Three Keys to Victory: Rams at Redskins

click to enlarge Still not sure how this team has gotten away without changing its name all these years.
Still not sure how this team has gotten away without changing its name all these years.
The St. Louis Rams are in bad shape. Three games in, they have yet to get their first victory of the season, nor have they looked at all good yet in losing. This weekend they welcome in the Washington Redskins to the Edward Jones Dome, who come in with a 2-1 record built on the back of a surprisingly mistake-free season thus far by Rex Grossman. They narrowly missed going 3-0 with a loss on Monday night to the Cowboys in which Dallas failed to score a single touchdown but kicked six field goals to pull out the victory. 

It was the Redskins last year who helped the Rams get off the schneid, as the Rams romped to a 30-16 victory over Washington and its failed Donovan McNabb experiment. It was Sam Bradford's first professional win, as well as a coming-out party of sorts for the Rams' defensive line. 

Steve Spagnuolo and his players are going to need to draw on all the happy thoughts they can if they want to get things turned around this week. Otherwise, 2011 is looking like it's fast turning into yet another lost season for football in St. Louis. 

In a way, the Rams and Redskins are polar opposites this year. The Rams came in with elevated expectations, riding a wave of optimism stemming from a new offensive coordinator, an emerging star quarterback, and an understated-but-productive offseason. So far they've failed to live up to those expectations in any way, shape, or form, and have one of the worst point differentials in all of football. 

The Redskins, on the other hand, came into 2011 with absolutely no hype. The quarterback situation was a mess, Mike Shanahan didn't seem to be working any of his previous magic, Albert Haynesworth still looked like one of the biggest mistakes in NFL history, and they played in the same division as the newly crowned Dream Team in Philadelphia. Three weeks in, though, and the 'Skins are tied for the division lead, and if not for Dez Bryant getting behind DeAngelo Hall late in the game Monday Washington would likely be undefeated. 

Make no mistake; the Rams desperately need a win. And here's what they need to do to get it. 

1. Pressure Rex Grossman 

We all know the story on Rex Grossman by now. The oft-maligned quarterback has a well-deserved reputation for making mistakes at particularly inopportune times, with ill-advised throws and interceptions his chief legacy to this point in his career. So far in 2011 he's kept the mistakes in check, leading the Redskins by playing unspectacular but largely error-free football. 

We know the state of the Rams' secondary. Rod Hood, the Rams' newest acquisition, should help stabilize the corner position a bit, but he isn't going to magically transform the unit. It will fall on the Rams' defensive line -- as well as any blitzers Steve Spagnuolo may send into the backfield -- to force Grossman out of his comfort zone and into mistakes. Subpar coverage can be somewhat mitigated if you can consistently pressure the quarterback, and that's just what the Rams are going to have to do. 

Chris Long is having a huge season, with three sacks already through three games, and Robert Quinn is looking more and more like the pass-rushing monster the Rams expected when they drafted him. He won't start over James Hall yet, but look for Quinn to get a fair amount of playing time in passing downs and to use his speed and athleticism to get after Grossman. 

2. Keep Sam Bradford Vertical

On the other side of the ball, the Rams have to be able to stop the Redskins from doing what the Rams themselves will be trying to do. Sam Bradford took an absolute pounding last week against the Baltimore Ravens, being sacked five times and hit several times that often. The Rams cannot allow Bradford to get beaten up like that again, or he's going to end up heading down the same road as QBs like Marc Bulger and David Carr, ground into submission by the weekly abuse. 

The offensive line has to win the battle in the trenches just as much as the defesive line. The Rams have far too much money invested in their O-line to see performances like last week's. Jason Smith and Jacob Bell in particular have played very poorly this season, and it will fall largely on those two to make the adjustments needed. No one on the line is totally blameless, though, with even last year's Rookie of the Year candidate Rodger Saffold having suffered several breakdowns in protection. 

Washington loves loves loves to blitz, thanks to defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's gamble-heavy 3-4 scheme. How well the Rams' offensive line picks up those blitzes, and how well Sam Bradford can call the proper protection, will go a long way toward determining whether the passing game can be at all effective this week. 

3. Get Steven Jackson Back in the Mix 

SJ39 made his return to the field last week from injury, but was used sparingly. Pushing injuries have put Jackson on the sideline in the past, and both he and the team took a smart approach to managing this latest leg injury. This week, though, he suffered no setbacks in practice and took a full workload. He should be ready to carry the ball without reservations this Sunday. 

In 2010, we saw teams stacking the box against Jackson, limiting the amount of room he had to run and shutting down the Rams' running game in any meaningful sense. So far this season we've seen teams respecting the passing game more, but playing from behind week after week has forced the Rams to throw more than is optimal at times. This week, a healthy Jackson and a motivated line should allow the Rams to finally find a balance and get their offensive attack on track. 

Cadillac Williams has done a solid job filling in for Jackson thus far, giving the Rams the backup they so desperately needed last season. Still, having Steven Jackson out on the field brings an added dimension to the offense, and the Rams need all the extra dimensions they can get. 

In the end, the tale of this game will largely be written up front, on both sides of the ball. The Rams' defensive line must penetrate and get after Rex Grossman, forcing him to make the mistakes he's so famous (or infamous), for, and the offensive line must clear out the running lanes for Jackson and keep Bradford safe. If those three things go the Rams' way, Washington may just prove the jumping-off point for the Rams' success two years in a row. 

If not, well, we're used to not caring about football by the time October rolls around here. 
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