To help break down the regular season opener, I traded Qs and As with Will Horton of RamsHerd.com, whose site got a killer makeover today. RamsHerd combines smart Rams opinions with deep-dive analysis and snappy charting, much the same as we endeavor to here at TLiW. But, you know, with Lions.
Will, who is an excellent follow on Twitter @RamsHerd, sent me five well-researched questions and I attempted to do the same. Here’s how he replied:
The first question Lions fans are going to want to answered: How is Sam Bradford adapting to Brian Schottenheimer's offense? Schottenheimer took a lot of heat from Jets fans over the years, and this season must be considered the make-or-break for Bradford's development as a franchise quarterback?
The adaptation for Bradford seems to be going well, in terms of his understanding Brian Schottenheimer’s playbook (which is akin to Pat Shurmur’s, but a little more diverse) and being able to direct traffic. Most importantly, the ball is coming out of his hand much quicker than it was under McDaniels. Whether it’s route simplicity or more decisiveness on his part, he looks much closer to his rookie year form than his 2011 “deer in the headlights” form.
I still have concerns about his mechanics, especially his footwork and his ability/willingness to slide in the pocket to avoid pass rush, rather than simply bailing out or tucking in. He showed progress this summer, but a strong pass rush like the one the Cowboys put on him in game 3 of the preseason made him revert to last year’s bad habits.
As far as this being a “make or break” season, I think Bradford needs to have a good year, but it’s still too soon to expect greatness. Give him two years in the same offense and continue to upgrade his weaponry, and I still believe he can be a top-ten quarterback in this league.
For that matter, can Steve Smith, Danny Amendola and the rest of the Rams' receivers test the Lions' beleaguered secondary? With Chris Houston and Louis Delmas looking very unlikely to play, can the stoppable force move the movable object?
Bradford has been targeting outside receivers more often in Schottenheimer’s offense than he did under Shurmur, but the real wildcard will be TE Lance Kendricks. He plays the invaluable Dustin Keller role in this offense, and has looked very good at times. His hands run hot and cold, which is a big concern, but Bradford still looks comfortable throwing to him, particularly on third downs.
We have seen a decent amount of intermediate targets and a handful of deep throws in the offense so far, which is potentially good. But unless the offensive line picks up the Lions’ pass rush, though, Sam won’t have much time to hang in and stretch the secondary.
Chris Long had a breakout performance rushing the passer in 2011, and was rewarded with a lavish four-year extension. How will his ever-changing role change for 2012, and how hard will the Rams' pass rush be for the Lions to contain?
To use a Detroit metaphor, Chris Long’s best attribute is that he has plenty of horses under the hood. He is relentless on the pass rush, and is making a more focused effort against the run as well. He should have a strong year. But Robert Quinn is the pass rusher you have to fear. His speed to the passer is breathtaking, and he has a knack for finding the ball. However, with Michael Brockers out, Quinn will face more double-teams. Long has the better running partner this week in Kendall Langford, but long-term Quinn will be the guy that takes the big step forward this year.
You posed this one to me, let me turn it back on you: "This will be an interesting matchup of coaches, with the pupil taking on the master. How will Jeff Fisher gameplan against a team that might be his strategic mirror image?"
If I’m Jeff Fisher on offense, I try to take advantage of Ndamukong Suh’s over-aggressiveness with a lot of inside running plays, redirecting him out of a lane and sending a back through there. If we consistently get a back into the second level, that has the dual effect of putting your D back on its heels and saving Bradford from a lot of early wear and tear. Plus it makes Sam’s play-action (which is very good) a more potent weapon.
On defense, I don’t think you have to do anything special to contain the Lions’ running game. I roll the dice with Janoris Jenkins or Cortland Finnegan singled up on Calvin Johnson, and roll a safety over to help. However, given our woeful situation at safety, it’s really going to be up to the corners and the pass rush to keep Megatron from blasting huge holes in the defense.
Even if it doesn’t pay off, Fisher is looking to establish a blueprint based on strong individual cornerback play and this game gives him a great stress test.
The Rams' defense has a lot of new faces--including Cortland Finnegan, whom Lions fans coveted from the instant Schwartz was hired. Which one will have the biggest impact against the Lions?
Finnegan’s impact and leadership has already been huge in restoring a swagger to a decrepit Rams secondary. But the key difference-maker is Janoris Jenkins, who has as much pure playmaking ability as any rookie I’ve seen in a Rams uniform since Torry Holt. I’m really excited to see how he performs, especially since opponents will likely be targeting him like mad. If he plays up to the potential he flashed in camp, he has a very real shot at running away with the DROY award.
I’ve often cited the Rams and Bucs as comparison cases for the Lions: all three franchises hired new coaches in 2009, all three franchises rebuilt around a first-round quarterback, and all three had some measure of early success. But while the Lions were slower to get to a winning record, both the Bucs and the Rams crashed out, and find themselves at something like square one this season.
The Rams’ rebirth and re-death was stunning: they went from a 1-15 team to a 7-9 team and back down to 2-14, all with the eminently qualified Steve Spagnuolo (“Candidate 1A”) at the helm. The collapse also occurred with Bradford, the quarterback people said the Lions should pass on Matthew Stafford and tank the 2009 season to get, under center.
With Tampa Bay, Raheem Morris’s turnaround job always felt like smoke and mirrors. His resumé was laughably thin, his demeanor and approach unconventional. Many refused to believe that Morris was getting it done with anything other than smoke and mirrors—and in 2011 his detractors seemed to be proven right.
None of the strongest bounceback indicators are there; with the Rams’ –13.4 points-per-game scoring differential, Pythagoras expected them to go 2.3-13.7. But despite a lot of roster turnover on the defense and in the WR corps, the identity is the same: Sam Bradford and Steven Jackson, Chris Long anchoring a strong defensive line.
I can’t help but feel like that 7-9 team just needed a quick dusting-off before the playoff-bubble teams from two seasons ago would shine through.
If I’m right, we’ll find out quickly.