For the first half of the season the St. Louis Rams offense relied on the pass due to not having a capable running back in the backfield. OC Brian Schottenheimer‘s poorly designed spread attack was meant to tailor to Sam Bradford‘s accurate passing ability and create opportunities for the young receiving corps that is loaded with potential.
However, that plan wasn’t working out as the offensive line was struggling to gel and the receivers were having issues holding onto the ball while leading the league in drops. The Rams were 30th in the league in offense all the way into October at 301.8 yards per game. They were falling behind by 10 points or more in nearly every game including their opening day matchup against the Arizona Cardinals when they came back to win.
Bradford was putting up career numbers, showing improvement with a 90.9 passer rating, 60.7 percent completion rating, and 14 touchdowns in the first seven weeks before going down with a season-ending knee injury. Still, St. Louis was only 3-4 at the time of his injury. Things were not heading in the right direction due to many three-and-outs and an inability to create yards after the catch.
Schottenheimer was taking much of the blame for this pass heavy attack that wasn’t taking shots down the field or creating exciting plays. Was it fair to place all of the blame on him? No, he wasn’t telling Bradford to not take shots downfield, but most of the plays were short routes to get the ball out of his hands quickly. It wasn’t until after Bradford went down that Zac Stacy was able to become the focal point of the offense.
The culmination of Stacy’s emergence and what seemed like certain doom with career backup Kellen Clemens taking over created a situation for the offense. Something had to change, and it has — for the better. Schottenheimer abandoned the passing game in favor of Stacy’s hard nosed running which allowed the big uglies up front to become aggressive in creating holes. It took pressure off of Clemens and limited his exposure to defenses. The defense has been able to stay off of the field more, rest, and prepare for the next drive.
In this period of run first, pass later the defense has improved greatly allowing 19 points a game over the last eight contests. The offense is still only producing 23 points per game, but that is a solid amount of production for a run first team. We have seen the playbook expand exponentially since the adoption of running the ball.
First off the effectiveness of Tavon Austin became apparent when he exploded for a couple of 50-plus yard TD catches, end arounds, and reverses that have provided exciting plays. Then last week Stedman Bailey took over the role of Austin on a double reverse that resulted in a 27-yard touchdown run. All of this is the result of the ground and pound running style of Stacy that garners the attention of every lineman, linebacker and safety on the defense. His ability to drive through piles of players creates an overaggressive defense that keys in on him and where he is on each play opening up the other options on offense.
Kellen Clemens has been extremely effective going downfield taking advantage of stacked boxes with Austin, Jared Cook, Bailey, and at times Brian Quick and Chris Givens on the outside with one-on-one matchups. The willingness of Clemens to test defenses deep is something that we didn’t see from Bradford early in the season. Perhaps Bradford has learned something while observing from the sideline this season so that Schotty and him can put together an effective balance of pass and run next year.
In my mind the injury of Bradford might be a blessing in disguise for the Rams because it led to this dramatic change of scheme and play calling. It forced Schottenheimer to think outside of the box and change his ways. For that St. Louis should be thankful. Schottenheimer’s job should be safe for another season after proving he could be creative enough to develop a game plan using a sometimes inaccurate backup to be successful. Running the ball may not be a league wide source of offense, but it should be this team’s recipe for success with Stacy in the backfield.