NFC West: St. Louis Rams

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams linebacker Daren Bates is unsure how many times he can replicate the timing of his leaping blocked field goal from the closing moments of last week's loss to the New York Giants. But he's certainly happy he was able to get it done at least once in a game.

"You have got to get it perfect," Bates said. "It was just perfect. I don’t know how many times I could do that out of 10 but it was just all I needed was that one. It was actually easier than you would think it would be."

Easy, of course, is a relative term when it comes to the play Bates is talking about. It's not too easy because what he did with about two minutes to go in the 37-27 loss has rarely been done around the league.

[+] EnlargeDaren Bates
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesDaren Bates has clearly established himself as one of the team's core special-teamers.
With the Rams trailing by 10 and looking to get the ball back, Giants kicker Josh Brown lined up for a 29-yard field goal. Before the snap, Bates started creeping toward the line and as long-snapper Zak DeOssie let the ball go, Bates was at full speed and cleanly hurdled him before landing on his feet and continuing toward the kick.

Brown's attempt never had a chance and hit Bates before it ever took off.

"You can’t really practice that in practice, somebody might get hurt," Bates said. "You just go off tendencies, indicators of the snapper or the holder or whoever it is and just try to make a play out there."

Bates had actually attempted to make that play earlier in the season against the San Francisco 49ers but he mistimed the jump and earned an offside penalty in the process. He said the key to the play is seeing tendencies on when the snap might come and getting the timing just right. The athletic part, apparently, is the easy part for Bates, who said he has always had a solid vertical jump but hasn't tested it since his pro day in 2013.

The play actually earned Bates a spot on top plays from the weekend on "SportsCenter," something he enjoyed as he heard from friends and family all over the country unaccustomed to seeing him on television.

Aside from losing the game, Bates said his only regret was that the ball took an awkward bounce rather than spinning forward where he could return it for a touchdown.

"That’s what I was expecting," Bates said. "I was trying to get the ball forward but the football is weird, it bounces any kind of way it wants to."

As Bates wraps up his second season in St. Louis, he's clearly established himself as one of the team's core special-teamers. He has nine special-teams tackles, which still trails Chase Reynolds in that category. But special-teams coach John Fassel has his own grading system for overall body of work and Bates recently moved into first place in the team in that regard in part because of his blocking ability on returns.

"I think I’m coming on," Bates said. "I want to do better, of course, each year I want to get better but as far as this year, I think I did greater than I did last year and got better in some kind of way. That’s all you can do."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- As NFL players go, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone more even-keeled and quiet than St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

Donald has earned a reputation for silently going about his business to the point where he's often the target of good-natured ribbing from his teammates for it. But when news came on Tuesday evening that Donald was headed to this year's Pro Bowl , he couldn't hide his excitement.

"I was just trying to play and at the end of the year whatever happened happened," Donald said. "I’m just happy. To do this as a rookie, my first year and accomplish something like that is amazing."

Kampman
Donald
What Donald has done in his first NFL season at one of the league's toughest positions is amazing in its own right. His eight sacks are the most among rookies and fifth-most among defensive tackles. He also has a team-high 17 tackles for loss. The Rams coaches credit Donald with 29 quarterback pressures and 12 quarterback hits.

Those numbers were enough to make Donald the first Rams rookie since Jerome Bettis in 1993 to make the Pro Bowl and the first Rams defensive rookie to make it since Isiah Robertson in 1971.

That Donald has had such an impact comes as no surprise to his teammates or coaches, who have been consistently singing his praises since the team drafted him No. 13 overall in May.

"I think from day one since he got here everyone was impressed," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "I remember [Brian] Schottenheimer saying after the first week of OTAs this kid could be defensive rookie of the year. You just kind of saw it week by week as he got more comfortable and just put in there more and more and trusted more and more and he just continued to make plays and splash plays, tackles for loss, sacks, but as a D tackle, he’s very disruptive.

"I love the way he goes about his business. He’s very quiet, takes pride in what he does. He did all that in college. It’s why he won a lot of awards. He’s doing the same thing up here, which is good to see."

If the Pro Bowl is any indication -- and it might not be -- next on the list for Donald is the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. The voting for that award is different than the Pro Bowl but it's still pretty well known that voters tend to look at raw numbers rather than the tape. On either count, Donald has a strong case.

Donald's toughest competition looks to be from Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley, the only other rookie defender to make the Pro Bowl. Dallas offensive lineman Zack Martin is the third and final rookie to earn the honor. Coincidentally, those are the three players the Rams had the most interest in with the pick they ultimately used on Donald.

Donald won nearly every award imaginable at the college level and is off to a good start in doing the same in his NFL career.

And will that Defensive Rookie of the Year award come next?

"Hopefully, we’re going to see," Donald said, laughing. "We’ll see what happens."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams landed two defensive players on the Pro Bowl teams announced Tuesday night in the form of end Robert Quinn and defensive tackle Aaron Donald. But when all is said and done, the Rams could actually have four players making the trip to Glendale, Ariz. for the annual all-star exhibition.

Cornerback Janoris Jenkins and punt returner Tavon Austin received nods as Pro Bowl alternates, which means if players ahead of them at their positions are unable to go or are still playing late into the postseason, they could get the chance to make their first appearances in the game. It's unclear how far down the alternate list both players are so it remains to be seen how many would have to miss the game for either Jenkins or Austin to go.

At cornerback, Jenkins is behind a group that includes six players who have made the playoffs. That includes Denver's Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, Indianapolis' Vontae Davis, New England's Darrelle Revis, Arizona's Patrick Peterson and Seattle's Richard Sherman. The further any or all of those players advance in the playoffs, the better Jenkins' chances.

It is a bit of a surprise that Jenkins made the alternate list given his knack for allowing big plays but he also had a couple of splashy interception returns for touchdown as well so it's likely that earned him some recognition from his peers.

Austin, meanwhile, faces a tougher road to Arizona. Philadelphia's Darren Sproles and Atlanta's Devin Hester made the team. Hester could be in the postseason which might create an opening but the Eagles are not headed to the playoffs. Austin is second in the league in punt returns with 391, which ranks second only to Sproles' 491.
» Pro Bowl analysis: AFC | NFC » Complete roster

SELECTIONS

Aaron Donald, DT, first Pro Bowl selection: The first Rams rookie to make the Pro Bowl since Jerome Bettis in 1993 and the first Rams defensive rookie to earn a bid since linebacker Isiah Robertson in 1971, Donald leads all rookies in sacks with eight. Those eight sacks also rank fifth among defensive tackles. In addition, he has 17 tackles for loss, most by a defensive tackle since the NFL began tracking the statistic in 1997. Next up for Donald is a shot at the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, an honor he'll have to battle Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley, who also earned a Pro Bowl nod, for.

Who he beat out: Jacksonville DT Sen'Derrick Marks, San Francisco DT Justin Smith, New York Jets DT Sheldon Richardson, New York Jets DT Muhammad Wilkerson, Tennessee DT Jurrell Casey -- Marks probably has the biggest beef here after posting 8.5 sacks, second-most among defensive tackles, but Donald was deserving of his spot and figures to be making this trip multiple times over the course of his career.

Robert Quinn, DE, second Pro Bowl selection: Quinn's 10.5 sacks pale in comparison to his 2013 output but are still enough to lead the team and give him three consecutive seasons in double digits. Rams coaches credit Quinn with 35 quarterback pressures, 22 quarterback hits and 13 tackles for loss. Quinn's case was certainly buoyed by his emerging reputation as one of the best pass-rushers in the league. Over the past three seasons, he has 40 sacks, which is second only to Houston's J.J. Watt in that time.

Who he beat out: Buffalo DE Jerry Hughes, Philadelphia DE Fletcher Cox, Seattle DE Michael Bennett, Minnesota DE Everson Griffen -- Griffen's 12 sacks are third in the league, but he's the only one of this group with more than Quinn. Players such as Cox and Bennett change the game in more ways than sacks, but neither necessarily has the case to make it over Quinn.

QB snapshot: Shaun Hill

December, 23, 2014
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A quick observation of quarterback Shaun Hill and how he played in the St. Louis Rams' 37-27 loss to the New York Giants in Week 16:

Hill
Hill finished with his best performance of the season in terms of passing yards (290) and his 69.9 QBR was his second-best total of his eight starts this season. Overall, he was 24-of-32 for 290 yards and two touchdowns with an interception for a passer rating of 110.2.

But Hill missed some big opportunities, including a wide-open Stedman Bailey in the back of the end zone on a drive that resulted in a field goal and a wide-open Tavon Austin down the field on a deep pass.

Once again, Hill didn't get much help from his offensive line as he was under fire for much of the day, and Hill continues to struggle when under duress. He was 1-of-7 for 1 yard when hit, under duress or both against the Giants. For the season, Hill is now 20-of-42 for 143 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating of 36.1 and a 13.2 QBR in such situations.

By way of comparison, Giants quarterback Eli Manning was 6-of-7 for 181 yards and a touchdown under similar circumstances.

It's not breaking any new ground to say the Rams need help at quarterback in the offseason, but plugging some holes on the offensive line also would go a long way toward helping whomever that quarterback might be.
ST. LOUIS -- Entering Sunday's game against the New York Giants, the St. Louis Rams defense was playing about as well as any in the league over the past eight weeks.

Included in that performance was a streak of 12 quarters without allowing a touchdown, two shutouts -- against the Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins -- and a gem in which they held the Denver Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning to the fewest points -- seven -- of Manning's tenure in Denver.

Those numbers were likely unsustainable for any defense but nobody expected what came in Sunday's 37-27 loss to the New York Giants. Fittingly, it was the younger Manning brother, Eli Manning, who was at the controls of an offense that made a previously extraordinary defense straining to reach ordinary.

By the time Manning and Co. were done, they had laid waste to the Rams to the tune of 514 yards of total offense, including Manning's 25-of-32 for 391 yards and three touchdowns.

"To give up 500 yards is embarrassing," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "They made all the plays today. We didn’t get a takeaway. We didn’t do enough just period in every facet of the defense. It was self-inflicted stuff. That’s the thing that really gets you upset because you think you’re past it.

"It’s cliché but it’s just back to work, fix our mistakes and try not to repeat them. This business is all about not being repeat offenders of the same mistake, if they are, they take it and you get replaced."

Sunday's performance probably left many Rams fans searching for possible replacements. New York's 37 points were the most allowed by the Rams this season and second most allowed by a Rams team since Jeff Fisher took over in 2012. The 514 yards of offense allowed were the most by a Rams team under Fisher.

While those monster offensive days have been rare against the Rams under Fisher, there were plenty of plays making up those yards that have become all too familiar. None more so than the 80-yard touchdown pass from Manning to rookie receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in the third quarter.

After a Rams touchdown made it 27-20, the Giants faced third-and-10 from their 20 with 55 seconds left in the third. On the previous play, starting cornerback E.J. Gaines had suffered a concussion that removed him from the game and brought rookie corner Lamarcus Joyner in his place.

Joyner lined up in the slot over Beckham with Trumaine Johnson on the outside receiver. At the snap, Beckham broke to the outside with outside receiver Rueben Randle coming underneath. Both Johnson and Joyner stayed with Randle, leaving Beckham with a free run into the Rams secondary where only safety Mark Barron awaited.

You can guess how that movie ended.

"It was a mental error by both guys, a miscommunication, something that we’ll go back and fix," Joyner said. "Technique and uncommon errors by guys. We gave up a touchdown. We were in two-man and we were supposed to in and out that, the defense has been playing well and it was my first time back out there so when you’ve got a new guy you need continuity and things kind of went south."

It was a play eerily reminiscent of the 68-yard touchdown catch by Dallas receiver Dez Bryant earlier this season when the Rams busted the coverage and failed to cover the most dangerous player on the field. If Randle makes a catch, it might go for a solid gain and a first down but if Beckham gets it, well, you know the rest.

Manning was 6 for 8 on passes traveling at least 15 yards in the air, twice as many as the Rams had allowed in their past four games combined. He also was able to pinpoint Rams' blitzes to great effect, going 13-of-15 when the Rams sent five or more rushers.

But instead of just one or two big breakdowns, there were many for this Rams defense. Giants running back Andre Williams had 110 yards on 26 carries, including 65 yards after contact as the Rams failed to tackle sufficiently. Even the Rams' revved up pass rush downshifted with only one sack, none from the defensive line, as Manning was 6 for 7 for 181 yards and a touchdown when he was pressured.

"I thought we were beyond that," Laurinaitis said. "But when you have miscommunication or whatever happened on plays or you drop coverage and you don’t play certain techniques right or you’re bad on third down, stuff that we hadn’t done, it's uncharacteristic to the way we had been playing."
ST. LOUIS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the St. Louis Rams' 37-27 loss to the New York Giants:

Gaines
Gaines OK: There was a scary moment late in the third quarter, when Rams cornerback E.J. Gaines collided with safety T.J. McDonald while diving for an interception. McDonald's knee caught Gaines in the head, and Gaines crumpled to the ground, where he was instantly surrounded by teammates and medical staff.

Coach Jeff Fisher said after the game that Gaines would be OK. Gaines has a concussion and a lacerated lip and will go through concussion protocol.

Penalties and miscues: It's been a common combination for the Rams under Fisher, and it reared its ugly head again Sunday. Whether it was a coverage bust, a protection issue or a penalty flag, the Rams seemed to run the gamut on Sunday. They finished with nine penalties for 76 yards, but those included silly mistakes such as jumping offside on fourth-and-short when New York was punting and being offside on a kickoff.

"Mental errors in this league will get you beat faster than physical errors," tackle Joe Barksdale said.

Unacceptable: That was a word used by many around the Rams' locker room after their latest clunker. For a team that had showed signs of turning it around, it offered a not-so-subtle reminder that games such as this are always around the next corner.

"It's just unacceptable," defensive end Chris Long said. "We didn't play well, and it's just unacceptable."

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

December, 21, 2014
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videoST. LOUIS -- A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 37-27 loss to the New York Giants at the Edward Jones Dome.

What it means: The Rams will now have one more chance to reach seven wins for the third consecutive season under coach Jeff Fisher. Not that seven wins should be some sort of benchmark, but a chance to get to eight would have at least offered something close to tangible progress. That will be even more difficult to come by, considering they finish the season with a trip to the Pacific Northwest to play the Seattle Seahawks. Sunday's game would show there's little chance of such an upset. A Rams defense that had been dominant for much of the second half of the season was picked apart by Giants quarterback Eli Manning & Co. Meanwhile, the Rams offense simply isn't good enough to cover a clunker from the defense. This came despite 10 days to prepare. At 6-9, the Rams face the real possibility of finishing with a worse record than in either of Fisher's first two seasons.

Stock watch: Down -- Rams defense. Sooner or later, the Rams defense figured to end its recent run of dominance. After 12-plus quarters with the Rams' not allowing a touchdown, Manning and the Giants thoroughly dominated a defense that was unable to create pressure and allowed big plays that led directly to points. The Rams even offered a signature busted coverage on Odell Beckham Jr.'s 80-yard touchdown -- something that was a regular occurrence earlier in the season but hadn't happened in a while. Overall, they surrendered 514 yards of offense, the most by a Rams defense since Fisher arrived in 2012.

Getting chippy: For two teams that rarely play each other, the Rams and Giants seemed to have plenty of animosity. Beckham, in particular, seemed a favorite Rams target, as safety T.J. McDonald and linebacker Alec Ogletree picked up taunting and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties after Beckham touches. Ogletree's late hit manifested into a big second-quarter brawl. Giants defensive end Damontre Moore, receiver Preston Parker and Rams defensive end William Hayes were ejected for their roles in the skirmish. Even former Rams kicker Josh Brown picked up an unnecessary roughness penalty in the first quarter. By the time all was said and done, the Giants and Rams accounted for 21 penalties for 225 yards.

Game ball: WR Kenny Britt -- Not many Rams were worthy Sunday, but Britt at least showed up and reminded why the Rams should make retaining him an offseason priority. He finished with nine catches for 103 yards and provided a good block on the perimeter to spring running back Tre Mason on his 10-yard touchdown run.

What's next: The Rams wrap up their 2014 with another season-ending trip to take on the Seattle Seahawks.

Rams looking to build toward 2015

December, 19, 2014
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Now that they're mathematically eliminated from the 2014 playoff race, the St. Louis Rams don't have much to play for during the season's final two weeks. At least not when it comes to this year.

But survey the Rams' locker room and you'll find plenty of reasons why they're unlikely to just mail it in against the New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks in the final two weeks.

First and foremost, there's an overwhelming feeling that this is a team on the verge of a breakthrough.

"I think nobody will say they didn’t want to be in the playoffs," safety T.J. McDonald said. "But some of these playoff teams that are in the playoffs, we have beaten and we’ve definitely established a presence when we played them. Just being able to take that into next year, I hope people will remember that."

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Tom GannamRobert Quinn (94) and the Rams have had their moments this season, but their ultimate results fall into the same pattern as recent seasons.
OK, but haven't we been hearing similar things from various corners of the locker room for more than a decade now? Haven't we been told that this is the last rebuilding year? Haven't the Rams too often adopted the unofficial slogan of the Chicago Cubs that "there's always next year?"

"There’s no shot at the playoffs, but we can finish the year strong and built momentum toward the future," defensive end Robert Quinn said. "We’ve said it for the past few years but as you see guys growing this past year, hopefully going into next year we can really hit the ground running like we want."

The Rams' propensity for slow starts under coach Jeff Fisher -- they've started the past two years 1-3 and were 2-2 to start 2012 -- have eventually doomed them despite their knack for getting things going later in the season. The Rams have been 3-5 after eight games in each of Fisher's three seasons. So any idea of "momentum" carrying from one season to the next has been lost on the Rams.

That begs the question of what, exactly, the Rams can gain over the final two weeks? Well, it would start by beating the Giants this week at home. That would give the Rams seven wins for a third consecutive season. Clearly, that's not good enough, but mediocrity remains an upgrade over what preceded Fisher's tenure in St. Louis. It would also give the Rams a shot to get to 8-8 for the first time since 2006 if they could pull off a serious upset in Seattle to close the season.

Not that 8-8 would be much better, but it would at least signify an upgrade in the win column.

"I would think, but not really," guard Rodger Saffold said. "It’s kind of like we have been trapped with seven wins. Really, honestly, I just want to finish on a real good note and leave happy and excited about the upcoming season and really put this last loss behind us."

Beyond records and numbers, Quinn also points to the harsh reality of playing in the NFL. While he's certainly safe in his position as a franchise cornerstone, every offseason comes with plenty of roster turnover. For guys who are pending free agents such as tackle Joe Barksdale, tight end Lance Kendricks, quarterback Shaun Hill and others, every snap matters as they head toward uncertain futures.

"We have got to finish the year strong," Quinn said. "We are professionals. We have to put good film out there. You don’t ever want to put bad film out and have something come back and haunt you at the end. We have to take it one week at a time. We have got pride left and that’s what we have got to finish with."

As for any noticeable drop-offs this week in practice, Fisher said he hasn't seen anything but the usual, professional approach.

“They’re fine," Fisher said. "We’re preparing no different than any other week to go win this next game. That’s our focus and that’s their intention. As long as you create an environment where they can have fun, look forward to coming to work, they’ll work hard. And that’s what we’ve done."

Rams healthy heading into Sunday

December, 19, 2014
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams made it through another week of preparation with no setbacks and will head into Sunday's game against the New York Giants with no injury issues of any real concern.

Center Scott Wells and guard Davin Joseph, both of whom missed a practice this week for a veteran's day off, practiced Friday and while still listed on the injury report, there's no doubt that they'll be ready to play on Sunday. Officially, Wells and Joseph are listed as probable against the Giants but since both practiced Friday there's no reason to think they won't play.

Defensive end Chris Long was added to the report Friday when he didn't practice but also not for any serious reason. All three players are listed as probable for Sunday.

Here's Friday's full injury report, such as it is:

Probable: C Scott Wells (not injury related), G Davin Joseph (not injury related), DE Chris Long (not injury related)
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- With two games to play in the 2014 NFL season, the St. Louis Rams defense is playing as well as any unit in the league.

After something of a sluggish start, the Rams defense has raised its level of play in the past eight games. But because of that slow start, the ranking don't necessarily reflect how far that group has come.

Before the season is finished, that's something they're hoping to rectify.

[+] EnlargeDrew Stanton, Aaron Donald, Alec Ogletree, Eugene Sims
AP Photo/Tom GannamAfter recording just one sack in their first five games, the Rams defense has 36 sacks in their last nine.
"I think personally being in the top 10 or being in the top 5 for us would be great, especially with how young this defense is and the teams we’ve beat," defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. "It would be a great confidence booster for us going into next season."

In terms of overall defense, the Rams are tied for 11th in the league in yards allowed per game at 339.9. Reaching the top 10 is a reasonable goal considering that the No. 6-ranked Jets are giving up 329.8 yards per game and the others between the Rams and Jets are even closer to the Rams' number. Making the top 5 would take a more Herculean effort since No. 5 Buffalo is yielding just 313.4 yards per game. If the Rams can get there, it would be the the first time since 2001 they've finished in the top 10.

Of course, yards allowed per game isn't necessarily even the best measure of a defense. The Rams are also tied for 12th in the league in points allowed per game at 21.2. Were it not for the points allowed by offensive turnovers or special teams, they'd already rank near the top of the league. They still have a chance to break into the top 10 there, also, as No. 8 New England is just 1.2 points ahead of them.

Considering the fact that the Rams have not allowed a touchdown in 12 quarters, they would seem to have a realistic shot of reaching that top 10 also. Over the past eight games, the Rams have given up 15.1 points per game, second fewest in the league in that span.

"It would be a great thing to say that nobody scored a touchdown on us the rest of the season," safety T.J. McDonald said. "That would be great. The rest is just playing good ball, playing consistent ball, play physical like we know how and execute the plan for the week."

After posting the most combined sacks in the NFL over the past two seasons, the Rams would need record-setting performances to reach the top of the league this year after the slow start in which they had just one through the first five games. They now have 36 on the season, which is tied for 10th in the NFL. Detroit is fifth and has 39 so the Rams have a shot to shoot up that chart as well.

Even if they don't the Rams need to have two more sacks than Buffalo the rest of the way to have the most in the league in that category over the past three years combined.

While they'd much rather be making a move toward the postseason, the Rams defense at least has manufactured something to strive for in the final two weeks.

"That’s not a bad way to go," end Robert Quinn said. "The defense is playing great, even field goals are kind of unacceptable for us. That’s just how our defense wants to be, be stingy out there, give up no points and try to give our offense the most opportunities possible. We know throughout the year we shot ourselves in the foot and everybody had their turns but overall we stuck together as a team and trying to finish the year strong."

Giants vs. Rams preview

December, 18, 2014
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When: 4:05 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis TV: FOX

The St. Louis Rams and New York Giants have both been eliminated from playoff contention and neither enters Sunday's matchup with much to play for.

But neither team has looked like it is ready to close up shop for the rest of the season, either, which could make this at least a mildly interesting game for the football diehards.

ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano discuss Sunday's game:

Wagoner: Dan, I'm sure you're getting a lot of questions about Odell Beckham Jr., but let's be real, he's going to be the most exciting player on the field Sunday. What is it about him that's allowed him to have such success, and is he as fun to watch up close as he is from a distance?

Graziano: Nick, I don't want to overstate the case here. But what we're watching with Beckham on a weekly basis (a daily one, in fact, when you take into account his practice antics) is a player gifted with such raw athleticism that he stands out on a field whose other occupants are also world-class athletes. He's impressive in all facets. He runs great routes. He has great hands. He plays bigger than his 5-foot-11 size would indicate, because he has the ability to outjump defenders and locate the ball in the air before they do. He has the blazing speed you've seen. Really, from a raw talent standpoint, he's the total package. What he's doing is even more incredible due to the facts that he missed all of training camp and the first four games of the season with a hamstring injury, and that he and Victor Cruz played only two games together. Eli Manning is targeting Beckham pretty much all the time, and it's working. Expect to see a lot of him.

The Rams' defense has allowed a total of 12 points over its past three games. What's behind the surge?

Wagoner: There are plenty of reasons for the surge, up to and including taking advantage of a bit of a break in the schedule in terms of opponents. But make no mistake: The Rams' defensive surge is real. They held the high-powered Broncos to seven points, the fewest since Peyton Manning took over at quarterback. The intangible part of it is the defense has finally gotten comfortable with Gregg Williams as coordinator and vice versa. Williams now knows the best way to deploy his players and they now know what is expected of them. That's manifested into a defense that's doing a bit of everything well. The Rams had a disappointing performance last week in stopping Arizona's run game, but their better efforts start with stopping the run. When the Rams stop the run consistently and force opponents into second- and third-and-long, their vaunted pass rush can be as good as advertised. It doesn't hurt that end Robert Quinn and tackle Aaron Donald form one of the most dynamic inside out duos in the league, either. But really, they're getting better performances across the board with the defense.

While we're on defense, I noticed that since Week 7, the Rams and Giants rank first and third in the league in sacks, respectively. What's been the cause of the uprising from New York's pass rush?

Graziano: The Giants had 19 sacks in their first 11 games of the season and have picked up 22 in their past three games. A lot of that has to do with their opponents -- Jacksonville, Tennessee and Washington. But in terms of what they're doing to take advantage of the matchups, they're getting contributions from all over. Jason Pierre-Paul has six sacks in those three games, but rookie defensive end Kerry Wynn is making a contribution. Rookie linebacker Devon Kennard, who was NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 14, has been a factor in the pass rush. Second-year defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins is up to seven sacks for the season. The Giants are getting a variety of help in the pass rush, which is especially important with defensive ends Mathias Kiwanuka and Robert Ayers among the 22 Giants currently on injured reserve. They'll blitz a linebacker or a safety or a cornerback in key times. Basically, since the schedule turned around for them, they've been taking advantage of their matchups at a high level and in a variety of ways.

I know the quarterback situation has been a muddle, but why do the Rams still have so many unanswered questions at the other offensive skill positions? Receiver and running back?

Wagoner: Well, I think they've at least finally settled on Tre Mason as their primary ball carrier for the future, though I suppose we thought the same thing last year at this time with Zac Stacy. Mason's not getting the vast majority of the snaps right now because he's still not up to speed in pass protection, but if and when that happens, his snap count will only increase. In the meantime, he's the first option running the ball and Benny Cunningham is next in line to handle the dirty work. I think Mason will be the main guy going forward, but judging the Rams' recent knack for drafting running backs earlier than expected, maybe that should be considered a year-to-year proposition until they go with the same guy for two consecutive seasons. At receiver, they seem to have finally settled into using Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. If Brian Quick comes back from a devastating shoulder injury and they re-sign Britt, they should be pretty solid. I'd argue they could still use a true No. 1 guy like the Giants have with Beckham, but it's not the pressing need it was coming into the season. They just need to find someone who can more consistently get them the ball.

Sticking to quarterbacks, what do you make of Eli Manning at this point in his career? He's obviously had great success but also some clunkers. With so few decent quarterbacks around, there's no way the Giants would look elsewhere at that position, is there?

Graziano: No way. Other than the horrible five-interception game against the 49ers in Week 11, Manning has operated the new offense smoothly and efficiently in the first year under new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. He's protecting the ball well, making good decisions, relying on shorter, higher-percentage stuff than he did earlier in his career. Considering they have four wide receivers and three running backs on injured reserve, and that the offensive line has struggled all year to protect him, I think Manning's doing fine and is among the very least of their problems.

As for quarterback, what do you expect them to do this offseason? Bring back Bradford? Move up in the draft? What?

Wagoner: At this point, the expectation remains that the Rams will try to bring Sam Bradford back at a reduced rate with incentives built in, and spend a high draft pick (first three rounds) on a quarterback. I've been writing that for the past month or so and I stand by the assertion until I hear something different. Of course, that still depends on how big the pay cut would be and whether Bradford's representation wants to explore the market. Even with his injury issues, he could become a hot commodity in such a quarterback-needy market. Moving up sounds good on paper, but I'm not sure they have the ammunition or the desire to make such a move. They could also look to bring Shaun Hill back as a backup option for Bradford and/or the new draft pick. Either way, it's the one thing holding this team back from being a legitimate playoff contender. The only problem is that it's also the most difficult problem to fix.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams defensive back Lamarcus Joyner has been a healthy scratch for the past few weeks after recovering from a groin injury that had forced him to the sidelines.

When Joyner returned from that injury, though, his spot as the team's primary nickelback had been handed to fellow rookie E.J. Gaines. And with safety Mark Barron more involved in the defense, Joyner has been relegated to the pregame inactive list.

For a player who started 40 of a possible 55 games at Florida State, including all but one during his final three seasons, sitting on the bench has been an adjustment.

[+] EnlargeLamarcus Joyner
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriLamarcus Joyner was injured at Arizona on Nov. 9. He is healthy now, but is still on the sideline.
"It’s an odd feeling," Joyner said. "We all have setbacks, but I’ve had worse adversity that I’ve had to make it through in my life, so I look back to that -- I fall back to that to help me get through what I’m going through now. But it’s definitely a strange feeling."

Perhaps the strangest part for Joyner is that it's not really something he did or didn't do that has left him on the bench recently. Before the season, the Rams projected Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson as starters with Joyner, the team's second-round pick in May, as the nickelback.

But Johnson suffered a knee injury in the third preseason game and Jenkins has been slowed by a knee issue of his own. Those ailments created a spot for Gaines, the team's sixth-round pick, to step in and play.

Gaines has been something of a revelation for the Rams with 67 tackles, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. A strong argument could be made that Gaines is shaping up as one of the draft's biggest bargains.

Upon the return to health of both Johnson and Jenkins, Gaines had already established himself as capable of handling any role while Joyner was battling his groin injury.

"[Gaines is] a guy that whether he’s in the middle, inside, outside, he’s a good cover guy," safety T.J. McDonald said. "Wherever he’s at, he’s a good player."

The Rams have settled in on their defensive backs in recent weeks with Jenkins and Johnson on the outside and Gaines in the nickel. They've also kept all five of their safeties active with Barron, McDonald and Rodney McLeod playing a lot on defense and Maurice Alexander and Cody Davis working on special teams.

Marcus Roberson, St. Louis' third rookie cornerback, also has been a healthy scratch. Although Joyner acknowledged the strange feeling of standing on the sideline not in uniform, he said he's doing what he can to be a good teammate until his turn comes up again.

"I will support my team’s success. We’ve been doing really good as a defense, which makes me happy for the guys that are out there, for the brotherhood, so all I can do is show my support and do the best I can do with whatever I can help with," Joyner said.

In eight games this season, Joyner has 32 tackles with a pair of pass breakups. He'd had his share of struggles but appeared to be coming into his own a bit before suffering the injury early in the Rams' Nov. 9 loss to Arizona.

"I did pretty well," Joyner said. "I had a lot I needed to improve. We all see what’s on TV but when you go in the film room, you see a lot of mistakes and errors that you made."

Whether Joyner will be active for either of the team's final two games remains to be seen, but it's safe to say he still factors into the team's plans moving forward. Jenkins and Johnson are both set to become free agents after the 2015 season and the Rams' level of interest in retaining one or both won't be revealed for a while.

Gaines has done enough to earn a long-term role of his own, but it's possible that his long term future is on the outside, with Joyner handling nickel duties.

"I’ve got a future to look forward to," Joyner said. "I’m going to get better on the field and I’ve got a bright future to look forward to. That’s what I’m going to do."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The San Diego Chargers announced Tuesday evening that they will remain in San Diego for the 2015 NFL season.

In making the announcement via a statement from Mark Fabiani, the team's point person on stadium efforts and special counsel to Chargers president Dean Spanos, the Chargers made it clear that they are still working toward finding a solution to stay in San Diego for the long haul.

[+] EnlargeQualcomm Stadium
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe Chargers' announcement that they will remain in San Diego next season is good for the prospects of the Rams staying put at least another season too.
"Today, the Chargers are making the same announcement that the team has made each year since 2007: The team will not be exercising the lease termination clause and will keep working to find a publicly acceptable way to build a Super Bowl-quality stadium in San Diego," Fabiani said in the statement. "Calendar year 2015 will constitute the team's fourteenth year of work on a San Diego stadium solution."

That announcement and the proclamations from Fabiani left many St. Louis Rams fans hoping and wishing for something similar or at the very least a declaration that the team would stay put in 2015 to come from owner Stan Kroenke or one of his proxies. While that hasn't happened -- at least not yet -- there are plenty of signs pointing to no team moving to Los Angeles in 2015. That includes the Rams.

Why? Well, the theory goes that the Chargers wouldn't so boldly and outwardly forfeit their leverage on the Los Angeles situation without some sort of knowledge that nobody would be moving to Los Angeles in time for the 2015 season. San Diego has long claimed that about a fourth of its season-ticket holders come from the Los Angeles and Orange County areas and that another team moving into the city would be detrimental to its business.

Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times offered similar thoughts in a column Tuesday night. And the New York Times reported earlier this week that the chances of a team moving in 2015 had "dimmed."

In that report, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was quoted as saying that nothing was imminent on the Los Angeles front. Which brings us to the question of timing on the Chargers' statement. In connecting those dots, one would think that San Diego received strong signals that the league would not allow anybody to head to Los Angeles in 2015. Hence Tuesday's announcement.

How that was conveyed still remains unclear at this particular moment but reading the tea leaves here shouldn't be that difficult. Could Rams owner Stan Kroenke or Raiders owner Mark Davis still file for relocation in February? Sure, but it seems increasingly clear that the NFL is and will continue to control this process. Going rogue against the league has been done before but would seem unnecessary given that the Los Angeles market would still be in play beyond next year.

As for St. Louis, Dave Peacock and Bob Blitz, the task force appointed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, continue to work on possible proposals for an NFL stadium. In the New York Times report, it was mentioned that Peacock met with Eric Grubman, the league's point person on Los Angeles, recently.

And for what it's worth, the Rams have already begun accepting deposits for 2015 season tickets on their website.

There remain plenty of unknowns when it comes to the Rams' long-term future in St. Louis and though there may be a bit of short-term clarity forthcoming, it's best to buckle up and remember that it's all far from over.

Rams need to look at O-line personnel

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
10:00
AM ET

ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner talks about the team playing younger offensive linemen to assess their talent level.

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