CLEVELAND - AUGUST 21: St. Louis Rams #22 Chris Ogbonnaya is hit by #61 Joel Reinders and #21 Eric Wright of the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on August 21 2010 in Cleveland Ohio. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
Sam Bradford, the offensive line...the real lesson tonight is a reminder of how dependent the Rams will be this season on Steven Jackson being healthy. Jackson looked like his usual self. The players behind Jackson, in heavy rotation tonight as the Rams look to make some decisions about the RB depth behind him, did little to reassure the Rams about themselves.
There was frustration with the first team play calling, but I think they had more questions to answer about the backup running back situation. If the Rams don't start seeing something from Darby or Ogbonnaya, there's going to be some real concern about where an outside answer might be found. Both backs failed to impress. Keith Toston fared better late in the game, and got plenty of carries as the Rams dug deep on the question of the backup running back job.
The other plot lines being closely monitored offered mixed results.
Sam Bradford's rough night
Last week he bounced back from four sacks, this week Sam Bradford will have to bounce back from a bad game...and all the handwringing from fans and the media that accompanies it. Bradford looked like a rookie last night. It was a good reminder that for the promise that he's shown through camp and the preseason so far that he will have those rookie moments, rookie quarters and whole games even. He bobbled some snaps in classic NCAA-to-NFL style. He also battled the talent around him. The offensive line didn't allow a sack this time around, but the Browns were able to get some pressure on more than one snap. The receivers didn't help either with dropped passes and some poor routes.
Still, it could have been much worse. He didn't throw an interception. He didn't get hurt. I know calls imploring people not to panic will find some deaf ears, but hang in there. Bradford needs more reps, that much was clear. He should get a few extra if Feeley's banged up. Compare Bradford's performance with Keith Null's for some perspective. Even if Feeley doesn't miss any time, Bradford's reps will start increasing as the preseason M.O. starts moving up a level or two and individual players and units start to put it together as an offense. At this point, the Rams need to be far more concerned about the backup running back situation than they do Sam Bradford.
In the trenches
The offensive line played much better a week after getting manhandled by the Minnesota second team. They did not allow a sack, though they wore down a little bit reminding that they need plenty more work before the season starts. Jason Brown's holding penalty negated a first down pass from Bradford to Hoomanawanui and stunted a drive that ended in a punt.
Considering that the starting five have been practicing together less than a week, it was an encouraging performance. Of course, Jacob Bell, Jason Brown and Adam Goldberg are experienced veterans, so you expect them to be able to pick it up again fairly quickly. Rookie LT Rodger Saffold and second year RT Jason Smith erases memories of a tough week last week with their play, a fact that might be the most encouraging of all. I'll be anxious to go back and watch parts of the game a little closer, to see how those two rookies fared and because I thought the backup linemen showed some stuff late in the game. Next, I'd like to see Greco get healthy to see what he has to offer at guard where his size could be a nice replacement for Richie Incognito.
Since we're working under the "in the trenches" sub-header, we might as well talk about the defensive line that played much better too. The first two defensive series were remarkable, or at least they looked that way in a preseason game against the Browns. Atogwe came up to make a stop on RB Jerome Harrison on the first play, which followed by the impressive Larry Grant forcing a fumble, that the Browns did recover for no gain on second down. The next series ended quickly as Fred Robbins got through the line to force a fumble that he recovered. Cleveland's next drive was another three-and-out, but by the end of the first quarter they started moving the ball. Playing man coverage, they failed to pick up Chansi Stuckey who turned a short pass into a 28-yard run. Following that, the defense held and forced the Browns into a 4th down that would have been a FG in the regular season, but they were able to convert and follow it up with a TD that really probably wasn't a touchdown. It's worth noting that the backup cornerbacks were in the game at that point, Bartell having left on that same drive with a neck stinger.
The play book
The playcalling caused plenty of frustration. Some took out their Pat Shurmur voodoo dolls, but it was probably a little premature for that. It's still the preseason. As the second quarter went on, three other factors were working against Bradford. The running backs were getting nothing, in field conditions tailor made for running the ball. The offensive line wasn't playing as sharp. Brown's holding penalty was followed by a Jason Smith false start penalty on a later possession. As the second quarter went on, the only offensive starters on the field were Bradford and the offensive line. They did work out of the shotgun more as the clock wound down, and got some results. However, the younger receivers were not getting yards after the catch, which the offense is predicted on.
Still, it would have been nice to see the Rams open it up with Bradford in there. They had nothing to lose since the drives weren't moving very effectively anyway. I think some criticism is due for that reason. However, for this offense to work you have to have an effective running game and you also have to be able to make those shorter passes work, like Cleveland did on the pass to Stuckey mentioned above and a similar one to Harrison. To some extent, that sets up the rest of the playbook.
There's also the matter of personnel evaluation. The running back situation behind Steven Jackson demands lots of attention, so they're getting a disproportionate amount of work. There's not much question about what Sam Bradford can do, but there's a huge need to find out what the Rams have among a group of running backs in which nobody has made a clear case for the #2 spot. It's a similar situation with the receivers. Ten players are competing for 5 or 6 spots. The first four spots are occupied, and for the rest of the group competing for those last spots, they have to see some snaps and they have to be able to make something happen when the ball comes their way. Most of those guys are competing for a role in which they'd be doing little more than catching short passes and trying to move the chains a little further with their legs, hence some of the dull playcalling you saw last night.
I said above Bradford needs more reps; what he really needs is more reps with the first team.
With the starters off the field, the preseason games are more about evaluating individuals. Thank God. The backup units didn't look very good, but they did include some noteworthy performances. David Vobora, playing with second and third teamers, continues to play well. It's great to have him in the mix as the Rams fourth linebacker.
Seventh round pick CB Marquis Johnson got loads of playing time, and showed some real improvement. Players coming from Nick Saban's football programs have a well-deserved reputation for being more polished than so many of their peers. He's making a strong case for a roster spot. The Rams seventh round, featuring Johnson and DE George Selvie, is looking good. TE Michael Hoomanawanui and DE Hall Davis deserve mention as well.
The bottom line
The Rams won the game and showed progress from where they were last week, in key areas too. They'll face the Pats on Thursday and get another chance to put it all together.
I'll be back with another post on some of the individual performances from last night.