2 St. Louis Rams

This .500 club is counting on its ultraproductive back and newly anointed franchise QB to carry it out of the doldrums
September 02, 2007

WHAT'S NEW?

> Not allthat much. Outside the Rams' training camp, fences were draped with banners,taut in the breezeless August humidity, that all bore the same message: welcometo the proving grounds. But in truth there was very little proving going oninside. After a relatively quiet off-season, there were few positions up forgrabs and few preseason mysteries in need of solving. In this, the second yearof coach Scott Linehan's reign and the first official year of the post-MarshallFaulk era, the Rams essentially are what they are: a veteran team with anoffense vastly superior to the defense. "We know our roles; we'recomfortable with the system," says ninth-year veteran wide receiver TorryHolt. "It's really just a question of getting it done."

WHERE THEY'REHEADED

> Getting itdone means improving on last year's uneven 8-8 season and breaking free of themediocrity that has enveloped the franchise since that fateful, last-secondSuper Bowl loss to the Patriots in February 2002. (The Rams' record over thepast five seasons is 41-39.) In particular getting it done means upgrading theperformance on defense. In 2006 the Rams gave up nearly 24 points a game--28thin the league--and ranked 31st in the NFL against the run. While Linehanasserts that "more consistent play overall from everyone" is the goal,it was lost on no one that the defense seemed to draw most of his attentionduring the early days of camp.

Although therewas no off-season defensive shake-up as some had predicted, the Rams didattempt to spackle a few holes. They traded a fifth-round pick to Detroit fordefensive end James Hall, an eighth-year veteran. More important, they usedtheir first pick in the draft to select defensive end Adam Carriker, a 6'6", 308-pound obelisk from Nebraska. He'd barely been fitted for a Ramshelmet before he was asked to switch inside to defensive tackle. No problem.Carriker more than held his own in camp, drilling several of his new teammatesand bearing up in the relentless heat. The Rams have a rich history of draftbusts, but Carriker's play drew uncharacteristically effusive praise from thecoaches. "He's exactly what we thought we were getting," says Linehan."He's an old school football player, a big, strong lineman who's doneeverything we've asked without hesitation."

The team's mostsubstantive moves came on the other side of the ball. The Rams may havesurrendered their immodest claim to being the Greatest Show on Turf, but theoffense remains an entertaining mix of flashy, big-play receiving and powerrunning. St. Louis averaged more than 360 yards of total offense pergame in 2006, sixth in the league. The output is unlikely to diminish with theacquisition of tight end Randy McMichael, a solid contributor last season forthe Dolphins, and the addition of lanky free-agent receiver Drew Bennett tocomplement sleek incumbents Holt and Isaac Bruce.

Perhaps the mostsignificant off-season development was rewarding quarterback Marc Bulger with asix-year contract extension worth $65 million, with $27 millionguaranteed. Now in his seventh season, Bulger, 30, has emerged as a top-shelfquarterback in the Joe Montana mold. Released by the Saints and the Falcons(and even the Rams) early in his career, he set personal bests last season incompletions (370), passing yards (4,301) and ratio of touchdown passes (24) tointerceptions (eight).

Bulger is quickto admit that his job has been made easier by the emergence of Steven Jackson,the versatile tailback who has rendered Faulk's absence a lot less painful.Stuck behind the perennial All-Pro for his first two seasons, Jackson agitatedfor more carries. "It's not easy wanting to touch the football and notbeing allowed to," he says. When opportunity knocked last season, Jacksondidn't so much answer as disengage the door from its hinges. His 2,334 totalyards--1,528 on the ground, 806 receiving--were the fifth highest for a singleseason in NFL history. A first-time Pro Bowl selection, he's suddenly theleading candidate to interrupt LaDainian Tomlinson's hegemony as the league'sbest running back. "I felt [my success] was a long time coming," hesays. "This season I intend to put up 2,500 total yards on the way toArizona." That, of course, is the site of Super Bowl XLII.

Ultimately,though, it will take more than Bulger's living up to his swollen contract andJackson's running roughshod over the NFC again for the Rams to return to theelite status they enjoyed as recently as five years ago. The absence of seismicroster moves says plenty about the value the franchise places on stability. Butunless the same core of defensive personnel can improve dramatically from lastseason, St. Louis will be on the wrong side of that fine line betweenconstancy and complacency.

PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP

WITH 2006STATISTICS

COACH SCOTTLINEHAN (8-8 in NFL), second season with Rams

OFFENSE

TORRY HOLT

POS WR

REC 93

YARDS 1,188

TD 10

 

STEVENJACKSON

POS RB

ATT 346

YARDS 1,528

AVG 4.4

REC 90

YARDS 806

AVG 9.0

TD 16

 

MARC BULGER

POS QB

ATT 588

COMP 370

PCT 62.9

YARDS 4,301

TD 24

INT 8

RATING 92.9

 

DREW BENNETT (NewAquisition)

POS WR

REC 46

YARDS 737

TD 3

 

ISAAC BRUCE

POS WR

REC 74

YARDS 1,098

TD 3

 

ALEX BARRON

POS RT

HT 6'7"

WT 315

G 16

 

RICHIEINCOGNITO

POS RG

HT 6' 3"

WT 305

G 16

 

BRETT ROMBERG

POS C

HT 6' 2"

WT 298

G 10

 

MARKSETTERSTROM

POS LG

HT 6' 4"

WT 314

G 7

 

ORLANDO PACE

POS LT

HT 6'7"

WT 325

G 8

 

RANDY MCMICHAEL(New Aquisition)

POS TE

REC 62

YARDS 640

TD 3

 

DEFENSE

PISATINOISAMOA

POS WLB

TACKLES 36

SACKS 2

INT 0

 

LEONARDLITTLE

POS LE

TACKLES 58

SACKS 13

 

LA'ROI GLOVER

POS DT

TACKLES 38

SACKS 5 1‚ÅÑ2

 

ADAM CARRIKER(R)(New Aquisition)

POS DT

TACKLES 52

SACKS 7

 

JAMES HALL (NewAquisition)

POS RE

TACKLES 24

SACKS 5

 

BRANDONCHILLAR

POS SLB

TACKLES 56

SACKS 2

INT 0

 

TYE HILL

POS CB

TACKLES 50

INT 3

 

OSHIOMOGHOATOGWE

POS FS

TACKLES 72

SACKS 1

INT 3

 

WILLWITHERSPOON

POS MLB

TACKLES 113

SACKS 3

INT 0

 

COREY CHAVOUS

POS SS

TACKLES 86

SACKS 1 

INT 1

 

RON BARTELL

POS CB

TACKLES 25

INT 3

 

JEFF WILKINS

POS K

FG 32-37

POINTS 131

 

DONNIE JONES (NewAquisition)

POS P

PUNTS 85

AVG 42.8

 

NEWACQUISITION

(R) Rookie(college statistics)

> 2006 RECORD8-8 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 17/4/6 DEFENSE 31/8/23

2007 SCHEDULE

SEPTEMBER

9 CAROLINA

16 SAN FRANCISCO

23 at Tampa Bay

30 at Dallas

OCTOBER

7 ARIZONA

14 at Baltimore

21 at Seattle

28 CLEVELAND

NOVEMBER

4 Bye

11 at New Orleans

18 at San Francisco

25 SEATTLE

DECEMBER

2 ATLANTA

9 at Cincinnati

16 GREEN BAY

20 PITTSBURGH (T)

30 at Arizona

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL rank T27

Opponents' 2006 winning percentage .473

Games against playoff teams 5

(T) Thursday

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PHOTOSCOTT ROBAK/US PRESSWIRE Marc,Get Set
Bulger's bevy of targets will help him justify his big-buckscontract.
ILLUSTRATION PHOTOPAUL SAKUMA/AP

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)