Before the bye week, the Rams offense was in a bit of a funk. They couldnt finish enough drives to put the pesky Dolphins away or hang with the Packers, and got absolutely shut down by the Patriots after poking the bear with a 7-0 lead. Predictable questions resurfaced about Sam Bradford's ceiling and quiet doubts began bubbling up in Rams Nation.
Then, Bradford and the Rams put together a heroic performance versus San Francisco, putting up more points against their elite defense than any team aside from the Giants. Sam Bradford set a new personal high in DYAR (an advanced stat tracked by Football Outsiders that measures yardage per play above average), and set a season high in QBR with a 275-yard, 2-TD performance.
Of course, as we all know, that could have been a 355-yard, 3-TD day but for a fateful presnap penalty against Brandon Gibson, but that's not the subject of this article. Instead, lets look at six areas where the Rams showed improvement, and can sustain that improvement over the second half.
1. Creativity in Run Blocking
At one point in the first quarter, the Rams were up 14-0 and thoroughly dominating the offensive line of scrimmage. The mighty Niners were being blown off the ball, plain and simple, allowing eight yards per carry to Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson. No, that's not a misprint.
Jackson's TD run was sprung by a masterful execution of the "wham block," where the interior linemen break immediately into the second level, and leave the upback to clean up the interior for the runner. Matt Bowen of the National Football Post did an excellent job diagramming this block, with Lance Kendricks cleaning up the nose tackle and Turner and Dahl clearing out the linebackers.
RamsHerd correspondent Tim Shields always has an eye on offensive line play, and this one stood out.
2. Variation in the Snap Count
In the past, Bradford's rhythm with his center and offensive line has had an almost metronomic predictability. Step to the line, head nod from Jason Brown, and the ball comes out - and the defense comes charging. It ws like clockwork, which is not a good thing in a league that demands unpredictability and deception on offense.
We've seen Bradford make strides here in the past few weeks, breaking off a snap count to slow a moving defense and force them to reset. But we also saw the Patriots and Packers take advantage of our own defense with quick snaps and quicker releases.
None, though, were as quick as this masterpiece of deception, with Bradford and Amendola catching the Niners in the middle of a coffee klatsch.
3. Bradford Throwing "Early in the Down"
In his podcast series, NFL Films guru Greg Cosell regularly talks about quarterbacks who throw "early in the down" versus "late in the down." Quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Drew Brees can eviscerate defenses - and make their own offensive lines stand up much better than their talent level would dictate - by throwing the ball with the right timing in the route, throwing with anticipation rather than waiting to see the route open up before letting go.
In the past, Bradford has earned deserved criticism for being a see-it-throw-it quarterback. This was especially true last year, as he stood in the pocket trying to mentally unravel Josh McDaniels' complex routes as his receivers were running them.
If there is one major deliverable of Brian Schottenheimer's offense, it is that it is often quick-developing. And the ultimate example might be his 80-yard throw and run to Danny Amendola, who immediately drew Carlos Rogers in and wore him out. Amendola catches the ball on a dead run, less than three seconds after the ball is snapped, and the defense has no response. If not for a referee conference and maddening pre-snap penalty thrown after the play was over, that pass likely wins the game.
4. Pass Protection
Bradford, keyed in part by his own quick performance, was unsually well protected versus San Francisco. His only two times getting sacked came on San Francisco's now signature play, where Justin Smith holds the guard to clear the path for Aldon Smith to blast in on a twist.
Roger Saffold was unexpectedly strong in his return, getting a very positive grade from PFF, and center Rob Turner is making it easy for the Rams to not rush Scott Wells back. And of course, Steven Jackson is more than capable of throwing a block when the situation calls for it.
5. Red Zone Conversion
Last season, the Rams pulled a rare double-header of offensive failure. They rated dead last in number of red zone scoring opportunities, and last again in percentage of those opportunities that became touchdowns. So we aren't going to jump up and down over the fact that they're now converting 43% of their red zone possessions into TDs, but it is noteworthy as an improvement.
However, penalties have killed them all season long, proving especially effective at torpedoing scoring chances. Last week against the Niners, we finally got to see the offense perform without red zone flags, and the results were much improved - two touchdowns and a field goal in three red zone trips, plus Brian Quick's big-play touchdown pass from thirty-plus yards out thrown in for a bonus.
This is a trend that can continue, if the Rams stay disciplined.
6. Danny Amendola (duh)
It didn't take long for Sam Bradford to find his favorite security blanket. Once Mark Clayton went down to knee injury in 2010, Amendola became far and away Bradford's favorite target. The only problem was that Amendola wasn't all that dangerous, despite catching a huge volume of passes.
Pro Football Focus goes beyond catches and yardage to track how many targets a player receives, out of how many pass routes run. While Amendola ranked highly in total catches, he got a mediocre 1.61 yards per route run.
This season, though, Amendola's per-snap productivity has skyrocketed. His transformation into a complete receiver (as opposed to a Pat Shurmur specialist) began under Josh McDaniels, and has flourished under Ray Edwards. Currently, Amendola is worth 2.77 yards per pass route, which is second only to Brandon Marshall.
This is no fluke. The earlier points about Bradford's ability to throw early in the down, and make his protection better than it is, depend on trust and chemistry with his receiver. No receiver has more of that trust than Amendola, by a large margin. As long as he is on the field, good things are going to happen for this offense.