As we look ahead to the Rams’ regular-season opener on Sept. 8, I can’t help but think of the Rams winning games by winning the matchup battle this season. Dick Vermeil first turned me on to this idea when he selected Torry Holt in the first round of the 1999 NFL draft. His thought process was that there was no way another team’s defensive backs could match up with Holt, Isaac Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim, Ricky Proehl and Marshall Faulk, not to mention guys like Roland Williams and Amp Lee.
Sure enough, when Kurt Warner was protected – which he almost always was – there was always a Rams receiver roaming free in the secondary, and Warner would find him. The most amazing part of those early days of the Greatest Show on Turf was how Faulk would go out into a pattern, inviting the defense to blitz, and invariably the Rams would make the opponent pay.
I see some of the same qualities, with a different twist, with the 2013 Rams. The difference is that the overwhelming number of players isn’t here now, but the Rams should win their share of individual matchups. Chris Givens, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Lance Kendricks, Daryl Richardson and perhaps Brian Quick are all capable of winning an individual matchup against pretty much every defense.
Let’s look at the Rams’ first opponent, Arizona, as an example. In the Cardinals’ third preseason game, against San Diego, they played almost exclusively man-to-man defense. They have Patrick Peterson, who is superb, to cover another team’s top guy. Jerraud Powers presumably would line up against Austin Pettis if Peterson has the speedy Givens.
Where the Cardinals will have real problems is inside. Against the Chargers, the 6-4, 255-pound tight end Antonio Gates lined up in the slot and was covered by the 5-9, 186-pound rookie Tyrann Mathieu. The Rams would have the 6-5, 248-pound Cook (who is faster than Mathieu) in that spot. The Cardinals would have the choice of covering him with a safety – Yeremiah Bell or Rashad Johnson – or with Mathieu. Now the Rams have Austin – an impossibility to cover one-on-one – on the other side. The Cardinals simply don’t have enough good cover men to handle all the weapons the Rams will be able to deploy.
In the second game, the Falcons will start Asante Samuel and rookie Desmond Trufant at corner, with William Moore and Thomas DeCoud at safety. Then they bring Robert McClain off the bench in their nickel defense. That’s a formidable group. But is there enough coverage ability to handle all of the Rams’ playmakers?
I don’t think so. Keep in mind, Atlanta struggled against the run during the preseason (to be fair, the Rams struggled running the ball, too), and the Falcons now employ Osi Umenyiora at right end. As you know, Osi doesn’t show much interest in playing defense against the run. The Rams will be able to put points on the board against them, too.
In fact, there isn’t a team in the league whose defense matches up to the Rams’ playmakers. If Sam Bradford is protected, their passing game should be prolific. Bradford is proven as a smart, accurate passer who has the ability to make the right decision, as evidenced by the low number of interceptions thrown during his career.
Jeff Fisher and Paul Boudreau focus on being a run-first team, so you can count on the Rams straightening that issue out. Daryl Richardson, Zac Stacy, Isaiah Pead and Benny Cunningham all have different skill sets to attack a defense, and first and foremost, this is an offensive line built to maul the opposition in the running game.
The Rams’ defense tied for the league lead in sacks last year. Their starting cornerbacks, Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins, are regarded as one of the best tandems in the league. Questions exist with their third and fourth cornerbacks. The linebacking corps is serviceable with Jo-Lonn Dunbar out for the first four games, with a chance to be great when he joins James Lauranaitis and the emerging Alec Ogletree. There are questions at safety, but Fisher has a knack for being able to cover for lesser safeties with scheme. My concerns about this team are on defense. Young defensive backs Trumaine Johnson, Brandon McGee, T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod need to step up and be very good. The Rams can’t count on protecting them with scheme for an entire season, so they need to emerge.
Johnny Hekker seems to be emerging as one of the best punters in the league, and Greg Zuerlein is one of the best kickers going. Austin has a chance to be a major difference-maker in the punt return game. And the Rams have enough good starting players on hand so that they were able to keep some special teams aces. Their special teams should be among the best in the NFL.
For the most part, the talent is there for the Rams, who have the youngest team in the league for the second straight year. The coaching staff is a “rock star” group, led by Fisher. They have knowledge of how to win, and the tools do so.
2013 has a chance to be a great year for the Rams. If they have health, they have the ability to beat anybody they play at any time and place they play them. In 2013, there’s every reason for Rams fans to expect their team to win big.