Jim Schwartz has proven over his relatively short time as an NFL head coach that he can transform a team from the league's depths into a dangerous playoff contender. His mentor will be attempting to do the very same with the St. Louis Rams.
When the Rams head to Ford Field for a season-opening clash with Schwartz's Detroit Lions, it will mark both a new start for the long-suffering franchise and a chance for a couple of old confidants to engage in a little friendly competition.
Schwartz honed his coaching skills during a decade-long apprenticeship with the Tennessee Titans under Jeff Fisher, the man now in charge of resurrecting the Rams out of their perennial doldrums. The two worked together for a 10- year stint from 1999-2008 in which the Titans reached the playoffs six times and went to the Super Bowl once.
Taking over a Detroit outfit in 2009 that set an NFL record for futility with an 0-16 record the previous campaign, Schwartz brought the Lions to their first postseason trip in 12 seasons after orchestrating a 10-6 mark during his third year on the job in 2011.
Fisher, who amassed a 142-120 ledger and five playoff victories over 17 seasons with the Titans/Houston Oilers organization from 1994-2010, is in a similar predicament as his protege as the coveted commodity returns to the sidelines following a one-year sabbatical. The Rams have won a league-low 15 games over the last four years and haven't reached the postseason since 2004, and are coming off an injury-marred 2-14 disaster that triggered the dismissals of head coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney.
The 54-year-old Fisher is no stranger to rebuilding efforts. He took over an Oilers squad midway through a 2-14 season in 1994 and had the relocated Titans in the Super Bowl five years later, where the team came up just short in a 23-16 defeat to the Rams in Atlanta.
"What he did is, he had a good plan and he stuck with it," said Schwartz of Tennessee's turnaround under Fisher. "He's always been able to persevere and been able to get a team through very tough times. I think that will serve St. Louis very, very well. I think St. Louis is really, really lucky to have him.
"It will be an honor to coach against him.
Sunday's matchup will also pit a pair of former No. 1 overall draft choices at quarterback against one another, both of whom have endured ups and downs in the pros.
Detroit triggerman Matthew Stafford also was an integral part of last year's breakthrough after bouncing back tremendously from two seasons cut short by injuries to begin his career. The top pick of the 2009 draft lived up to his billing and then some this past season, accumulating a club-record 5,038 passing yards and 41 touchdowns as the director of one of the league's most powerful offenses.
Counterpart Sam Bradford, on the other hand, started out his tenure with a flourish, throwing for 3,512 yards and establishing first-year records for completions and consecutive attempts without an interception en route to claiming 2010 NFL Rookie of the Year honors. The former Heisman Trophy recipient experienced a sophomore slump last season, however, mustering just six touchdown passes and a 53.5 completion rate while missing six games due to a severe high ankle sprain.
Bradford's struggles resulted in St. Louis finishing last in the league in points scored and 31st in total offense, along with the Rams winning five less times than they did during an encouraging 7-9 season in 2010.
"This [past] year was difficult [for him]," said Fisher of Bradford. "I think you have to look back at his success and his production in his first year. Difficult for a lot of reasons, the lockout and lack of time together in the offense, but I think he has the chance to be a top quarterback in the National Football League very, very soon."
Rams lead 42-38-1
Last Meeting: Lions 44, Rams 6 (Oct. 10, 2010 at Detroit)
Rams HC Jeff Fisher vs. Lions: 3-1 overall, 0-0 with Rams Lions HC Jim Schwartz vs. Rams: 1-0 Fisher vs. Schwartz Head-to-Head: First Meeting
Notes: These teams have also faced off once in the postseason, a 1952 NFL Western Division Playoff in which the Lions registered a 31-21 home decision over the then-Los Angeles Rams. The Rams had won two straight in the series prior to its blowout loss at Ford Field in 2010, a 41-34 verdict in St. Louis in 2006 and a 17-10 victory in the Motor City in 2009. St. Louis' head coach for the first of those wins was Scott Linehan, now the Lions' offensive coordinator.
BY THE NUMBERS
2011 Offensive Team Rankings
St. Louis: 31st overall (283.6 ypg), 23rd rushing (104.2 ypg), 30th passing (179.4 ypg), 32nd scoring (12.1 ppg)
Detroit: 5th overall (396.1 ypg), 29th rushing (95.2 ypg), 4th passing (300.9 ypg), 4th scoring (29.6 ppg)
2011 Defensive Team Rankings
St. Louis: 22nd overall (358.4 ypg), 31st rushing (152.1 ypg), 7th passing (206.3 ypg), 26th scoring (25.4 ppg)
Detroit: 23rd overall (367.6 ypg), 23rd rushing (128.1 ypg), 22nd passing (239.4 ypg), 23rd scoring (24.2 ppg)
2011 Turnover Margin
St. Louis: -5 (18 takeaways, 23 giveaways) Detroit: +11 (34 takeaways, 23 giveaways)
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
St. Louis: 38.7 percent (31 possessions, 12 TD, 12 FG) -- 31st overall Detroit: 63.8 percent (58 possessions, 37 TD, 17 FG) -- 4th overall
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
St. Louis: 50.0 percent (52 possessions, 26 TD, 21 FG) -- 13th overall Detroit: 49.1 percent (53 possessions, 26 TD, 19 FG) -- 12th overall
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Realistically, the Rams' best chance of having a shot to pull off the upset is by controlling the clock with physical running back Steven Jackson (1145 rushing yards, 42 receptions, 6 total TD in 2011) and a short and precise passing game that will both combat Detroit's defensive pressure and keep its high-scoring offense off the field. The ultra-consistent Jackson may no longer be an elite all-around weapon at age 29 after enduring heavy workloads over the past few years, but he's still a quality back capable of churning out hard yards and moving the chains on a regular basis. He figures to be a big part of the game plan as long as St. Louis isn't forced into catch-up mode. Bradford (2164 passing yards, 6 TD, 6 INT) looked healthier and showed glimpses of his accurate rookie-year form during the preseason, and the 24-year-old has a couple of solid possession receivers to work with in slot specialist Danny Amendola and free-agent pickup Steve Smith (11 receptions with Eagles). Both are also coming back from injuries that affected their 2011 contributions and have a track record of dependability, with Smith just two years removed from a 107-catch, 1,220-yard season with the Giants and Amendola hauling in 85 passes as Bradford's safety valve in 2010. Expect promising second-year tight end Lance Kendricks (28 receptions) to get his share of short looks as well as the Rams attempt to compensate for a made-over offensive line that can be shaky in protection. The group allowed a league-worst 55 sacks a year ago and attributed to Bradford's marksmanship and confidence issues, but fields three new starters headlined by Pro Bowl center Scott Wells, who comes over from Green Bay.
The Lions will be striving to place the Rams in obvious passing situations where they can unleash one of the league's most effective defensive lines in pressuring the quarterback. Detroit sports three very good pass rushers in the combo of 2011 breakout performer Cliff Avril (36 tackles, 11 sacks, 1 INT) and high-motor veteran Kyle Vanden Bosch (35 tackles, 8 tackles) on the edges and testy 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh (36 tackles, 4 sacks) from the interior. Their ability to be a factor on Sunday will key to the defense's success, as the secondary will likely be without its two best members in free safety Louis Delmas (knee surgery) and cornerback Chris Houston (ankle). Containing the run, an area in which the Lions weren't very proficient last season, would also help accomplish the goal of turning the linemen loose, meaning middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch (111 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) and outside regulars Justin Durant (68 tackles, 1 sack) and DeAndre Levy (109 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) will need to be sound in their reads and tackling to prevent St. Louis from playing keep-away.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
The Lions were the NFL's most pass-oriented team in 2011, and don't expect them to stray a whole lot from an approach that worked so well during last year's march to the playoffs. Detroit will try to spread the field with an impressive cast of pass-catchers led by sensational wideout Calvin Johnson (96 receptions, 1681 yards, 16 TD), the league's leader in receiving yards last season who's almost impossible to handle one-on-one with his big 6-foot-5 frame and deadly deep speed. He and second-year speedster Titus Young (48 receptions, 6 TD) are the big-play threats on the outside, with crafty veteran Nate Burleson (73 receptions, 3 TD) and tight end Brandon Pettigrew (83 receptions, 5 TD) serving as the trusted underneath targets for Stafford (5038 passing yards, 41 TD, 16 INT). The Lions generally run the ball solely to keep defenses honest, and they come into Sunday's contest a bit depleted in the backfield with game-breaker Jahvid Best still not cleared to return from a concussion he suffered last October and pounder Mikel Leshoure on a two-game suspension for a substance-abuse policy violation. Reserve Kevin Smith (356 rushing yards, 22 receptions, 7 TD) is a capable substitute who'll handle the bulk of the duties in the interim, with Keiland Williams (195 rushing yards, 2 TD) used to spell him.
St. Louis should be fairly well equipped to deal with Detroit's aerial assault, as the defense possesses a pair of ends that can apply heat on the quarterback in the energetic Chris Long (37 tackles, 13 sacks) and 2011 first- round pick Robert Quinn (23 tackles, 5 sacks) and the secondary looks vastly upgraded with the offseason additions of scrappy cornerback Cortland Finnegan (75 tackles, 1 INT, 11 PD with Titans) in free agency and high-end talent Janoris Jenkins (2nd Round) through the draft. Finnegan's ability to cover the slot is a plus as well, enabling the team to place Bradley Fletcher (23 tackles), a player with good size and previous starting experience, outside in nickel arrangements. Stopping the run is another matter, however. The Rams permitted over 150 yards per game on the ground during last year's fiasco, the second-highest amount in the league, and may be down to just two healthy tackles that have been on the roster all through camp with rookie first-round selection Michael Brockers (ankle) and rotation pieces Darell Scott (knee) and Matt Conrath (knee) all battling injuries. Third-year pro Jermelle Cudjo is slated to man Brockers' post at nose tackle and will be counted on to tie up blockers to allow tackling machine James Laurinaitis (142 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) to roam free from his middle linebacker spot and make plays.
The Rams will see better days under Fisher's guidance at some point, but this isn't shaping up to be one of them. A porous run defense should enable the Lions to achieve better balance on offense and make an already potent passing game even more formidable, and St. Louis doesn't have the playmakers capable of exploiting Detroit's vulnerable secondary or a line stout enough to withstand the pressure the Lions can bring from the front seven. A sluggish start from Stafford and his mates seems to be the only viable scenario where the Rams can hang around and prevent a close game from turning into a blowout. There's a real good chance the student will get one over on the teacher in Schwartz and Fisher's first head-to-head encounter.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 31, Rams 13