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Writer Report: St. Louis Rams

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

Matthew Melton talks Jeff Fischer, Sam Bradford, kickers, and more as we preview the Rams.

Writer Report: St. Louis Rams

With the training camp and preseason games well underway, CHARGED.fm is getting ready for the NFL season. As part of that, we reached out to writers/bloggers for all 32 teams to get their takes on the upcoming season. Here is Matthew Melton of Bleacher Report and Pop Fly Boys to shed some light on the St. Louis Rams.

Anytime an NFL team finishes 2-14, something went wrong.  The St. Louis Rams came close to making the playoffs in 2010, but injuries and poor play doomed them last year.  The Rams still have their foundation of Sam Bradford and Steven Jackson on offense and a new head coach in Jeff Fischer, but they will need a lot of help from the rest of the team to make noise in the NFC West this year, especially with San Francisco looking just as dominant and Seattle improving in the offseason.

We spoke to Matthew Melton, writer for Bleacher Report and Pop Fly Boys, about the Rams and what to expect this season.  Here are his insights on the team.

1. The Rams went from a sexy playoff pick before last season to a 2-14 team, when all was said and done. Steve Spagnuolo is out and Jeff Fisher is in as head coach. What kind of impact will Fisher have on this team?

The impact Fisher has had on the team is already being felt, especially on defense. Fisher revamped the defensive line, particularly the tackle position, by drafting Michael Brockers in the first round and adding Kendall Langford via free agency. The secondary will look miles better, after signing former Pro-Bowler Cortland Finnegan as a free agent. It will also look younger too, after drafting the highly talented Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson.

Fisher has also established a new mentality for the players. The Rams aren’t simply a 2-14 team. They are 15-65 over the last five years, which is the worst five-year stretch in NFL history. Fisher is taking over a franchise that has seen three consecutive failed regimes.

That is a lot of losing for these players. Fisher is determined to change that mindset, both on the field and in the Rams’ locker room.

The Rams are younger, fresher and faster. Fisher’s pedigree, as the most experienced head coach in the NFL, behind only Bill Belichik and Mike Shanahan, means he has the players’ immediate respect and attention. The Rams don’t have to worry about dealing with the learning curve of a first-time head coach (Spagnuolo, Scott Linehan, Mike Martz).

2. Sam Bradford regressed after his strong rookie campaign, but he struggled with injuries (as did quite a few Rams). What kind of season do you expect from Bradford coming off those injuries and with a new coach?

I wrote last month that I believe Bradford is primed for a huge comeback in 2012, and I still believe that.

Almost every quarterback goes through growing pains and regressions during their career. Bradford is no different. Still, what he’s shown is very impressive. As a rookie, Bradford took over a 1-15 Rams team, led them to seven victories, threw for over 3,500 yards, completed 60 percent of his passes, and threw more touchdowns than interceptions. This was all without a wide receiver scoring more than three touchdowns or gaining more than 700 yards.

Last year, Bradford regressed for several reasons. He suffered severe ankle and hand injuries. He did not have a quarterbacks coach (something unthinkable for a second-year QB in which the team has invested over $60 million). His top wide receiver (Danny Amendola) was lost after Week 1. On and on it goes.

And yet, Bradford’s start to his career is on par, if not better, than many of the game’s greats, from Elway to Brees and Montana to Aikman. I think Bradford knows he has a lot to prove this season, and he will come out motivated to prove the doubters wrong.

Fisher has mentored a 24-year old quarterback (like Bradford) before. In 1997, Fisher handed the offense over to Steve McNair. In McNair’s first two seasons as a starter, he put up almost identical passing numbers to what Bradford has done.

I expect Bradford to pick up where he left off in 2010. He should stay in the low 60s for completion percentage, be close to 4,000 yards passing and have a solid TD-INT ratio.

3. The Rams pass defense was exceptional last year, but they finished 31st in rushing defense and 27th in rushing TD allowed. What changes did they make to improve their run defense?

The Rams’ pass defense may have looked good statistically on paper, but that is probably only because offenses knew they could move the ball well enough on the ground and it wasn’t necessary for them to challenge the Rams in the passing game.

That’s going to change. As I wrote in early July, if the Rams were a universal galaxy unto themselves, the run defense would be the Higgs boson particle of the franchise – key to the understanding of everything.

The Rams got younger and more aggressive on the defensive line. The team projects a defensive line with an average age under 25, with three former first-round picks as starters. Chris Long is the elder statesmen on the line at just 27 years old.

The team selected two DBs (Jenkins and Johnson) in the first 65 picks of this past NFL draft. That was as many DBs as the Rams selected in Rounds 1-3 over the past three seasons combined. By filling those holes in the backfield, and signing Finnegan, the Rams should be able to the handle the 4- and 5- wideout formations that are the norm in today’s game.

4. Which draft pick or free agent acquisition is going to have the biggest impact for St. Louis?

Call me crazy, but I’m drinking whatever rookie kicker Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein is selling.

The Rams finished dead last in third-down conversion rate (28 percent) last year, and weren’t much better (29th overall) in time of possession. That means plenty of opportunities for Zuerlein in the kicking game.

In fact, I’ll give odds to anyone that Zuerlein will lead the Rams in scoring this year.

Zuerlein has an impressive pedigree. Last year, he led all of Division-II in field goals per game, and set a D-II record for consecutive FGM.

Reports in training camp and exhibitions have Zuerlein routinely making kicks of 50-55 yards, and longer. I expect that you will see a fair number of Zuerlein kicks on ESPN and NFL highlight reels this season.

5. Who is one player to watch this season that is going to surprise people for the Rams?

I’m excited about the impact we’ll see from second-round pick, RB Isaiah Pead. Steven Jackson has been a workhorse for the Rams for many years. No one is suggesting that this will be the year Jackson loses it, but it was imperative for the Rams to start looking at a legitimate number two threat out of the offensive backfield.

When posed this question in June, I wrote that Pead has the tools to be a highly effective back. He is a solid pass-catcher out of the backfield, and knows how to make defenders miss.

Physically speaking, Pead brings to mind visions of Jackson's predecessor – a quick, shifty runner who can change gears instantly in open space. Sound familiar?

One of the reasons the 1999-2001 Rams were so successful on offense was that defenses had to be prepared for the hand-off, the deep ball, and that sneaky short pass to Marshall Faulk that looked a lot like a rush. In Pead, Sam Bradford now has another tool to further confuse defenses.

6. What is your prediction for the Rams this season?

I believe the Rams coaches and players expect to win every game. I believe they will compete hard on the field and will get better as the season progresses. However, I don’t look at this year’s Rams team through rose-colored glasses.

When you are as bad as the Rams have been in recent years, you need every break you can get, and the Rams aren’t getting any breaks from this year’s schedule.

They have only seven real home games this year, because they will “host” the New England Patriots in London in Week 8. The team has to go on the road to play the Lions and Bears within the first three weeks of the season. They also host the Packers and Jets. That’s on top of the four divisional games against the 49ers and Seahawks.

There are probably three or four winnable road games on this year’s schedule, and even the most optimistic fan can only see that many wins among the seven home games.

The Rams have the making of a five or six win team. Maybe Fisher can coach the boys up for a couple more, but I see the Rams finishing no better than 6-10.

Matthew Melton is a writer for BleacherReport.com and PopFlyBoys.com where you can find more of his analysis and opinion. You can follow him on Twitter @MCMelton314.

Let CHARGED.fm get you tickets to see the St. Louis Rams this season.

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