Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the biggest weakness of the 2009 season for every team and explain how the franchise can address the issue. The series continues with the Rams, who finished fourth in the NFC West (1-15).
The St. Louis Rams have won just six games in the past three years, with their win total declining every season – from three, to two, to one. Second-year head coach Steve Spagnuolo has tried to implement a culture of hope and accountability to this formerly moribund franchise, but it's tough to do when players get used to losing almost by default. The good news is that the team has put together many of the winning ingredients in their past two drafts. The bad news is that from an offensive perspective, there's such a long way to go.
Biggest problem in 2009: An anemic offense under any circumstances
Last season, the Rams trotted out three starting quarterbacks – Marc Bulger(notes), Kyle Boller(notes) and Keith Null(notes) – and none performed at a league-average level. One problem was an almost complete lack of playmakers; only receiver Donnie Avery(notes) and tight end Daniel Fells(notes) showed any real potential in the aerial attack, leaving running back Steven Jackson as the point man far too often. As a result, even when the Rams went with more wide-open formations, they couldn't succeed because defenses didn't have to take them seriously.
Example: Most teams are more effective in the shotgun formation; it gives quarterbacks a better look at the field, an extra second to adjust to pressure, and opens possibilities for timing-based running plays. However, the Rams saw no increase in production according to Football Outsiders. They ran plays from shotgun 39 percent of the time, 14th-highest in the NFL, but they were one of just five teams to decrease at least 20 percent in FO's DVOA per-play efficiency metrics when in shotgun. Overall, the Rams ranked 29th in yards per game (279.4), 26th in first downs per game (16.2), and dead last in points per game (10.9). How will the Rams turn it around? They'll start with two young tackles and a new franchise quarterback.
The 2010 solution: A new shotgun start
First overall pick Sam Bradford threw exactly one pass from under center in 2009, and it fell incomplete. Tackle Jason Smith(notes), St. Louis' first-round pick in 2009, has been shown to be more powerful and effective from a two-point stance and out of the shotgun when blocking; it's what he's used to from his days at Baylor. If Smith is to take Alex Barron's(notes) old spot at left tackle, and Bradford will lead that offense, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur will be calling more than 39 percent shotgun plays in 2010. Second-round tackle Rodger Saffold(notes) is more of a traditional power blocker, which makes him a good fit for the right side. And in Jason Brown(notes), the Rams have a veteran center who can adjust protections and help the kids get with the program.
Looking back at Bradford's Oklahoma days, we can see how the Rams could use certain formations to take advantage of their new quarterback's amazing deep accuracy. If the Rams can keep their protection concepts solid, they'll be able to use the palette of shotgun sets Bradford used at Oklahoma. A favorite of mine is a play where Bradford uses his surprising mobility to roll out and hit the open receiver. In this diagram of a play against the Washington Huskies in 2008, the left wide receiver clears the cornerback, leaving the slot receiver to beat the safety one-on-one. Bradford's scramble draws in the weak-side linebacker, ensuring that Bradford's first read was facing single coverage. All that was left was for Bradford to hit his man above the safety, which he did.
With Bradford taking the shotgun snaps, a better-than-expected offensive line in front of him, Jackson as the dangerous running threat, and the promise of more effective formation diversity, the Rams have a chance to get off the bottom of the NFL heap and actually surprise a few opponents in the 2010 season.
- Sam Bradford