The St. Louis Rams will have some intriguing questions to answer on the offensive line when the season ends thanks to young players receiving opportunities because of injuries.
The latest is center Tim Barnes, who will likely be the starter for the rest of the season after Scott Wells suffered a fractured fibula in this past Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers.
Wells will be 33 in January and is scheduled to be paid $5.5 million in 2014. Barnes will be 25 in May and will be an exclusive rights free agent in 2014. In addition, the Rams selected center/guard Barrett Jones in the fourth round of this year's draft, and he is expected to be active this week against Arizona for the first time this season.
Of Barnes, who played 44 snaps against San Francisco after Wells was injured, coach Jeff Fisher said, "He played pretty well. Tim, he's a pro, he prepares. He gets a minimal amount of reps on the practice field, and he played well with Scott being down. Scott's going to be down for four to six (weeks) now, so Tim will be our guy."
Barnes isn't the only offensive lineman that has played extensively this season. Joe Barksdale has become entrenched at right tackle after Rodger Saffold suffered a knee injury and missed four games earlier this season.
When Saffold returned, he and Barksdale were sharing snaps. But when right guard Harvey Dahl suffered a knee injury, Saffold moved to Dahl's spot and played well.
The Rams have offseason decisions to make on both Saffold and Dahl. Saffold will become an unrestricted free agent unless he signs a new contract with the Rams before the league year begins March 11.
Saffold would seemingly want to test the market as a free-agent tackle unless the Rams made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Dahl, who will be 33 in June, restructured his contract in September and along with a $2 million base salary in 2014, he is due a $2 million roster bonus on the third day of the league year.
Barksdale will be a restricted free agent, while left guard Chris Williams will also be an unrestricted free agent.
The numerous questions might take several months to answer.
SERIES HISTORY: 70th regular-season meeting. Rams lead series, 34-33-2. The Rams took the elad in the series with a 27-24 win on the first Sunday of the season. It is the third consecutive win by the Rams over the Cardinals, who had won 10 of 11 before the 2012 season.
--This season has seen a large number of questionable penalties on defensive players trying to make a play.
On several occasions, when Rams coach Jeff Fisher has been asked about a penalty, he would mention the efforts for player safety that the NFL is undertaking.
The subject came up again this week after linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar and cornerback Trumaine Johnson were called for 15-yard penalties against the 49ers.
Dunbar was flagged for a blow to the head when 49ers Colin Kaepernick went into a slide at the end of a run. Replays showed Dunbar didn't contact Kaepernick's head.
Later, Johnson was penalized for a hit on a defenseless receiver (Anquan Boldin), who had caught a pass and was going toward the ground while trying to reach the first-down line. The penalty was borderline at best, but NFL officials have been instructed to throw flags on anything close.
On Dunbar's penalty, Fisher said, "Jo-Lonn's penalty I wasn't really crazy about. I don't think that was a foul, but we understand that's the world we're in now under player safety."
As for Johnson, Fisher said, "With respect to Trumaine's penalty on third down, the coaches' tape didn't show much, but you look at the TV tape there is contact with his arm to the helmet. That's a player trying to prevent a ball carrier from getting a first down."
As a member of the league's competition committee, Fisher was asked if things have gone too far with officials calling penalties, which in numerous instances aren't fouls.
Fisher admitted, "I think that we need to look at some things. I think Trumaine's penalty, for example, is a really good example of a player who's trying to make a play, yet the helmet of the ball carrier - whether or not he's defenseless or not - is lowering and lowering and lowering and he's trying to make a play. But, the responsibility is placed on the defensive player and that's the way they are. I think there's a chance we'll look at some things and discuss them. I'm sure there will be a lot of things discussed this offseason."
--Fisher is pleased with the play of safety T.J. McDonald, who jumped back into the starting lineup against Chicago after missing six games because of a broken bone in his leg.
Asked about McDonald's play against the 49ers, Fisher said, "Much better this week than he was last week. Last week was his first one back with the injury. At times he had difficulty decelerating last week. This week he was a completely different player. I think a lot had to do with the surface and then an extra week of healing and practice, but he played pretty well.
"I think he'll finish up strong. There was a couple plays yesterday that you say, 'Wow, that's why we drafted him.' First run play, I think, of the third quarter, we had both T.J. and (linebacker) Alec (Ogletree) show up at the same time on the back for a (two)-yard loss. It's pretty impressive to watch their speed and their physical approach."
McDonald played 62 of a possible 69 plays against San Francisco.
--Rookie center Barrett Jones was a part of three national championships while at Alabama, so forgive him for being somewhat shell-shocked by the Crimson Tide's loss to Auburn last Saturday.
Jones didn't want to talk about it after practice Wednesday, saying, "I have no more words. I'm trying to move on. It was meant to be. That's all I can say."
With starting center Scott Wells likely out for the season, Jones is expected to be starter Tim Barnes' backup. Coach Jeff Fisher said of Jones, "Barrett has done a real good job in the weight room, and he's gained a lot of strength. So, he'll be ready to go. Obviously, he'll know what to do and how to do it."
--After being 4-1-1 in the NFC West last season, the Rams are currently 1-3 with games remaining at Arizona and at Seattle.
On the importance of getting a division win, quarterback Kellen Clemens said, "At this point in December, every win is a good win. I don't care if you're playing a team that's 10-1, 1-10, but obviously, this is probably the best division in football, I think at this point. So, if you can get a win within the division you're doing some good things."
The combined record of NFC West teams is 31-17. The only other division with a cumulative winning record is the AFC West at 28-20.
BY THE NUMBERS: 8 - Number of top-10 defenses the Rams will have faced this season after playing Arizona Sunday. That includes the Cardinals, who are ranked seventh, and San Francisco (fifth) twice. Following Sunday's game, the Rams still have games against New Orleans (eighth) and Seattle (first). Others in the top 10 are Carolina (second), Houston (third) and Tennessee (ninth).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's circle of control and there's circle of concern. I've tried to just keep them matched up as much as I can." - QB Kellen Clemens on the team's changes on the offensive line because of injuries, who when then asked which circle he is in, said, "I've switched back and forth. I've tried to stay in the important one, but not perfect." Listening to Clemens talk to the media, T Joe Barksdale said, "Call it a circle of trust."
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--DE Robert Quinn is ranked first in the NFC with 13.0 sacks and is second in the NFL.
--RB Zac Stacy needs 304 rushing yards in the final four games to reach 1,000 for the season. Stacy has 692 yards since taking over the starting job in Week 5 and ranks fifth in the NFL since then.
--P Johnny Hekker had net punting averages of 47.8 and 48.5 yards the last two games to increase his league-leading net average to 44.0.
--T Jake Long appears on his way to being able to play Sunday. Long suffered a concussion Sunday against San Francisco and was limited in practice Thursday after not participating Wednesday.
--LB Daren Bates, one of the Rams' best special teams players, appears on his way to being able to play Sunday. Bates was inactive against the 49ers because of a concussion and limited in practice Thursday after not participating Wednesday.
--CB Brandon McGee (foot) was limited in practice Thursday after not participating Wednesday.
--DE Eugene Sims (neck) had full participation in practice Thursday after being limited Wednesday.
--RG Harvey Dahl, who has missed four games because of a knee injury, was a full participant in practice Wednesday.
GAME PLAN: The Rams have to find a way to control the ball on the ground and convert third downs, while keeping the ball away from Arizona. The Cardinals' passing game has been clicking lately, but QB Carson Palmer has been sacked 35 times and Arizona has converted just 33.3 percent of their third downs this season.
If the Rams can limit Arizona's big plays, they have a chance to win on the Cardinals' home field where they have lost just once this season, to Seattle.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Rams RB Zac Stacy vs. Cardinals NT Dan Williams and ILBs Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby -- The Rams will be challenged going against Arizona's fourth-ranked run defense that has allowed just 83.3 yards rushing per games and 3.5 per attempt. With Tim Barnes starting at center, the Rams' interior line will have to be to the task of blocking the excellent Arizona run defenders.
--Rams secondary vs. Cardinals WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd -- The Rams' opponent passer rating is 95.5 and they have allowed a 67.2-percent completion rate and 8.35 yards per attempt. Fitzgerald and Floyd have combined for 13 touchdowns, and Floyd, with 860 yards, is averaging 15.9 yards per reception. In his last four games, Floyd has 20 receptions (all first downs) for 427 yards.