’08 Preview: St. Louis tries to erase blues

No coach in the NFL enters the season on a warmer seat than Scott Linehan. His second Rams team started 0-8 a year ago and stumbled across the finish line at 3-13 – the second-worst record in the league.

The empty seats and blacked-out games didn’t go unnoticed by team management, which not only struggled through a bad product on the field but also endured the death of owner Georgia Frontiere after a long battle with breast cancer. With Frontiere’s son, Chip Rosenbloom, assuming majority control of the team, there’s nowhere to go but up for this franchise.

In fairness to Linehan, he inherited the aging remnants of what once was an electrifying offense. But as the losses mounted last season, more veterans publicly snapped at him.

2008 TEAM PREVIEWS

AFC EAST: BUF | MIA | NE | NYJ

AFC NORTH: BAL | CIN | CLE | PIT

AFC SOUTH: HOU | IND | JAC | TEN

AFC WEST: DEN | KC | OAK | SD

NFC EAST: DAL | NYG | PHI | WAS

NFC NORTH: CHI | DET | GB | MIN

NFC SOUTH: ATL | CAR | NO | TB

NFC WEST: ARI | SEA | SF | STL

The “action” on the sidelines often proved more gripping than anything on the field. Linehan must regain the veterans’ trust and reestablish himself as a leader.

Offense

Al Saunders was part of the “Greatest Show on Turf” in St. Louis at the start of this decade. And the offense he runs is very similar to the Mike Martz system. It involves using lots of shifts and motions to create favorable matchups. In terms of route-running, the system uses every part of the field.

The difference with Martz is that Saunders also stresses the run and knows how to use a big back like Steven Jackson.

Defense

Coordinator Jim Haslett loves multiple looks with his front seven, and favors man-to-man coverage in the secondary. He isn’t afraid to take chances and will blitz repeatedly if the front four isn’t generating a pass rush. The variety of packages and mix-and-match personnel can give even the most experienced QB headaches. The addition of rookie defensive end Chris Long adds another versatile piece to the puzzle. With a bit better health, this could be a top-15 unit this season.

The book on: Marc Bulger

A rival sizes up the Rams’ veteran quarterback:

“He’s really one of the most accurate passers in the league right now. You just have to give him time. You have to protect him, and they’ve had some offensive-line breakdowns lately. But if they shore that up and (Orlando) Pace is healthy …

“He’s not great under pressure. He’s not the most physically gifted guy. He’s not real mobile. He’d rather sit in the pocket because he has such a quick release. He’s not one that does a lot of improvising. He’s had problems with injuries. He’s not a very big guy; that could always be his issue with injuries.

“He’s going to get nicked up. But if he’s healthy and he has time, he’s as good as anyone throwing the rock. He’s got one of the most underrated arms in the league. But I like Bulger. Bulger’s fine. He’s not their problem.”

Bottom line

No team in the league has as much of a chance for rapid improvement as St. Louis. This was a team that was crushed by injuries in the first half of the 2007 season and never recovered. Better health alone should result in two or three more victories than last season’s debacle.

The Rams had a good offseason, with a solid draft coupled with the addition of guard Jacob Bell and kicker Josh Brown. But they needed a great offseason. Throw in a brutal opening schedule, with the entire NFC East, New England and Seattle in the first seven games, and a 7-9 finish may be the best St. Louis can do.

SN prediction: 7-9, second in NFC West.

Jim Thomas covers the Rams for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Sporting News.


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Updated Thursday, Jul 17, 2008