New Faces, Same Goals for Rams Offense

Posted Sep 6, 2013

Fans who know much about Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher know that he’s a man of conviction when it comes to the identity of his football teams.

In 18 ½ seasons as an NFL head coach, his squads have won 149 games thanks to that identity, one that was instilled in him during his collegiate playing days at USC under John Robinson and carried into his professional career in the NFL’s black and blue division with the Chicago Bears.

So when the Rams’ most significant moves of the 2012 offseason involved the acquisition of a tight end who is perhaps the game’s fastest, a jack-of-all-trades, speedy receiver and a four-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle to lock down the opposition’s pass rush, one could start to wonder.

With the new additions to the Rams’ roster, is the Run-and-Shoot offense, or at least a pass happy one with similar tempo, headed to St. Louis?

“Our goal is to increase scoring and keep the defense off the field and put drives together,” Fisher said earlier this summer when asked about his team’s offensive approach.

The conviction was audible in his words as Fisher finished the thought.

“But first and foremost we have to run the football,” he said.

It’s no secret what characteristics Fisher tries to develop in his team. He requires his players to be smart and disciplined on the field. He wants a tough, physical defense. Offensively, he wants balance. It’s his desire to control the pace with the running game and create big plays in the passing game.

The additions of wide receiver Tavon Austin, tight end Jared Cook, and tackle Jake Long won’t change those core principles, but they could very well ease the execution of them and lead the offense to new heights.

A Need for Speed

In Fisher’s first season in St. Louis, the Rams were tied for 25th in the NFL in offensive plays of 20 yards or more and were 23rd in pass plays of the same distance.

In terms of average number of plays on scoring drives, the Rams were 28th, meaning in relation to other teams, it took St. Louis more snaps to score than most. St. Louis had just two drives in which they scored in four plays or less, which tied for 31st among NFL teams.

Of the Rams’ 22 pass plays of 25 yards or more last year, WR Chris Givens accounted for more than a third of them with eight. The Rams knew they needed to add more big-play threats around Givens, and that’s exactly what they did. Cook equaled Givens’ number of catches of 25 yards or more last year with Tennessee, and Austin’s ability to get down the field will also help create more explosive plays.

“I think if you look at our offense in the past, we’ve really had to grind out touchdown drives because we haven’t been able to create those explosive plays,” QB Sam Bradford said. “You take some of the guys that we have on the field now and they can turn a five-yard hitch route into an 80-yard touchdown. I think that’s extremely exciting. It’s going to allow us to open up the playbook probably a little bit more, just with their speed we can get creative.”

The Rams’ newfound speed and depth at the skill positions are expected to give St. Louis more options when it comes time to air it out while keeping defenses honest when Fisher and company want to pound the ball.

“We’re faster at almost all the positions on the field now,” Bradford said. “I think that puts a lot of stress on the defense. If they hesitate for a second, we’re by them. We’re going to have to figure out how to best utilize that speed and the things that we can do with that.”

Changing the look

Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is in lockstep with Fisher when it comes to philosophy. Schottenheimer recently said that he’s never had a faster group of skill players than the one that’s on the current Rams roster. He pointed to one of his New York Jets teams that featured three first-round draft picks – Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Dustin Keller – as comparable, but he gives the edge to his current crop of receivers and tight ends.

Schottenheimer’s challenge with his young, speedy group is to build the offense into a more complete one, and like Fisher, he sees that happening with both the run and the pass.

“The runs might look a little bit different at times, but we’re still going to run the football,” Schottenheimer said. “It’s a huge part of the ability to be balanced. If you don’t have that, you become one dimensional. You become easy to stop. Everything here becomes about running the football, being physical, and it all builds off of that.”

On the opening day of training camp, Bradford said he expected the team to use more “11” (one back, one tight end, three receivers) and “12” (one back, two tight ends, two receivers) personnel groupings. Schottenheimer believes that the roster is more suited to such formations because of the types of players – backs, receivers and tight ends – that the Rams deploy.

“I think what you’re seeing is us transitioning into some more one-back stuff instead of a lot of the two-back stuff we did last year,” Schottenheimer said. “Try to spread people out. We’ll certainly have the ability to do that with our group.”

Bradford is enjoying the changes, and he’s excited about how the new looks will keep opposing defenses on their toes.

“Last year, I think, there were times where we were pretty predictable as far as who was going to be where and what we were going to do,” Bradford said. “I think just changing the looks, changing the formations slightly, moving guys around. I think that confuses the defense a little bit.”

A Different Kind of Player

As the Rams look to break the mold a little, Cook is the perfect starting point. At 6-foot-5, 254 pounds, the fifth-year pro turned heads when he ran a sub-4.5 second 40 yard dash when he came out of South Carolina. His unique blend of size and speed allow him to present matchup problems. Cook has the ability to line up in the slot, on the outside or close to the line of scrimmage.

During this spring’s Organized Team Activities, Cook was a frequent target of Bradford, who seemed to enjoy his new toy.

“He’s been great so far,” Bradford said. “Just the added dimension, now that we’ve got him and Lance (Kendricks), that’s a lot of speed inside. He’s a big body running down the middle of the field. It’s going to be hard for people to match up with him. If they want to put a ‘Mike’ linebacker on him, then we’ll take that matchup all day. It’s just going to give us the ability to open the playbook and kind of stretch the middle of the field and put stress on the defense in there.”

Fisher has a long history with Cook. In 2009, the Tennessee Titans traded a 2010 second round pick in order to move up in the third round and select the South Carolina pass catcher. When Fisher got another chance to acquire Cook, this time in free agency, he pounced. Cook’s signing was the first move the Rams made this spring when free agency opened.

“We’re about creating mismatches, everybody is, and so you think you can create some matchup problems for your opponents,” Fisher said. “It should open things up down the field, which Jared can get down the field very quickly for us. He’s a big target, big frame. He’s got a giant catch radius which is always a good thing if you’re a quarterback, so he’ll really help us.”

The Blind Side

In the Rams’ effort to become more explosive in the passing game, the receivers are only part of the equation. Without their quarterback having the time he needs to deliver the ball, the improvements on the outside wouldn’t mean much.

“It’s a good group of receivers around him now,” Fisher said. “We’ve got to protect him, which we feel we can.”

The Rams didn’t allow a sack in the final nine quarters of the 2012 season, and significant changes up front have St. Louis excited about their offensive line. Those changes start with Long, the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, whom the Rams signed as a free agent in March to play left tackle.

Long was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first four NFL seasons and allowed just 16 sacks over that four-year span, including just two as a rookie. He’s established as an elite player at the position, one that the Rams coaching staff can build their protection schemes around.

“If you look at the pay scale going around the league, the pass rushers that are on the blind side of the quarterback are getting paid because they’re great athletes and they’re productive,” Schottenheimer said. “You have a guy over there that can win those battles, it makes you feel really good about yourself. I know Sam feels great about it.”

While left tackles often make their money battling with the league’s best pass rushers, Long is as accomplished at helping running backs as he is quarterbacks. The Michigan product earned his stripes in the Big 10, where power running and physical football is the staple.

“Not only was Jake - early in his career, his short career at this point - one of the best pass protector in the game,” Fisher said, “he’s also an outstanding run blocker and that’s a big part of our offense.”

Moving on up

With Cook and Long in place, Rams brass knew there was another piece available that could help the offense reach its goals. Yet as April’s NFL Draft approached, it became evident to Fisher and Rams General Manager Les Snead that if they chose to stay put with their two first-round picks – Nos. 16 and 22 – they’d miss out on the class’s most explosive playmaker.

Rams brass went to work on the phones, and after working out a deal with the Buffalo Bills, St. Louis moved all the way up to the eighth spot to draft Austin.

“It felt like we needed a player that created the mismatch and so he helps to create that for our entire offense now,” Fisher said. “It just felt like he adds something that we just don’t have, that’s just hard to find in this league.”

At West Virginia, Austin scored touchdowns four different ways – 29 receiving, six rushing, four on kickoffs and one as a punt returner. The Rams will make an effort to get the ball in Austin’s hands frequently as he’ll immediately play a key role on offense.

“He’ll start off as that slot receiver, but it doesn’t end there,” Fisher said. “There’s a lot of different things you can do with him. He can stretch the field. The 4.28 (40-yard dash) is real. That itself creates some problems. He’s got excellent hands. He’s quick out of the break. He understands and likes football. He’s going to be really fun to watch.”

When Austin isn’t advancing the ball for the offense, he’ll likely be trying to give them better field position. In 2012, St. Louis ranked 31st in the NFL in punt return average and 26th in kickoff returns. Special Teams Coordinator John Fassel recently smiled as he talked about Austin’s return ability.

“There’s no way you can coach it,” Fassel said of Austin’s skill set. “You look at it from, if we had to punt to him, he’s on another team, what is your concern? There’s a lot. He’s got a great dimension. He’s got breakaway speed, but he’s also got the ability that little guys have which is incredible quickness and elusiveness.”

Adding to the Mix

As Fisher sat at the front of an interview room fielding questions during the press conference in which Cook was officially introduced as a Ram, a reporter asked what Cook’s presence meant for third-year pro Lance Kendricks.

“It only makes him better,” Fisher quickly responded.

Fisher could have been talking about any of his offensive skill players with the comment. While it’s easy for those around the team to get excited about the new faces that were added to the team’s offense, Fisher’s reply serves as a reminder of how the newcomers can help create opportunities for the talented young players who were already in St. Louis.

Kendricks caught 42 passes in 2012 and scored four touchdowns. Givens had more receiving yards and receptions than any returning player. WR Austin Pettis is now the most experienced among the team’s receivers and finished the 2012 campaign on a hot streak, and coaches are excited about 2012 second-round pick Brian Quick. Another newcomer, third-round pick Stedman Bailey, caught 25 touchdown passes for West Virginia last season and is expected to have a role as well.

When Schottenheimer was asked recently about Long, the Rams’ offensive coordinator offered, “I really think that we have two of the best tackles in football.” Long’s arrival meant Rodger Saffold is now the team’s right tackle, meaning the Rams improved at two positions with the one transaction.

Factor in second-year running backs Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead, along with rookie Zac Stacy, and Schottenheimer believes the Rams have the pieces to be an improved and a productive group.

On top of it all, Bradford is enjoying continuity. For the first time in four years, he didn’t spend an offseason learning a new offense. Bradford’s comfort level with Schottenheimer and Quarterbacks Coach Frank Cignetti, along with the plethora of new talent, have made his fourth NFL training camp quite an enjoyable one.

“I understand why Sam has a smile on his face for a lot of reasons, obviously the weapons and obviously not having to learn a new system,” Schottenheimer said. “It’s been a really great offseason. Guys are working hard. Now we’ve got to put it all together and go win some games.”