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2005 preview: Rams

NFC West predictions
1. Arizona
2. Seattle
3. St. Louis
4. San Francisco
St. Louis Rams
Head coach: Mike Martz, sixth season
2004 record: 8-8
2004 rankings: Offense, sixth (367.3 yards/game); Defense, 17th (334.6 yards/game)
2005 strength of schedule: 18th (tie)
From SportingNews.com: NFC West overview

Just when it looks as if Mike Martz is coaching for his job, he scrapes into the postseason and wins a playoff game.

With the Rams seemingly out of the wild-card hunt at 6-8 last season, Martz worked his last-minute magic and pulled out wins over an undermanned Eagles team and the Jets. St. Louis then went into wild-card weekend and knocked off NFC West champ Seattle before getting crushed by the Falcons.

For Martz, the two-week postseason run was just enough to buy him another season with a target on his back.

OFFENSE

The offense revolves around quarterback Marc Bulger, who had a very productive season in 2004. In a year of broken quarterbacking records, Bulger's proficiency went largely unnoticed, despite passing for 3,964 yards, 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. His completion percentage was superb (66.2) and his quarterback rating (93.7) was the eighth highest in the NFL. All of that despite getting sacked 41 times in only 14 games.

With wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce still an elite tandem – and the emergence of No. 3 receiver Kevin Curtis – Bulger could be on the verge of a career season in 2005. And keep an eye on Curtis. He played very well down the stretch and could have an Az-Zahir Hakim type of impact from the slot.

A lot of that will depend on the right tackle position. It's the offensive line's biggest weakness, and it has to be shored up before Bulger can flourish. The Rams drafted rookie tackle Alex Barron in the first round, but he begins training camp as a backup who will have to beat out Blaine Saipaia. Running back Marshall Faulk also will begin the season as a backup, now that Martz has moved to develop Faulk's successor, Steven Jackson.

DEFENSE

Beyond defensive end Leonard Little, the front four has a lot of mediocre resumes. Former first-round picks Ryan Pickett and Jimmy Kennedy haven't lived up to their billing, and Kennedy is on the verge of being labeled a bust if he doesn't start contributing. On the bright side, former first-rounder Damione Lewis showed some improvement last season.

The starting corps of linebackers fared so poorly last season that it was entirely replaced. Veterans Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley were brought in as free agents to revitalize the unit. Claiborne is overrated and has had his instincts questioned, while Coakley is aging and has lost a step. They may not be the answer to repairing a terrible run defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker Jeff Wilkins has a strong leg and is dependable, and the punting duties have been turned over to rookie Reggie Hodges. All of the coverage teams need improvement, and new coach Bob Ligashesky has been given that responsibility. Running back Aveion Cason and wide receiver Shaun McDonald will handle the punt and kick return duties. Neither is a spectacular option.

PREDICTION

The Rams will finish 7-9 and third in the NFC West.