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NFL Team Report - St. Louis Rams - INSIDE SLANT
It's only six games, but the Rams are in rarefied air when it comes to their success in the red zone.
The red zone was often been the dead zone in recent seasons, but as the Rams prepare to face the Carolina Panthers Sunday, they enter the game ranked third in the NFL with a 66.7 percentage of touchdowns (12-for-18). That percentage would be higher but for kneeldowns at the end of the Jacksonville game during a sequence that began at the Jaguars 4-yard line.
All of the red-zone touchdowns have been on pass plays, and quarterback Sam Bradford has a ready explanation for the improved production.
"We put a lot of work into the red zone this offseason," Bradford said. "Last year, especially early in the year, it is an area that we struggled in. Obviously, to win games in this league you've got to be able to convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. I think the success that we've had early in the year can be attributed to the fact that early in OTAs and early in training camp there was a lot of emphasis put on that."
While 14 teams have been to the red zone more than the Rams, only four have scored more touchdowns.
Coach Jeff Fisher believes the recent success is traced to the team's improved ability running the ball. In the last two games, with running back Zac Stacy rushing for 157 yards on 32 attempts, the Rams scored touchdowns on 5-of-7 red-zone trips (not including those kneeldowns). Of course, even before that, they were 7-for-10 in the first four games.
Said Fisher, "I think one of the things that has helped the red-zone production has been our ability to run the football. A number of these opportunities that we've taken advantage of have been off of play action, and so we establish the run and now you force the defense to be balanced. We've yet, I believe, to score a rushing touchdown this year but that's coming.
"But, because we're running the football a little bit better it's creating opportunities. Our first touchdown was a good run fake. (Tight end) Cory (Harkey) did a nice job with his patience and escaping to the flat, so we got people involved and committed to the run but that's where it's coming."
That touchdown came with four tight ends on the field at the 2-yard line and came off play-action. Another 2-yard touchdown to tight end Lance Kendricks was also on play-action.
Of the 12 touchdowns, six have been by tight ends: Kendricks (3), Jared Cook (2) and Harkey (1).
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer concurred with Bradford's assessment of the time the team spent on practicing.
"It's something we kind of looked at from last year, as an area we put in one of the first - maybe the first install, it went in and going back to OTAs and training camp," Schottenheimer said. "We have a core group of plays that don't really change very much and our guys understand them. Obviously, he's (Bradford) got to make it go with his decisions, but the guys are getting open, and certainly that's where your matchups come in and help you."
As for Bradford's play, Fisher said, "Been great. No mistakes. The touchdown to interception ratio is outstanding (13-3). He enjoys what he's doing. He's managing the (game) and practicing well. His feet are excellent right now in the pocket, so he's playing well."
Bradford's 1.3 interception percentage in third-best in the NFL.
But the Rams will be challenged against Carolina's defense. The Panthers are third in the NFL in yards against, fourth against the run and seventh in passing yards.
In the red zone, the Panthers are fourth defensively, allowing four touchdowns in 11 trips and on two occasions did not allow any points. The Panthers have had their bye so they have played five games, but so have seven other teams and only Kansas City with eight has allowed fewer red-zone opportunities for opponents.
SERIES HISTORY: 19th regular-season meeting: Panthers lead series, 10-8. The Rams and Panthers have played just four regular-season games since realignment in 2002. Prior to that, from 1995-2001, they played twice a season. The Rams won in 2010, but the Panthers had won three straight before that game.
NFL Team Report - St. Louis Rams - NOTES, QUOTES
--Rams coach Jeff Fisher agreed with the assessment that defensive tackle Michael Brockers was a difference-maker in last Sunday's win over Houston.
Brockers had seven tackles to go with two sacks and three tackles for loss in the running game.
When asked if this was the second-year player's best game, Fisher said, "This particular game, yes, was his best game to date as a Ram. He was very, very good. Very productive - run game, pass game, effort, pressure. He was clearly the best tackle on the field."
Brockers told the Post-Dispatch, "Any day you have two sacks, a couple of tackles for loss, it's a good day. I think it just happened like that. I did my job. I'm just a soldier in this unit."
--Linebacker Alec Ogletree showed Sunday why the Rams thought he was special when they spent a first-round pick on him in last April's draft.
In addition to a 98-yard interception return for a touchdown against Houston, Ogletree also had 11 tackles, a forced fumble and quarterback pressure.
The touchdown was the longest interception return ever by a rookie linebacker and tied former Tampa Bay linebacker Shelton Quarles for the longest interception by a linebacker.
--Running back Zac Stacy has started the last two games and rushed for 157 yards. That came after carrying the ball just once in the first four games and being inactive for two games.
Said Fisher, "We started with Daryl (Richardson), but Daryl had been struggling with the toe. So, we decided that (Stacy) was probably our best option."
As for what makes Stacy productive, Fisher said, "He's a strong, powerful runner. He's got good vision and has got that low center of gravity. He's got excellent lower body strength."
BY THE NUMBERS: 13 - Touchdown passes by QB Sam Bradford in the first six games of the season. That total ranks fifth in the NFL behind only Peyton Manning (22) and Tony Romo, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers, who all have 14.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "No. It's just kind of the way the game went. You watch the coaches' tape and we have third-and-goal and with eight minutes left to go in the third quarter and the score's 17-6 or something like that. The next time the offense goes on the field it's 38-6. We actually got word to the offensive players to stay loose on the sideline because it was an extended period of time where they hadn't been in and I've experienced that before where I've lost a key player in that situation who did not stay warm on the sideline. So, we've got to make sure they were loose because you don't want to put them in the situation where we get any pulls at the end of the game like that." - Coach Jeff Fisher on the game against Houston where the Rams had just 41 offensive plays and won 38-13.
NFL Team Report - St. Louis Rams - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--WR Tavon Austin participated in only three offensive plays against Houston, and while acknowledging "it's hard to be patient," he said, "I know my time will come. The big thing was getting the win." Austin leads the team with 24 receptions, but his average is just 6.6 yards per catch.
--K Greg Zuerlein has made all nine of his field-goal attempts this season, but he has yet to have one from 50 or more yards. Last season, Zuerlein was 7-for-13 from that distance.
--RB Zac Stacy, who injured his ribs in a Week 5 game against Jacksonville but rushed for 79 yards against Houston, did not practice Wednesday. He also did not practice on the Wednesday before the game against the Texans.
--T Rodger Saffold, who has missed four games because of knee injury suffered in Week 2 against Atlanta, returned to full practice Wednesday. However, there was no indication whether Saffold would start at right tackle or if Joe Barksdale would continue as the starter.
--RB Benny Cunningham did not practice Wednesday because of an ankle injury. Cunningham's left foot is in a cast, and the area above the foot was heavily wrapped and protected. He was also wearing a plastic wrap that was protecting the entire leg.
--CB Cortland Finnegan, who has missed the last two games because of a hamstring injury, remained out of practice.
--DE Chris Long, who has had a variety of ailments this year but none that have kept him from playing, did not practice Wednesday with what was listed as a thigh injury. Long had been listed on the game stats from the Houston game as not having started (the gamebook listed Eugene Sims as the starting left end), but that was an error. Long did start the game.
--LB Daren Bates, who injured his hip in Sunday's game against Houston, was limited in practice Wednesday.
GAME PLAN: As is usually the case, the Rams will try and control the tempo of the game, which means being productive in the running game and stopping the Carolina rushing attack. The Panthers are very good in the front seven on defense, and players talked about being patient against them.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Rams pass defense vs. Panthers WR Steve Smith and TE Greg Olsen - Smith and Olsen are tied for the team with 23 receptions, but Smith is averaging just 9.7 yards per catch with a long of 19. Olsen has a 12.7-yard average.
Rams RB Zac Stacy vs. Panthers MLB Luke Kuechly - Stacy has managed to get extra yardage with second effort and yards after contact. Kuechly leads the Panthers with 56 tackles and has helped the team allow an average of just 88.8 yards per game.