The St. Louis Rams have had, so far, an up and down preseason. The practices at Rams Park kicked off the new era. They were intense, physical, and exciting to see. Each session bolstered fan hopes for an improved Rams team after a long time in the wilderness. Summing up the difference between this year's camp and those from previous seasons, the PD has the most apt anecdote:
"Get low and stick 'em!"
It was the players' tribute to one of those fans, Jerry Harrison — aka Coach, aka Superfan. "Get low and stick 'em!" has been Harrison's trademark chant during training camp practices for more than a decade. (Except for the three years he was muzzled by Scott Linehan, that is.)
Scott Linehan and the Rams former top brass did much to silence fans over the years, mostly by turning out a sub-par product, but the fact that they actually ordered one of the most enthusiastic fans - at a time when paper bags were widely distributed prior to home games - to be silenced say all you need to know about the changes at Rams Park.
A win over the New York Jets to open the preseason kept the fires of interest burning, though a few instances of what happened on the field (like Bulger getting sacked three times) evoked an eerie deja vu and reminded us all that dominance was still down the road a bit.
News of injured starters made for some unsettling days between the Rams' first two preseason games. Then, with last Friday's loss to the Falcons, the sound of teeth gnashing and nail biting started drowning out the excitement, and the legacies of seasons past look harder to shake than they should be.
Take a deep breath, count the bumps on that little string of beans, and repeat after me: "It's still preseason. Om. It's still preseason. Om." Before the Rams play their third preseason game this Thursday against the Cincinnati Bengals, it's worth taking a look at where things stand and what questions still need to be answered. Let's start with the offense:
We'll start with the big questions and then go unit by unit with a look at their progress and work remaining.
Will Bulger be able to play like a starter again? So far, the beleaguered Bulger hasn't really had much time to answer the question that's dogged him every since he signed a big new contract before the start of the 2007 season. Throughout camp he has demonstrated the accuracy that made him famous and a solid grasp of the playbook. In limited playing time against the Jets, he was sharp, going 4-for-4. He made a couple of throws with rushers in his face, and the three sacks didn't seem to faze him. On just one sack did it look like he held the ball too long. He connected with his receivers, despite the #1 Donnie Avery being sidelined since the August 7 scrimmage. We need to see more sync with Steven Jackson, who hasn't played much at all in the preseason. Bulger will miss this week's game against the Bengals; he might miss the next one against the Chiefs too. Though he should be back for the season opener against Seattle. Obviously, he'd be better off having more practice time, but it doesn't look like Bulger will be the issue holding the offense back.
Can Steven Jackson stay healthy and become an elite, do-it-all back? Jackson certainly came to camp in the best physical shape of his life, but we haven't seen much from him in preseason play. If he has the holes, we know he can run. We also know he can catch passes, but it still would be nice to see a little bit more of that in the new offense. Though it didn't seem like it would be an issue when camp started, the big question surrounding Jackson now is whether or not he's going to get the running lanes he needs.
Will the offensive line be improved? That seemed like a sure thing just a month ago, with the addition of C Jason Brown, drafting Jason Smith and getting younger and tougher across the line. Against the Falcons, a team that featured a notably porous run defense, the Rams had terrible run blocking and the line has again opened itself up to questioning. Part of the problem was that Jason Smith just wasn't ready. Contradicting camp reports (and maybe offering some hope that it was just a matter of first exposure to NFL starters) Smith blocked decently against the pass rush but poorly for the run. He has some time to establish himself and learn the ropes. On the other side of the line Barron has looked solid. In the middle, I don't know what I was expecting, but I somehow expected the combo of Brown, Incognito and Bell to look a little sharper than they have. Bell's hurt, again, and his replacement, Mark Setterstrom, did just fine. Curiously enough, the Rams never ran up the middle with Steven Jackson against the Falcons. Granted, he was only in for one series, but that seems unusual. Gado ran up the middle to no avail. Some of that is the steep drop-off between Jackson and Gado, but the linemen had trouble getting to the second level against the Falcons stacked box, leaving little running room for Gado to exploit. That's a good lead-in to the next question that faced the Rams when preseason began...
Who will backup Steven Jackson? The jury's still out on that one. Sakmon Gado looked good against the Jets, but played mostly against guys battling for a roster spot, an easy matchup for a guy who has had success at the NFL level. Against the Falcons' first team Gado got nado. I want to officialy go on the record as stating that Gado is a camp/preseason phenomenon, nothing more. Kenneth Darby looked to have a solid grasp on the #2 job heading into the preseason opener, but struggles in pass protection and running the ball pushed him back down the depth chart. Antonio Pittman had nice night in relief of Steven Jackson against New York, faring a little better than his rivals against the Falcons. Of course, all the Rams runners struggled against the Falcons. Right now, Pittman looks like he might be the lead horse for the second spot. I wouldn't discount Chris Ogbonnaya yet either. He has shown good ball control (though limited reps) and can catch passes, which theoretically makes him a good fit in this offense. I'd like to see what he can do against NFL starters.
Will inexperience among the Rams wide receivers hurt the team? Of all the questions we figured to still be trying to answer midway through the preseason, this topped the list. Turns out, the receivers look pretty solid Laurent Robinson looks every bit like a starter, and when Avery gets back the two should be a nice 1-2 pairing. Keenan Burton has looked sharp in limited action. The tight ends have done well in passing game too, even blocking TE Billy Bajema has more than 50 yards on 4 catches. Playing with backup QBs makes this a little tougher to evaluate.
Now the units...
Quarterback - We covered Bulger above. After what he's endured in recent seasons, heightened risk of injury will always be there, hanging over Bulger. The problem with that as things stand now is what we've seen from his backup, Kyle Boller. Boller was inaccurate and made questionable decisions in the pocket, despite having the kind of time Marc Bulger would have killed for. Those are the two main points of criticism that have always followed Boller. In all honest, it might be nice to see what Null and Berlin can do with the first team.
Running back - Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur must have supreme confidence in Jackson, because they're being really, really stingy with him in preseason play. Call it the Ladainian Tomlinson approach to preseason play. Finding a backup and consistent blocking is still the main story here.
Wide receiver - Robinson and Avery look like a very competent combo for the Rams starters. Keenan Burton has looked sharp too. Sean Walker and Derrek Stanley have looked alright with the second team. Another stand out performer here would finally put questions about this unit to rest.
Tight end - McMichael and Bulger looked to have a mind meld going in the Jets game, but Boller's accuracy left him catchless last week. It's fair to ask at this point mow much speed he has left. Fells was widely expected to grab the third spot on the depth chart, and that still seems likely. He made some noise with the first team against the Falcons. Bajema's been the most pleasant surprise. The blocking specialist is the second leading receiver on the Rams right now. Klopfenstein has done nothing to justify his spot on the roster.
Offensive line - Discussed above in more detail. I just need to see some consistency from this unit to rest easier. Smith hurt his cause last week, giving Goldberg a good chance to start the season on the right side. The first rounder will get better; he has the talent and will to do so. The backups look good.
Fullback - Mike Karney missed the preseason opener. The poor run blocking against the Falcons didn't give him much of a chance to clear lanes ahead of the runner. Need to see more here. Ditto for converted Jerome Johnson, a converted linebacker with nice size to play FB.
We'll run down the defense next.