Balzer: Rams O-Line Needs To Improve

Jason Smith (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo couldn't have been any more succinct Sunday.

Following a desultory preseason opener in which the team's quarterbacks were sacked six times and hit another nine, Spagnuolo stated simply, "Offense begins with the offensive line."

Nothing more need be said. The Rams have struggled famously the last three seasons with a myriad of line combinations that has made offensive continuity nigh impossible.

It seems an eternity ago that the Rams' line missed a total of two starts in the 1999 Super Bowl year. From 1999-2001 when the Rams were 37-11 in the regular season, the line that began the season missed a combined total of seven starts. In 2003, the team's last winning season (12-4), the line missed no starts.

Since 2007, when a dizzying total of 13 linemen started games at 18 different positions that season, continuity has been a fantasy.

So, it shouldn't have been surprising that a line Saturday night that featured a rookie at left tackle (Rodger Saffold), a rusty second-year player at right tackle (Jason Smith) and flip-flopping Hank Fraley and Jason Brown at center and right guard, would have some protection issues.

The question is whether this group can get its act together quickly, with the regular-season opener just four weeks away. While that seems like plenty of time, it's deceiving.

After next Saturday's game in Cleveland, there will be minimal practice time before the next game in New England the following Thursday. Then comes the final preseason game when starters rarely play.

Left guard Jacob Bell is scheduled to return to practice Monday, but will he stay on the field? Bell was injured at the end of the 2009 season, and has had two injuries already this year.

With Bell out, jack-of-all-trades Adam Goldberg was at Bell's spot, necessitating the experimenting with Fraley and Brown.

Spagnuolo knows some decisions have to be made soon, not only involving the quarterback spot, but also what the makeup of the line will be.

He said Sunday, "I think we'll start to try to hone in here, maybe take a day or two this week, but I think by midweek we ought to (know), because the following week is a short week. We won't do a lot of work there getting ready for the Patriots and all of a sudden you're in your fourth preseason game.

"So we're going to have to hone in here. We talked a little bit about it this morning. We're going to talk more about it this afternoon as an offense, so hopefully by Tuesday in that second practice we'll be headed where we think we're going to go."

As for the challenge the line faces to be better, Spagnuolo said, "My guess is that the group of offensive linemen that we have, that they'll take this challenge. They'll come back tomorrow morning ready to work and get it ironed out. Until we straighten out some of these things, it's going to be tough for any quarterback."

And there's the dilemma. While admitting the state of the line could affect the decision of whether to start Sam Bradford at the beginning of the season, if the line can't protect, it's only a matter of time until Bradford gets in there anyway.

Certainly, defensive strategy will change when running back Steven Jackson plays, and if truth be known, Bradford didn't appear adversely affected by the pressure he experienced Saturday night.

He was poised, got rid of the ball when he had to, and exhibited an ability to get outside the pocket at times to throw it away. Bradford was in the game for 21 snaps and 17 were pass plays. It was as if he was being tested on how he would handle things, and if that was the case, he passed with flying colors.

Now, there's no time to fool around anymore, but it's incumbent on guys to be healthy and simply man up.

As Spagnuolo concluded, "Anytime the quarterback gets sacked six times in a game you've got to be concerned. Now when we break it down, three of them were technique by individual players and the other three were really missed assignments, just young guys that haven't been ... one guy made the same mistake a couple of times. It's an easy, correctable thing.

"I'm sure when these guys see it on film they're going to say, 'I can't believe I missed that,' and then I think there was one or two in there where the quarterback could of gotten rid of the ball. So it s a combination of things. We're not going to panic after one game, but certainly anytime a quarterback gets sacked we're going to focus on it."

Consider it focus time. For coaches and players.

Otherwise, another excruciatingly long season is on the horizon.



Howard Balzer is the Editor/writer for GridIronGateway Magazine. For subscription information visit GridIronGateway.com (reduced online rate of $39.95) or call 888-501-5752. You can also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/HBalzer721

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