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  1. #1
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    At The Half: Are Rams Better?

    By Jim Thomas
    ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
    11/09/2008

    What we've learned They have a better record but that's not saying much
    Unanswered questions Are some of the top players just past their prime?
    Looking ahead Young receivers, defensive line have been bright spots.

    * * * * * *


    Midway through the 2008 season, the Rams are two games better off than a year ago at this time. But miles away from being an elite NFC team. Under Jim Haslett, the Rams have shown they're better than the 0-4 train wreck under Scott Linehan in September. But still not ready for prime time.

    Once again, injuries have exposed a lack of depth, underscoring the many failed draft picks and free-agent moves of recent offseasons. There's no guarantee that Haslett will return in 2009 as head coach. With the death of longtime owner Georgia Frontiere last January, and the sale of the team a distinct possibility over the next couple of years, uncertainty is the order of the day at Rams Park.

    On the field, two victories, one near miss, and five lopsided setbacks haven't established much in the way of benchmarks about the team's present or future. In fact, there are just as many questions if not more about these Rams than at the start of training camp last July in Mequon, Wis.

    With eight games down, and eight to go in 2008, we examine eight areas to see what we've learned, what questions remain, and what lies ahead for the Rams.

    * * * * * * *

    Not Much Bang For The Buck

    WHAT WE'VE LEARNED

    The Rams aren't getting anything close to the production they'd like from their highest-paid players in large part because of age, injury, and lack of a supporting cast. No one's saying these guys are dogging it, but by definition your big-money players are supposed to be your big-time playmakers. Nowhere is this more obvious than at quarterback, where Marc Bulger is struggling through his second subpar season since signing a six-year extension that makes him the highest-paid Ram.

    UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

    Can Bulger get back on his game, or is that even a realistic possibility given the supporting cast? Will left tackle Orlando Pace, wide receiver Torry Holt, and defensive end Leonard Little be back in 2009? All three Super Bowl veterans will be 33 or older by opening day next season, and all three have 2009 salary cap figures of $7.2 million or greater.

    LOOKING AHEAD

    The Rams must decide what to do with wide receiver Drew Bennett, who was placed on injured reserve Tuesday because of a foot injury. He has only 34 catches for 379 yards and three touchdowns since signing a six-year, $30 million free-agent deal prior to the 2007 season. The Rams would take a $5 million cap hit if Bennett is cut or traded before June 1, but would save $3.8 million in base salary and roster bonus money.

    Blocking Still An Issue

    WHAT WE'VE LEARNED

    Yes, pass blocking remains a problem. Several sacks have been the result of faulty blocking by backs and tight ends, and not the offensive line. Nonetheless, Bulger is still taking a pounding. The Rams are passing less than they have in years: They're attempting eight fewer passes per game than they did at this point last season. Yet, sacks are up from '07. Only five teams have allowed more sacks than St. Louis (26) this season.

    UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

    Will left guard Jacob Bell be worth the potential $36 million investment? So far he's been a disappointment, missing two games with injury and not being a difference-maker when on the field. He looks lighter than his already listed playing weight of 295 pounds. Will Alex Barron ever take the next step? He has shown flashes of development, but still struggles with the bull rush and penalties.

    LOOKING AHEAD

    The Rams probably would've taken offensive tackle Jake Long had he not gone to Miami with the No. 1 overall pick in the '08 draft. They probably won't pass on a top-tier offensive tackle this time. Unless things change dramatically over the final half of this season, the offensive line should be THE top priority for the team entering this offseason. At minimum: a starting tackle and a starting center/guard.

    Say Hello To The Teen Squad

    WHAT WE'VE LEARNED

    One of the few bright spots has been the play of young wide receivers Donnie Avery, Keenan Burton, and Derek Stanley. Avery, a second-round draft pick last April, has shown serious speed. Burton, another rookie, has shown the ability to make the tough catch. Stanley showed his promotion from the practice squad was a good move with a dazzling 80-yard TD catch against Arizona.

    UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

    The sample size is very small for evaluating the Teen Squad. That 80-yard catch is Stanley's only NFL reception. Burton has only three catches for 45 yards. Avery, Burton and Stanley all must show they can stay healthy. Beyond that, they must put up the kind of numbers week in, week out to show they're for real.

    LOOKING AHEAD

    How the youngsters perform over the second half of the season will have much to say about how the team addresses the wide receiver position in the offseason. And what becomes of Holt? The seven-time Pro Bowler no longer is the target of choice on deep routes. He's trying to adjust to a new role as a possession-type receiver running more short and intermediate routes.

    Inaction For Jackson

    WHAT WE'VE LEARNED

    Let's face it, the 27-day holdout by Steven Jackson hurt the running back's production at the start of the season, and hurt the offense's production. On Sunday, Jackson will miss his second full game of the season. Because of inflammation in his lingering right thigh injury, indications are that he could miss at least another game. There's no doubt that Jackson is the team's best player if healthy. Right now, that's a big if.

    UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

    Not that Madison Hedgecock was the Lorenzo Neal of fullbacks, but the Rams' efforts to replace him have proved fruitless. Veteran Dan Kreider has done a decent job as a lead blocker in the running game, but his pass blocking and blitz pickup have left much to be desired. Barring a strong second half by Kreider, the fullback search will continue anew in the offseason.

    LOOKING AHEAD

    Nothing against Jackson, but running backs get hurt. Even the great Marshall Faulk played a full 16 games only once during his six seasons as a starter in St. Louis. The Rams need a backup a strong backup to complement Jackson next season. Unless Antonio Pittman, Kenneth Darby, or even Samkon Gado show something magical over the next eight games, running back figures to be one of the top offseason priorities.

    Optimism On The D-Line

    WHAT WE'VE LEARNED

    Despite the overall ugly numbers posted by the defense, the Rams' defensive line has played decently, with spurts of impressive play. End Chris Long, a first-round draft pick in 2008, seems to improve every week. Tackle Adam Carriker also was coming on before being slowed by an ankle injury. James Hall, Victor Adeyanju and Clifton Ryan all have had their moments.

    UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

    Injuries continue to plague Little, who made a successful return from toe surgery only to be sidetracked by a hamstring injury. Little showed he can still get to the quarterback with 4 sacks over a 3-game span in Games 4-6. But the hamstring problems returned and probably won't go away completely this season. Can Little, the team's top defensive player, stay on the field over the final eight games?

    LOOKING AHEAD

    With the possible exception of adding a tackle, the defensive line appears set for 2009. Of the top seven defensive linemen, only La'Roi Glover becomes a free agent after this season. Glover is a leader and a high-character person, but he turns 35 before the start of next season and hasn't made much happen so far this season.

    Secondary Issues

    WHAT WE'VE LEARNED

    Injuries and the unexpected have conspired against this group. Safety Oshiomogho Atogwe and cornerback Fakhir Brown got off to slow starts after missing all of the preseason with injuries. The secondary got scorched in the early going, with opposing quarterbacks posting 100-plus passer ratings in each of the first three games. Brown's surprising release for two games didn't help, either. On the plus side, Ron Bartell has played well at corner.

    UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

    Tye Hill will miss his fifth straight game Sunday because of knee problems. Even after undergoing surgery, swelling in the knee has Hill scheduled to see a specialist. Prior to the injury, Hill was struggling and was being targeted by opposing defenses. Can the former first-round pick regain his health, stay healthy for a full season, and regain his confidence?

    LOOKING AHEAD

    Atogwe, Bartell, Brown, and nickel backs Jason Craft and Ricky Manning Jr., all are scheduled for free agency after this season. Re-signing Atogwe and either Bartell or Brown, would seem to be a minimum requirement. Otherwise, the Rams must rebuild most all of their secondary via free agency and/or the draft, siphoning off dollars and draft picks that could be used elsewhere.

    Up & Down Special Teams

    WHAT WE'VE LEARNED

    The Rams have one of the league's best punter-kicker tandems in Josh Brown and Donnie Jones. Brown has made 14 of 16 field goals, including the game-winner as time expired in Washington. His only misses are from 51 and 54 yards. Jones is midway through another banner year. He leads the league in punting average (50.0 yards), and is third in net punting (41.3).

    UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

    The addition of Gary Stills, who has a team-high 12 special teams tackles, has helped immensely. But just when you think the Rams' perpetually bad coverage units have turned the corner, they spring another big leak. In many games, one bad coverage moment has led to a long return. Despite signs of progress, the Rams rank only 22nd in punt coverage and 28th in kickoff coverage.

    LOOKING AHEAD

    With Dante Hall on injured reserve because of an ankle injury, Stanley handles return duties on punts and kickoffs against the Jets. The job is Stanley's to keep for the rest of the season, and beyond, if he performs well. The return game has been lacking for years. Hall provided an occasional spark when healthy over the last 1 seasons, but with his contract up after 2008 he's probably played his last game for St. Louis.

    Leadership Counts

    WHAT WE'VE LEARNED

    Talk all you want about NFL players being highly-paid, self-motivated professionals. But young or old, they still need leadership, direction, and yes motivation. For whatever reason, the Rams didn't respond to Linehan. That's not to say they purposely tanked it, but the team in general lacked enthusiasm and confidence. When something went wrong, they displayed next to no resiliency.

    UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

    For two games, (plus three quarters against New England), Haslett looked like a miracle worker. The Rams pulled off upsets against Washington and Dallas, and threatened another before New England rallied for a 23-16 victory. But last week's 34-13 loss to Arizona looked a lot like Linehan's Rams. The team lost its poise after a Bulger interception was returned for a TD. Can Haslett get the team back on track?

    LOOKING AHEAD

    Plans to name Haslett head coach for 2009 if the team finished 6-6 over the final 12 games were scuttled when the NFL ruled the Rams must follow the Rooney Rule. Haslett is off to a 2-2 start, but victories may be hard to come by given the injury situation. Haslett is still coaching for his job. But if the team wants him, Rooney Rule guidelines on interviewing at least one minority candidate shouldn't be a major impediment.


  2. #2
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    Re: At The Half: Are Rams Better?

    Great post and I think the rams are better at the half way point, now that doesn't mean they are playoff ready because lets face it they are not. there needs to be many changes this offseason, there is plenty of good young talent on this team but the veterans are old,Pace should hang it up,Holt should be let go and Little should come back BUT needs to stay healthy,misses to much time the last couple of seasons.The big money stars need to play well and stay healthy,Jackson is a monster when he plays and I fully expect him to continue to do so when he comes back,this is a tough one for me because I am a big fan of Marc Bulger but he needs to step it up and get back to where he was a couple of seasons ago,people can blame everyone else from the offensive line to the popcorn vendor but he needs to be accountable for his play,the o-line isn't very good and is a big part of the problem but not all of it,I think if the Rams make good off season decisions this team could be in the hunt next season if not the season after,remember decades ending in "9" have been good to the rams,1979-Super bowl,1989-NFC championship game,1999-Super bowl,2009-?

  3. #3
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    Re: At The Half: Are Rams Better?

    Quote Originally Posted by jkramsfan View Post
    Great post and I think the rams are better at the half way point, now that doesn't mean they are playoff ready because lets face it they are not. there needs to be many changes this offseason, there is plenty of good young talent on this team but the veterans are old,Pace should hang it up,Holt should be let go and Little should come back BUT needs to stay healthy,misses to much time the last couple of seasons.The big money stars need to play well and stay healthy,Jackson is a monster when he plays and I fully expect him to continue to do so when he comes back,this is a tough one for me because I am a big fan of Marc Bulger but he needs to step it up and get back to where he was a couple of seasons ago,people can blame everyone else from the offensive line to the popcorn vendor but he needs to be accountable for his play,the o-line isn't very good and is a big part of the problem but not all of it,I think if the Rams make good off season decisions this team could be in the hunt next season if not the season after,remember decades ending in "9" have been good to the rams,1979-Super bowl,1989-NFC championship game,1999-Super bowl,2009-?
    Let's not forget about the 1969 Los Angeles Rams. They started that season 11-0, before losing their last three, finishing 1st place in their division at 11-3. The Rams were defeated by the Minnesota Vikings in the Playoffs, the Vikes went on to Superbowl IV.

    Looking forward to the '09 Rams!
    [SIGPIC][/SIGPIC]

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    jkramsfan's Avatar
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    Re: At The Half: Are Rams Better?

    great point,I didn't go back far enough to the 69 season,bring on 2009.

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