Rams finally cut the cord, give Auburn rookies Robinson and Mason a chance
ST. LOUIS — Two rookies are the latest additions to a Rams offense in need of a boost, particularly in the running game.
Offensive lineman Greg Robinson and running back Tre Mason experienced plenty of success on the ground together at Auburn, where they led the Tigers to an SEC championship and fell just short in the national title game against Florida State. But they didn’t get a chance to contribute much of anything in their first four games in St. Louis, largely because of struggles to adapt to more complex pass protection schemes.
Valid concerns about wasted draft picks continued to get louder, especially for Robinson, as waiver-wire pickup Davin Joseph didn’t seem to be producing much of a barrier to entry at right guard for the No. 2 overall pick. He finally cracked the starting lineup and played all 74 offensive snaps at left guard in Monday night’s 31-17 loss to San Francisco.
"I felt good," Robinson said afterward. "The guys helped me out a lot. We were communicating well."
Coach Jeff Fisher offered some praise, though it came with the obvious caveat that he’ll need to watch the game film before giving a full assessment. Robinson appeared to get a nice push up front on a few rush plays early, when the Rams gained at least three yards on nine of their first 10 rushes outside the red zone.
That included a 24-yard run by Mason, who had just one defender to beat when he ran into receiver Brian Quick to bring an ugly end to the team’s longest run of the season. He also caught a swing pass and broke a tackle for a 12-yard gain on his first NFL play, setting up a first-and-goal that led to a touchdown on St. Louis’ opening drive.
Mason had been on the inactive list in every other game before getting on the field for nine snaps Monday night, but he looked like he belonged as the fifth different player to line up at tailback and run the ball for the Rams this season. The 5-foot-8, 207-pound third-round draft pick used an impressive combination of speed and power to run for a game-high 40 yards on five carries, even though he got on the field for only nine snaps.
In fact, it was a little puzzling that he didn’t get more opportunities, considering St. Louis led for nearly two full quarters on a night when Austin Davis clearly wasn’t at his best against an aggressive 49ers defense. Starter Zac Stacy and backup Benny Cunningham combined for just 38 yards on 15 carries for a running game that stalled with the rest of the offense after scoring touchdowns on two of its first three drives.
"I’m not 100 percent sure why," Mason said of the inconsistency. "I just do what I’m told. I do what I’m told and I give it my all on every play."
He knows better than to question any decisions made by the coaching staff, and Robinson took a similar stance when asked about the transition from tackle to guard. It’s not as if veterans Joe Barksdale and especially former No. 1 overall draft pick Jake Long have been dominant on the outside of a shaky offensive line, so it’s fair to wonder if St. Louis could be using its highly touted rookie more effectively.
Robinson said he’s feeling confident but still getting comfortable in his new position, and the 49ers presented a lot of challenges he hadn’t encountered before. Rodger Saffold moved from left guard to right guard to accommodate Robinson and said the rookie’s debut was probably a big reason San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio dialed up so many different pass rushes and blitz packages.
"I got to watch the film to see, but (Robinson) is definitely working," Saffold said. "I think he carried himself well and dealt with adversity pretty well."
It’s hard to justify too much praise for any offensive linemen on a night when Davis constantly faced pressure and got sacked five times, although some of those can be attributed to good coverage combined with his bad habit of holding onto the ball too long. Saffold and Robinson both acknowledged the group isn’t where it needs to be, which became even more clear when the Rams got into more passing situations while trailing late in the game.
Mason mostly watched those from the sideline, although he did do a decent job of picking up a blitzer on one play in the second half. But Davis still ended up getting sacked by a different defender, and Mason needs to make a few more blocks before the Rams can regularly trust him not to repeat some of his preseason mistakes.
Fisher doesn’t have a secret weapon to fix the fulcrum of his offense, a running game currently ranked 19th in the league with 106 yards per game and 4.1 yards per attempt. His best bet might be to see how much the two Auburn rookies can improve with experience, even if it means enduring a few growing pains.