Saturday the St. Louis Rams will visit the Dallas Cowboys for the 3rd NFL preseason game. In a contest that is sure to provide a good preview of what is to come for the regular season for both teams, the Rams will be playing their starters up to the half. Head Coach Jeff Fisher has stated he will not have starters play into the second half this week. During the week four contest against Baltimore, expect the starters to play beyond the half in order to help them along in adjusting to the break in action they will have throughout the season.
Keys to the Game:
The Offensive Line
The offensive line played particularly well against the Kansas City Chiefs last week. This week's game will feature a much better defensive front, and therefore more of a challenge for the Rams line. Scott Wells will see his first action under center this preseason. If Wells and Sam Bradford can get the exchange of the football down, along with protection calls, the Rams will have a better chance of getting the ball out in time to the young receiving corps. If there is a hint of rust on Wells, the day could be long and torturous under center.
The Running Game
Steven Jackson is the measure of consistency in a league dominated by the forward pass. The Rams best chance to be competitive in this contest is to run Jackson early and often. The passing game will open up for Sam Bradford if the Rams can establish the ground attack. Play action will get the secondary to bite, allowing some separation for the receivers.
Isaiah Pead hasn't shown what he's made of yet this preseason. This game will be his best opportunity to show his stuff against the Cowboy's starting defense. The Rams haven't called many plays to get Pead out in space, where he can excel against an over pursuing linebacker corps. The Rams would do well not to bottleneck Pead between the tackles. He is shifty and quick enough to break off a good run once in a while on the outside. Of course it's up to him to hold onto the ball and turn the corner, something he hasn't been able to do up to this point.
The Rams defense will face their best competition to date in the Dallas offense. Even with the absence of Jason Witten, Tony Romo will sling the ball to his slot receiver candidates Danny Cole and Kevin Ogletree, along with the rookie tight ends on the roster. The running game for Dallas could go either way. Where Jackson had been consistent for the Rams, Felix Jones has been anything but for the Boys. Look to the Ram's essentially brand new linebacker corps and how they follow the flow of the run. Demarco Murray is a threat, but one the Rams can handle due to the upgrades of Kendall Langford and 2012 1st round draft pick Micheal Brockers. If Jo-Lonn Dunbarr and Marion Haggan can seal the edge while James Laurinaitis fills the gap in the middle, the Dallas running game can be marginalized, allowing the Rams improved secondary to attack a predictable passing attack. Cortland Finnegan should be an over-match for anyone playing the slot, while Janoris Jenkins runs with the number one guy. With most of the starters for Dallas's receiving corps out, expect the Rams to do well against Tony Romo.
Perhaps an over looked key against Dallas is the kicking game, in particular, field goals. The 2011 Cowboys only allowed 26 field goals all year, and their opponents only converted 81 out of 204 third down attempts. With Rookie kicker Greg Zuerlien, the Rams have a legitimate "deep threat", to borrow from a receiving term. Young GeeZee has been hitting field goals in practice and in the previous two games that could go 60 plus yards. Of those field goals allowed last year, 12 of them were within 29 yards, so Greg shouldn't have a problem getting a chip shot in every now and then.
A Simplified Dallas Defense
Rob Ryan , while considered brilliant as a defensive coach may have either shot himself in the foot this off season, or found the holy grail. Rookie corner Morris Claiborne is new to his system, along with a small cast of new blood on that side of the ball. In deference to the lack of experience, Ryan made the defense a little more vanilla to allow the new guys to catch up. Surely Claiborne's Wonderlick score won't dictate whether he plays well, but it could be an Achilles heal for the Dallas defense if he doesn't have the smarts to adapt to the system.
The Rams Receivers
The as of yet unsettled starters for the Rams on offense will get plenty of chances Saturday to shine. We should see action from nearly every pass catcher on the team. Bradford and Danny Amendola will continue to build their chemistry, while rookies Brian Quick and Chris Givens attempt to establish themselves as starters. Will we see Brandon Gibson the practice star this week? Tight end Lance Kendricks had a heck of a game against Kansas City, and if the Dallas secondary can partially shut down the guys on the outside, we may see a heavy dose of number 88.
Here's to the hope of a Rams victory, and more importantly, a team that is healthy and more tight knit on Sunday morning. GO RAMS!