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Rams enter important stretch against non-division teams

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EARTH CITY, Mo. — There is a misconception repeated frequently that the St. Louis Rams under head coach Jeff Fisher are a team that only finds a way to play well in division games.

That notion was promulgated in 2012, Fisher’s first season as head coach, when the Rams were 4-1-1 in the division, but a disturbing 3-7 in non-division games to finish 7-8-1.

It has continued to be the narrative this season as the Rams entered their bye at 2-3, with both wins coming against NFC West rivals Seattle and Arizona, with losses to Washington, Pittsburgh and Green Bay.

However, division success wasn’t close to being the case in both 2013 and 2014. In those two seasons, the Rams were a combined 3-9 in the division and 10-10 outside the division. The four losses in six games played in 2014 were to Arizona twice, San Francisco and Seattle by a combined score of 94-43. The Rams managed just six points in losses to Arizona and Seattle. They finished 6-10 and were 4-6 in non-division games.

In 2013, the Rams were 1-5 against the NFC West and 6-4 against the rest of the schedule for a 7-9 record. The five division losses were by a combined score of 129-52, and the most points in any of those losses were the 13 scored in a 23-13 loss to the 49ers. The other losses were 35-11 to the 49ers, 30-10 to Arizona and 27-9 and 14-9 to Seattle.

Thus, for the 53 games under Fisher, the Rams stand at 22-30-1 overall, 9-10-1 in the division and 13-20 in other games.

This will likely be the subject of discussion as the Rams return from their bye and enter a stretch of six games in which five are against non-division teams, starting next Sunday at home against the Cleveland Browns.

There is a home game against the 49ers the next week, followed by games at Minnesota, home against Chicago and on the road against Baltimore and Cincinnati. They finish the season with three division games in the last five.

The Rams find themselves in the division mix after Arizona’s loss to Pittsburgh Sunday along with Seattle’s loss to Carolina. The Cardinals are 4-2 and the Seahawks 2-4 with the 49ers also 2-4. The obvious reality is that any post-season hopes depend on finding a way to win games against any opponent.

Their hope is that this season duplicates the division success from 2012. That year’s division schedule began with wins over Seattle and Arizona, just as this year’s did.

However, it isn’t enough to do well only in the division as that season proved. Which means, getting back to .500 with a win over scrappy Cleveland is mandatory.

REPORT CARD AFTER 5 GAMES

–PASSING OFFENSE: D-plus. There have been some good moments, but not consistency. Many of the numbers were brought down by the terrible performance against Green Bay, but it’s fair to say the Rams were expecting more from QB Nick Foles than a 77.5 passer rating and 57.4 percent completion percentage. Pass protection has been spotty at best. WR Kenny Britt has just 11 receptions in five games, and there have been too many drops by numerous players, most notably TE Jared Cook, who is reportedly being shopped for a possible trade. WR Tavon Austin has been utilized more in the offense and leads the team with 16 catches for 144 yards and three touchdowns. The Rams hope WR Brian Quick can become more of a factor now that he is playing after recovering from a serious shoulder injury suffered during the 2014 season.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: B. This has a good chance of moving to an A if rookie RB Todd Gurley continues the production he had in the two games before the bye. Gurley totaled 305 in those two games with two runs of more than 50 yards. He is averaging 5.7 per attempt, but is still looking for his first touchdown. Austin has contributed with 99 yards on 13 attempts, and has a rushing touchdown.

–PASS DEFENSE: B. This would have been a better grade if not for the two long touchdown passes allowed in the Week 5 loss to Green Bay. In the first four games, big plays had been kept to a minimum. Even with those two plays, which totaled 96 yards, the average per completion is still a relatively low 10.0 yards. Opposing quarterbacks, trying to avoid the Rams’ pass rush, have resorted to getting rid of the ball quickly for short passes. Even on those two Packers touchdowns, most of the yards came after the catch. The Rams have 19 sacks, with DE Robert Quinn leading the way with 4.0, followed by DT Aaron Donald with 3.5.

–RUN DEFENSE: B. Once again, one bad game and big plays have skewed the numbers. Except for allowing big numbers in the loss to the Redskins, the run defense has been good. Donald has picked up where he left off after being the NFL Defensive Rookie of the year in 2014. DT Michael Brockers has also proved to be stout against the run.

–SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus. Johnny Hekker remains one of the most consistent punters in the league, and is averaging 47.0 yards per kick with a 41.0 net. He has dropped nine punts inside the 20, and the return average is 8.3. Austin has averaged 17.3 yards per punt return with a 75-yard touchdown. K Greg Zuerlein has been fine with his only misses coming from 50 yards or more.

COACHING: B. Head coach Jeff Fisher always has his players’ backs and instituted a new practice schedule that has the team working on Tuesday, but off on Thursday. It’s still too early to know if it will have tangible results, but the players appear to like it. The staff gambled by going with a very green offensive line, and that has been an issue early in the season in pass protection. The question is how much improvement there will be and what adjustments can be made over the final 11 games.


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