When a football team loses its starting quarterback for the season in the first seven minutes of the third preseason game, the natural assumption is that his replacement’s level of play will dictate the success of the regular season. While it is true that the St Louis Rams new starting signal caller, Shaun Hill, must perform well if the team has any hope of a winning season, the five men in front of him truly hold the key to the Rams season.
In the limited playing time Sam Bradford had prior to his injury this summer, he looked more confident than ever and was throwing the ball aggressively downfield, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking he was about to challenge Manning, Brees, Rodgers, or Brady as one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL .
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher and his offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, do not have a history of attacking their opponents with a daring aerial assault, and they certainly are not going to change their ways now that a 34-year-old journeyman is leading their team.
This is where the play of the offensive line becomes even more important than the quarterback leading them. Protecting Shaun Hill goes beyond limiting mistakes in pass protection; it also means establishing a consistent, effective running game. This limits the obvious passing situations and keeps the opponents from throwing every exotic blitz combination they have, something the Rams will need if Hill is to make it through the season healthy.
The big problem for the Rams is that their offensive line has looked average to downright bad at times this summer. The Rams gave up 17 sacks during the four-preseason games, ranking them second-to-last in the league.
The only game time that starting left tackle Jake Long had this summer resulted in Sam Bradford’s injury. Remember, Long is attempting to return from a season-ending ACL tear suffered in the penultimate game in 2013. There is only one Adrian Peterson, who had a miracle recovery from this injury in 2012, so the Rams are going to need to be wary of this and plan to give Long some help along the way.
The Rams knew Greg Robinson had raw, athletic talent that would need a lot of work when he was drafted with the second overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, which is why they initially penciled him in at offensive guard. Unfortunately for Robinson, the Rams did not allow him to settle into that position while he improved his technique and adjusted to the speed and complexity of the NFL game. No, they thought it best to give him as many snaps as they could, bouncing him back and forth between guard and tackle. That move backfired on them when Robinson struggled with communication and blocking assignments. Now it appears Davin Joseph will start in his place.
The Rams’ other starting guard, Roger Saffold, suffered two injuries this summer, which surprised very few people given his long history of battling injuries during his tenure with the Rams. To his credit, Saffold is the Rams most versatile member of the offensive line and can play every position except for center; he just has to remain healthy.
Center Scott Wells’ name must not be left out when talking about Rams injuries and the offensive line. In his two years with the team, Wells has played in just 19 of 32 games, so backup Tim Barnes had better stay sharp.
As improbable as it sounds, Joe Barksdale has become the Rams most steady and dependable player along the offensive line. A former third-round pick by the Raiders in 2011 who did not pan out in Oakland, Barksdale joined the Rams in September 2012 to provide depth to a depleted group.
Barksdale took to the coaching of offensive line guru, Paul Boudreau, and started all 16 games last season, playing at a high level in the process.
Just as Jeff Fisher and Les Snead wagered a lot on the ability of Sam Bradford to say healthy this season, they seemingly placed a much larger wager on three injury-prone members of the offensive line to defy the odds by surviving a 16-game regular season.
While it sounds like the Rams offensive line is a mess, and it certainly could end up being one, it also has the makings of a very good group. Long, Joseph, and Wells are all former Pro Bowl players. Saffold graded out as a very good guard last year, and steady Joe Barksdale completes the grouping.
For the sake of the Rams 2014 season, and Shaun Hill’s health and the strong rushing attack the Rams hope to have this season, this group of men needs to play well, and they need to play often.