Offenses are starting to establish balance
By Jeremy Green
As teams start to reach the midway point of the season, some sort of identity has been established. It doesn't matter whether you're talking about teams in contention or teams headed nowhere, some form of balance has been put in place. Pittsburgh and Chicago will pound the ball on the ground and try to back it with solid defensive play. Philadelphia and Green Bay are going to throw it all over the field; establishing a run game is of little concern to them.
Two teams that have changed their identity in recent weeks and seem to now be pointed in the right direction are the St. Louis Rams and Oakland Raiders. While both have done it for different reasons, the results have been similar. They are two of the most dangerous teams in the NFL right now. They are the teams nobody will want to play down the stretch, whether they are in the hunt or not, because they have found something that everyone wants in an offense -- balance.
St. Louis Rams
This is not a knock on Mike Martz because he has a great offensive mind, but the reality of the situation is that he just doesn't like to run the ball. Media and fan pressure probably forced him to run the ball even more than he liked. With Martz taking care of health issues, the reigns have been handed over to interim coach Joe Vitt. Vitt is a defensive-oriented coach, which is shown in the way the Rams play the game.
Prior to Martz's leave of absence, they had the most underutilized offensive talent in the league in RB Steven Jackson. Jackson has the ability to be a top five running back in the NFL. He has the size, strength, vision and speed to be an elite runner. Under the guidance of Vitt and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, who is handling the play-calling duties, Jackson has started to shine.
Jackson's numbers since Martz's leave of absence can't be ignored. In the five games in which Martz was at the helm, Jackson carried 75 times for 295 yards. In the three games since Vitt has taken over, Jackson has carried the ball 63 times for 364 yards. That means in two less games under Vitt, he has touched the ball from the backfield 12 less times. In one of those games, a 17-point loss to Indianapolis, Jackson still carried the ball 17 times. With Martz at the helm, Jackson would have been lucky to get 10 carries in a 17-point loss.
The overall numbers, as they relate to the Rams' pass/run ratio, are astounding. In the five games with Martz, the Rams threw the ball 215 times and ran it 101 times (68 pass/32 run percentage). In their three games under Vitt, the Rams have thrown the ball 79 times and have run it 81 times (49 pass/51 run percentage).
There are two reasons this has changed. I cannot ignore the fact that QB Marc Bulger and wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce have been injured. Their presence has definitely forced the Rams to try to be more efficient in the run game. Call me a pessimist, but I still have a feeling if Martz was at the helm, they would still be trying to throw the ball with backups at those key positions.
The most important change is Vitt's mind-set. Defensive-oriented head coaches are not interested in gaudy passing numbers and offensive efficiency through the air. They don't fret when they win a game 17-14, and the offense struggles. They tend to like ugly games in which the contest is won by who can hit who in the mouth the hardest. That is what this new Rams offense looks like. They don't look like the same finesse Rams we have been accustomed to seeing. No, this new-look Rams offensive line fires off the ball and hits opponents in the mouth. That mentality has carried over to the defensive side of the ball as well, where they have looked a lot more physical in the trenches.
When the Rams come back from the bye, they should be healthy again. Bulger, Holt and Bruce will all likely be back in the lineup. Don't expect much to change though. The Rams are on a roll right now and it all comes back to toughening up and running the ball. Opposing teams better take notice. Vitt and the newfound Rams' running game are ready to make a run right back into the playoff chase.