Strong Running Game
Where is it? Look around the league at the kind of running game that other teams have had when protecting/helping their young quarterbacks. The Jets ran the ball 607 times for 2756 yards (172.3 ypg) and 21 touchdowns in 2009. In 2008, the Ravens with rookie Joe Flacco ran the ball 592 times for 2376 yards (148.5 yards per game) with 20 touchdowns. The Falcons with rookie Matt Ryan ran the ball 560 times for 2443 yards (152.7 ypg) and 23 touchdowns. To compare, the Rams in 2009 ran the ball 411 times for 1784 yards and a colossal four touchdowns. In the last decade, the most they've ran was with the '99 Super Bowl team, 431 attempts. The last time the Rams ran the ball 500+ times in a season? 1988.
Even with one of the best running backs in the league, the Rams can't sustain a top caliber running game primarily because (1) they don't have another back who can carry part of the load and keep Jackson fresh/healthy, (2) their passing game isn't strong enough to keep opponents from loading the box against the run, and (3) the defense isn't strong enough to keep them in games or allow them to play with a lead where they can hammer the ball on the ground. It's no coincidence that the Ravens of '08 and the Jets of '09 also allowed less than 16 points a game respectively and were able to run the ball in the manner that they were.
Now, can the Rams add enough pieces to have a strong running game in 2009? Maybe, maybe not. But I'd argue they really don't have one now, despite having one of the best runners in the league in their backfield.
Strong Offensive Line
The Rams have some solid pieces on their line right now. Jacob Bell improved from 2008 to 2009 and looks to be a good player at the left guard position. Jason Brown was a big free agent signing that shored up the center position. So two of the Rams' three interior positions appear to be set. But there's a big hole at the third spot, right guard. The Rams have a number of bodies who could fill the hole, but none of them are very good. Adam Goldberg is a better depth player than he is a starter, though he is a better fit starting at guard than he is tackle. He'll likely be competing with John Greco and Fraley, neither of whom appear to be more than depth options at this point.
Do we even know who our right tackle is going to be? Maybe it's Barron, but the Rams can't be too satisfied with him since they offered him up for a second round pick this offseason. It's possible he could be traded when it's all said and done. Even when he's played at right tackle, he's been average due to a combination of inconsistency and poor concentration. Jason Smith will likely be making the move to left tackle this year, so we'll have a young inexperienced but talented player getting his first significant action on the blindside after dipping his toe at times as a rookie.
There were times in 2009 when the line the Rams fielded - Barron, Bell, Brown, Incognito, and Smith - looked pretty decent. But that's not the group the Rams will be fielding this year. They'll have two new starters (LT Smith, RG _______), and possibly a third depending on what happens to Barron. So who knows whether they'll be similar, better, or worse. The other main problem with the Rams' offensive line that's keeping them from becoming good is that they can't find a way to stay on the field. The Rams haven't been able to keep their starting five offensive linemen healthy for the whole season since 2003. In order to have a good offensive line, not only would the Rams have to field five talented and consistent starters, but they'd all have to stay healthy so they can actually be on the field doing their job. That hasn't happened in half a decade for St. Louis.
I understand the argument that the Rams' defense looked worse than it may have been because the offense was so bad. I think the poor play of the offense was certainly a contributing factor. But let's be honest - a better offense isn't suddenly going to turn the Rams into a Top Five or Ten defense in the NFL. The Rams didn't finish among the league worst in sacks and turnovers forced because they were so tired and worn out all the time. They're simply not a very good defensive team yet. They still have a ways to go before they get there.
To start, they need some kind of pass rush. The Rams were the third worst in the league last year in sacks, and while sacks alone aren't an indication of the strength of a pass rush, all you needed to do was watch the Rams on Sunday to see this was a big area of concern. Any pressure that the Rams would get on opposing quarterbacks from the edges would essentially be nullified because of a lack of pass rush up the middle. Only three players on the defense finished the season with more than two sacks, and the Rams have allowed one of them to walk in free agency (Little) because he's wearing down. They've made little improvement at the DT position, unless you count the addition of Fred Robbins, who shouldn't be counted on as more than a situational player at this point in his career but likely will because we're so questionable at the position.
At linebacker, the Rams have one promising starter in Laurinaitis and a consistent if not particularly good or dynamic guy in Vobora. They've added Na'il Diggs, who sounds as if he might supplant Vobora on the strong side. There's a gaping hole at weak side linebacker, which may be addressed with a draft pick. But this unit still appears as if it's going to be Laurinaitis combined with two less than ideal options on the outside. In the secondary, Ron Bartell declined in 2009 after signing his new contract, in part due to injuries. He's an effective starting cornerback when healthy, but the Rams have a big question mark opposite him. Will Bradley Fletcher be ready to take on the starting job opposite of Bartell? If he's not, the pickings behind him are incredibly slim. Right now, the competition for the nickel back job appears to be between Justin King and Quincy Butler. Do either of these guys see time in nickel packages on a decent or good team? Doubtful. O.J. Atogwe appears likely to return at free safety, as I don't think the Rams will just let him walk. At strong safety, James Butler didn't have the kind of impact we all hoped he would when he arrived, though he was solid. But unless the team improves their pass rush, these guys aren't going to have much of a chance.
A better offense will improve the defense to some degree, but not enough to make them strong, IMO. The Rams have added two marginal starters - Robbins and Diggs - to a defense in need of talent across the board. That's not going to make a huge difference. And since they're poised to draft Bradford, they're going to be passing up on two elite defensive talents in Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy. The Rams could go defense with later picks, or they could execute a trade. We'll have to see what happens, but I think this unit has about half the players it needs in order to be considered a strong defense.