Howard Balzer, one of the first NFL draft gurus who regularly covers St. Louis sports, has been gracious enough to answer five questions on the Rams heading into this weekend’s big matchup.
Check out the Q&A below.
1. Sam Bradford seems to have gotten over his sophomore slump and is playing better in his third season. What’s been the difference for Bradford in Year 3?
Balzer: The “sophomore slump” was the creation of a new offensive coordinator, the lockout, a brutal schedule to start the season and then the nasty high ankle sprain Bradford sustained in the sixth game of the season. This year, he has been healthy, and while there was another new offense to learn, he and the rest of the offensive personnel had the offseason to learn it. There have still been inconsistencies, but Bradford has been improved in the red zone and in the fourth quarter. The emergence of rookie wide receiver Chris Givens as a deep threat has helped create other opportunities.
2. Jeff Fisher has St. Louis on the brink of finishing above the .500 mark for the first time since 2003. How has he changed the culture for the Rams?
Balzer: Fisher knows what buttons to push and when to push them. He had instant credibility in the locker room and, most important, brought an experienced coaching staff with him. He hasn’t hesitated to play rookies and other young players, and has simply added an air of confidence. Even when he took over, he refused to talk about the past, only saying the goal was to continuously improve and work to win each week.
3. The Rams have a talented rookie class this season, with players like Janoris Jenkins, Michael Brockers and Greg Zuerlein making an impact. How has Fisher infused the roster with new talent?
Balzer: The overall quality of the rookies has been outstanding. Perhaps the most important aspect is Fisher’s understanding that rookies will make mistakes, but he keeps them on the field to get better. Of course, he also didn’t hesitate to bench Jenkins and Givens when they missed curfew before the road game in San Francisco, and since then, Jenkins has scored all four of his defensive touchdowns. Going back to the draft, he expressed no concerns about entering the season with rookie kickers, which they did with Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker. In addition to the draft, the Rams did an impressive job with undrafted free agents.
4. Steven Jackson is 10 yards away from reaching the 1,000-yard mark for the eighth straight year. He also reached 10,000 yards this season, and at 29-years old has hinted at retirement. What is Jackson’s future in St. Louis?
Balzer: The “retirement” talk was merely Jackson joking during a media session Thursday. He has a list of the top 10 all-time rushers in his locker, and his goal is to enter that group. To do that will take two more 1,000-yard seasons. He truly wants it to happen with the Rams so he can finish his career with the team that drafted him. He can void the final year of his contract on Feb.8, but the feeling is a new deal will occur before that date. Jackson was voted a team captain and he has been a mentor to rookies Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead. Fisher appreciates what he means to the team, on and off the field.
5. What are the most significant holes the Rams need to address in the draft next year to compete with San Francisco and Seattle for an NFC West crown?
Balzer: Offensively, more production has to come from the receiving corps, whether it’s from a veteran addition or the improvement of the players currently on the roster, especially second-round pick Brian Quick. The offensive line has battled, but an upgrade at right tackle would be welcome, although Barry Richardson played better than most people expected.
On defense, the real issue is at safety. Quintin Mikell had a solid season, but will be entering his 11th season in 2013. Craig Dahl is a solid backup, but a better starter is needed.