The St. Louis Rams and Carolina Panthers face off in a season-defining game this weekend. It sounds like hyperbole, but a win for either team would be extremely important in determining where they're trending in the future. Joe McAtee of Turf Show Times knows the Rams better than Cat Scratch Reader ever will, and I asked him five questions for this week's game.
1. What's the mood in St. Louis regarding Sam Bradford? He's played very well this season with limited weapons, but it looks like the front office could have a tough draft decision if the Redskins falter and give the Rams a top-five pick. Do you believe Bradford is the franchise QB you need moving forward?
I think the inconsistency is what's difficult to process. Last week, on a really limited gameplan passing-wise, he was pretty brilliant. In the weeks prior, he often looked completely overtaken by the game mentally. I made the case this summer that this was a make or break year for Sam meaning not that if he didn't succeed he'd but cut, but that the FO would cross some kind of faith threshold where that tough decision becomes one they have to make.
He's always had the tools. He still does. But I think more than ever, I'm concerned that the years of shifting coaching staffs, poor O-line play and a lack of sufficient weapons at WR have set him so far back it may be too far. I'm still of the opinion that he can be the franchise QB. But we honestly need these last 10 games.
If he hasn't decidedly put this issue to bed by then, I think the Rams go a route similar to the Niners with Alex Smith/Colin Kaepernick and pick up someone in the 2nd or 3rd and let the future settle itself out.
2. It's fair to say that Cortland Finnegan has struggled in 2013 (-15.1 grade from Pro Football Focus). What can you attribute to his play this season? Are teams simply scheming around him, or is there a deeper issue?
I don't think that's fair at all, only because he was horrible before getting injured. As one of only two veterans in the secondary (outside of Matt Giordano who takes up some spot safety duties), Finnegan has been overmatched. The Rams opened the year up by playing a really, really, really soft coverage shell that didn't play to their strengths. When you've got the D-line the Rams do, it doesn't make a ton of sense to have your cornerbacks give a huge 8-yard cushion and allow opposing QBs to run easy quick-strike plays. As the Rams started throwing in adjustments into week three and four, Finnegan's role changed and he was finding less opportunities to match his, let's say, on-field behavior with his on-field aggressive play. It was a poor match.
He's been out with a hamstring injury, and probably sits this one out too. To me, it comes down to some tactical adjustments. It doesn't make sense to throw him back out there and ask him to get away from his game.
3. Linebacker Will Witherspoon left Carolina for St. Louis in 2006, and has now returned to the Rams after a multi-year absence. What does he add to the team's defense?
Not much outside of some veteran leadership and locker room presence. Now that the Rams brought back Jo Lonn Dunbar, Withespoon's in the fourth slot on the LB depth chart for a defense that runs mostly 2-LB sets. In all though, Spoon's a good guy to have around. He's just not going to make a noticeable impact from kickoff to the final whistle.
4. Who's one player Panthers fans don't know about know, but who'll they remember after Sunday's game?
Well, RT Joe Barksdale has really continued to improve. A UDFA out of LSU, he slowly found his way into playing time thanks to some injuries last year and another this year to oft-hurt Rodger Saffold. That Saffold has missed time doesn't surprise any Rams fans. Barksdale's play has. So he's one name I'd throw out. I'd also put LB Alec Ogletree in there. Tavon Austin, understandably, got the big hype to headline the Rams' 2013 draft class, but Ogletree was a 1st rounder in his own right. He's not an AFC North linebacker by any means, but we're not in the AFC North, so...Ogletree's athleticism is undeniable. And he's improved game to game, including last week's superb performance finishing with 10 tackles, a forced fumble and a 98-yard INT return.
5. If you could take any player from the Panthers and put him on the Rams roster who would it be, and why?
Man, that's tough. Usually somebody jumps out, but the Panthers and Rams are built pretty similarly. I guess I'd go with Ryan Kalil. I know nobody's excited about centers, but Kalil's one of the best if not the best and I'm a fan of O-line play. The Rams are still growing at QB and WR, so none of those options made sense. DeAng has hit the deadly 30-year old mark where running backs contract leprosy and their knees just turn spontaneously turn into grape jelly if I've got the trope right. Some great options on the D-line, but the Rams are fine there and have everyone signed through 2014 and all but one through 2015. Kuechly's a beast, but Laurinaitis is maybe the most underrated centerpiece in the league IMO. Honestly if I had to make a choice, Robert Lester would be tempting too.