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Run-first Rams' struggles go beyond the basics

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams' offseason left zero doubt about the offensive identity they were trying to forge.

In drafting running back Todd Gurley No. 10 overall and five offensive linemen, coach Jeff Fisher made it clear he wanted to get back to the type of dominant running game that was a hallmark of some of his Tennessee teams.

Even with a new coordinator, a new running back and three new starters on the offensive line, the Rams hoped they'd be able to adapt well enough to run the ball effectively early in the season. Run blocking in the NFL is widely believed an easier adjustment for young linemen.

But you wouldn't know it from watching the Rams. Three weeks into the season, they are 30th in the league in rushing attempts. That would indicate that there's not much of a commitment to the run but the reality is that the Rams haven't run much because they haven't had much success doing it.

So, what do you make of a run-first team that can't run the ball?

"If we’re going to have this type of team be successful, we have to get the run game going," guard Rodger Saffold said.

So far, the Rams have gained just 214 rushing yards (29th in the NFL) with an average of 3.75 yards per carry (21st). And while those numbers aren't good enough in their own right, they're actually buoyed by production from quarterback Nick Foles and receivers like Tavon Austin and Chris Givens.

The Rams' primary running backs (not including Austin) are last in the NFL in attempts (42), yards (111), touchdowns (0), and yards before contact (54). They're second to last in yards per carry (31st) and yards after contact per rush (1.09).

So how did the Rams end up in this spot? It's not as simple as just blocking better and running harder.

Earlier this week, I asked Fisher if he believed the change in offensive scheme under coordinator Frank Cignetti, particularly in the run game, has been a factor in the slow start.

“No, I mean, we’ve added a couple of things over last year," Fisher said. "But I think in the long run we’re going to benefit from it. It’s going to help us.”

When Fisher says a "couple of things" he's referring to the team's added reliance on outside zone concepts. Saying "a couple of things" would indicate that the changes have been small but the Rams have leaned heavily on the use of outside zone. They're still mixing in some man blocking plays but the zone seems to be where it's all headed when (if?) everything comes together.

Outside zone run plays ask something different of each player. For offensive linemen, it's about moving laterally and pushing defenders aside to create cutback lanes. It's imperative for them to get to the second-level to block linebackers and there's a premium placed on technique and taking proper angles.

For running backs, it's about staying "on track" by remaining patient, waiting for the right hole to open up and then pressing it at the right time. A hole that might initially look like the right one isn't necessarily going to be it as the back tries to get linebackers flowing in a certain direction before hitting one cut and taking off.

"It starts with their footwork, pressing their reads," offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti said. "The line can do a great job, but if the running back’s not in sync, it won’t matter. It takes all 11 guys to function as one. We talk about it every day. So, in the running game, the running back has to have his core set right, trust what he sees and be a decisive one-cut runner.”

On the surface, it sounds simple enough but the Rams have a number of players who have never run the scheme. Chief among the newcomers is Gurley, who said Georgia has zone concepts but never really used them.

"It’s a new thing we put in," Gurley said. "It just takes repetition and you just keep getting reps at it and looking at other teams’ outside zone schemes and learning from that and watching film with the O-line. We’ll get it down pat and get this thing rolling soon.

"[It] definitely [requires] patience and getting those backers to flow, stretching the D end, making sure you are pressing the track and making that cut at the heels of the line."

When those plays don't work, it can result in little or lost yardage which is why Rams running backs average just 1.29 yards per rush before contact. That number is put in better perspective when you see that they average 2.67 yards per attempt as a team. In other words, the running backs are often getting hit before they start running north and south while some of the jet sweeps and scrambles have yielded bigger gains before anyone gets touched.

Perhaps overlooked in the process is the fullback, Cory Harkey, who is often asked to set the "track" (the path for the runner to follow) for the tailback.

"In our offense, the fullback is considered the bus driver," Harkey said. "We are kind of trying to see everything out and yes, there are times where you would like to see the running back follow the fullback but realistically in the outside zone, our job is to get those ‘backers flowing so that way the running backs can really stretch it and make one cut and go."

The Rams believe they aren't far away from the day when that one cut will lead to the back going for big gains. The belief is that they'll then be multiple enough in the run game to keep defenses guessing and use the run game to open up everything else.

"If you can run and the sack numbers are down, everything goes hand in hand," center Tim Barnes said. "We want to have that reputation as a good running offensive line."

The Rams have learned the hard way the first three weeks that if they are going to be run-first, they must first run well.