What Rams need from receivers in 2014

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Where names like Jerry Rice, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt once dotted the landscape of the NFC West, the role of the wide receiver in the rough-and-tumble division has changed dramatically.

The smash-mouth offensive approach of the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers has set a physical tone that has left the St. Louis Rams looking to duplicate the recipe.

As other teams around the league go in search of gun-slinging quarterbacks and big-play wide receivers, teams like the Seahawks, 49ers and Rams are loading up on physical offensive linemen and powerful running back committees.

The Rams did their part in May's draft when they used the No. 2 overall pick on massive offensive lineman Greg Robinson and a third-round choice on talented back Tre Mason.

"When you lay your foundation for your skyscraper, it's probably the least exciting thing that you do but that's the thing that holds that skyscraper up for a lot of years," general manager Les Snead said. "It was definitely a strategy that we're going to get our foundation stronger and I think that's going to help us."

It's an approach that's understandable considering the neighborhood the Rams occupy. If you can't win the line of scrimmage or at least manage a stalemate against the likes of Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco, chances are you're going to get left behind.

But just because the days of the Greatest Show on Turf are long gone doesn't mean that a successful passing game isn't part of the blueprint.

On the surface, it's easy to look at a team like Seattle and say it won a Super Bowl by running the ball and playing good defense. In reality, that assertion is too simplistic and a disservice to what the Seahawks' passing game did in 2013.

While receiver production is easily quantified in catches, yards and touchdowns, teams like the Seahawks and Niners aren't as worried about the quantity so much as the quality of those relatively infrequent pass attempts.

For the Rams to keep pace with the NFC West front-runners, that's something they'll have to improve in 2014.

"It's very important," Rams receiver Tavon Austin said. "Like they say, football is a game of inches so when it does come your way, you have definitely got to be ready to make a play to help your team win."

Which brings up the question of what, exactly, the Rams need from their receivers to win in 2014?

Beyond the emphasis the group is putting on run blocking, there must be improvement made when it comes to taking advantage of any chances the passing game yields.

Last year, the Rams finished 29th in dropbacks but 24th in yards per attempt (6.64), yards per completion (10.38) and yards per dropback (5.79). For what it's worth, Sam Bradford ranked 36th in the league in yards per attempt among qualifying quarterbacks with Kellen Clemens checking in at No. 25.

Those numbers are due in large part to an apparent aversion to throwing deep. The Rams were 28th in the league in yards per air attempt -- which measures how far the ball travels on the pass without factoring run after catch -- at 7.56. Adding to that the fact the Rams struggled with hanging on to the ball, finishing second to last in the league with a drop rate of 5.9 percent.

"You have got to be balanced and in order to be balanced, you've got to make big plays in the run and pass game," receiver Chris Givens said. "We have to take advantage of every opportunity. We feel like last year we left too many things on the field."

That's something that didn't happen often in Seattle and San Francisco.

The Seahawks and 49ers ranked second and third, respectively, in rushing attempts in 2013. The commitment to the ground game was evident but also buoyed by the fact that both were capable of making big plays in the pass game when needed.

Seattle ranked 31st in the league in dropbacks but second in yards per attempt (8.35), third in yards per completion (12.12) and fifth in yards per dropback (7.15). San Francisco was last in the league in dropbacks but seventh in yards per attempt (7.70), second in yards per completion (12.21) and ninth in yards per dropback (6.73).

Beyond that, when the Seahawks and Niners did look to pass, they rarely looked to dink and dunk. Seattle ranked seventh and San Francisco third in air yards per attempt in 2013.

Among the receivers on all three teams only San Francisco's Anquan Boldin broke 1,000 receiving yards with 1,179. But Seattle and San Francisco each had at least two receivers with 778 or more yards.

With a young, mostly unproven receiver corps, the Rams are expected to be a run-focused offense with play action passes spinning off any success on the ground. Of course, half the onus also falls on Bradford but they don't necessarily need any of their wideouts to bust loose for a 1,200-yard season or even a 1,000-yard season.

That's probably a good thing since nobody on the team has ever exceeded new addition Kenny Britt's 775 yards in 2010. Tight end Jared Cook led last year's team with 671 receiving yards and Givens was first among receivers with 569.

The Rams are betting on improvement from that group in 2014 but if the passing game can complement the rushing attack and defense like it does in Seattle and San Francisco, it might not be as big of a gamble as it might seem.