ST. LOUIS — Regardless of how you feel about Sam Bradford’s third NFL season, he has made indisputable progress in two areas this season: Throwing the deep ball and running the football.
The numbers don’t lie when it comes to deep throws. With four games still to go, the Rams already have completed seven passes of 40 yards-plus, which is as many as the Rams completed in 2010 and 2011 combined.
“I’ve been fortunate to be around some really good quarterbacks,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “I’ve never been around a guy that throws the deep ball better than Sam. I mean it’s really unbelievable. I know Coach Fisher and I talk about it all the time, and then he hits one in practice and we look at each other like, ‘OK, here we go again.’ And then there’s another one.”
Even when the measuring stick is lowered to completions of 30 yards-plus (the Rams have 15 this season), or 20 yards-plus (they have 32) — the Rams either have exceeded the 2010 and ’11 totals or are on pace to do so by season’s end. Make no mistake, Rams opponents have taken notice.
“Sam’s a very athletic quarterback who has some gunslinger in him,” Buffalo coach Chan Gailey said via conference call Wednesday. “They’ll throw the ball down the field. They are averaging about seven shots a game down the field, so it really presents a challenge.
“You cannot sit there and squat (on short routes), and play the run, and do those things that you would like to do versus a strong run team like them. Doing what they’re doing really creates a problem for defenses.”
Obviously, the emergence of rookie Chris Givens has given the Rams a bona fide deep threat. Givens has five of those catches of 40-yards plus. Danny Amendola, who returned to practice Thursday on a limited basis and may try to play Sunday in Buffalo, has the other two catches of 40-plus.
After an initial adjustment period, Bradford has proven himself more than capable of getting the ball deep.
“I think it was just a matter of kind of getting used to some of the personnel we have now,” Bradford said. “But I think it’s been really good for our offense, the fact that people have seen us throw the ball down the field. It’s backed people off. They obviously respect Givens’ speed, and it’s allowed us to use him in some different ways to get completions in other areas.”
Teams are paying more attention to Givens and the deep ball lately, frequently doubling him over the top, or playing a little softer in coverage. When you’re the first wide receiver since 1966 to have a catch of 50 yards-plus in five consecutive games, teams do take notice.
“Yeah, they’re clearly aware of his deep speed,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “So, that creates opportunities underneath for him.”
That has resulted in more short stuff from Bradford over the past two games in general, particularly since Amendola has been sidelined for all but seven plays against Arizona and San Francisco with a foot injury. Even so, Bradford’s yards per attempt is up nearly a yard over his career average entering this season – at 6.9 yards per throw (compared to 6.0). His passer rating (83.8) and completion percentage (60.8) also are on pace for career bests.
That is no mean feat considering the earlier issues on the offensive line, the Amendola injuries, plus the fact that the Rams have faced seven top 10-ranked defenses in their first 12 games. In comparison, much-ballyhooed rookies Andrew Luck of Indianapolis and Robert Griffin III of Washington have faced only two top 10 defenses this season.
As for Bradford’s running, he will never be confused for RGIII or Colin Kaepernick, but he already has more carries (28) than in either of his previous two NFL seasons. And he has cracked triple digits this season, with exactly 100 rushing yards, for the first time.
“Yeah, Schotty is always talking to me about finding QB run lanes and going,” Bradford said. “I like it, especially if teams are going to play us in ‘two-man’ the way that San Francisco tried to do at the end of the game. There’s no one accounting for me. So if they’re going to do that, then I’ve got to show ‘em that I’m willing to run to get them out of that coverage.”
Defenders often have their backs turned to the quarterback in man-to-man coverage, and don’t see him scrambling right away. Against San Francisco, Bradford scrambled for 14 yards and 11 yards on back-to-back plays against man coverage in the fourth quarter.
The second scramble resulted in a 26-yard advancement because 49ers safety Dashon Goldson was flagged for unnecessary roughness when he slammed into a sliding Bradford. Without those scrambles, the Rams don’t get into position for Greg Zuerlein’s 53-yard field goal at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime tied 13-13.
Bradford also had a six-yard scramble in the third quarter.
There were times earlier in the season when Bradford had running room but chose to throw the ball instead. Would Fisher like to see Bradford run more often?
“Sam’s running just enough right now,” Fisher said. “Sam knows when to run. Sam can escape, buy himself some time, make a completion, throw it away if need be. Then of course in situations where he recognizes specific coverages, like he did in the two-minute drive, he picked up two key first downs for us.”
If nothing else, it shows that Bradford’s ankle injury of 2011, which was still a concern entering this season, has not been an issue.
Distributed by MCT Information Services