Preseason football usually doesn't get much more than a cursory nod, but for fans of the St. Louis Rams, these four August games are being closely scrutinized for signs of an impending turnaround. Last week's loss to the Colts touched off a minor freakout, with reports of seppuku in a few quarters. Saturday's game against the Chiefs could go a long way toward calming some jangled nerves.
Here's a short list of what you should be watching for on Saturday, beyond the scoreboard.
1. Penalties - Twice the starting offense botched drives by drawing flags on third down. One was a false start penalty and the other was a delay of game on Sam Bradford. Penalties like that are fairly typical of preseason play. How well a team does at avoiding those calls, particularly the starters, says plenty about their readiness for the season ahead.
2. Finishing - Third downs proved to be a real problem for the Rams last week, the starters as well as the scrubs. The first team offense had some momentum to start the game, but they quickly burned it up on third downs and with a few plays that broke apart, like Bradford's off-target throw to Steve Smith in the end zone.
3. Schematics - Robert Quinn and the rest of the starting front four did a good job getting pressure, but it was all for nothing as the Colts ate up the field behind them. One of the most glaring issues on defense was an obvious lack of a firm grasp on cover-2 concepts and defensive backs in zone coverage. Craig Dahl got burned bad on the touchdown to Austin Collie, but his counterparts in the secondary all struggled with that. The same goes for the offense, where we need to watch that all players are on the same page.
4. Tackling - It sounds so simple, but the Rams could have done a better job with it last week. Missed tackles contributed as much to the team's struggles against the run last year as the shaky situation at outside linebacker. Sometimes a fix is much simpler than it would seem.
5. Fisher-ism - Head coach Jeff Fisher is in the process of putting his mark on the team. Practices have been player-friendly, with a no pressure vibe (but plenty of hard work) designed to keep players healthy and promote understanding and chemistry. On the field, the intensity gets dialed up, and Fisher's teams had a nasty reputation for owning play in the trenches. The defensive line embodied that spirit well last week. The rest of the team needs to show a little more, but not too much since this is only the preseason.
All the players on the field will be under scrutiny. Here the five I'll be watching most closely:
1. Sam Bradford - This kind of goes without saying. The ankle does not look like a problem, which is good, but we should see a more focused, more accurate quarterback this week. His throws, his downfield throws especially, lacked a little something last week, and he did not do much improvisation in the pocket.
2. Jason Smith - Another easy pick, but an important one. Barry Richardson is a known commodity to the Chiefs, who sent him packing this year as they chase an AFC West title. Smith was the better blocker last week, against second teamers. He showed improved technique, but got beat bad on a third down sack that should have been ruled dead as an offsides call.
3. Brian Quick - The Rams are counting on Quick this season. They had him as a sort of a 1a on their draft board this year behind Justin Blackmon. Quick needs to do exactly what Blackmon did Friday night in his Jaguars debut: run simple routes, catch the ball well. Quick's roster spot is not in danger, but if the Rams are going to score points this year, they need him to be more than an understudy.
5. James Laurinaitis, Mario Haggan & Jo-Lonn Dunbar - The Rams were gashed on the ground last week. I mentioned the secondary above, and they contributed plenty to the Rams woes in run defense. The linebackers had their struggles too, getting caught out of position more than once, most notably JL on the 63-yard screen pass touchdown in the first quarter.
Be sure to check out Patty's preview over at the Pigskin Arch too.
It should be an exciting game, and hopefully a better one than last week's.