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The Rams are lurking

The St. Louis Rams are all but eliminated from the postseason, but they finally seem to have found a formula for success. Danny Kelly breaks down a talented young roster that could still shape the playoff picture.

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The Cardinals are currently the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The Seahawks are the defending Super Bowl champs, and appear poised to properly defend their title. The 49ers have struggled of late, but still dominate headlines with Jim Harbaugh trade rumors and locker room intrigue.

Then there are the Rams, lurking in the shadows.

This is a team that has wins this year over the Seahawks, Broncos, and 49ers, but remains underrated and overshadowed by its NFC West brethren. Why don't people talk about the Rams? Come on, people. Talk! Care! If you haven't been paying attention, they've been pretty fun to watch lately.

St. Louis has gone 3-1 over the last four weeks, outscoring opponents by a combined 102-34 in that stretch. It hasn't given up a point in two games. Shutouts are rare, OK? Who cares if St. Louis was playing Washington and Oakland. There have been six shutouts, total, out of the 208 games thus far in 2014. Two shutouts in a row is practically unheard of. St. Louis has Football Outsiders' ninth-ranked defense by DVOA, its ninth-ranked special teams group (that is not afraid to run fakes, and often), and a steadily improving offense that is now 23rd by DVOA.

The Rams may be on the brink of mathematical elimination from the playoffs at 6-7, but I guarantee that the Cardinals and Seahawks aren't looking forward to playing them down the stretch with playoff seeding and division title hopes on the line.

When talking about the Rams, most people begin with their fearsome defensive line, but the team is so much more than that. Journeyman backup-turned-starter Shaun Hill has put a charge into the offense, completing 62 percent of his passes at 7.54 yards per attempt, with six touchdowns to only two interceptions and a 96 quarterback rating over his last four games. There are many variables at play, but one thing that offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has done to help out his quarterback is utilize the Rams' team speed on offense effectively.

Among Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Jared Cook, Tre Mason, Benny Cunningham and a resurgent Kenny Britt, Hill has received exciting performances out of a cadre of playmakers that had otherwise previously disappointed statistically in St. Louis.

Bailey has, in his second year, become a favorite target for Hill, getting open underneath, on crossing patterns, at the sideline and deep down field. It helps that Hill is developing trust in his receiver. Part of the reason is that Bailey has proven he can do things like this:

Bailey now has 20 targets over his last four games, which he has turned into an incredible 17 catches (85 percent catch rate!), 262 yards (15 yards per catch) and one touchdown. He is sneaky fast after the catch, and has been a chains mover for the Rams -- something they desperately needed.

Meanwhile, Austin, Bailey's college teammate, finally appears to be getting comfortable at the NFL level. Between Schottenheimer's newfound commitment to feeding him the football and Austin's improved decisiveness on the field, the former first round pick is beginning to look dangerous in the St. Louis offense.

The Rams have incorporated him into their scheme in a number of ways. One frequently used tactic is to stack Austin behind another receiver out wide -- naturally creating space between him and the defenders on the line -- then throw him a smoke route out if the defensive look works.

Because of the quickness of the throw -- there's no fake here, and no hesitation from Hill -- the receiver in front of Austin can start blocking almost immediately.

To complement that common play (which Austin can run with uncommon speed and quickness), the Rams have installed a sweep package for Austin that exploits his speed in space. The jet sweep and fly sweep are two plays that got a lot of love early in the year when they were used for Percy Harvin, Cordarelle Patterson and others. The Rams resurrected the sweep, and it's still working for them. The "zuzu" that Austin displays here -- start/stop and change of direction -- is hard to miss.

Notice how the Rams line Austin up in a "nasty' split, just a few feet off of and behind their right tackle. This helps disguise their intentions and forces the defensive end on the play side to make a split-second decision.

That defensive end, Justin Tuck, has just one hope of making a play, and that is immediately crashing up field into Austin's running lane and hitting him before he gets across his face. That doesn't happen here, thanks to the element of surprise. Of course, a savvy coordinator will scheme this response into a defense, which teams did to take away the sweep earlier in the year. The sweep would get blown up before getting outside the tackle box, in effect.

To counter hard-charging defensive ends, Schottenheimer has used an unbalanced offensive line at times. You'll note below that the Rams have regular right tackle Joe Barksdale lined up on the left, outside of left tackle Greg Robinson. Tight end Jared Cook is aligned outside right guard Davin Joseph on the right side of the line. A shift by the Washington defense is necessary to match up numbers-wise with the Rams in case they run left. This means that the defensive end for Washington, Ryan Kerrigan, is lined up over a guard, and is less able to jump into the run lane to stop Austin. Watch:

The tight end "arc" blocks outside on the backside defensive back, and Austin makes a nifty (and decisive) cut upfield to pick up eight yards.

The very next play, they run the same thing. Shoot, why not?

Same deal -- Kerrigan has to mind his B-gap lined up over the guard, and Austin quickly gets outside. This time, with the defensive back mindful of the cut that Austin made up the field on the previous play, Austin scoots to the outside and picks up big yardage.

You can tell you're looking at a player that finally has some confidence in his game. That "pep" shows up in Austin's step.

The Rams also added end-around options to pair with a play-action fake dive up the gut, just to keep things multiple. 

Over the last four games, Austin has 12 rushing attempts (just three per game), but has gained 108 yards and two touchdowns. That's a nice little package to add in to your normal foundation.

Speaking of foundations, running back Tre Mason has taken over as the bell cow back for the Rams, rushing an average of nearly 20 times per game in the last month. The rookie out of Auburn took a little while to hit his stride, but he has recently displayed attributes that suggest that he will be a pain in the asses of NFC West opponents for the next three years, at least.

Deez cuts:

Vision, anticipation, explosion, quick-twitch change of direction -- Mason is showing nice ability as a cutback runner, and he's not afraid to lower his shoulder and run over defenders when he's in the second level.

Mason has rushed for 358 yards at 4.53 yards per carry over his last four games, and he is also effective out of the backfield as a pass catcher. It can be beautiful to see him used in conjunction with the threat of Austin in the screen game.

In addition to Bailey, Austin and Mason, tight end Jared Cook has shown flashes of brilliance lately, catching two touchdown passes in a win over Washington last week. Cook, who is a freak athlete at the tight end position, provides Hill with a nice seam-stressing downfield threat. Hill has targeted Cook 20 times in four games, connecting on 10 passes for 107 yards and those two scores. Here's one.

One last piece of the puzzle to mention is Britt, who is the next most-targeted player for Hill over the past four weeks. Britt is mainly a deep threat, averaging 25.56 yards per catch over the last month. Britt made an important catch on the sideline to set up a first-and-goal with under a minute to go at San Diego and the Rams down by three ...

... but his effort was for naught. Hill would throw a pick on second down, sealing the loss for the Rams. That win would've made St. Louis 4-0 in its last four games.


Bottom line:

In last week's breakdown of the newly potent Falcons' offense (which balled out, by the way), I included the caveat that Atlanta's defense could limit the offense against the Packers (which proved true). This breakdown is not much different, and I don't want to oversell the Rams' offense as world-beaters at this point. They're not putting up tons of yardage in the pass game (790 total, 25th in the NFL during the last four weeks) or overall. But, they're becoming more versatile and unpredictable and utilizing their speed intelligently. Over the last month, the Rams are 10th in the NFL in yards per play, ninth in yards per rush and first in point differential (81) by a wide margin, all with a backup quarterback.

The Rams are doing it by leaning on their young, exciting players, giving them much-needed experience and confidence in the offense. The maturation process could pay dividends for the Rams next season. For now, St. Louis will have to be content with being one of those teams that no one wants to play down the stretch.


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