The St. Louis Rams are off to Denver this Saturday a Week 3 preseason game against the Broncos. Make no mistake, this game is still about evaluation, but it's also going to have a regular season feel to it, at least as close to a regular season feel as you'll find in exhibition games.
"We haven't been told the amount of snaps we're going to play," Sam Bradford said, "but I would assume that we'd play the whole first half and if not some of the third quarter. I think I'm excited to get out there and play a little bit more, get some more snaps. We still have a lot of work to do, and I think this is a great opportunity for us to improve."
Head coach Jeff Fisher plans to give the starting lineup, with some other players mixed in, at least a full half of play this week.
"Were going to continue to add reps," the coach said. "There's a good chance everybody will play up to half time now dependent on the number of plays. This typically is a bigger game for everybody across the league."
A few players vying for a larger role will get mixed in with the starters this week. Linemen like Chris Williams, Shelley Smith and Joe Barksdale will rotate through. Starting running back Daryl Richardson will see fewer snaps so the Rams can get a better feel for the rest of the running back rotation.
More planning, less vanilla
Riddled with injuries and rocked by a six-game suspension for Von Miller, the Broncos still make for a formidable opponent, even in the preseason. Quarterback Peyton Manning, who Fisher knows well from his days in the AFC South, is expected to play this week. The matchup coincides with the Rams' plans to do a little more, to be a little less vanilla this week.
"There's a little bit more planning involved," Fisher said. "We'll give them some more things. We'll equip them with more things during the week. Obviously, it's quite a challenge when you're facing Peyton Manning. We'll have to give our defense a chance to line up and try to get off the field.
"It's not a full blown game plan type of thing, but I think we'll do a little bit more from a preparation standpoint."
Through two preseason games the Rams have been strictly vanilla, not even vanilla bean, just plain, white vanilla. That's not true for the two opposing teams Fisher's squad has faced. The Packers went so far as to blitz some, which isn't a regular part of preseason play. But that doesn't bother the Rams head coach.
"No, it bothers you guys," he said addressing the media after practice this week. "It doesn't bother me. We've got a regular season we're concerned about."
"We're throwing it and we're handing it off It's just I'd like to think we'd be a little bit more creative when the season starts."
Strength of schedule
The Broncos are the second of three 2012 playoff teams the Rams will face this month. It's a tough schedule, even for the preseason.
"It's a great challenge," Fisher said. "We've got back-to-back outstanding quarterbacks and of course, we've got the World Champions. Of course, it's doesn't get any easier once we start."
And that's with a vanilla game plan. Bradford also sees opportunity in the opponents.
"You want to face someone that's going to make you better," the quarterback said. "I feel like all of the defenses that we've seen have made us better, and we're just looking to improve each week to go out and play a clean game, execute what's in the game plan and really try to limit the penalties."
Playing at altitude in Denver this week adds another dimension, but Fisher's had his team preparing for that too. The key, the coach says, is staying hydrated.
Back to basics
The Rams may have a few pages of the playbook on display this week, but this game, like the others, is still about ironing out the basics. It sounds painfully routine. Still, the Rams have struggled with tackling, penalties and general execution of the usual responsibilities on the field.
Players lined up and ran sprints this week, a reward for penalties incurred against the Packers. Pre-snap penalties are a particular burr in Fisher's saddle. Those were a problem for the Rams last season. For example, of the 348 points allowed by the defense last year, 183 of those points came on a drive in which the unit was penalized. Of those points, 80 points came on drives with pre-snap penalties.
Tackling is another area for major improvement. Through two preseason games, the Rams have a missed 19 tackles, including a dozen last week against Green Bay.
Two other areas where Fisher would like to see improvement from his team: kick returns and scoring touchdowns.
The Rams offense has a total of three touchdowns, a passing touchdown from each quarterback. None of the running backs have crossed the goal line, and the rushing offense has yet to find the end zone. In fact, the team is averaging an alarming 3.2 yards per carry in the preseason.
Kick returns have been a problem too. The Rams are averaging 21.7 yards on seven kick returns in two preseason games. It ranks St. Louis 25th for average return yards in the preseason. That number almost exactly matches the total from the 2012 regular season, when the Rams averaged 21 yards per kick return. St. Louis ranked 26th in average return yards last season.
Last week, Jeff Fisher noted that the kick return job was still up for grabs, and that Tavon Austin would probably not be handling those duties. Isaiah Pead has taken the bulk of the returns, averaging less than 20 yards on four attempts. Benny Cunningham and Raymond Radway each have one return, both topping 30 yards.
If ever there was a week to get things on track across the board, this is it.
"I'm excited to get out there and play a little bit more, get some more snaps," Bradford said. "We still have a lot of work to do, and I think this is a great opportunity for us to improve."