L.A. Rams: 5 Keys to Winning the NFC West

The L.A. Rams’ future looks as bright as a summer day on the Sunset Strip. Owner Stan Kroenke has added one of football’s hottest rookie quarterbacks to a backfield that already boasts the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

A stout defense and a punishing running game are perfect conditions to start a rookie quarterback. This year Los Angeles has all three. Rookie QB Jared Goff can start the season as a game manager but he will need his arm to put this team in the playoffs.

With good luck and a lot of hard work, the franchise can win the NFC West in a triumphant return to Los Angeles.

The Rams face uncertainty under center. Jeff Fisher can turn to Case Keenum if things begin to fall apart. Keenum played admirably last year and led the Rams to their first victory in Seattle since 2004. But the team needs to see what they have in Jared Goff.

General manager Les Snead shelled out two first-round picks, two second-rounders, and a third-round pick to the Titans to procure 6’4 215 lb Goff out of the University of California. If the rookie does start,  it is not unreasonable to believe that he can turn the team around in his first year.

One need look no further than Joe Flacco for evidence. In 2008, Flacco started all 16 regular season games in his first season and took a team that went 5-11 in the previous year to 11-5 and the AFC Championship.

Goff does not need to be Peyton Manning, but he needs to protect the football and make some plays. Luckily he will have Todd Gurley to help him make a successful transition to the pros.

Todd Gurley makes winning a division title this year possible. Like Goff, some questioned the Rams’ rationale in drafting the tailback tenth overall in 2015. In truth, the pick was a grand slam home run. Gurley rushed for 1,106 yards, averaging 4.8 yds per carry, even though he missed the first three games of the season.

With ten touchdowns and only one fumble, the former Bulldog became an overnight sensation. He has had over a year to train and condition in the Rams system and if the second year veteran stays healthy, Los Angeles can expect an even greater contribution from their star running back; 1,500 yards rushing for Todd in 2016 isn’t an unrealistic projection.

His mere presence in the backfield improves the play of the offensive line; taking pressure off the rookie quarterback and opening up the passing game. If Goff can protect the football and work in sync with a healthy Gurley, the Rams will go far this season.

In 2015, the running game was the only bright spot on an offense that ranked last in the league. The Rams have a tough schedule, but if the team can make moderate progress on offense, the franchise could go 11-5 versus last year’s 7 -9.

Wide receiver Tavon Austin makes plays all over the field and is ready for a break out season. Los Angeles does lack a speedy deep threat, but the front office selected two tight ends and two wide receivers in an attempt to bolster the passing attack.

The team got steals in both  Tyler Higbee, out of Western Kentucky, and University of South Carolina standout Pharoh Cooper. Higbee is one of the best pass-catching TE’s to come out of this year’s draft.

He had a solid career at WKU where he racked up 14 touchdowns on 68 catches for 1,054 yards. Cooper was South Carolinas’ MVP and scored eight touchdowns on 66 catches for 973 yards while playing with three mediocre quarterbacks.

He is a play maker, and should not be underestimated.  It will be critical for Goff and his fellow rookies to build chemistry with Gurley, Austin, and the offensive line. If these players can gel with the veterans, they can do enough to win close games.

The Rams have gambled with a reload on defense this year, but defense is what Coach Fisher does best.  The departure of DE Chris Long and LB James Laurinaitis was a surprise, but both Long and Laurinaitis’s production was down.

In a move to add speed and youth, both players have been replaced by what looks to be upgrades in DE, William Hayes and OLB Alec Ogletree. Ogletree will move inside as the Rams’ new signal caller.

The losses of CB Jenoris Jenkins and S Rodney McLeod are a concern but their replacements will play behind one of the leagues’ best defensive lines led by Aaron Donald, who finished second last year to J.J. Watt for Defensive Player of the Year.

Look for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to have CB E.J. Gaines and LaMarcus Joyner, well prepared to make the transition to starters. The Rams’ defense will continue to be the strength of the team in 2016.

Good defense and special teams cover a multitude of sins on offense and this year will be no different. While punter Johnny Hekker had another pro bowl season the Rams lost five critical games because of breakdowns on special teams.

The unit suffered from penalties that negated big plays from Tavon Austin on punt returns but the inaccuracy of kicker Greg Zuerlein was the most costly. Zuerlein has a strong leg and did well on kickoffs but lacked accuracy missing 10 out of 30 field goal attempts.

As a result, the four-year veteran had the worst average in the NFL. While Zuerlein has re-signed this off-season. The team brought in rookie free agent Taylor Bertolet out of Texas A&M to compete for the position.

In a schedule filled with staunch competition, there will be little room for error. Los Angeles must avoid mental mistakes and capitalize on every opportunity to score points if they are to win their division.

Before saying it is an impossible feat for this roster to win one of the leagues strongest divisions, remember the Rams went 4-2 last year against its NFC West opponents sweeping the Seahawks and splitting wins with Arizona Cardinals while starting two different quarterbacks.

However, the team’s schedule is ranked the third most difficult in the NFL in 2016. Los Angeles will need to play their very best football on offense, defense and special teams.

Success in these areas is key to Goff leading his new team to victory. Coach Fisher and company will need good luck to win the division title but as the saying goes, “Good luck is the result of hard work and preparation.”

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