Three things: Rams-Jaguars
By Nick Wagoner
ST. LOUIS -- Three things to keep an eye on as the St. Louis Rams host the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.
1. Revving the run. No, seriously this time.
For the better part of the season, this category has been a staple in this space and until something changes -- not even a drastic change, just a minor one -- it’s probably going to remain here.
There may never be a better chance for the Rams to get their running game out of neutral and at least moving forward than the one they get this week. The Rams are last in the league in rushing, average just over 47 yards per game, but Jacksonville brings in the league’s worst run defense, giving up 164.3 yards per game.
All week, the Rams have been banging the drum about getting the run game going and all that needs to happen for more success to be found.
“The good thing with the long weekend was we were able to look at some things and touch on some things that maybe we can do a little bit better just in terms in some of our concepts and packages and then some of the fundamentals,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “The guys have done a great job this week of working on those things. It’s got to get better and I think it will.”
What isn’t known is which running back will handle the starting duties or how carries will be split up. There have been hints that rookie Zac Stacy will get more work but anyone showing any signs of being productive will likely get the bulk of the work.
2. Slowing the run.
On the other side of the ball, the Rams haven’t had much more success stopping the run than they’ve had running it themselves, especially in the past two weeks.
San Francisco and Dallas combined to average 206 rushing yards per game in the past two games as the Rams have struggled with what defensive coordinator Tim Walton refers to as a fundamentals problem.
Walton expects Jacksonville to come with a heavy dose of running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
“We have to do a better job than what we’ve done the past few games of playing run defense,” Walton said. “They’re going to feature him. They’re going to run him, so we have to get back to fundamental football to make sure we’re in our gaps and we tackle. We’ve got to make sure we tackle well, leverage the ball and get off blocks.”
The return of linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar from his release and suspension should help the Rams defend the run better, but it’s probably unfair to expect him to be a savior.
For the Rams to slow down Jones-Drew and improve the run defense, it’ll require all 11 consistently handling assignments and making tackles, two things that have been absent the past two weeks.
3. Secondary first priority.
The Rams are banged up in the secondary this week after losing starting safety T.J. McDonald for at least eight weeks to a leg injury and have practiced without cornerback Cortland Finnegan (thigh), cornerback Trumaine Johnson (illness) and with a limited Brandon McGee, who also has a thigh injury, for most of the week.
There aren’t many positions on the roster where the Rams actually add experience by going to backups, but safety is one of them. Without McDonald, the Rams can turn to veterans Matt Giordano and Darian Stewart. Giordano stepped in for McDonald last week but the Rams have plans to use both at various situations this week.
If Finnegan can’t play, the Rams will likely start Johnson in Finnegan’s place. Things get a bit more complicated in the nickel package. Last week, the Rams moved Rodney McLeod into the slot corner spot with Giordano and Stewart handling the safety spots.
“We actually have a chance to, I guess, put more experience in the secondary now,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’ll be fine. Our numbers aren’t ideal, but we’ll get through it.”
Getting through it is a good place to start but the Rams also need to get some production. Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert has showed a penchant for turning it over and the Rams need to take advantage if and when those chances present themselves.