Protecting the Rams' QB is more important than embracing him
Howard Balzer examines several key issues facing the Rams, not the least of which is pass protection. And we can't forget about Michael Sam.
Greg Robinson, who was drafted second overall in May and has been expected to help bolster the Rams' offensive line, has not sounded like a beacon of confidence of late.
Jeff Curry / USA TODAY Sports
By Howard BalzerFOX Sports Midwest
ST. LOUIS -- It's only natural that when a team's starting quarterback is lost for the season in a meaningless preseason game, the intense focus will be on that position and the player stepping up to replace him.
At the same time, at least publicly, other important issues get pushed to the background. That has clearly been the case since the moment this past Sunday afternoon when it was learned that Sam Bradford had torn the same ACL that was repaired last year, and wouldn't be playing a regular-season down in 2014.
We will get to that later, but here is my take on other intriguing aspects of this team, with some possibly being even more important to the Rams' potential success than how Shaun Hill plays when the season begins Sept. 7 against the Minnesota Vikings.
PROTECTING MR. HILL
The play that put Bradford out for the season might have been a freakish occurrence, but it wouldn't have happened had left tackle Jake Long kept pass rusher Armonty Bryant away.
Long had a rocky first game coming back from his own torn ACL, and will now be responsible for helping keep Hill upright. Long hasn't been able to finish any of his last three seasons, so it's not unreasonable to wonder whether he can stay healthy.
That's obviously the case with guard Rodger Saffold, who suffered a minor ankle injury against the Browns, but that followed two weeks of inactivity because of a stinger. Saffold has dealt with a litany of injuries over the last three seasons.
Then there is the matter of second overall pick Greg Robinson, who didn't start against Cleveland. Robinson has jockeyed back and forth all summer between left guard and left tackle, and he didn't sound like a beacon of confidence this week when he told espn.com he doesn't have a "steady position," adding: "They (coaches) said I've been making too many mistakes and the real bullets are about to start flying. What I think about that is it's not how you start, it's about how you finish. You never know what happens, and when my opportunity presents itself I pray that I'm going to be ready."
Will Robinson be on the bench with Saffold at left guard and Davin Joseph at right guard when the season begins? Don't be surprised because goal No. 1 is protecting Hill.
CORNERING THE MARKET
While the Rams suffered a kick to the groin when Bradford's MRI was revealed, they did dodge a bullet on the flip side with cornerback Trumaine Johnson. At first glance, his injury looked a lot worse than Bradford's, but tests showed a sprained MCL, which doesn't require surgery.
However, it's still a four-to-six-week injury. Four weeks from Aug. 23 is Sept. 20, which is the day before the Week 3 Dallas game. It would seem unlikely he would be ready to play then, but with the bye the following week, there's a good chance Johnson will be back on the field Oct. 5 at Philadelphia after missing just three games. Still, the Rams will have to put together a representative pass defense without one of their starters.
Granted, Johnson isn't Darrelle Revis, but he is better than those behind him. Brandon McGee appears to be the obvious choice, but he's been out for a while with an ankle injury and still isn't practicing. He had experience from scrimmage in one regular-season game in 2013 and it wasn't pretty. Rookie Lamarcus Joyner will likely be the nickelback, and if McGee isn't ready, rookie E.J. Gaines might get a shot.
With Johnson out, the Rams could keep an extra corner at the beginning of the season, with Marcus Roberson, Greg Reid and Darren Woodard showing promise.
The Rams' pass defense, even with the pass rush provided by the front four, gave up 4,200 gross (some would say very gross) passing yards, a 68.1 completion percentage and 94.7 passer rating last season. Those numbers must be better for the defense to be as good as many think it will be.
Never in the NFL has there been as much buzz about a seventh-round pick making a roster as there has been with defensive end Michael Sam. There has always been the sense that the Rams didn't draft him to cut him.
The emergence of undrafted free agent Ethan Westbrooks has complicated the roster issue, and both he and Sam have shown the ability to get to the quarterback, albeit against backup linemen. The Rams don't want to lose Westbrooks, which would be possible if they tried to slide him to the practice squad. There is a healthy debate whether another team would claim Sam, meaning he would be on that team's 53-man roster, and arrive with extra attention a week before the season begins.
Might the Rams keep 10 defensive linemen on the roster? Asked that question Tuesday, coach Jeff Fisher dead-panned, "It's possible we can keep 12."
That's a stretch considering a heavy load at one position affects other units. It would not be shocking if defensive tackle Alex Carrington becomes a victim of the numbers game, especially since ends Eugene Sims, William Hayes and even Westbrooks and Sam can play inside if needed.
It will be fascinating to see how the Rams' roster moves unfold, but always remember this on cutdown day: There is no such thing as the "final" cut to 53. It's really only the beginning of weekly roster moves.
Based on some of the reaction to the ascension of Hill to be the starting quarterback, you'd think he came to St. Louis from another planet. The Rams signed him for just this development, and now he has a great opportunity. Gloom and doom?
Consider last season, when some believed the Rams wouldn't win another game after Kellen Clemens took the reins of the offense. The team went 4-5 with Clemens, and probably would have defeated Seattle on a Monday night had running back Zac Stacy not been injured at the end of the game.
Hill has a career 85.9 passer rating and 61.9 completion percentage, which means he can sling it. Yes, the Rams will be built to run and play defense, but it's hard to run if the defense doesn't respect the pass.
One thing we all should do is ignore the noise about tanking the season for another high draft pick next spring, or trading for some accomplished quarterback who wouldn't be available. Would Washington trade Kirk Cousins and enter the season with Colt McCoy as Robert Griffin's backup? Would Philadelphia trade Mark Sanchez and enter the season with Matt Barkley as Nick Foles' backup? Next question. But, hey, Brady Quinn is available again.
Not to mention the difficulty any quarterback would have trying to learn a new offense while developing any timing with receivers when he would be getting no reps with the first unit.
For now, this is Hill's team, and he is clearly the best option for the Rams. Next year could be a different story, but there's a full season to be played before 2015 arrives.
As Sept. 7 gets closer, is it absurd to wonder if this team can find some magic to match 1999, when the Rams also lost their starting quarterback, Trent Green, to a torn ACL in the third preseason game? Perhaps. But as the noted philosopher Joaquin Andujar always would say, "Youneverknow."
After all, Hill once played for offensive coordinator Mike Martz (in San Francisco in 2008) and also played for the same NFL Europe team (Amsterdam Admirals in 2003) that someone named Kurt Warner played for in 1998.
Sure, we know Hill isn't Warner, and the Rams don't have anyone resembling Orlando Pace, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt on the roster, five players who are first-time eligibles for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But no one is expecting a Super Bowl, and no one was before Bradford was injured.
Still, in a year when the organization is honoring the 15-year anniversary of that Super Bowl team, fans have a right to believe, don't they?
After all, Brandon Fisher, the Rams' assistant secondary coach and son of the head coach, has a dog named Sage.
Howard Balzer can be heard daily on H & Friends from 9-11 a.m. on FoxSportsRadio 1490.