Thursday, October 19, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

Entering the season with a new head coach, new staff, new personnel and a new outlook on their situation, nobody knew what to expect from the Rams.

While the halfway point of the season is a couple of weeks away, the Rams find themselves at 4-2 at the bye week with an important stretch of games coming after the week off.

Through six games, a lot has been learned about the direction of the organization and what coach Scott Linehan is doing to take it in the right direction.

Here are five things to keep an eye on as the second part of the season approaches.

1. Turnover Turnaround

More than any other single statistic, turnover ratio might be the best determinant for translating a number into victory. In a two-year span from 2002-2003, the team that was plus-one in turnovers at the end of the day, was 77-31, according to NFL statistics. A team that was plus-two was 75-13.

Essentially, a team that wins the turnover battle wins about 70-75 per cent of its games . Unfortunately for Rams teams of years past, the turnover battle has not been one they have consistently won.

In 2004, the team had just 15 takeaways compared to 39 giveaways. Itís no coincidence that team went 8-8. But, with Linehan in charge of an offense that emphasizes taking care of the ball and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett leading an opportunistic, attacking defense, the Rams have turned it around in 2006.

St. Louis is first in the NFL in turnover ratio at plus-11. Linehanís group has just five giveaways, one of which was a fumble on special teams. Quarterback Marc Bulger has thrown only one interception and the offense has still moved the ball with great success.

Defensively, Haslett has his group flying to the ball and constantly coming up with it to put the offense in excellent field position.

Itís also no coincidence that the Rams have won all four games this season in which they have won the turnover battle and both losses have come in games in which they lost or tied it.

Against Denver in the season opener, the Rams were plus-five with zero turnovers. Against San Francisco, the teams were even and the ***** won. The Rams then went plus-two, plus-three and plus-two in wins against Arizona, Detroit and Green Bay before losing to Seattle on a day when they were minus-one.

The defense has been especially good with turnovers early in games, creating nine takeaways in the first half of games. But that group has also developed a knack for coming up with the ball when the team needs it most.

To wit, Fakhir Brownís game-clinching interception against Denver, Will Witherspoonís winning fumble recovery against Arizona, and Jerametrius Butlerís game-winning fumble recovery against Green Bay.

For the Rams to continue to have success in the next part of the season they must continue to take care of the ball on offense, go get it on defense, and come up with the big plays when they need it the most.

2. Bulgerís Big Year

In the early discussions to identify MVP candidates for this season, the names Donovan McNabb and Brian Urlacher have regularly been bandied about. But, over the past four weeks, there is another name beginning to emerge.

Bulger has been nothing short of brilliant in a four-game stretch starting against Arizona in which he has thrown for 1,217 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception. That comes out to an average of 304.3 yards per game..

That run of success has bumped Bulger to third in the league in passer rating at 99.8, just behind San Diegoís Philip Rivers and a little further back of McNabb.

After a bit of a slow start to the season against a strong defense in Denver, Bulger has grown and adapted to Linehanís new offensive schemes. A big part of Bulgerís success has been the ability to check down and get running back Steven Jackson more involved in the passing game.

In the old offense, Bulger was discouraged from checking the ball down and taking the simple 6-yard gain. Now, he has the freedom to make his own reads, check out of something at the line of scrimmage, and generally control the game more. That has translated to success as Bulger grows more comfortable with the offense.

Bulger has been sacked 19 times this season, tied for fourth most in the league. Despite that statistic, Bulger has been hit less on the whole and hasnít taken some of the huge hits he took last year.

If the Rams can improve on protecting Bulger and keep him healthy (he hasnít played a full season as a starter yet), and Bulger continues to grow within the offense, not only will they continue to find ways to win, but Bulger will finally get some recognition as one of the leagueís best signal callers.

3. Schedule Schemes

In looking at the Rams schedule, there are some noticeable trends that involve an extended upswing in the talent they face and a couple of dropoffs in the level of competition.

Of course, it is the NFL so no week is ever going to be easy, but there are certainly stretches of schedule that arenít as favorable as others.

For instance, the Rams were able to capitalize on a three-game stretch in the first part of the season in which they played Arizona, Detroit and Green Bay, a trio with a combined record of 3-14. The Rams won all three of those games and well they should. But itís especially important to take advantage of stretches such as those considering what they face in the near future.

Starting with last weekís game against Seattle, the Rams face a five-game stretch against some of the leagueís best teams, featuring some of the leagueís best running backs.

The loss to Seattle leads into this bye week before St. Louis travels to San Diego (4-1), plays at home against Kansas City (2-3) and hits the road again for a rematch with Seattle (4-1) and to Charlotte to face Carolina (4-2).

St. Louis is 23rd in the league in rushing defense, allowing 121.3 yards per game on the ground. That number will need to improve with the teams that will be playing the Rams in that difficult stretch.

San Diego is second in the league in rushing behind superstar LaDainian Tomlinson. While the rest of that group ranks in the middle of the pack running the ball, they all have talented backs including Kansas Cityís Larry Johnson, Seattleís Shaun Alexander (who should be back from injury in time for the rematch) and Carolinaís DeShaun Foster, who has a history of performing well against the Rams.

After that difficult stretch, the Rams get a three game homestand against San Francisco, Arizona and a Monday Night Football showdown with Chicago before closing at Oakland, home against Washington and at Minnesota.

If the Rams can hang tough in the next four games they will be looking at a fairly favorable late November and December schedule to close.

4. Holt Heaven

While wide receivers around the NFL make names for themselves by coming up with wild touchdown celebrations of accidental overdoses, the best receiver in the league resides in St. Louis and continues to get his job done quietly.

Torry Holt has long been one of the leagueís top receivers, consistently putting up numbers such as 1,300 receiving yards to go with about 90 catches and 10 touchdowns. Holtís consistency must be boring to some, though, as he is consistently left out of spirited debates about the best wideouts in the league.

But if Holt continues at the breakneck pace he has set in the first six games, nobody will be able to ignore his tremendous talent. Coinciding with Bulgerís breakout run, Holt has been his favorite target.

Through six games, Holt is third in the league in receptions with 37, third in receiving yards with 526 and tied for first in touchdowns with 7 (best among receivers). Those numbers extrapolated over 16 games would come out to 99 catches for 1,403 yards and an astonishing 19 touchdowns.

Thereís a long way for Holt to go to get to those types of numbers, but nobody out there would say that he canít do it. He has proved time and again to be one of the leagueís best and most reliable receivers.

That just leaves the question, if Holt has a bigger season than ever in St. Louis, will everyone finally take notice and give him the respect he is due?

5. Spoon Ball

From the day linebacker Will Witherspoon set foot on the field at middle linebacker for the Rams, there has been a new attitude on the Ramsí defense. The soft-spoken Witherspoon isnít the most vocal leader but if actions speak louder than words than the rest of the defense will need earplugs to drown out the impact Witherspoon has had on Haslettís defense.

Signed in the offseason to be the centerpiece of the Rams revamped defense, Witherspoon has been worth every penny the team forked over to get him. In fact, many national pundits are calling Witherspoon the best free agent addition of the offseason.

At the six-game mark, Witherspoon has 60 tackles, an average of 10 per game which leads the team and would come out to 160 stops for the year. In addition, Witherspoon has a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups.

While the likes of Holt, Bulger, Jackson and Isaac Bruce have had their continued positive effect on the offense, there might not be a player on the team who has made more of a difference than Witherspoon.

For those that witnessed Witherspoonís 35-yard drop to tip a ball away and nullify a pass interference call to preserve the win against Detroit or leap in front and tip away a ball to cornerback Fakhir Brown to beat Denver, it was a clinic in athleticism.

Even fellow linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa says he finds himself in awe of his teammate at times and Haslett has not hesitated to put Witherspoon in a class with the likes or Urlacher and Ray Lewis when it comes to linebackers capable of making plays from sideline to sideline.

The scariest part is Witherspoon will probably just get better as he learns more about playing in the middle. Thereís a strong chance he will make his first trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl this year and if he continues to change games on the defensive side, the Pro Bowl wonít be the only postseason game he plays in.