Rams Support Group
June 19, 2006 Print it
By Jim Thomas
For Sporting News
A first critical look at the 2006 Rams:
Start with a combustible head coach who spent two-thirds of the season in sick bay with a heart ailment. Add heavy doses of palace intrigue, behind-the-scenes maneuvering and public bickering, and you get the soap opera that transpired at Rams Park in 2005.
Unfortunately for the Rams, what happened on the field wasn't as entertaining. So, Mike Martz, one of the most gifted offensive minds of the modern era, was fired despite a 56-36 record, four playoff berths, two division titles and a Super Bowl appearance.
Enter Scott Linehan, 42, with just four years of NFL coaching experience -- all as an offensive coordinator. Rams president John Shaw went with Linehan because he felt his positive personality would be a unifying force for the team. Shaw also sensed an underlying toughness in Linehan's makeup that would help the new head coach make difficult decisions and get the team through the hard times.
Linehan will have some help. Fiery Jim Haslett, the former Saints head coach, was hired to run the defense, which has been a floor mat for most of the past two seasons. And the front office went on an unprecedented offseason spending spree, most of the money going for defensive help. The idea is to get the Rams back to the postseason. Soap operas might be entertaining, but winning games is a lot more fun.
Offense: Linehan likes to throw the ball and will take his share of deep shots, but he prefers to find a balance between the pass and the run. There will be fewer seven-step drops for the quarterback and more of an emphasis on short and intermediate passes. In theory, Linehan would like his starting tight end to catch 50-60 passes, but the Rams' tight ends have not been highly involved in the offense in the past. Linehan likes an up-tempo offense, and makes frequent use of the no-huddle.
Defense: The unit should be better coached under Haslett. He has a command presence, something former coordinator Larry Marmie lacked. His players will know exactly what's expected -- and will hear about it if they fall short of those expectations. Haslett will use an aggressive approach, mixing coverages, shifting fronts and blitzing from all angles. Haslett has a lot of experience with the 3-4 scheme, but the Rams lack the personnel to use it as anything more than a change of pace. There will be at least six new starters, and it might take awhile for the unit to come together.
QB Marc Bulger: Bulger missed 10 games over the past two seasons because of shoulder problems. He has a slender frame and must prove his durability because the offense simply isn't the same without him. Bulger has uncanny accuracy -- most of his errant throws are the result of pressure -- and is underrated. He has cut down on his interceptions but still must improve his production in the red zone. Linehan likes Bulger's ability to remain composed.
RB Steven Jackson: Jackson topped 1,000 yards a year ago, but he disappeared at times and made tentative reads. Linehan promises to give him a steady dose of work, something that wasn't always the case under Martz. Jackson has a scary combination of speed and power. He is best at running between the tackles but has the cutting and change-of-direction skills to turn 5-yard runs into 15- and 20-yard gains. He moves the pile and rarely goes down on first contact. Jackson, who was slowed by a rib problem early in the '05 season and missed the final game with a hip pointer, must prove durable enough to handle 300-350 touches and improve his blitz pickups.
The linebackers: This position has had a revolving door since Mike Jones left after the 2000 season and London Fletcher followed a year later. The team signed Will Witherspoon, said to be its No. 1 free-agent target, who appears to be a budding star. He has excellent speed and range, good coverage skills and enough size to be a factor against the run. Witherspoon, who did most of his work with the Panthers at weakside linebacker, will play the middle for the Rams. He can be effective there if the defensive linemen keep blockers off him.
Weakside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa plays with speed and passion and isn't afraid to take on lead blockers, but he must improve his gap discipline and be less reckless. The biggest question mark is on the strong side, where holdover Brandon Chillar and newcomer Raonall Smith will battle for the starting job. Chillar has good size and can get through traffic quickly, and Smith is a powerful tackler who shows explosive closing burst. Neither is a proven player, but the strongside linebacker in Haslett's scheme isn't asked to do as much as the middle and weakside linebackers.
VINNIE IYER'S TAKE
The offense has the talent and the coaching to continue to thrive, but the defense -- though improved -- won't hold up enough for the Rams to reach .500. Prediction: 7-9 (second in the NFC West).
FANTASY SOURCE SPIN
Stud: WR Torry Holt. Randy Moss and Terrell Owens are flashier fantasy picks, but Holt has achieved consistent excellence on the field without the baggage off it.
Sleeper: RB Steven Jackson. A coaching change brings renewed hope Jackson will become more involved in the offense. He needs more touches to join the elite fantasy backs.
Stumbler: WR Isaac Bruce. Kevin Curtis will continue to cut into Bruce's time, which is beginning to run out now that he is 33 and coming off an injury-marred season.
Though the holdovers from the Greatest Show on Turf are aging, the ingredients remain for a potent offense, and the Rams aren't far from being a contending team again. A healthy Bulger, strong play by the interior of the offensive line and a commitment to the running game could spell a return to the playoffs after last season's 6-10 pratfall.
The defense should be better, but it's uncertain how much has been done to improve its performance against the run. With a stable of elite runners on the schedule, it's unrealistic to expect more than an 8-8 record in Linehan's debut season