Behind Enemy Lines - St. Louis Rams

Introducing the a new BoltHype feature called 'Behind Enemy Lines.' Each week I'll have some questions answered by a premier blogger/insider in regards to the Chargers’ upcoming opponent. Call it a mini scouting report for the fans. For week 2 of the preseason, I chatted with Brett from RAMblings, a St. Louis Rams blog over at MVN.

BoltHype - People seem to think that the Rams are the third best team in the division. Do you believe that? What do you think the final NFC West standings will look like?

RAMblings - I can't say that I necessarily agree, but I think that perception
is understandable. Until someone proves otherwise, the Seahawks are still the team to beat in the division, and the Rams didn't make any of the flashy moves in the offseason that the 49ers did.

That said, the NFC West is obviously one of the weakest divisions in the league, and I think it's tough to say that any of the four teams are so far above the rest that they're the clear-cut favorite. I've seen the Seahawks, the 49ers and the Rams all picked to win the division in various publications, and the Cardinals I've seen as high as second. This year is just looking like such a crap-shoot as far as pre-season (as opposed to preseason) predictions are concerned.

The Rams do have a couple things going for them that I think a lot of people are forgetting: both the defensive and offensive lines should be much improved with more stability in the rotations; the Rams' schedule is one of the easiest in the league; and the team has another year of experience in the schemes of Scott Linehan/Greg Olson and Jim Haslett. I think that's been understated thus far.

All in all, I see the NFC West shaking out a little something like this:

1. Seahawks (10-6) - I can't see one of these teams winning more than 10 games.
2. Rams (9-7)
3. 49ers (8-8) - That defense isn't built for much better than .500 football.
4. Cardinals (6-10) - Line play is still a concern, but this is a more complete team than people think.

BoltHype - Marc Bulger just signed a huge extension to stay in St Louis. Is Bulger underrated or is he a product of the system? Will he lead the Rams back to the SuperBowl at some point in his career?

That's an interesting question. Truthfully, the answer doesn't concern me much. Regardless of whether Bulger is underrated (which I think in some sense he is) or a product of the system, he's still going to be a great fit for this St. Louis system. However he compares in some objective rating system among all NFL quarterbacks, as long as he continues to play well for us, I'm happy to hold on to him. (I do think his Pro Bowl MVP should say something, though.)

Bulger is unquestionably one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the league. It's a shame that he doesn't get recognition elsewhere, because some of his passes come as close to threading the needle as you can get. As long as he stays healthy - which he proved last year that he can do - he's a lock for 4,000 yards and over 20 touchdowns. With his poise and leadership abilities, I'd say he's got a good shot at taking a team to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately for him, whether he plays in one or not will likely come down to factors out of control, most specifically, the Rams defense.

BoltHype - The best player on the Rams, Steven Jackson, has been steadily becoming a major offensive force in the league. I had Jackson for the past two fantasy football seasons, and he puts up some great numbers. Where does he rank in the NFL among top backs?

Steven Jackson is without a doubt one of the top backs in the NFL. His skill set is so complete that outside of LaDainian Tomlinson, I'm not sure there's any other runner out there that can do the same variety of things S-Jax is capable of. He might be the best receiving back in the league right now. He's equally adept at running inside and out. He's got the speed to go with his big frame. He's not injury- or fumble-prone. I think that going into this year, you have to rank him as the second best fantasy back. In terms of real value, I'm hesitant to put him in any sort of hierarchy - it's hard to prioritize what each running back brings to a team. Do you reward a player's ability to grind for the tough yards? Or do you focus more on big-play potential? I don't know; it's a tough call. Let's just say that I'm glad Jax is suiting up in the blue-and-gold, and leave it at that.

BoltHype - Your top pick in the draft, Adam Carriker, is looking to be every part the beast the team thought he would be. Talk about the Rams defensive line with Carriker now in the mix.

Some in the Rams nation were disappointed in what the Rams couldn't accomplish in the offseason, probably most notably the push for Kris Jenkins that failed to take shape. I prefer to focus more on what the Rams did get done, and I think this will be a vastly improved unit in 2007.

Leonard Little has proven time and again that he is one of the NFL's top pass rushers, even if he doesn't have the name recognition of some other defensive ends in the league. La'Roi Glover is getting older, but he's still got a couple more years left in the tank as a three-tech tackle. He's also got the talented, if troublesome, Claude Wroten backing him up. Carriker, as you said, has looked great in camp and against the Vikings, and Clifton Ryan - a less-heralded draft pick - has locked up a spot with the second-team. James Hall, one of the team's only notable free agent signings, hasn't impressed so far in his stint with the Rams. I'm relying, however, on the numbers he put up with the Lions while healthy. At his best, he's a solid pass rusher that should work well with most of the offense's focus concentrating on Leonard Little; at his worst, he'll still probably be an upgrade over Anthony Hargrove.

The Rams defense is still developing. I'm optimistic that their performance last week (only 87 rushing yards allowed) is a sign of things to come.

BoltHype - Who are some of the lesser-known players on the Rams that we should watch during this week's preseason game against the San Diego Chargers?

The Rams have a tendency to rest their stars in preseason contest even more than most other teams; Steven Jackson played only a series against Minnesota, and most of the other first-teamers didn't make it to two full series. That's one of the reasons last week's effort was so impressive - the Rams' defensive backups were able to stop
Minnesota's starters.

I'm curious to see how the Rams will look against a more impressive Chargers unit. Tye Hill is a star at one cornerback position, but Ron Bartell struggled at times last week. He'll begin the year as the starter while Fakhir Brown serves his suspension. Also watch out for speedy Jonathan Wade, a rookie making a push for the nickelback spot.

Jon Alston is another guy that intrigues me. He's slotted as a backup linebacker for the Rams, but he has great speed (a 4.58 40 coming out of college) and is a bit undersized. I could see him lining up as sort of a rover-type linebacker/safety hybrid for the Rams or another team down the line. Last week, he was really flying around the field.

On offense, I'm interested in whether Ryan Fitzpatrick can rebound from a poor quarterbacking outing last week (and respond to Brock Berlin's strong showing) and in two other position battles. Andy McCollum, a longtime Ram who missed most of last year due to injury, and Brett Romberg, he started the final three games of 2006, are the top two center candidates, and Scott Linehan has been reluctant to name a favorite. Romberg started against Minnesota, but this is still anything but decided. The rest of the offensive line spots are pretty much settled, and it's worth watching to see if the guards - Richie Incognito and Mark Setterstrom - can improve on last week's sub-par play. The other battle of note is actually for the sixth wide receiver spot. Marques Hagans, Derek Stanley and Dominique Thompson are all in the mix, and Hagans (returning) and Stanley (receiving) both shined against the Vikings. This one is getting an inordinate amount of press in St. Louis and probably doesn't anyone but the most die-hard Rams fans. But I guess when one of your biggest questions is who will be a backup's backup, life can't be all that bad.

Kevin Lovell had a spectacular game kicking for the Rams last week. With Jeff Wilkins still healthy, Lovell has almost no chance of making this Rams team, but if he has another strong game, he might start raising some eyebrows around the league.

BoltHype - Heading into the 2007 regular season, what is the biggest question mark this team has?

This one is fairly easy: the Rams run-defense. Until the Rams prove during the regular season that they can stop the run, all we'll be hearing about is their 31st rank last year. Sure, the Rams defense ranked 8th against the pass, but that is as much due to a combination of an erratic offense that got them behind in games and a defense that didn't force teams to air it out as the defense's actual play against the pass. The Rams made some promising moves in the offseason, the first preseason contest was encouraging and Carriker will be a force to be reckoned with. But the Rams enter the regular season with zero rushing yards allowed; it's still a question how long that will last.

Thanks for the interview Brett! Hopefully we'll chat again down the road!

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August 16, 2007

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