A series that has traveled to four cities and entertained fans in seven stadiums through the years continues Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome when the St. Louis Rams (4-4) play host to the Chicago Bears (3-5). Game is noon (TV-KMOV-Channel 4; Radio-WXOS-FM 101.1).
Here are five things to watch:
1. With a potentially dominant running attack led by rookie Todd Gurley, will this be the week Rams quarterback Nick Foles and the passing attack finally enjoys a breakout game?
That’s probably up to Foles, Rams offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti and the receiving corps. The Rams have the NFL’s worst pass offense (177.1 yards per game), one that has been below 200 yards in each of the last seven games. The overall offense ranks 31st out of 32 NFL teams despite being fourth in rushing thanks to the immediate impact of Gurley. His 664 yards rushing ranks fourth in the league and is the sixth-highest total in NFL history for a player’s first six games. Foles has completed 128-of-220 (58.2 percent) of his passes for 1,478 yards and seven touchdowns with five interceptions. He ranks near the bottom in most passing categories. While this is his first season in Cignetti’s offense and working with new receivers, the Rams are halfway through the season. It’s time to see some progress.
2. Why do the Rams have so much trouble converting third downs?
Good question, especially given the various offensive options ranging from Gurley to Tavon Austin to Kenny Britt and tight ends Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks. The Rams rank dead last in the NFL in third-down conversions at 23.8 percent (24-for-101). They are 4-for-37 in their previous three games and were 2-for-16 last week. Better production on first down helps, whether from Gurley or the passing attack. Some help could come from new Rams receiver Wes Welker, who has made a career out of moving the chains with his precise route-running and five 1,000-yard receiving seasons. At 34 and with a history of concussions, it will be interesting to see how quickly Welker can get up to speed with Foles and the offense. But if healthy and in shape, he certainly provides another option to an offense in dire need of some energy outside of the electric Gurley.
3. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler seems to be playing much more effective in recent weeks, but two of his top offensive weapons are dealing with injuries. Can the Rams’ defense impose its will on the Bears in the friendly and noisy Edward Jones Dome?
Cutler has thrown for 1,787 yards and 10 TDs with five interceptions and his top target is wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery returned to practice Friday after missing Thursday with a groin injury and is listed as questionable for Sunday. Running back Matt Forte (knee) was replaced against San Diego by rookie Jeremy Langford, who had 72 yards rushing, 70 yards receiving and a TD. Jeffery is among the hottest receivers in the league with three straight games of 100 or more yards, tied for the longest streak in team history, and 28 catches overall for 414 yards and two TDs. Ironically, Jeffery was chosen 12 spots behind Rams receiver Brian Quick (33rd overall out of Appalachian State) in the second round of the 2012 draft. Cutler is making better decisions and has cut down his turnovers, but still looks to make plays downfield. He also commanded a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive Monday that gave the Bears a 22-19 win over the Chargers. It was Cutler’s 17th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter and he seems to be on the same page with Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase and coach John Fox.
4. With Robert Quinn and T.J. McDonald returning from injuries, will the Rams return to their sack-happy, shut-down defense ways?
The Rams had only one quarterback sack last week in the painful 21-18 overtime loss at Minnesota, but their 27 sacks still rank second in the NFL. Quinn, defensive end Chris Long and McDonald all missed that game with injuries and their return should help immensely. Containing Cutler, Jeffery and highly productive tight end Martellus Bennett should be the main focus. Bennett leads all NFL tight ends with 45 catches and is 11th overall with 324 yards, catching three TD passes.
5. Why is is so hard for this Rams team, which has flashed the look of a playoff contender at times, to develop more consistency?
Good question. The season is half over and the excuses about being young or having a lot of first-year starters should be gone. However, questions about Foles and his receivers aren’t going way and the production simply hasn’t been there in the passing attack. A young and inexperienced offensive line minus its top veteran (injured Rodger Saffold) has also contributed to the malaise, since many times Foles simply doesn’t have time. But when he does, he needs to be more efficient and effective in finding receivers quickly. There is no doubt this team can challenge for a playoff spot, but needs to begin stacking wins and consistent efforts together.