Don’t look now, but this is shaping up as one of the highest-scoring Rams teams in years. With one game left to play, the Rams have scored 339 points, which is already more than any Rams squad since 2006.
If the Rams can muster 29 points in Sunday’s season finale, a tall order considering the opponent is Seattle, they will have scored more points than any Rams team since the 2003 NFC West championship squad.
That ’03 team finished 12-4 and is the last Rams team to finish with a winning record. The 2006 squad is the last Rams team to finish with a non-losing record at 8-8.
“What’s happened is the younger players are improving,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’re getting bigger plays. I think the key to success recently is just our commitment to the run game. We’ve got numerous games where we’ve not turned the football over, and that’s been a big plus for us. I think we might be plus-12 or 13 giveaways-takeaways, and that certainly helps the offense.”
The Rams are actually plus-10 in takeaway-giveaway differential, but that’s still tied for sixth best in the NFL.
Not only are the younger players improving, they’re putting points on the scoreboard. Eighteen of the Rams’ 37 touchdowns this season have been scored by rookies. Thirty-one of those 37 TDs have come from players in their first, second, or third NFL seasons.
Throw in the 109 points produced by second-year place-kicker Greg Zuerlein, and a two-point conversion apiece by rookie Benny Cunningham and second-year man Isaiah Pead, and 88.2 percent of the Rams’ points this season (299 of 339) have come from first-, second- or third-year players.
“Points come down to guys making plays,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “And we certainly have skilled players who can make plays. The quarterbacks have done a good job for us.
“But again, when you have explosive playmakers, it certainly gives you a chance to score from all over the field. Whether it’s Tavon (Austin) going 80 yards, or Cory Harkey taking a little flat route that he caught last week (against New Orleans), going 31 yards and scoring.”
Those numbers are all the more impressive considering:
• The Rams lost starting QB Sam Bradford to a season-ending knee injury in Game 7 against Carolina. Most observers thought production would plummet and the Rams would be lucky to win a game or two with backup Kellen Clemens at quarterback, but they are 4-4 in Clemens’ eight starts.
• Over the second half of the season in particular, injuries have started to take a toll on the offensive line. As a result, the Rams have used five different line combinations in the past seven games. It will become six combos in eight games against Seattle with Rodger Saffold starting at left tackle in place of the injured Jake Long.
• The Rams’ top big-play threat, Tavon Austin, has missed the past two games with an ankle injury, and his status is uncertain at this point for the Seahawks.
• In addition, the Rams have faced a brutal schedule in terms of facing top-ranked defenses. They already have played eight games against defenses currently ranked in the top 10. It will become nine Sunday against Seattle’s No. 1-ranked defense.
“It’s not easy,” Fisher said. “Five out of the top six defenses are in the NFC. And three of them are in our division. So it’s been a tough go offensively, but we’re battling. And we’ve got another big challenge this week.”
• Last but not least was the change in offensive scheme the Rams made four games into the season, going from a three-wide receiver, pass-first approach to a multiple tight end, run-first attack.
“There were some growing pains I think early on for us, just in terms of how we adjusted some of the things that we were doing in our attack,” Schottenheimer said.
Radical scheme switches like that rarely take place four games into a season. You just don’t tear up one offense in favor of another in midstream.
“Obviously it’s a credit to the players that they didn’t flinch,” Schottenheimer said. “Coach Fisher hit the nail on the head. He saw it after the (first) San Francisco game: ‘Hey, we’ve got to get back to basics, and it starts with our running game.’ ”
As a team the Rams are second in rushing offense since making the scheme switch. The emergence of rookie running back Zac Stacy has helped the Rams find an identity on offense and put points on the board. Stacy’s seven rushing TDs matches the season high for any Rams player since 2006.
“I don’t think you envision a rookie back coming in and having the type of production he’s had,” Schottenheimer said. “But I think we knew we were getting a darn good football player. He’s exceeded our expectations, but I think we knew it was gonna happen at some point.”
Put it all together, and you see an offense on the rise. The Rams have scored 27 points or more in six games this season; in the previous four seasons combined, the Rams had seven such games. So the progress is indisputable, and earlier cries for Schottenheimer’s head by some fans now seem hollow.
But all the improvement has done is bring the Rams’ offense back to respectability. Finally. The team is averaging 22.6 points a game. They need to find another three to seven points a game to become a true playoff contender.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement in all three phases,” Fisher said.