in Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo as their new head coach and were off and running.

There was more offseason shuffling in the front office as Rosenbloom presided over a complete overhaul of the organization, including the release of mainstay players such as Torry Holt(notes) and Orlando Pace(notes). Billy Devaney was promoted to general manager and young Kevin Demoff was brought in as executive vice president of football operations.

After the overhaul, which marks the 10th anniversary of the Rams’ Super Bowl XXXIV triumph over Tennessee, defensive end Leonard Little(notes) is the only player remaining from that squad. “The Greatest Show on Turf” is now a distant memory, as Devaney, Spagnuolo and Demoff try to revitalize a franchise that has lost 27 of its past 32 games.

WHAT’S NEW

Offense: Wisely, Spagnuolo would like to run an offense that takes advantage of the team’s best player in running back Steven Jackson. But while a bruising, power running game may be the centerpiece of the offense, Spagnuolo hired an offensive coordinator schooled in the pass-oriented West Coast scheme. Pat Shurmur comes to the Rams after 10 seasons in Philadelphia, the last seven of which he served as quarterbacks coach. So there should be some flexibility built into the scheme beyond the Rams’ usual smash-mouth football.

After two subpar seasons, two-time Pro Bowler Marc Bulger is hoping to resurrect his career under a third head coach (five if you count interim head coaches Jim Haslett and Joe Vitt) and fifth offensive coordinator since starting his first NFL game in 2002.

The signing of free-agent center Jason Brown and selection of tackle Jason Smith at No. 2 overall in the NFL draft represent a major investment in the offensive line. The hope is that, with a bigger, more physical offensive line, Bulger will be better protected. And with a stronger emphasis on the running game, there won’t be as much pressure on the quarterback to do it himself.

The St. Louis offense will go as far as Jackson takes it. The running back combines power and speed, and he’s powerful and determined enough to move the pile, can elude tacklers with his jump-cut and is fast enough in the open field to outrun defenders. Throw in Jackson’s pass-catching ability and he has a set of skills matched by few backs in the NFL.

Defense: The basic tenets of the scheme Spagnuolo ran as coordinator in New York will be in place. He likes an aggressive blitzing scheme, versatile defensive linemen and bigger corners who can play press coverage. Like his counterpart on offense, defensive coordinator Ken Flajole is a rookie. But Flajole was highly respected as the Panthers’ linebackers coach and has known Spagnuolo for more than 20 years. Some elements of the Carolina and Minnesota defense (the Rams have two Vikings assistants) will be sprinkled into the scheme as well.

Second-round draft pick James Laurinaitis of Ohio State is expect to start in the middle as a rookie. Laurinaitis isn’t a thumper, but he’s a solid all-around player who should help shore up the run and won’t be a liability in coverage.

BURNING QUESTION

What can we expect from the Rams’ new-look offense?
“We have these young guys coming up at receiver, our line is pretty much all new, Steven [Jackson] is going to be healthy. So I’m really optimistic. I’m excited, especially to start winning games.”
– Rams QB Marc Bulger

OPPONENT’S VIEW
(An anonymous opponent breaks down the Rams)

“The Rams are headed in the right direction, but they do have a lot of holes. That’s the problem. Their secondary and their linebackers just aren’t very strong. That’s why I thought they might take Aaron Curry [in the draft].

“Their defense just isn’t very good. Spagnuolo’s going to find that out. They’ve got Adam Carriker and Chris Long. If they added Aaron Curry, I’d be a lot more afraid of them.

“And they’re undersized. There’s a reason they were 28th in [total] defense. Will Witherspoon is small; even Long’s small. Tye Hill’s small.

“On offense, they need receivers. They’re all young guys. Donnie Avery’s got upside. And I’m not even sure about Marc Bulger; he’s been beat up so much. Steven Jackson, when he’s healthy, he’s a load, but he has missed a lot of games. I don’t know who their backup is.

“The Rams are going to be a little more stable, and Spagnuolo will help. I mean those guys [in St. Louis] really like him. But they’re so far behind, they need a lot of help. It’s going to take a while.”

BOTTOM LINE

There’s no doubt the Rams are heading in the right direction, but even in this age of quick turnarounds in the NFL, they are still a long way from being an NFC contender. For starters, the feisty Spagnuolo will make this a more competitive group.

There will be no more games where St. Louis is trailing 40-0 at halftime, as was the case in the Meadowlands last November against the Jets. But there are still too many holes and not enough difference-makers on this roster. If this Rams team wins six or more games, they should hold a parade for them in downtown St. Louis.

Prediction: 4-12 (fourth, NFC West)