The success of the Rams defense hinges to a large degree on the success of their offense. Linehan's made no secret of his desire for ball control to keep the defense fresh and by scoring points and forcing teams to pass more the defense can rush more often, further minimizing exposure for the run defense and the defensive backfield. And after a relatively care free camp, Bulger and Co. hit their first series of bumps in the road last weekend against the Chargers.
It caused a little bit of hand-wringing consternation among us Rams fans waiting to see last seasons gains translated to more wins. There's no shortage of discouraging thoughts among the chat rooms and message boards and fan forums for Rams watchers.
I'll admit to possessing a lot more trepidation now that I had at this time last week. Breathe. Focus. Attain Perspective. Om.
The more I go back and think about it though, much of the offense's ugly play last week seemed to be the kind of stuff teams are trying to iron out in preseason anyway. This time of year there's no shortage of Pro Bowl offensive players looking like something less than themselves during the quarter of work they see in these preseason games fans spend just as much time dismissing as they do worrying about.
Here's some things to look for on the offensive side of the ball this week against the Raiders.
Better play from the O-line
The offensive line didn't look bad last week, they just didn't play as good as we got used to them playing last season. I think there's a couple reason for this, other than just offseason rust. First, running plays dominated the play calling, as Linehan and Olsen have made no secret of their desire to leave a lot of the playbook out of preseason games, and runs up the middle were likely favored partly as an evaluation tool for Brian Leonard and the other runners and to gauge the linemen, particularly the Romberg/McCollum battle. The second issue is getting assignments right and communicating well. Bulger got sacked when Klop missed the speed rushing Shaun Phillips. Barron got burned by Phillips too.
As far as run blocking, the Rams were 6th best in the league last season in terms of Football Outsiders' Adjust Line Yards (ALY) stat, where they gained 4.50 yards per carry. In the middle, they were second best in the league with 4.77 yards per carry per ALY, which is where they ran the ball on 57% of all RB carries. We know the O-line is capable of being an elite run blocking unit. Judging them on a quarter of play is tough.
Without Pace last year, the Rams were just 21st in the league in their sack rank as the QB got sacked on 6.6% of plays. Don't forget that Pace is now just getting close to full speed. Pace will be key this season to keeping our high dollar QB off his back, so look for improved play from the big guy this week.
Red Zone Play
I don't expect to see any of the dramatics of the regular season - receivers sacrificing their bodies for a catch, running backs clawing for ground, blockers hitting with force again and again - in this game, after all, it's a long grind to January and staying healthy one of camp's biggest goals for the starters. Linehan and his counterparts on the other side of the field may be just as reluctant to sacrifice life and limb for a first quarter TD or preventing one, but I for one do want to see the Rams pick up some yards by moving the ball at will and put on the kind of show inside the 25 that will reassure me that they can indeed score a TD when it counts.
Bulger's INT probably wouldn't have happened under those circumstances in the regular season; I'd venture to say that he would have thrown it away or to another option after September 1. Bulger's never been much of an errant passer, and had he played a full game I doubt he would have thrown another.
Players should be holding onto the ball as tightly in preseason as they do anytime. Hedgecock's fumble, right or wrong, was the most glaring turnover of the preseason. He's better than that.
Hagans or Stanley or both? I can't imagine they'll keep both, but this is going to be a tough call.
Last season the team really shut down when the going got tough and the losses piled up, until Bulger stepped in and lit a fire for the stretch run. Perhaps more than anything, I want to see the first team come out for their quarter+ looking focused and intent. They need to prove to themselves as much as anyone that last week was not representative of this team. Since most of the first team will likely sit out against KC in the final preseason game, playing with heart this week will be the most important preseason victory.