So you're telling me the preseason games don't count? Last night's game was for what? To check the lighting? Er...Ok maybe the lighting needed a bit of work. A simple, "Don't turn this switch off if there are people in the stadium", sign and the problem fixed. But what about the rest of the evening? I could have swore there were a bunch of professional football players trying to tear each other's heads off? I'm pretty sure I saw quarterbacks practicing their vertical and horizontal positions after fleeing defensive linemen. Kansas City Chief's quarterback Matt Cassel looked really... Let's just say agile and leave out the references to deer in headlights...
If these games don't count, then the good and bad things I saw the Rams do last night don't count? Well, I can't give up on the belief that there is in fact a rhyme and reason for the preseason. I didn't watch the game last night while doing play by play with my sock puppet color commentator Argyle, (he's kind of a cross between Dennis Miller and Rodney Dangerfield), without gleaning certain sustainable truths. First and foremost being cashmere kind of tickles, has trouble holding a can of beer and has problems saying any name with Polynesian origins or the name of the Ram fullback who's name sounds like a bad Ben Afflick - Jennifer Lopez movie.
Second, I learned more about a St. Louis Ram team in the making. Remember the word "making" and the portent of your dream-esk angst may find momentary peace. Let's have a look at what I learned last night, however flawed or well founded.
The Ram's Offense:
I learned it responded well to last week's ineptitude against the Tennessee Titans. Instead of being brilliant for a single play (the first play), the Bradford-Gibson touchdown, it shown Quasar-like for an entire quarter. Which to me can mean the offensive game plan was far better conceived as much as an overall improved concentration and performance by players. I saw a huge improvement by Jason Smith, the offensive right tackle. If he continues to excel this way, all past thoughts of his brief time on the left side of the line will fade.
Sam Bradford showed the throwing arm of an elite quarterback. He also showed how quickly, and thoroughly, he embraces his failing and adjusts. Lot's of "Wows!" in this guy's future if he can stay healthy, and I'm not just talking about his golden throwing arm. I firmly believe a trend is brewing among defensive coordinators to make contact with Bradford on every play. Batter and bruise the body and Sam's concentration will somehow diminish. This philosophy worked on one of the two Manning's in the NFL, increasing both interceptions thrown and bad decisions by Eli Manning. I think I'm not the only one thinking along this line? Have another look at some of the players and schemes used last night to protect Sam and you'll see what I mean. The Rams offensive line has turned a corner yes, but the depth of their new challenge has just been dug a bit deeper.
If every wide receiver the Rams currently have on the roster had more experience, off season time working with Bradford and learning Josh McDainiel's offense, I truly believe my thoughts would be different here. Every NFL team gets this same *asterisk at the end of this season as a valid reason to point at a certain something missing from a team's potential. The Ram's receivers even more so. This position is the undisputed crux for the Rams offense now, and a possible barrier to any future success. Last night showed me players the team have been settled on for roster inclusion: Amendola, Gibson, Walker. These three are the only done deals at wide receiver for the Rams. Then there is the virtual cloud of contenders for the remaining three or four slots left to fill. The newest wide receiver draft picks have by no means made any clear statement of worth. Between the two, Greg Salas and Austin Pettis, Salas has shown himself more NFL ready. Earlier in training camp, Pettis had what looked like the chops to make this team. Those chops have faded for a reason that mystifies me. Gone is any sense of confidence and decision making skill. Greg Salas, to me, can play big, but he is still very raw. Too raw to be a starter this year? Yup! But he'll make the team, as will his draft counter part in Pettis. Time and coach-ability here is the value set. One will not make the official game day roster and my guess is Pettis finds himself a place to grow on the PUP List.
Then we have Donnie Avery and Mardy Gilyard and I can feel comments brewing as I type their names. Both player are popular with Ram fans for different reasons. Both do in fact have skills to a varying degree. Avery has an injury to overcome, a remnant of last season. Last night, his routes run showed a common affliction held by any player who's made their living on being fast and has suffered a knee injury: Fear of making a crisp cut. The tendency to round off or merely veer in a direction fails to get a defender to bite on a fake. Avery's current state can be overcome, with time, confidence in the knee can be restored. Time costs both money and the team as a whole. If the best is what is needed to win a game, a player taking a roster spot that could be filled by a healthy player...?
If there is any, and I mean ANY, player on the Rams team this year that has been given the opportunity to shine, it's Mardy Giyard. The very high number of plays proffered by the coaching staff for him to establish his worth as a special teams player and wide receiver tells me it's not just some Ram fans that want him to succeed. If he returns just ONE kickoff or punt worthy of remark, he makes the team. The ball is in his court. One game to go in preseason. It is quite literally make or break time for Mardy Gilyard and I have little doubt he's hoping Sam throws 10 TD passes against Jacksonville this coming week to increase his chances.
I'm not going to mention the names of the remaining wide receiver contenders. I will simply wish them well. Now those of you that are testing your phalanges, and count slowly, you'll find you are right! The receivers mentioned amount to a total of : 7. Before you cry fowl and exclaim their is room enough for all seven, there isn't. I firmly believe the Rams will hit the waiver wires hard in the coming first week of September. That's right, the wide receiver saga will continue.
The Ram Defense:
Spagnuolo Knows Defense! He lives and breathes it in fact. The Ram defense he has been assembling over the past few years is like a muscle car you've been working on, pouring money into it on the same level with a passion for the living machine. You fire it up for the first time. Pistons, Fuel Injectors, Cam shafts ready to conspire, sending the music you long for in a deep throaty growl... Instead, there is a small coughing sputter to be heard amongst the engine's roar. With a sigh or growl of your own, you realize you aren't finished yet. You turn the ignition off, smoothly slide the keys back in your pocket and stare at your dream machine as if to ponder what you missed...
While I could continue down "Big Block" metaphor lane, I won't. Mostly because I wouldn't know the difference between fuel injection and a Turkey baster. I still believe my Yugo can be a chick mobile.
Last night's game against the Kansas City Chiefs showed me something I hadn't seen in two forevers. The Rams' defensive line literally had the Chiefs' offensive line reeling to hold back the most ferocious Ram defensive line in decades. I knew this to be true when the Chiefs offensive line started holding and Matt Cassel began throwing the ball away like a man holding a steak being chased by wild hungry beasts. You just didn't bring enough for everyone Matt! This line will get better and better as the year progresses. It will also keep opposing offensive coordinators up nights.
Our linebacker core is another matter. James Laurinaitis is solid as they come against both run and pass. My favorite Ram player is going to be All-Everything very, very soon. His cast of characters can't as yet say the same. The outside linebacker position hasn't been addressed for immediate needs by the draft. Defensive coordinator Ken Flajole and Spagnuolo reached into free agency and pulled some veteran linebackers in to help solve rampant problems defending against both run and pass. Outside of Braddy Poppinga and Ben Leber showing promise, the problem is still unsolved or at the very least thinly addressed. I like both Poppinga and Leber, but they aren't enough to bank on throughout the entire NFL season. Depth here is beyond crucial. Seventh round pick Jabara Williams has the upside to help long term. But the NFL is about today. Laurinaitis, Leber, Poppinga, Chamberlain and Williams make the team. Free agents Greg Diles has a 50% of contributing, but not much more. Bryan Kehl and Na'il Diggs are just not what is needed to finish this great defense. Look for this to be another area where the Rams hit the waiver wire very soon.
If this defense has a true achillese heel, it's at cornerback. The Rams have two solid corners in Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher, but in this NFL environment two isn't close to enough. Different offensive packages call for specific cornerback needs. The aquisition of Al Harris helped. In this shortened "lockout year", the position that seems most effected by a lack of off season work is cornerback. Across the NFL, cornerbacks are dropping like flies to injuries. Looking to help fill weakness at cornerback through the waiver wire may not be possible. If the Rams have to rely on Justin King to fill anything other than a seat in the stands, this defense will have to wait to take their places among the best in the NFL.
So what were the bright spots of the game last night for you personally? Give me three names based on this preseason so far (other than Sam, SJ39 or JL55) that show long term promise! Better yet, have you identified a potential sleeper star?