As the Vikings prepare for Sunday’s game with St. Louis at the Edward Jones Dome, we asked Kathleen Nelson, who covers the Rams for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, to give us her up-close-and-personal scouting report. Here are four things you need to know …
1) Under the direction of new coach Jeff Fisher, the Rams sure seem pointed in the right direction.
In a 15-day span, Fisher’s team delivered a decisive 31-17 win in Arizona, rallied to upset San Francisco 16-13, then scored a last-minute touchdown for a 15-12 road win in Buffalo last weekend.
That gives the Rams momentum heading for Sunday’s game. For perspective, they’re enjoying their first three-game winning streak since 2006. In fact, from 2007-2011, the Rams averaged three victories per season.
So yeah, this three-game surge has been invigorating.
“It’s been hard to remember what it’s like in St. Louis,” Nelson said. “It’s like trying on a pair of old jeans to see if they fit. After six years. Sometimes they don’t. But this team has been energized.”
Fisher has gone on record to laud his team’s combination of work ethic and spirit. Nelson says the head coach’s presence has made a big difference too with players responding to his no-nonsense but still approachable manner.
“His biggest impact, I think, has been his ability to gather a coaching staff that has been there, done that and knows how to coach up players,” Nelson said. “That was a huge void last year. This was a team looking for leadership and looking for direction. And I don’t think the previous coaching staff did a very good job with that. This staff does.”
2) Quarterback Sam Bradford has shown encouraging progress to indicate he could be the leader of the St. Louis huddle for a long time to come.
Bradford’s solid 3,512-yard, 18-TD rookie season in 2010 was followed by a bit of a stumble last season when an ankle issue caused him to miss six games and his overall numbers were below average at best: 51.5 completion percentage, 2,164 yards, six touchdowns, six interceptions and a 70.5 rating.
There were other contributing factors to the slump. The Rams’ offensive line and receiving corps just weren’t very good. The 2011 lockout disrupted Bradford’s continuity and development. And he never quite got comfortable working under new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel, who was also doubling as the quarterbacks coach.
“It was a bit of a rudderless ship,” Nelson said. “I don’t think Sam got all the help he could have used and the help that I’m sure he wanted at times.”
The worry over Bradford’s slow progress was only exacerbated when Cam Newton set the league on fire during his rookie year. And now this season, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck have also had significant early success.
Still, Bradford seems to be feeling more confident these days, has settled in under the tutelage of new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti and has had unwavering support from Fisher.
“Last winter whenever Jeff Fisher was asked why he took this job, answer number 1 or 2 for him was always ‘I believe strongly in Sam Bradford,’” Nelson said. “That belief is there. And they wouldn’t have traded away the No. 2 pick and the chance to draft RG3 if they didn’t have that kind of faith in Sam."
3) St. Louis’ defensive line is stacked with talent. And the Rams have 39 sacks to prove it.
Robert Quinn, the team-leader right now with 9.5 sacks was the No. 14 draft pick in 2011. Chris Long, who has 7.5 sacks of his own, was the second overall pick in 2008. And now rookie tackle Michael Brockers, who was picked 14th last April, is beginning to emerge as a disruptive force up front.
Brockers’ production will always be notable. He was the Rams’ top selection this season after they twice traded down in the first round. So far, he has fit very well with an active St. Louis defense, now coming on strong after being hobbled early in the season by an ankle sprain.
“Brockers is really, really quick,” Nelson said. “He has an explosiveness about him that’s really starting to show.”
Quinn’s and Long’s talents are obvious as well. But Nelson believes their production has been even more potent thanks to the depth at defensive end with Eugene Sims and Williams Hayes able to fill in nicely.
“Quinn and Long are getting valuable breaks from time to time,” Nelson said. “Which in turn makes them fresher and more effective when they’re in there.”
4) Even with all the encouraging signs, the Rams still have a way to go.
The past two weeks, the defense has come up with huge final-drive stops to seal wins over the 49ers and Bills, something they were unable to get done at key points earlier in the season.
The Rams’ secondary is much improved over last year with veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan – signed to a five-year, $50 million deal in March – serving as the leader. But as good as rookie corner Janoris Jenkins has been at times, he can also be mistake-prone. The Rams also have a safety unit (Craig Dahl and Quintin Mikell start) that is solid against the run but just OK in pass coverage.
Lastly, a top offseason priority will likely be to get Bradford more receiving help. St. Louis drafted two receivers (Brian Quick and Chris Givens) last April. They also are getting production from Brandon Gibson, now in his third year. But now they need to find Bradford a legitimate go-to guy. Danny Amendola has been productive when healthy. But injuries have kept Amendola out of 20 games the past two years.