In as much as the last weeks have been about Steven Jackson, tonight the narrative shifts for the St. Louis Rams. Tonight belongs to Marc Bulger, all eyes, all thoughts about the upcoming season, one supposed to improve upon a 3-13 run last year, have the Rams QB in focus.
Baltimore's know for their tough defense, a theme for the Rams opponents through this preseason, but the Ravens aren't as airtight as they used to be. Last season, their pass defense had a DVOA of 12.5% ranked 22nd. The Rams by comparison had a DVOA of 18.6% ranked 25th for their pass defense. That didn't stop the Ravens from having a big day last season in week 6, beating down a Rams team that looked a lot more like a preseason roster by a score of 22-3. Bulger and Jackson both missed that game. Backup QB Gus Frerotte played his way out of good graces with a 5 INT performance, completing 19 of 36 passes for 208 yards. The Ravens also sacked the woebegone Frerotte, playing behind a paper mache line, 4 times.
The four sacks against the Rams last year no doubt provide Bulger a frightening reminder that despite a weaker secondary, B-more still has one of the league's top defensive fronts, putting the Rams o-line under the lamp with their QB. There's some good news there; blocking TE Anthony Becht will play tonight. LT Orlando Pace is questionable, and even if he does play, he'll be limited, giving backup Adam Goldberg time with the first team. Goldberg's had a good preseason, so this will give him a chance to ease our minds with inspired play in Pace's place.
There's a silver lining in that the Ravens' defense hasn't looked especially noteworthy in preseason action thus far. Last week against the Vikings (and Gus Frerotte) they played without both starting cornerbacks and super safety Ed Reed. Stabbin' Ray Lewis played for just two drives. The Ravens have allowed 206 passing yards and 2 TDs against the Vikes last week. The secondary comes into tonight's game still banged up, and will likely be without their starting CBs, Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, as well as Ed Reed, who's still limited in practice. Secondary aside, the Ravens are expected to play their starters for up to three quarters, so the Rams will still have to play sharp against the Ravens defensive front to settle concerns and keep Bulger healthy. Torry Holt will play, so having his long-time companion catching his passes could help Bulger get the timing ironed out.
Even though Bulger's in the spotlight, this could be the night to shine for the Rams defense. The Ravens are in the midst of a QB battle between Kyle Boller and Troy Smith, with 2008 draft pick Joe Flacco lurking behind. None of the three have been particularly impressive, combing for 3 INTs. It would be nice to see the secondary, rolling out sans CB fakhir Brown and FS O.J. Atogwe, take advantage of jittery QBs playing for a job. An improved Bartell and Tye Hill starting at CB should be able to handle this offense, and expecting someone to come away with an INT isn't too much to ask.
Rams pass rushers will need to take advantage of an o-line in disarray, lost in the wilderness since LT Jonathan Ogden retired. They've allowed seven sacks in two preseason games. Obviously Leonard Little could have a big night, but Chris Long and Adam Carriker need to get in on the action too and have a big game. With Adeyanju back, with his giant white hand, and the linebackers having looked a little sharper last week, the run defense matches up well against a Ravens team that has managed just 161 rushing yards through two games (for comparison's sake, the Rams have rushed for a total of 259 yards in two games). On 3rd downs, the Ravens are just 6 for 22.
As far as preseason games go, this is pretty good match up for the Rams. Bulger and the Rams offense have difficult test, facing a tough, but not impenetrable defense. Leonard Little and the Rams defense faces an offense struggling in key areas, giving them a chance to fine tune their attack and get some of the slow starters running on all cylinders.
Here's a few more preview links. I'll have a game thread up later this afternoon.