The red zone had often been the dead zone in recent seasons, but as the Rams prepare to face the Carolina Panthers Sunday, they enter the game ranked third in the NFL with a 66.7 percentage of touchdowns (12-for-18). That percentage would be higher but for kneeldowns at the end of the Jacksonville game during a sequence that began at the Jaguars 4-yard line.
All of the red-zone touchdowns have been on pass plays, and quarterback Sam Bradford has a ready explanation for the improved production.
"We put a lot of work into the red zone this offseason," Bradford said. "Last year, especially early in the year, it is an area that we struggled in. Obviously, to win games in this league you've got to be able to convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. I think the success that we've had early in the year can be attributed to the fact that early in OTAs and early in training camp there was a lot of emphasis put on that."
While 14 teams have been to the red zone more than the Rams, only four have scored more touchdowns.
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer concurred with Bradford's assessment of the time the team spent practicing.
"It's something we kind of looked at from last year, as an area we put in one of the first - maybe the first install, it went in and going back to OTAs and training camp," Schottenheimer said. "We have a core group of plays that don't really change very much and our guys understand them. Obviously, he's (Bradford) got to make it go with his decisions, but the guys are getting open, and certainly that's where your matchups come in and help you."
Coach Jeff Fisher believes the recent success is traced to the team's improved ability running the ball. In the last two games, with running back Zac Stacy rushing for 157 yards on 32 attempts, the Rams scored touchdowns on 5-of-7 red-zone trips (not including those kneeldowns). Of course, even before that, they were 7-for-10 in the first four games.
Said Fisher, "I think one of the things that has helped the red-zone production has been our ability to run the football. A number of these opportunities that we've taken advantage of have been off of play action, and so we establish the run and now you force the defense to be balanced. We've yet, I believe, to score a rushing touchdown this year but that's coming.
"But, because we're running the football a little bit better it's creating opportunities. Our first touchdown was a good run fake. (Tight end) Cory (Harkey) did a nice job with his patience and escaping to the flat, so we got people involved and committed to the run but that's where it's coming."
That touchdown came with four tight ends on the field at the 2-yard line and came off play-action. Another 2-yard touchdown to tight end Lance Kendricks was also on play-action.
Of the 12 touchdowns, six have been by tight ends: Kendricks (3), Jared Cook (2) and Harkey (1).
Said Bradford, "They're a very versatile group and they're able to do so many different things, and when we get in that 13-personnel grouping (three tight ends), we can do so many different things. If we want to line up with two of them in line and one of them at fullback or if we want to spread them all out, our options are really endless. They all do everything so well that I think that's one of the reasons that they've accounted for half the touchdowns down there is the fact that we're able to move them around and do some different things that defenses haven't really been able to prepare for."
As for Bradford's overall play, Fisher said, "Been great. No mistakes. The touchdown to interception ratio is outstanding (13-3). He enjoys what he's doing. He's managing the (game) and practicing well. His feet are excellent right now in the pocket, so he's playing well."
Bradford's 1.3 interception percentage in third-best in the NFL.
But the Rams will be challenged against Carolina's defense. The Panthers are third in the NFL in yards against, fourth against the run and seventh in passing yards.
In the red zone, the Panthers are fourth defensively, allowing four touchdowns in 11 trips and on two occasions did not allow any points. The Panthers have had their bye so they have played five games, but so have seven other teams and only Kansas City with eight has allowed fewer red-zone opportunities for opponents.
Howard Balzer will be to KSDK Sports throughout the 2013 season. Howard hosts PrimeTime Monday-Friday from 6-8 pm on CBS Sports 920. He is also a host on SiriusXM NFL radio and one of 44 selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.