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  1. #1
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    Thumbs down Rams Team Review / SI.com

    The Rams were an oddsmaker's nightmare and a hard to team to figure in 2004. On one hand, they finished 88, a record that included bad losses to Miami, Arizona and New Orleans, a record that is mediocre by definition. On the other hand, a late-season surge took them within two steps of the Super Bowl.

    In the end, a blowout playoff loss to Michael Vick and the Falcons in Atlanta ended a late-season run and clarified the team's offseason mission -- improve special teams and defense. The Rams focused their attention on both those areas over the past few months and should benefit from a soft schedule to contend for a playoff in spot 2005.

    "I'm excited about what we've done," coach Mike Martz says. "I think we've upgraded in certain areas, created a lot of competition and that's a healthy thing for your football team."

    Quarterbacks

    After missing two-plus games with a bruised throwing shoulder, Marc Bulger was a key factor in the team's late-season surge, compiling a

    106.3 passer rating in the final four games. Bulger has improved in two important areas -- he cut down on interceptions and polished his deep accuracy. Bulger threw eight fewer interceptions in '04 than the year before, while his yards per attempt increased by a full yard to 8.2. His toughness and quiet leadership skills were evident as well.

    However, he needs to improve his performance in the Red Zone, where he threw 10 of his 14 picks. The backup quarterback situation will be determined in training camp, with Jamie Martin and second-year man Jeff Smoker competing for the role.

    Running Backs

    There will be a changing of the guard in the backfield. At age 32, Marshall Faulk can't get outside as he once did, nor make people miss as often. He's still a solid contributor, but his averages of 4.0 yards per carry and 6.2 yards per reception last season represented significant dropoffs. In 2001, for instance, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry and 9.2 yards per reception. Faulk has not had 1,000 yards rushing in a season since 2001. Thus, Steven Jackson will get the opportunity to anchor the running attack. Jackson had spectacular flashes in 2004, showing an exciting blend of size, speed, and power.

    His durability remains a question mark. His right knee did not seem to agree with the awful artificial surface at the Edward Jones Dome, and he seemed to back off at times, especially in the playoffs.

    Receivers

    Clearly, the Rams might be the best in the NFL in this department.

    Torry Holt caught 94 balls for and average of 14.6 yards per catch. He has caught 211 passes over the past two seasons. After a fast start, Isaac Bruce wore down some at the end of last season, in part because of a succession of nagging injuries. Bruce turns 33 in November, but he remains a clutch receiver and competitive as ever. Perhaps the most pleasant development of the '04 season was the emergence of second-year wideouts Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald. Both made their share of big plays over the course of the season, with Curtis surpassing McDonald as the No. 3 receiver late in the campaign.

    Tight end Brandon Manumaleuna caught only 15 passes during the regular season, but he made some key grabs in the clutch. Roland Williams, a superior blocker, will press for playing time.

    Offensive Linemen

    Injuries were a problem for this group last season and partly responsible for a whopping 50 sacks. The unit will undergo significant change in 2005. Orlando Pace, a perennial Pro Bowl candidate, did not have his best season in '04, but he should benefit from a full training camp this time around. Right guard Adam Timmerman also had some rough moments last season, but he should be back in the starting lineup. Second-year pro Blaine Saipaia will get a chance to take over the left guard spot, as will newcomer Rex Tucker. First-round draft pick Alex Barron will audition at right tackle, and veteran Andy McCollum, the team's most consistent performer last season, will be at center.

    Defensive Linemen

    One of the keys to the Rams' surge down the stretch last season was the improved effectiveness of the defensive line. The emergence of previously disappointing Jimmy Kennedy, a No. 1 pick in 2003, helped shore up the run defense. Another No. 1 selection, Ryan Pickett, was tough to budge in the middle. Leonard Little's sack total dropped to seven in '04 -- down from 12.5 in 2003 -- but opposing teams made containing him a priority. That might be more difficult this season if promising second-year player Anthony Hargrove continues his pass-rushing development at right end. The Rams have excellent depth with ends Tyoka Jackson and Jay Williams bringing playmaking ability off the bench.

    Linebackers

    Linebackers were nowhere to be found in the season-ending loss to the Falcons, so the Rams went out and found some. Dexter Coakley and Chris Claiborne were signed as free agents, and they change the landscape dramatically. Toss in returning outside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa and what was once a liability now appears to be a strength. "That's the way it should be," Martz says. "The heart of your defense and special teams comes from that group. If you don't have five good linebackers, then it's going to show up."

    At 6'3", 259 pounds, Claiborne promises to be the physical run-stopper in the middle the Rams have lacked, while Coakley and Tinoisamoa will man the wings. Brandon Chillar, Trev Faulk and former starter Robert Thomas are available to provide good experience and depth.

    Defensive Backs

    Jerametrius Butler is emerging as one of the better cover corners in the league. He accounted for five of the team's six regular-season interceptions. He still leaves a little to be desired in terms of physical play. At the other corner, Travis Fisher is more physical and has Pro Bowl potential if he can stay healthy. Strong safety Adam Archuleta hopes to bounce back from a difficult '04, in which a bulging disc in his back affected his impact ability. With Aeneas Williams contemplating retirement, the Rams signed a pair of cornerback-safety swingmen in free agents Michael Stone and Michael Hawthorne. DeJuan Groce will see action in nickel packages.

    Specialists

    Special teams have been the Rams' Achilles heel for several seasons.

    New coach Bob Ligashesky, who replaced Mike Stock, who replaced Bobby April, who replaced Larry Pasquale, will attempt to patch the holes -- and there are plenty of them. The capper came in the playoff loss at Atlanta, where the Falcons' Allen Rossum had 152 yards and a touchdown on three punt returns. For perspective, Rams returner Shaun McDonald had 143 yards in punt returns all season. For their part, the Rams have been without a long-ball threat for several seasons. Kick return specialist Aveion Cason has speed. Groce will get a crack at returning punts, something he did well in college.

    Punter Kevin Stemke was adequate, if not spectacular. The Rams will push the punting issue with the addition of sixth-round pick Reggie Hodges in camp. One of the few special team bright spots was the placekicking -- and tackling -- of Jeff Wilkins. Wilkins kicked a postseason franchise-record 55-yard field goal against Atlanta.

    Final Analysis

    This will be a crucial season for Martz, after his Rams teetered at .500 last season. A move up will keep Martz around; a move in the other direction will likely send him packing. He must show he can still make offensive magic, as well as oversee a healthy balance with the other departments. Another season of special teams breakdowns will not wear well. In his second year, defensive coordinator Larry Marmie has a number of new toys to play with and will have to prove he can make his system work. The Rams made numerous moves in the offseason to shore up the defense. In addition, a lot of focus in the draft was on bringing in players who, if nothing else, could have an impact on the special teams.

    On offense, the Rams will need Jackson to emerge as a headliner in the backfield, while a re-organized offensive line tries to do a better job of giving the talented Bulger time to hit his deep corps of receivers.




  2. #2
    HUbison's Avatar
    HUbison is offline Superbowl MVP
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    Re: Rams Team Review / SI.com

    I like the analysis that SI has provided, but I wish they wouldn't include....guys that have ALREADY been cut.
    Jay Williams bringing playmaking ability off the bench
    Punter Kevin Stemke was adequate
    "Before the gates of excellence the high gods have placed sweat; long is the road thereto and rough and steep at first; but when the heights are reached, then there is ease, though grievously hard in the winning." --- Hesiod

  3. #3
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    Re: Rams Team Review / SI.com

    That is one of my biggest pet peeves. "Professional" commentators that dont even know the team. Even worse than when you hear an announcer on tv talk about isaac holt. At least that tends to be said in the heat of the moment.

    ramming speed to all

    general counsel


  4. #4
    RAMMAN68's Avatar
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    Re: Rams Team Review / SI.com

    I just hope one of the undrafted DE's can step in and provide some depth at the position.
    JUST WIN ONE FOR THE FANS


    "HIT HARD, HIT FAST, AND HIT OFTEN"
    Adm. William "Bull" Halsey

  5. #5
    RealRam's Avatar
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    Re: Rams Team Review / SI.com

    HUbison, obviously an outdated, obsolete article. I'm surprised the date is not shown.

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