Rams taking risks for now for now

By Jim Thomas
August 21, 2012

Jeff Fisher offenses all those years in Tennessee (and Houston) leaned toward the conservative side. Which makes what has happened in Fisher's two preseason games with the Rams all the more interesting.

The Rams have gone for it on fourth down six times already three times against both Indianapolis and Kansas City. Maybe we should call him "Fourth-Down" Fisher, because over the course of the regular season that would translate into 48 fourth-down gambles on offense which would lead the league in almost any year.

For example, over the 17 previous seasons of "St. Louis" Rams football, the Rams have gone for it on fourth down an average of 17.4 times per season or barely more than once a game. Steve Spagnuolo's first Rams team, the 1-15 edition of 2009, went for it on fourth down 28 times a franchise high since the move to St. Louis in 1995.

The low was 1999, the Rams' Super Bowl championship season and the birth of the Greatest Show on Turf. The Rams went for it just eight times on fourth down. But when you're scoring touchdowns as rapidly as that squad, you don't reach fourth down that often.

As for Fisher, he was even more judicious when it came to going for it on fourth down. In his 16 full seasons as head coach of the Houston Oilers-Tennessee Titans, he averaged 15.6 fourth-down gambles a season. His two worst Titans teams, in 2004 (5-11) and 2005 (4-12), went for it on fourth down 27 and 31 times respectively.

So what's going on so far in St. Louis?

"Well, I know both kickers can kick 20-yard field goals, 30-yard field goals," said Fisher, referring to Greg Zuerlein and Garrett Lindholm. "In the preseason, why not try to make plays on offense? So that's basically it. Obviously the philosophy changes during the regular season (with) momentum, flow, and field position.

"But I don't think we need to kick 35-yard field goals in the preseason, especially if it's fourth and less than 4. The longer the down and distance is, the less likely you have an opportunity to convert. But I think we had two touchdowns on fourth down (Saturday)."

Kind of. Danny Amendola's 8-yard TD catch in the first quarter, giving the Rams a quick 14-0 lead over Kansas City, came on fourth-and-2 from the KC 8-yard line.

Early in the third quarter, on a fourth-and-2 from the Kansas City 10, Kellen Clemens threw what appeared to be a TD pass to Brian Quick. But after a review by the replay assistant, the touchdown was waved off and the ball placed on the 1. It was only a temporary delay to the end zone, because Isaiah Pead scored on the next play with a handoff from Clemens for a 24-10 lead.

The Rams' other fourth-down gambles this preseason have had little to do with place-kickers and short field goals.

In the fourth quarter against the Chiefs, Fisher went for it on fourth-and-2 from the KC 43. The other options here would have been a Johnny Hekker punt, or a 61-yard field goal attempt by either Zuerlein _ which would've been fun to see given his leg strength _ or Lindholm.

On that fourth-down play, rookie running back Daryl Richardson was stopped for no gain.

Against Indianapolis, Fisher went for it on:

Fourth-and-3 from the Indianapolis 37 on the Rams' first possession of the game. A Sam Bradford pass was incomplete to a well-covered Amendola.

A fourth-and-2 from the St. Louis 31 with 9 minutes left in the fourth quarter. This play was unsuccessful because wide receiver Greg Salas didn't run his route deep enough he gained one yard on a pass from Austin Davis.

A fourth-and-1 from the Indianapolis 35 with 54 seconds left in the game. Davis completed a 12-yard pass to Mike Campbell.

Fisher said part of the reason for the flurry of fourth-down attempts is strategic with the regular season in mind. It gives the opponent something else to think about, starting with the Detroit Lions on Sept. 9.

"It helps from the standpoint of when someone picks up your stat sheet from the preseason and they look and see what you're doing on fourth down, they've got to be ready for fourth-down stops," he said.

And there could be motivational reasons. On the fourth-quarter play in Indy that resulted in the one-yard reception by Salas, it looked like Fisher was simply challenging the third-team offense to get something going.

"He's aggressive," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "And I think it also shows that he wants to work on every situation while he has the opportunity in the preseason, which is smart. You need to work those situations so if you do have a fourth down you can kind of see, 'OK what plays did we do well, what plays haven't we done well?' We go through a lot of situational stuff here in practice. . .so I think that's just another extension of that."

For an offensive player, what's not to like about a chance for an extra play on fourth down?

"I enjoy it immensely," Amendola said, smiling. "I don't like punting. I'm not a punter, I'm not on the punt team, so I don't like it."

Besides, Amendola doesn't have a chance to make his amazing TD catch against the Chiefs with a defender draped all over him if Fisher opts for the field goal. That play could be a confidence boost for an offense that struggled mightily last season.