With Gurley, Austin rolling, Rams should look to the middle more

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher has talked extensively this week about how running back Todd Gurley and receiver Tavon Austin have been able to have success in part because of each other.

That was abundantly clear in last week's 27-6 win against the San Francisco 49ers. And while the Rams would love Gurley and Austin to continue to be the focal points of the offense, they also could use some help as they've contributed 50 percent of the offensive yards and 71 percent of the team's non-defensive touchdowns to the mix.

So it stands to reason that if defenses have to worry about Gurley and Austin, something else should open up, right?

“I would think so, yeah," Fisher said. "Competitively, I won’t go into details. But, yeah, Todd’s doing some good things, as is Tavon. We have to be creative offensively to create issues from the defensive standpoint."

It's certainly understandable that Fisher won't get into his specific game plan for how his offense can capitalize on Gurley and Austin's success, but here's a modest proposal that could simultaneously help Gurley and Austin while bolstering the team's ailing passing game: look to the middle of the field on a more consistent basis.

Overall, the Rams' offense ranks last in the NFL in passing yards per game and their QBR of 39.0 is 29th. But they've been particularly ineffective throwing the ball between those hashmarks that break the field into three pieces.

In seven games, Rams quarterback Nick Foles has thrown for 87 yards between the hashmarks, which is just a single yard ahead of the Dolphins for the fewest in the league. That should come as little surprise since the Rams aren't exactly attempting many passes between the hashes. Foles is seven-of-14 on such throws, with those attempts tied with Green Bay also for the second-fewest in the NFL.

While those numbers aren't good, it's interesting to note that of those seven completions in the middle of the field, four have gone for first downs and two have resulted in touchdowns.

The blame for those incompletions can't all be put on Foles' right arm. The Rams have struggled with drops all season and have three such miscues on pass attempts over the middle. One of the culprits has been tight end Jared Cook, who has two catches and two drops on throws between the hashes.

But that doesn't mean the Rams should go away from Cook, who is the player on the roster best equipped to make plays over the middle of the field. At 6-foot-5, 254 pounds, Cook was signed to be a capable target over the middle. In his nearly two and a half seasons with the Rams, he's averaged 17.2 yards per catch between the hashmarks, and before this season he'd caught two-thirds of the balls thrown his way in that area.

Cook also showed signs of getting back on track as a pass catcher against San Francisco, hauling in three passes on four targets, one of which went for 49 yards and another for a 2-point conversion.

Regardless of whether it's Cook, tight end Lance Kendricks or someone else, if the Rams offense is going to continue to evolve, they'll need to get players other than Gurley and Austin to help shoulder the load.

"If you’re concerned about Todd inside or on the edge, you may have to create a one-on-one with Tavon on the edge," Fisher said. "So, those are the kinds of things that we’re working on.”