Rams' O-line embraces run-first mentality

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- You’d be hard-pressed to find an offensive lineman who prefers pass blocking to run blocking.

The chance to run block allows any offensive lineman the chance to come flying out of his stance and physically dominate the man across from him. Pass blocking puts the pass in passive, asking linemen to wait for the collision to come to him with more precision and technique required.

So it’s no surprise that the St. Louis Rams' offensive line enjoys the power running game that has become the centerpiece of the offense in the past seven games.

“It feels good,” right tackle Joe Barksdale said. “You aren’t as physical in pass protection. It’s more technical. Run blocking is technical, too, but being able to line up every once in a while and just come off the ball and hit somebody and not worrying about a quarterback getting killed is pretty fun.”

It’s one thing to enjoy an activity. It’s another thing all together to actually be good at it.

For whatever reason, Rams offensive linemen Barksdale, Jake Long, Chris Williams, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl, Rodger Saffold and Shelley Smith have proved to be particularly proficient when it comes to repeatedly clearing space in the run game as opposed to keeping the quarterback upright while dropping back 50 times a game.

“We always talk about balance, and I think our guys can do whatever we ask them to do,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “I think they like that style of offense is probably the better way to say it. They like coming off the ball and trying to work double teams and things like that. But they’ll do whatever we ask. It’s been fun to watch these guys.”

Soon after the Rams’ 35-11 loss to San Francisco on Sept. 26, the Rams had hit an early season low point and lagged behind in many areas. None more so than the run game.

At that point, the Rams were dead last in the NFL in rushing at 47.25 yards per game. They were only slightly better in yards per carry, ranking 31st at 2.59 yards per attempt.

In the days after that game, Fisher, Schottenheimer and the offensive staff gathered over the long weekend and began piecing together the formations and plays they wanted to incorporate.

They also changed personnel at running back by plugging in Zac Stacy as the starter and added more multiple-tight-end and power-I formation stuff with guys like Cory Harkey and Lance Kendricks more prominently involved. The coaching staff also emphasized the need for better blocking outside the hashes from the receivers, something else that has improved during the Rams’ run-game renaissance.

Schematically, the Rams have stuck to what they know in terms of keeping Stacy between the tackles with plenty of inside zone calls, many of them to the left side behind Long, Williams and Harkey at fullback.

“It starts upstairs,” Fisher said. “Guys have done a great job upstairs with the scheme, with the game plan and then carrying it over to the practice field. It just doesn’t stop with the line.”

The personnel on the offensive line was the one area that didn’t see much change, though injuries have caused the occasional shakeup.

Barksdale stepped in for an injured Saffold at right tackle and played well enough to hang on to the job upon Saffold’s return. Dahl suffered a knee injury and Smith stepped in before ceding the job to Saffold, who has excelled in two starts on the interior.

No matter how the Rams have mixed and matched in the past seven games, they’ve found ways to have success on the ground.

“I think we are a lot more physical, a lot more aggressive,” Saffold said. “We started out kind of like a different game plan. Now we are a lot more balanced.”

The results have been overwhelmingly positive. In the past seven games, the Rams are averaging 151.86 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry. Both of those totals rank second in the league over that span.

The net effect of the improved run game has also allowed for the Rams to make more plays down the field in the passing game, many of those coming off play-action. The Rams are 9-of-20 on throws 20 yards or more down the field in those seven games, a vast improvement from the first four contests.

And though they still prefer to run block, the pass blocking comes much easier after the run has been established.

“It’s really good, because it takes a lot of the heat off when you are dealing with the pass rush,” Saffold said. “When they get their ears pinned back, they start chipping away at you, and after that it can be one technique or one move that gets you beat, so of course we love to take the pressure off of doing that. I think we have been able to pass and run very effectively, especially these last few games, and it’s really opened up a lot of things for us.”