Ever since franchise quarterback Sam Bradford was selected No. 1 overall in 2010, the St. Louis Rams have made it a point to build a top-notch offensive line. Former general manager Billy Devaney made a couple of key moves when he signed right guard Harvey Dahl and drafted right tackle Rodger Saffold.
However, the Rams’ offensive line didn’t truly come together until Les Snead was named general manager and Jeff Fisher was named head coach. In two years time, the powerful duo went above and beyond anything Devaney had done.
Since taking over, Snead and Fisher have immensely upgraded the left tackle, left guard and center positions.
Pro Bowler Scott Wells was signed prior to the 2012 season, Chris Williams was added to the roster last October to fill a glaring hole at guard and All-Pro Jake Long received $20 million guaranteed this past offseason to protect Bradford’s blind side.
Yes, the organization has invested a lot of money into the hog mollies up front, but in today’s NFL spending big to protect your franchise quarterback is crucial. We all know Bradford has the tools and the smarts, yet it wouldn’t matter if he had no one to block for him.
Luckily for the Rams, all of their topdollar investments have come together quite nicely over the last season. It’s hard to believe St. Louis’ offensive line hasn’t surrendered a quarterback sack in four consecutive games dating back to 2012.
Additionally, they have only allowed 15 quarterback hits and 20 quarterback hurries over that four-game span. Aside from the added talent, offensive line coach Paul Boudreau deserves a ton of credit as well. His presence wasn’t felt immediately, but it’s obvious he has this unit playing better than it ever has.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Boudreau’s line has graded out above average with a plus-1.1 rating. Expect that number to continuously shoot up as the season progresses.
As it stands right now, the team’s top performer in pass protection is the 32-year-old veteran out of Tennessee. Wells has handled himself well through two weeks of the season. Against the Arizona Cardinals, he shut down nose tackle Dan Williams. And in Week 2, he kept defensive tackles Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux off of Bradford.
Furthermore, Long and Saffold have stated their case as two of the stoutest bookend tackles in the NFL. In addition to not allowing a quarterback sack, neither player has allowed a quarterback hit. Just imagine what a clean bill of health for Saffold could do? Consistency and repetitions are so important to fielding a cohesive unit.
After years and years of subpar performances, the Rams’ offensive line is finally starting to show real promise. Their elevated play has taken Bradford to a whole new level. Let’s go to the tape and examine how No. 8 is getting so much time to throw in the pocket.
On this fourth-quarter play, Arizona’s defense was sending five pass-rushers at Bradford. Four defenders hand their hand in the ground, and the other rusher was an inside linebacker (No. 52) who was looking to shoot the “A” gap.
Theoretically, each offensive lineman should have had a one-on-matchup. Based on the pre-snap read, it appeared as if Long had the right defensive end, Williams had the right defensive tackle, Wells had the inside backer, Dahl had the left defensive tackle and Saffold had the left defensive end.
Yet, as we know, plays often have a tendency to break down rather quickly. After Bradford completes his dropback, it appears as if the right defensive tackle is going to slip by Williams and collapse the pocket.
Fortunately for Bradford, Wells sees Williams get beat and instantly recovers on the right defensive tackle. The double-team block forces the left defensive tackle to take the long way to the throwing lane. By the time he gets to the throwing lane, Bradford had already stepped up and delivered a strike.
One thing that can’t be overlooked was the way Long and Saffold held down their respective edges. They both showed quick feet and a good kick step as the rushers came around the corner. This, in turn, helped form a clean pocket for Bradford.
The next play hones in on the offensive line’s ability when offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer calls a play-action pass.
Instead of sending five rushers, Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles decided to rush Bradford with four down linemen. Which meant seven defenders (two linebackers and five defensive backs) would be in coverage.
Tight end Jared Cook went out for a route, Long and Williams doubled down on the right defensive tackle, Dahl pulled around the backside to shut down the right defensive end, Saffold worked over the left defensive end and Wells took on the left defensive tackle.
After Bradford faked the handoff to running back Daryl Richardson, the pocket had already started to take shape. Dahl’s backside pull worked to perfection, and Saffold stonewalled the left defensive end.
The double-team block in the middle proved to be effective as well. Precise pass protection allowed Bradford to hang in the pocket until Cook got off his bump. As soon as he got off the jam, the 254-pound tight end was off to the races.
The end result was a 47-yard catch and throw. Despite the fact Cook fumbled near the end zone, you can’t discredit the offensive line’s superb effort. Without them, Bradford wouldn’t have had 2.5 seconds to throw.
This last play targets the offensive line and their understanding of making the correct blocks on a screen pass.
The Rams offense deployed a “12 personnel” look. Tight end Lance Kendricks (No. 88) ran a route away from the targeted area, Cook beelined into the flat and Richardson was patient as he waited for the screen pass to develop.
When the blockers released, it became evident that Richardson would have loads of room to run down the right sideline. Wells and Dahl did an exceptional job of taking on the linebacker downfield, and wide receiver Austin Pettis turned some heads as he took out a defensive back in the secondary.
Unfortunately for Richardson, the right wide receiver (Chris Givens) missed his block on the left cornerback and defensive tackle Peters showed ridiculous recovery speed when he ran the second-year back down from behind.
Sure, the play netted a mere four yards, but the offensive line did their job. They created the outside run lane. It’s not like they can control the wide receivers' blocking skills and Peters' recovery speed.
Even though three examples are a small sample size, the examples show key areas of improvement. Moreover, they show continuity and consistency. It’s amazing what a solidified offensive line can do for a quarterback.
In two games, Bradford is sixth in the NFL in passing yards and third in completions. Not to mention, his quarterback rating is an outstanding 93.1 and he’s averaging 325.5 yards through the air.
Undoubtedly, Bradford is starting to emerge as a top-tier quarterback, but is he there yet? No.
Nevertheless, if the offensive line’s elevated play continues, the fourth-year signal-caller could join some elite quarterback company and have the Rams fighting for a playoff spot on an annual basis.
Tip of the hat to Snead and Fisher for making the necessary moves to give Bradford the protection he deserves.