After spending most of the 2012 season attached to the line of scrimmage working as a glorified sixth offensive lineman or set up in the backfield as a de facto fullback, Rams tight end Lance Kendricks has been unleashed in the passing game a bit more in recent weeks.
Never was that more evident than Sunday in Tampa Bay where Kendricks finally got the chance to again show the big play, pass catching promise he showed in the 2011 preseason that had many tabbing him as one of the next stars at the ever-growing position.
When all was said in done in the Rams’ 28-13 win against the Bucs, Kendricks had posted his first career 100-yard game, racking up 119 yards on four catches and posted an 80-yard touchdown catch that set a franchise record for the longest touchdown grab by a tight end.
“Hopefully this is the start of something great,” Kendricks said. “I am excited for the next game and hopefully years to come.”
In many ways, this whole season has been the start of something for Kendricks even if it wasn’t always as obvious in the post-game stat book as it was on Sunday.
Kendricks has proved one of the Rams’ most improved and valuable offensive pieces this year, moving all over the places and providing another stout blocker to a team that has needed his help because of so many mixed and matched offensive lines caused by injuries.
Despite spending so much time helping out blocking, Kendricks patiently waited for the chance to get back into a role as a weapon in the passing game. As a rookie in 2011, Kendricks went through more than his share of the ups and downs that go with your first year in the league.
In training camp, Kendricks said he hoped to wipe the memories of some drops and some loss in confidence away this season. According to teammates such as defensive end Chris Long, he’s seen plenty of that growth this year.
“He’s such a good player,” Long said. “I really enjoy watching him get better and just continue to work and I know there has been some adversity. He has just ignored some of the negative energy he’s gotten and he’s just turned into a positive. He’s worked his (rear) off this year and to get the breaks he’s getting and scoring touchdowns and being a deep threat that can block in the run game too, it’s really good for him.”
The results, even despite limited usage as a receiver, have been quite strong. Although the Rams don’t exactly have a long history of receivers posting big statistics since moving to St. Louis, Kendricks’ 486 receiving yards is now the best total for a tight end since the team relocated in 1995.
Additionally, Kendricks has posted 39 catches, which ranks fourth on the team, and four touchdowns, which is tied with running back Steven Jackson and cornerback Janoris Jenkins for second on the team.
Kendricks’ 80-yard touchdown broke the record for longest touchdown reception by a tight end in franchise history. That record actually stood for 55 years and was a 70-yard grab held by Leon Clarke.
Of course, that record almost didn’t come to fruition because Kendricks found himself searching for help with about 20 yards to go.
“I caught it, I looked and nobody was over there so I just took off running,” Kendricks said. “I noticed they were catching up to me, I started getting tired.”
On Jackson’s touchdown run earlier in the game, Kendricks had actually been hit on his hip, which didn’t help him maintain top speed for the entirety of the run. But from the sideline, the sight of Kendricks trying to finish the run brought some chuckles, at least after it was over.
“I couldn’t really see it,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting him to score. I was expecting him to get tackled.”
Long did, too.
“I saw the piano jump on his back about the 20,” Long said, laughing.
Kendricks found himself searching for help and got it as receiver Danny Amendola came darting into the picture seemingly out of nowhere.
“I saw Danny coming and I thought ‘OK, Danny is coming, I can stop, take a step back and try to go around him,’” Kendricks said. “That’s what I ended up doing.”
Amendola took out the final two Bucs defenders standing in Kendricks’ way and he finished the run with a dive into the end zone for the score, the first time in his young career he’s scored touchdowns in back to back games.
“I went over to him on the bench and I think he needed some oxygen afterwards,” Bradford said.
Coach Jeff Fisher was proud of Kendricks for finishing the run but also what happened after.
“What I was impressed with was he came right back and went right back in the game,” Fisher said. “Tight ends don’t run, as a rule, as fast as defensive backs or wide receivers so for him to get there with a little help was impressive.”
On a more serious note, the Rams appear to have found something with Kendricks in the passing game, particularly with seam routes down the middle of the field.
Kendricks had a huge catch on the team’s game winning drive at Buffalo on Dec. 9 and a big touchdown grab against Arizona on Nov. 25. Those two plays plus Sunday’s long scoring catch all came on similar play-action passes that fake a handoff to Jackson and allow Kendricks to use his speed and athleticism to stress the defense down the middle.
“That play has been money for us,” Jackson said. “That play has been a great play for us. Lance had a big play like that in Arizona on the same play and we are reaping the benefits of it. He’s doing a good job.”
Even if the play results in Kendricks needing oxygen, his work in 2012 should allow the Rams to breathe easy about their future at a position that’s long craved consistency.
BRADFORD COMES OUT CLEAN: During his usual Wednesday meeting with the media, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford was asked about an on-going streak in which he’d been sacked in 30 consecutive games.
Bradford seemed unaware of the streak but didn’t hesitate to point out that it’s one he wouldn’t mind seeing come to an end.
That hope was rewarded almost immediately Sunday in Tampa.
“That’s awesome,” Bradford said. “Anytime we get on a streak like that, you guys just need to bring it up in the press conference on Wednesday. Those guys up front did a great job keeping those guys away today.”
Bradford said the offensive line made it a point of pride to get the streak over with as soon as possible and it was evident in how they reacted after the game.
“I think those guys were more excited about it than I was,” Bradford said. “That was the first thing (center) Scott (Wells) said to me as we were walking off the field.”
PETTIS PROVIDES MORE POINTS: Rams receiver Austin Pettis has just 27 catches on the season but he’s developed a knack for coming through in important situations, perhaps none more so than in the red zone.
Pettis hauled in his third touchdown catch of the season Sunday in Tampa, a total that puts him only behind Brandon Gibson, Jackson, Jenkins and Kendricks on the team’s totals.
All three of Pettis’ scores have come on red zone catches and Bradford believes he’s building a rapport that makes Pettis particularly trustworthy in the money zone.
“I think so,” Bradford said. “Obviously Pettis gives us some flexibility down there just because he’s quick but at the same time, he’s really long. He provides some range down there.”