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Thread: SI's Rams Preview
SI's Rams Preview
St. Louis Rams
When he replaced Mike Martz as the Rams' head coach, Scott Linehan knew his first priority was to heal old wounds. The 2005 season was difficult, to say the least. Martz' relationship with management was strained. He was hospitalized with an infection of a heart valve. The team went 6-10, and on top of it all, former player and long-time broadcaster Jack Snow died from a staph infection in January.
When he arrived at Rams Park, Linehan had to get everyone together for a group hug. "The one thing I want to make sure is really established right away is that this is going to be a family environment here at the Rams," Linehan said. "We will do things cohesively as a group, as a unit and make decisions as a team from day one. That's how things get done. That's how things get done properly. We're going to start by unifying as a team, and that's in all areas."
Linehan had a busy offseason focused on improving the Rams' defense and depth. The club committed some $100 million in free agency with moves that secured as many as five defensive starters, a backup quarterback, a punter, a possible kick returner, and help at linebacker and running back.
On paper, the Rams are as solid at this position as any other. Marc Bulger returns for his fourth year as a starter with his injured throwing shoulder healed. When he's healthy, Bulger is among the league's most accurate passers, but quarterback health was a problem under Martz's pass-happy offense - Bulger has had four shoulder injuries in two seasons. Under Linehan, the quarterback figures to hand off a little more often.
Gus Frerotte was signed during the winter as insurance. A starter last year for Miami, he brings a wealth of veteran experience and knowledge of Linehan's system. That leaves Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jeff Smoker fighting for the No. 3 spot. Fitzpatrick struggled after his spectacular debut against Houston. Last year in Miami, Linehan liked Fitzpatrick enough that the Dolphins thought about signing him as a rookie free agent before the Rams chose him late in the seventh round.
In his first year as the No. 1 back, Steven Jackson had his first 1,000-yard season in 2005. Jackson represents an exciting blend of power and speed, but he has been prone to injuries. He was slowed by a rib injury and a hip-pointer last season. Jackson has been outspoken about his desire to get more touches, and it might happen in Linehan's offense.
Marshall Faulk had a reduced role - some might say too reduced - in last year's offense, averaging fewer than seven touches per game. He contemplated retirement during the winter, but Linehan talked him back. Faulk doesn't have the explosiveness he once had, but he is still a capable back. For depth, the Rams signed former Packer Tony Fisher, who will be a third down option. Fullback Madison Hedgecock, used primarily for blocking purposes, also could get a few more carries.
Torry Holt was among the team's unsung heroes in a largely forgettable 2005. Despite missing two games with a knee injury, he tied for third in the NFL in receptions (102) and sixth in the league in reception yards (1,331). Also slowed by injuries, Isaac Bruce's totals (36 catches, 525 yards) were his lowest since 1998. But Bruce, re-signed as a free agent during the winter, can still get downfield when he is healthy.
Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald have big-play potential in the No. 3 and 4 slots. Curtis caught only 11 passes over the final six games last season, but much of that could be attributed to Bulger's injury and the team's QB shuffle. McDonald is especially effective in the two-minute offense.
Tight end has been a black hole for the Rams over the past few seasons, a hole they addressed in the draft, taking Colorado's Joe Klopfenstein in the second round and USC's Dominique Byrd in the third.
With two rookies starting the majority of the schedule, this unit paid its dues last season, and those growing pains could turn into gains in 2006. Although they drew too many penalties, right tackle Alex Barron and left guard Claude Terrell showed they could play at a high level. Terrell has road-grading ability on running plays. Barron was a quick-study in pass-blocking and showed toughness by playing hurt the final three games.
At left tackle, Orlando Pace made his seventh consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl. He is still on of the game's best. The Rams are showing some age otherwise, with 36-year old Andy McCollum at center and 35-year old Adam Timmerman at right guard. Depth is an important issue on the O-line, and free agent signee Todd Steussie could see plenty of playing time.
Quite a bit of attrition took place here, with the Rams losing Ryan Pickett, Damione Lewis and Tyoka Jackson to free agency. That leaves the Rams a bit thin behind the starting front four of Leonard Little and Anthony Hargrove at end, and tackles La'Roi Glover and Jimmy Kennedy.
Going into the draft, the top backups were Clifford Dukes and Brandon Green at end, with Brian Howard and Jeremy Calahan at tackle. But that quartet has combined for only 62 career NFL tackles, and Green, who distinguished himself in part-time work last year, has 34 of them. The Rams tried to bolster the line in the draft, using two of their first six picks on defensive lineman, including second-rounder Claude Wroten.
The free agent acquisitions of Will Witherspoon and Raonall Smith were steps to shore up the team's weakest link. The Rams can now go two deep at the three positions. The club will count on Witherspoon to plug the holes at middle linebacker, a problem spot for several seasons. Witherspoon will be backed up by veteran Trev Faulk.
The athletic Pisa Tinoisamoa is on the weak side, backed by veteran Dexter Coakley. Smith and Brandon Chillar will compete for starting time on the strong side. Both Chillar and Coakley are coming off of injury rehabs but should be fit for camp.
Free agent Corey Chavous replaces the departed Adam Archuleta at strong safety. Another free agent signee, Fakhir Brown, is expected to compete for a starting cornerback job. Cornerbacks Jerametrius Butler and Travis Fisher are coming off season-ending injuries. Tye Hill, the team's No. 1 draft pick, also will compete for playing time.
Like Hill, veteran DeJuan Groce is small (5'10", 192 pounds). He has good coverage skills but was outmuscled by bigger receivers last season. Second-year man Ron Bartell could be move to safety, while Jerome Carter will try to earn more playing time.
Special teams have been a sore spot for the Rams for several seasons, and the unit was only marginally better in 2005. Linehan has brought in former Dolphin Matt Turk to do the punting. Turk missed all of last season with a groin injury, but he has 11 seasons of NFL punting on his résumé, including Pro Bowl appearances for the Redskins in the late 1990s.
Jeff Wilkins had another fine season in 2005 - 27-of-31 on field goal attempts with four from 50 or more yards - and he will return to do the kicking. The kick return and punt return jobs will be wide open in training camp. The Rams have not had a serious breakaway threat at either position for the past three seasons.
Linehan hired former New Orleans head coach Jim Haslett to take over as defensive coordinator. Offensively, Linehan inherits still-viable leftovers from the "Martz Madness" attack, including Bulger. If the key components stay healthy, the offense has plenty of firepower.
Linehan brings a jolt of fresh energy and a more balanced offense. If he can unify the organization, and Haslett can fix the leaks on defense, the Rams could make a run at the playoffs.
Re: SI's Rams PreviewBulger has had four shoulder injuries in two seasons.