The season couldn't get off to a bigger challenge than facing a newly refreshed Michael Vick and his newly reloaded Philadelphia Eagles team. They were the most aggressive team of the 2011 free agent blitzkrieg, with a flurry of moves capped by the addition of Nnamdi Asomugha.
Asomugha will help solve their biggest weakness in 2010: a leaky pass defense. And he will be the biggest chess piece on the field that Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has to maneuver his strategy around. An elite cover corner "can take away half the field," the saying goes, but McDaniels' ultraflexible offensive concepts are designed to stress the entire field.
Those concepts will be put to the test, as the offense will have to put points on the board to keep pace with one of the most dangerous offenses in the league, and perhaps its most dangerous player. Michael Vick had a quiet first year in his return from federal prison and social exile. So few were prepared for him to come back last year not only at top speed, but suddenly much more fundamentally sound as a quarterback.
With a plethora of weapons including Desean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant and pass-catching back LeSean McCoy at his disposal, Vick can cut you apart so many ways from the pocket, without having to rely on his trademark scrambling and open-field playmaking ability. Oh and by the way, he still has that, too.
Spagnuolo's creativity with his defensive fronts will be put to the test here, as the only sure way to stop Vick is to get to him in the pocket, as the Packers showed in their playoff matchup. The Rams will be pitting their strengths against the Eagles' strengths, which bodes well for an exciting matchup.
Brennan: "The Rams have never dealt well with a scrambling quarterback and this is the first glimpse anyone will have of the Eagles “dream team”. Although the Rams’ defensive line will beat the Eagles offensive line, St. Louis’ wide receivers will struggle against the Eagles defensive backs."
The scheduling gods appear to be having some fun with the Rams, lining up the same two opponents to open the 2011 season as in 2008. Back in those days, people were voting for "Change" and there was already plenty of sentiment in town that any change at all would be a good one for our football team. Scott Linehan was the lamest of lame duck coaches, with a roster in dire need of turnover at nearly every position.
New GM Billy Devaney was empowered to make that change, and his first move was to hire Steve Spagnuolo away from the Super Bowl champion Giants. While the results in the standings didn't improve right away, the culture of the team did. Spags found a way to set a standard for play and began avidly measuring his team against it. Those that would not improve were shipped out, while those that at least had the heart to compete were given renewed life.
Three years later, nearly all of the roster has been turned over, with Chris Long headlining that year's draft class and becoming the exemplar of high-motor, high-effort play that Spagnuolo would demand from his whole roster.
Meanwhile, the Giants' defensive identity foundered in Spagnuolo's absence. The team's scoring defense fell from 5th best (18.4 ppg) to 30th (26.7 ppg) in the wake of his departure, but seems to be making a rebound under new coordinator Perry Fewell, working their way up to a respectable level again. Their next set of problems may be on offense, however. Aside from the emergence of Hakeem Nicks as a potent receiving threat, troubling signs abound from talent loss to advancing age to Eli Manning's scattershot arm (league-leading 25 INTs in 2010).
Will: "This game could be a galvanizing experience for the Rams, an opportunity to erase the memory of their last prime time appearance, a pathetic Week 17 loss to Seattle with a playoff spot on the line. Spagnuolo has a much more complete team now, and will give Josh McDaniels every insight to beating his former team."
The names at the defensive coordinator position in Baltimore have changed, but the results stay the same. Whether it's household names Marvin Lewis or Rex Ryan drawing up schemes, or relative unknowns Greg Mattison and new coach Chuck Pagano, the Ravens have been able to put an elite defense on the field. A physically punishing, dominating defense that makes opposing offenses want to get off the field.
The only constant in that time has been the man at the center of that defense: Ray Lewis, perhaps the most feared tackler of the modern era. He has been more of a fixture in Baltimore than any head coach, or any coordinator, with a career that spans fifteen years and shows no signs of stopping.
The Ravens don't get their results with pure pocket pressure. Instead, they start by simply erasing the run game, and pressuring quarterbacks into bad decisions with disguised looks and incredible speed to the ball. This places a huge amount of pressure on Bradford's growing ability to diagnose defenses and make his own line calls. McDaniels and Bradford will be deep in the film room looking for weaknesses, but there's no accounting for the discombulating presence, the constant threat of mayhem, that the Ravens bring on their side of the ball.
Will: "The Ravens are always a brutal matchup for young quarterbacks, even ones as gifted as Bradford. The Rams' defense will have to help out with turnovers to keep this close." Derek: "Rams run defense is improved but not enough to stop Ray Rice, perhaps the NFL’s top running back."
Rex Grossman, for one, thinks the Redskins are the team to beat in the NFC West. The Rams will be happy to oblige.
Washington is a rare team that the Rams have positive recent history against, winning three of their last four matchups. Their most recent matchup was Bradford's first win as a pro, in week three of last year. And just as strongly as the Rams' fortunes are trending up, those in Washington continue to spiral down into a morass of hubris, poor decisions, and mismatched personnel.
Big ego and big wallet can combine effectively in the NFL's power conferences, as Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson showed in Dallas. But the combination of Daniel Snyder and Mike Shanahan in Washington has been an unmitigated disaster. Coaching decisions and personnel decisions appear to take place in two isolated vacuums, whether you look at the fruitless decision by Shanahan to switch to a 3-4 defense without the personnel to run it, or the decision by ownership to spend heavily on Albert Haynesworth and Donovan McNabb and have them belittled and discarded by their coach.
There are bits of talent sprinkled throughout the roster, including former Ram Oshiomogho Atogwe, but only player that truly has to be accounted for on either side of the field for Washington is rising sack artist Brian Orakpo, who plays at the 3-4 outside linebacker position and lines up over Rodger Saffold with a beeline to Bradford's blind side. The teams hopes bookending him with first round pick Ryan Kerrigan will prevent teams from double-teaming Orakpo.
Or, the Rams could just run the ball at him and leave him grasping at air.
Derek: "With their most favorable matchup yet the Rams take full advantage of an aging team, without a top tier QB and no clear cut running game. The defense gives the Rams the edge they need and Bradford picks apart the Redskin secondary." Brennan: "Brandon Gibson goes off and has an official coming out party."