Camp Confidential: Addressing lingering questions key to Rams' success
MEQUON, Wis. -- The St. Louis Rams can contend in the NFC West if Orlando Pace stays healthy, Steven Jackson rejoins the team and Leonard Little re-emerges as a dominant pass-rusher.
It could be that simple.
Pace, arguably the NFL's best left tackle when healthy, continues to work his way back from two injury-shortened seasons. Jackson, who finished 2006 with 1,528 yards rushing and 90 receptions, continues to stay away from camp while seeking a new contract. Little, having recovered from a toe injury that limited him to one sack last season, looks like an impact player again.
This is a difficult team to figure.
The offensive line lacks proven depth. An injury at linebacker could dramatically weaken the front seven. With Isaac Bruce in San Francisco, Torry Holt is the only receiver defenses must respect.
Last season taught the Rams humility. The Super Bowl gave them hope.
"I don't think anyone gave the Giants a chance," coach Scott Linehan said. "They started the season and lost two games, but by the end of the year they were playing the best defense and they won a Super Bowl.
"Their quarterback played better than any quarterback in the NFL in the playoffs. Who knows how this year is going to go? I would like to have some kind of magic carpet ride like that myself."
1. Can the Rams win without Steven Jackson?
No. One look at the depth chart confirms as much. Brian Leonard and Antonio Pittman are the only other backs assured of roster spots. Pittman has shown flashes at times during camp, but he can't come close to carrying an offense the way Jackson has done. Leonard is a combination halfback/fullback.
Jackson remains upset about his contract. He is entering the final year of his contract and is scheduled to earn slightly more than $1.7 million in 2008. Veteran players generally do not miss game checks, so the assumption here is that Jackson will report in time to make a significant contribution. But missing camp is preventing him from getting comfortable behind a reconfigured offensive line.
2. Are the Rams strong enough at linebacker?
Depth is in short supply. Weakside starter Pisa Tinoisamoa has missed 12 games the past two seasons. A back injury continues to sideline strongside incumbent Chris Draft, clearing the way for Quinton Culberson to emerge as the likely starter alongside Tinoisamoa and durable middle linebacker Will Witherspoon.
The Rams waited until the 228th choice of the draft before addressing the position this offseason. Chris Chamberlain (chosen 228th) and David Vobora (Mr. Irrelevant at No. 252) have impressed coaches, but the Rams could be in trouble if injuries force either rookie to play extensively.
3. Who replaces Isaac Bruce?
Drew Bennett moves up the depth chart while a long list of unestablished players fight for the No. 3 role behind Holt and Bennett.
Bruce's production had declined in recent seasons, but he was still the second-best receiver on the team by a wide margin. Bennett's receiving totals have declined every season since he caught 80 passes for the Tennessee Titans in 2004. Reversing that trend would help the Rams' offense function without Bruce for the first time since 1993.
"It'd be huge," Bulger said. "He has big shoes to fill with Isaac, who was a staple in this offense forever. I think he realizes that, and he worked hard in the offseason."
Tight end Randy McMichael has a chance to improve significantly upon his 39-catch production of 2007. He'll benefit from playing alongside a healthy Bulger. He also moved up the list of preferred receivers when the team released Bruce.
"Randy McMichael has been spectacular this training camp, and I would expect him to have a very, very, very profound impact on our offense," new offensive coordinator Al Saunders said.
Bulger is coming off his worst season as a starter. He finished 2007 with more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (11). That had never happened in his six previous seasons as a starter. Bulger should bounce back this season as long as his offensive line avoids another injury-induced implosion. But it's unlikely the Rams will throw the ball as much as they have in past seasons, at least by design.
Jackson is the key to this offense. The Rams appear to lack the receiving weapons they'll need for Saunders to revisit the Greatest Show on Turf days. Feeding the ball to Jackson would help keep Bulger healthy while playing to the Rams' strength on offense and protecting their defense. Adding veteran Anthony Becht as a blocking tight end could help Jackson operate from two-tight end personnel groupings.
Pace finds himself at a career crossroads. Another serious injury would cast doubt on his career while forcing the Rams to shuffle their line once again.
Newcomer to watch
Chris Long. The Rams' first-round draft choice will start at right defensive end, allowing James Hall to come off the bench. What should we expect from Long as a rookie?
"Everybody thinks you are going to get 10 sacks your rookie year," defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. "Gaines didn't even start until halfway through the season down in Tampa. This league is hard."
Little's expected resurgence as a pass-rusher from the left side could take pressure off Long.
"He doesn't have to get 15 sacks," Haslett said. "He just has to do his job. He's athletic enough and he has enough speed and quickness, those things will come to him."
Injuries forced the Rams to use 18 combinations on their offensive line last season. The constant turnover also limited the team to five or six pass-protection schemes, Bulger estimated. The situation has improved. The Rams enter this season with between 40 and 50 protections at their disposal. Defenses will have a harder time sniffing out protections, making it easier for the Rams to dictate how defenses play them. But all bets are off if another injury were to sideline Pace. ... Kicker Josh Brown finished a close second to Long as the Rams' newcomer to watch. Instead of struggling to replace retiring veteran kicker Jeff Wilkins, the Rams upgraded at the position. Brown has 25 touchbacks the past two seasons despite kicking in cool, damp conditions at Seattle's Qwest Field. Wilkins had 25 touchbacks the past four seasons while calling the Edward Jones Dome his home. Brown's clutch field goals against the Rams had given Seattle a mental edge in close games between the teams. That edge is gone. ... Holt's chronic knee troubles have subsided this summer. Holt caught 93 passes in each of the past two seasons, but his yards per reception have fallen off considerably in recent seasons. As a result, defenses no longer fear Holt to the same degree. The Rams need that to change as they adjust to life without Bruce. ... Long still is thinking more than he'll have to once the pro game becomes second nature, and sometimes it shows. Adam Carriker went through a similar adjustment last season. Long tends to revert to the two-gap approach he played at Virginia. He also isn't accustomed to playing with a tight end over him. These are relatively minor obstacles for a player with Long's talent and work ethic. Long said he's feeling more comfortable in recent days after making a few technique adjustments.