Rams head coach Jeff Fisher is a defensive-minded individual who began his football career, both as a player and a coach, under Buddy Ryan in Chicago. It should come as no surprise that, with his team, everything starts with a mindset of stopping the opposition through an aggressive defense, particularly out of his guys up front. Fisher is a firm believer that, in the NFL, more games are lost than are won. As a result, his Rams focus on not beating themselves, and on forcing their opponent to step up and take the win away. To emerge victorious, the Dallas Cowboys will have to do just that, and it will not be easy. Let's take a look at the upcoming opponent.
As was previously stated, the Fisher mindset is that everything starts up front with guys who can consistently get after the quarterback. For the Rams, that means a pair of pass rushing defensive ends. Chris Long led the way last year, accounting for 11.5 sacks. It should come as no surprise that Chris is a dominant pass rusher, it is in his bloodline. His father is former Raiders All Pro defensive lineman Howie Long. Hot on his heels last year, with 10.5 sacks, was his running mate Robert Quinn. Moving inside, we find Michael Brockers, who as a rookie last season added four sacks of his own. Brockers is also solid in stopping the run. The other tackle, and the weakest link on the line, is Kendall Langford. He is a decent run stopper, but not nearly the pass rushing threat that his fellow linemen are. All told, this unit is the strength of the St. Louis defense.
The Rams have a solid corps of linebackers, led by middle linebacker James Lauriniatis, who has turned in back-to-back 140+ tackle seasons. To play alongside Lauriniatis, the Rams made two off-season acquisitions; they selected Alec Ogletree out of the University of Georgia in the first round of the NFL draft, and they signed journeyman Will Witherspoon as a free agent. Ogletree is a highly talented athlete who has already shown his ability to adapt to the pro game. If his legal troubles are behind him, Alec can be an outstanding performer for years to come. Witherspoon is beginning his twelfth season in the league, and his second stint with the Rams.
In the secondary, the Rams feature a mixed bag. The corners are a clear strength with Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins. Last season, Finnegan did not give up a single touchdown, and after a few weeks to adapt to the professional game, Jenkins followed suit. He did not give up a score in the second half of the season. In passing situations, Fisher will add another second year corner, Trumaine Johnson, to the mix. At safety, St Louis made a complete overhaul. An UDFA last season, Rodney McLeod led the team in special teams tackles last season, and in training camp this year, he asserted himself and claimed one of the starting safety slots. Rookie TJ McDonald, out of USC, has claimed the other slot.
In 2010, the Rams invested the first overall selection in the draft on Sam Bradford out of Oklahoma. A former Heisman Trophy winner and Offensive Rookie of the Year, his professional career has been somewhat pedestrian thus far. After a solid rookie year in which he passed for 3,500+ yards, Bradford regressed in 2011; he threw for only 2,164 yards. In 2012, Sam Bradford experienced a rebound as he eclipsed the 3,700 yard mark. For this season, the Rams have invested in protection for their quarterback, and also in giving him better weapons for his arsenal. Now the onus is on him to prove that he was limited by the pieces he had to work with, rather than by his own abilities.
Last season's offensive line resembled a "great blue sieve." As a unit, they surrendered a total of 35 sacks, so the Rams used free agency to add a top flight left tackle in Jake Long, formerly of the Miami Dolphins. It was a calculated risk because time and injury have taken a toll on his body. If he can stay healthy and return to form, Long will a great addition to a struggling line, but if not the Rams threw $36 million dollars out the window. Adding him as the blindside protector allowed St. Louis to move Rodger Saffold to the right side. Also injury prone, he is now sidelined with a strained MCL, so Dallas will see swing tackle Joe Barksdale on Sunday. On the interior, things start with center Scott Wells, who is solid. He is flanked by guards Chris Williams and Harvey Dahl. All told, this is a unit that would benefit from upgrades, and in this year's draft the Rams began that movement by selecting Barrett Jones, but for now he is a down roster player.
At wide receiver, the team invested one of its first round selections on Tavon Austin, a dynamic playmaker out of West Virginia, to man the slot. He is the type of guy who is a threat to score any time he has the ball. Outside Chris Givens was the Rams most productive pass catcher last season, accounting for nearly 700 yards through the air. He is joined by Austin Pettis, who had his career best game, 8 catches for 78 yards, last week against Atlanta. In addition, the Rams also added Tavon Austin's WVU teammate, Steadman Bailey, later in the draft. The tight end, Jared Cook, is a high risk, high reward signing. The former Tennessee Titan was signed in the off-season based on the potential he flashed rather than anything he delivered on the field. In the backfield, the Rams have more questions than answers as 2012 seventh-round draft pick Daryl Richardson attempts to succeed Steven Jackson as the Rams feature back. He is backed up by rookie Zac Stacy, who was taken in the fifth round of the recent draft.
Johnny Hekker will handle the punting duties for the Rams in 2013. Now in his second season, Hekker averaged less than 40 yards net last season on 82 punts. Known as either "Legatron" or "Greg the Leg", place kicker Greg Zuerlein went 23 for 31 on field goals last season. As his nicknames indicate, Zuerlein is a long-distance bomber. Against the Seattle Seahawks last season, he broke the Rams field goal record twice as he converted on first a 58-yard attempt and then later on a 60-yarder. Last season the Rams return teams were out-gained by their opposition in both the punting and kick-off games. It is highly likely that, with the addition of Tavon Austin, things will change this season.
This coming Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys are going to have to bring the offense that we saw against the Cincinnati Bengals during the "dress rehearsal", and even if they do, putting points on the board will not be an easy task. The offensive line will have to battle to keep Tony Romo upright, and Dez Bryant will have to assert himself against tough coverage. To help relieve the pressure on the quarterback, Dallas is going to have to prove that it can run the ball effectively against a tough front seven and there can be no blown opportunities due to play-calling miscues. Like we saw in Kansas City, this is a team that Dallas could beat, but they are going to have to set up and take it; Jeff Fisher teams usually do not beat themselves.
For the defense, the biggest challenge will be to limit the output from Tavon Austin. As I stated earlier, he is always a threat to take the ball to the house. With questions in the running game, Sam Bradford will likely have to get things done with the pass, and this plays into the hands of the Cowboys "rushmen", as do the issues along the St. Louis offensive line. Again, the secondary will be asked to keep everything in front of them, and to make Bradford pay for his misfires. If they can do that, Dallas stands a good chance of emerging with a victory.