ST. LOUIS (AP) — Regardless of how quarterback Sam Bradford’s knee responds following an ACL tear and subsequent surgery during last season, the St. Louis Rams planned to lean heavily on their running game in 2014.
They still have to determine who gets the largest workload.
Second-year player Zac Stacy appears set for the top spot after leading the team in carries and yards as a rookie. The competition for his backup remains unsettled as the team closes in on the end of its second week of preseason training with an intrasquad scrimmage Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome.
“I feel with Sam, back healthy, looking good right now, there’s going to be a little more balance,” Stacy said after Friday’s practice. “It just goes back to the whole personnel we have in this offense.”
Stacy rushed 250 times for 937 yards in 2013, but the Rams struggled to find consistent balance between the running and passing games. About a month into the season, St. Louis began to run the ball more and, after Bradford tore his left anterior cruciate ligament Oct. 20 at Carolina, the running backs became the clear focus.
The Rams finished 19th in the league with 1,752 yards on 426 carries. Coach Jeff Fisher said he anticipates those numbers going up this year.
“We’re going to be a run-oriented football team,” he said. “It’s hard to gauge where it is right now. I’ll have a better idea once we get into the preseason.”
The Rams used four running backs in 2013, the first without veteran Steven Jackson, who signed as a free agent with Atlanta following a nine-year stint in St. Louis. Fisher tends to carry four backs on his roster.
Benny Cunningham, in his second year, and Isaiah Pead, in his third, return and are likely backups for Stacy. Tre Mason, taken in the third round of this year’s draft, is also in the mix for playing time. Daryl Richardson was waived in May despite being the third-leading rusher on the squad and has since signed with the New York Jets.
Cunningham finished with 261 yards on 47 carries, and Pead got seven attempts for 21 yards. Mason is coming off a junior year at Auburn in which he totaled 1,816 yards on 317 carries.
“There’s a lot of competition here,” Mason said. “That’s a good thing. It pushes other people to get better, but I feel like there’s always a room to get better for everyone.”
After falling to 1-3 to start the 2013 season, St. Louis moved to a more run-heavy approach and it paid off quickly. The Rams dominated their next two games – albeit against Jacksonville and Houston, who finished with a combined six victories – before Bradford was lost for the season.
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said the Rams should resemble more of what they showed after Bradford’s injury.
“That’s the way we’re built,” he said. “We’ve always been built that way. Last year, early in the year, some things got away from us, but the shift to the running game is nothing new.
“That’s what we’re going to be based on: play great defense, run the football. Our play-action game comes off of that. The running game looks good. We’ve got a good, young stable of backs. I don’t think I’ve ever been around a group of three, four, five guys with this much ability.”
Stacy had just one attempt in his first two games of his rookie season. He had no fewer than 12 the rest of the way, including a season high of 33 in a victory over Tampa Bay.
He said any surprise element he and the other young Rams had last year against teams is likely gone. Though, given the other options Bradford has at his disposal, Stacy said that might work to the running game’s advantage.
“Teams may load the box a little more this year,” he said. “But with the playmakers we have on the outside, it should open it up.”