The last time the St. Louis Rams had a winning record, now former running back Steven Jackson wasn’t even a member of the roster yet. It only seems fitting that this past offseason S-Jax took his talents to the Atlanta Falcons as the Rams appear poised to break their stretch of futility in 2013 and make a run in the NFC West.
Obviously one of the biggest keys to achieving such a feat lies in remaining healthy throughout the year. The team began taking strides toward that goal as both Jermelle Cudjo and Lance Kendricks joined the squad in practice Tuesday after being activated from the PUP list. Although Cudjo is a reserve interior defensive lineman and Kendricks is now a second-string tight end with Jared Cook’s arrival, both will be critical to the club in its march toward regaining league-wide respect. Rodger Saffold is still recovering from a separated shoulder suffered in the opening preseason game, but hopefully he will be back in time by the time the games that count begin.
That revamped offensive line is a key element to the Rams realizing a jump from mediocrity to competitiveness as quarterback Sam Bradford has his fingers crossed for more time in the pocket this season. Free agent signing Jake Long and Saffold bookend a line that is loaded with potential to become a strength as opposed to its former status as a weakness this season.
Perhaps the biggest reason to believe a winning record is on the horizon in 2013 lies on the defensive side of the ball where the average age of the 11 starters is just 24.7. Another optimistic number is the fact that their points per game allowed last season was 21.8, down substantially from the 25.4 allowed in 2011. With a double-digit sack duo in Chris Long and Robert Quinn off the edge combined with a 100-plus tackle machine like James Laurinaitis in the middle of it all, this side of the ball is poised to become a top-10 unit this season.
I know it’s not a popular thing to talk about, but their special teams duo of punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein is one of the NFL’s best. As rookies last season, Hekker was routinely bombing deep punts and started pinning opponents deep toward the end of the year. Zuerlein has a huge leg – as the nickname “Legatron” implies – and showed it by nailing seven 50-plus yard field goals a season ago. He continued that display of leg dominance by making both a 54 and 55 yard attempt in the team’s preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns. With a year to settle in an gain some additional confidence, these two will provide some critical game-changing kicks throughout the course of the upcoming season.
Head coach Jeff Fisher’s presence has given this team a real belief that they are capable of winning despite their track record of not doing so. That will only continue to grow in the upcoming year as his attitude rubs off on the locker room even more. Fisher-led times have won double-digit games three times following 8-8 or 7-9 records, and the 2013 Rams are ready to become number four.