Given the funhouse-mirror nature of preseason football, it’s difficult to tell the difference between true form and distortion. But in his first exposure to tackle football since last Oct. 20, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford had no problems with his surgically-repaired knee ... or his fastball.
Bradford’s skills were intact Saturday against the Green Bay Packers. His confidence was firm. His body was strong. He got walloped — hold your breath — and got up. Bradford’s timing was in synch with the speed of the game. Bradford misfired on an early deep throw — hey, he’s getting warm — but shook it off to fire a 41-yard strike to wide receiver Brian Quick.
Back inside the Edward Jones Dome theater for his first rehearsal of 2014, Bradford was sharp in completing nine of 12 passes for 101 yards. The bullet points included a precision-zipped 11-yard touchdown to tight end Lance Kendricks that completed Bradford’s shift.
“It felt good,” Bradford said at halftime, via the Rams’ media-relations staff. “It was nothing new, I’ve been here before. I think for everyone else it’s probably a bigger deal for me to get back out on the field. But it was nice to get out there in a live game, feel the pass rush, get the ball out of my hand, and go out there and execute the way that we did. I thought it was good.”
There’s no dissent here. This was one small step for a quarterback, and one giant leap for the Rams’ peace of mind. The next mission: ushering Bradford safely through the remainder of the preseason haze and daze, and into the clarified reality of the Sept. 7 regular-season opener.
I’ve seen too many junk exhibition games to get geeked about the visuals. But one interesting glimmer could be spotted during Saturday’s Rams-Packers exercise: the Rams made an attempt to get vertical in the passing game.
Because this is the preseason, I don’t know if this was a preview of coming attractions, or just the sensible business of giving Bradford an opportunity to loosen his right arm.
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer believe in running the football, and their offenses have a history of success on the ground. The power-ball approach makes sense to cover the rugged terrain of the NFC West.
But the Rams need to go vertical more often in 2014. Defenses know the Rams’ preferred style of play and will obviously anchor in to stop the run. The line of scrimmage and immediate vicinity figures to be crowded with defenders. The Rams must counter that by stretching the field — go north, young men — instead of always playing in traffic where nasty defenders roam.
According to the data at the Advanced Football Analytics web site, around 17 percent of Bradford’s passing attempts over the past two seasons traveled 15 yards or more through the air. Only a few NFL quarterbacks had a lower percentage.
In Schottenheimer’s two seasons, the Rams rank 24th among the 32 NFL offenses in yards per passing attempt. They like to throw the ball short, and they like to throw the ball wide. These numbers — and many others — make it easy to come to a conclusion on Schottenheimer’s passing-game philosophy.
I’ll leave it to Aaron Schatz, editor of the respected Football Outsiders, who offered this observation-quip to the Turf Show Times site: “Schottenheimer seems to think you can stretch the field in two ways — horizontally and also horizontally.”
This isn’t all about Schottenheimer. Due to several factors — primarily a history of loose pass protection, and the parade of so-so receivers that struggle to beat press coverage — Bradford often checks down early to dump the ball off to easy-access targets for short gains. (Worse, his completion percentage on shorter throws isn’t all that hot.)
Schottenheimer and his QB must adjust their mindset this season — and I think we’ll see it happen. The Rams’ base will be on the ground, but I believe we’ll see them extend their passing game. They have to, or the offense can’t grow.
I’m bullish on the Rams’ running game, but the grind-it-out strategy would be even better if the Rams avoid being predictable. They have to make defenses respect the threat of the deep ball.
The running game should help the cause. As I’ve mentioned before, Bradford has done quite well on play-action passes during his NFL career.
This is where wide receiver Kenny Britt looms as a potential VIP Ram in 2014. When Britt was in peak form at Tennessee in 2009 and 2010 — and working for Fisher — he emerged as a dangerous downfield presence.
In 2010, Britt had the league’s best catch rate on throws of 20 yards or longer, and finished third with six touchdown receptions of 20-plus yards. The entire Rams’ receiving group, including tight ends, had only two TD catches of 20-plus yards last season.
Britt is trying to revive a career beset by injuries and off-field shenanigans. While it’s true that Britt is having an impressive camp, he still has a lot to prove. Fisher was smart to take a chance on Britt. It was a low-risk gamble that could pay off big.
I’ve seen analysts trash Bradford’s ability to throw the deep pass. That’s fine, but we saw him go there in 2012 in hooking up with then-rookie wideout Chris Givens. According to Pro Football Focus, Bradford ranked just outside the top 10 among NFL quarterbacks in accuracy on passes that traveled 20-plus yards that year. The arm strength is there.
It comes down to three things: first, Schottenheimer has to think vertical more than horizontal. Second, Bradford has to reestablish the confidence to take aim downfield. And third, the Rams need a receiver to make those deep connections on time.
We saw flashes of that in Saturday’s game. It looked good, and so did Bradford. But was it real?