It would appear that the St. Louis Rams have all the cards stacked against them as they prepare to take on the Seattle Seahawks tonight at the Edward Jones Dome. It's their first game without franchise quarterback Sam Bradford, meaning backup Kellen Clemens will have to guide the Rams against one of the NFL's most aggressive and punishing defenses.
Adding insult to injury, the Rams first time hosting Monday Night Football since 2006 is being upstaged by the Cardinals hosting Game 5 of the World Series. With few holding out hope for a Rams victory and the Cardinals playing their final home game and trying to win a championship, just how many St. Louisans even care what happens to the Rams tonight?
There is one way, however, that the Rams can shock the naysayers and hand the Seahawks their first loss inside the NFC West. No, it won't be Kellen Clemens channeling his inner Kurt Warner. It'll be more like Clemens channeling his inner Kerry Collins and the 2013 Rams starting to look a lot like the 2008 Tennessee Titans.
In 2008. Jeff Fisher's Tennessee Titans were coming off a 10-6 season behind budding star quarterback, Vince Young. When Young went down with a knee injury in the season opener, Fisher was forced to go with aging veteran, Kerry Collins. What looked like a doomed season due to Young's injury turned into one of Fisher's best as the Titans won 13 games. How they did that provides a blue print for how the Rams could manage the rest of 2013.
The 36 year-old Collins sparked zero confidence from anyone. He was three seasons removed from being an NFL starter and hadn't quarterbacked a winning team since he left the New York Giants. Riding Collins right arm wasn't an option.
What Fisher did have was a solid defense that could pressure the quarterback and a stable of running backs who could both beat teams on the edge and bang between the tackles. That sounds an awful lot like what he has here in St. Louis.
It won't be easy, but the Rams have to play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses from here on out. That starts with the defense. Coordinator Tim Walton is going to have to go away from his "bend but don't break" philosophy and start releasing the hounds. St. Louis has the personnel in the pass rush and in the secondary (when they're allowed to press in coverage) to force opposing quarterbacks into quick decisions and tight windows.
Without Bradford, the Rams don't have the ability to get in any scoring contests with their opponents, so the defense is going to have to keep them off the board. In the last three games, the Rams have sported the fifth best red zone defense. They'll need to continue that trend to stay alive the rest of 2013.
On offense, the Rams have to utilize the full abilities of all their backs. That means a steady diet of Zac Stacy between the tackles punctuated by Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead on the edges. Fisher's Titans had Chris Johnson on the edges punctuated by Lendale White pounding the middle. It's the opposite approach playcalling-wise, but the goal is still the same: The Rams need to be successful enough running the ball to leave Kellen Clemens in manageable down and distance situations and set up play action opportunities.
Fisher's 2008 Titans ran the football far more than they threw it and had almost 50 more first downs on the ground than through the air. Collins was able to manage the games, throwing safe routes when they were open. He had fewer touchdown passes (12) than the Titans had wins (13). Most importantly he threw only seven picks in his 15 starts. For the Rams to be successful, they'll need closer to a 60-40 run/pass ratio. That won't make fans craving the renaissance of "The Greatest Show on Turf" happy, but it might win more games.
Of course the Rams are going to have to play good special teams, too. There's reason for confidence there as Greg Zuerein can make any drive inside the opponent's 40 a scoring drive and Johnny Hekker can flip field position. What has to be more consistent is the penalties. The Rams just cannot afford to give away field position with special teams penalties.
That goes for the offense and defense, too. St. Louis just lost its margin for error when Bradford went down. They can't afford false starts that get them behind the chains or neutral zone infractions that give opponents extra downs or yardage.
In a word, they have to play disciplined football. This is perhaps the only area where the Rams haven't yet shown they can play consistently this season.
It won't be pretty, but it could work. It will require an increased discipline and almost perfect execution in every facet of the game. But Jeff Fisher's been in this boat before, one that looks to be taking on water. Can he guide the Rams safely to port, or is 2013 destined to sink?
We'll find out tonight.
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