In his rookie year as an NFL head coach, Scott Linehan had an offense that was good enough to win 10 games and a defense good enough to win six. The St. Louis Rams split the difference and finished 8-8. So entering the offseason, the team's top three needs were clear: defense, defense and defense.
NFC WEST PREVIEWS
NFC WEST PREVIEWS
It was with much surprise, then, that the most expensive acquisitions were wide receiver Drew Bennett and tight end Randy McMichael. Apparently, Linehan's blueprint calls for winning a lot of 40-30 games.
Though these Rams lack the quick-strike ability of Mike Martz's Greatest Show on Turf teams of 1999-2001, this attack should be almost as tough to defend. No offense in the league boasts as many proven options in the passing game. If Steven Jackson runs like he did last year – becoming a bona fide star – and a young line keeps quarterback Marc Bulger healthy, the potential is there to score many, many points.
Alas, the Rams might need every last point unless there is dramatic improvement on defense and special teams.
Offense: One of the best moves Linehan made in '06 was to pass play-calling duties to coordinator Greg Olson after a shutout loss to Carolina. The offense jelled under Olson, and the Rams averaged 28 points in the final six games – four of which they won. Olson shows the patience to stick with the running game even if it starts slowly. The Rams will feature a versatile attack that can play smashmouth with Jackson or throw downfield to Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Bennett.
Defense: Coordinator Jim Haslett likes to give opponents multiple looks and be unpredictable. He also isn't afraid to bring the blitz. The problem is this scheme requires skilled players who think and react quickly and are just plain quick. The '06 Rams were about two or three players short of making the scheme work effectively – and it doesn't look like they made many upgrades. As a result, they will be depending on several young players to make the leap from question marks to solid starters.
RB Steven Jackson: Jackson is coming off a breakthrough campaign. Can he do it again? Actually, Linehan would like Jackson to do a little less after he piled up 436 touches, including 90 receptions. Jackson improved as an inside runner, squaring his pads and grinding out yards after contact. He cut down on lost-yardage plays caused by drifting sideways in search of the home run. Jackson also has developed into a effective receiver, mainly on screen passes and dump-offs, which he can turn into big plays because of his elusiveness and ability to break tackles.
WR Drew Bennett: For years, the Rams relied on smaller, quicker receivers, but the departure of Kevin Curtis and the addition of the 6-foot-5 Bennett is significant. Look for Bennett to excel at working the middle against Cover 2 schemes. He and McMichael will help productivity in the red zone, a problem in recent seasons. McMichael has averaged 65 catches the past three seasons, and his blocking ability will pay dividends. Linehan likes to use three-receiver and two-tight end sets, so Bennett and McMichael will be on the field a lot.
DE James Hall: The weak link a year ago, the defensive line must show dramatic improvement for the Rams to compete for a playoff spot. The Rams ranked 31st in run defense last season, and the line lacked an effective inside run stuffer. Left end Leonard Little remains one of the league's top pass rushers and holds his own against the run. But the lack of a complementary pass rusher caused Little to face a heavy dose of double-teams and chip blocks. The Rams hope Hall, acquired from the Lions, will have enough pass-rush juice to ease the attention on Little. Hall must display more consistency than he did in Detroit.
MLB Will Witherspoon and OLB Pisa Tinoisamoa: At their best, Witherspoon and Tinoisamoa fly to the ball and make plays sideline to sideline. Both, however, are undersized and prone to getting smothered by 320-pound guards. Tinoisamoa plays with passion but had enough injuries last season to fill out a medical textbook. Witherspoon has excellent coverage skills and was a difference-maker last season before wearing down.
VINNIE IYER'S TAKE
Bulger, Jackson and Holt form the foundation of one of the league's most prolific and exciting offenses, but the defense remains a wasteland.
Prediction: 7-9 (third in the NFC West).
There's no question the offense will be better – and it was pretty good in '06. But the same can't be said about a defense that has only one sure difference-maker in Little. It's difficult to see the Rams faring much better in Linehan's second season, particularly against a schedule that looks tougher than the '06 version. Look for the team to finish in the 8-8 neighborhood again.
Jim Thomas covers the Rams for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Sporting News.