So far, the preseason has been a mixed bag for the St. Louis Rams. It started off with a rough debut by the offensive line, who allowed rookie QB Sam Bradford to be sacked four times. In the second outing, the line played much better, but Bradford and his receivers struggled after A.J. Feeley marched the team down the field to a touchdown. On the other side of the ball, the front seven has played well. Chris Long looks inspired, the middle of the line has held up and the Rams look like they got a nice surprise with DE George Selvie. Behind the line, the linebackers looks to be one of the team's strongest units. The secondary, however, has struggled, largely due to a rash of injuries to the player atop the depth chart.
Tonight's game will likely be the Rams toughest test yet as they square off against a New England team that has been one of the league's most consistent, elite franchises for the last decade. Fortunately for the Rams, their head coach, Steve Spagnuolo, knows a thing or two about beating the Patriots, having shocked the world as his New York Giants defense ended an undefeated season that had all but guaranteed Bill Belichick another Super Bowl title, no video camera needed.
Because this is the preseason, the scene on the field won't be quite as intense as a Super Bowl. Playbooks will be dialed back and the starters won't see the field for a full 60 minutes. However, because it it the third week of the preseason, the starters will probably see their most work of any preseason game, for both the Patriots and the Rams, though they will not be game planning for each other as they would during the regular season. That shouldn't water down any of the excitement, especially on a night when Sam Bradford makes his first start in a Rams uniform.
A preview of tonight's game after the jump.
Let's start with some of the most interesting matchups for each unit. And the one I think will be the most interesting, aside from Bradford, is...
Rams run defense vs NE running game
The Pats have been very committed to running the ball in the preseason. Belichick's team is averaging 122 yards per game on the ground this month, and is tied for the league lead with 5 rushing TDs. Most of those yards have been grinded out too, as NE averages 3.7 yards per attempt and has just two runs of 20 or more yards. The Rams have not allowed a rushing TD thus far and opponents are averaging 88 yards per game and just 3.0 yards per attempt.
Rams pass defense vs NE pass
This one should be fairly obvious, and will depend on how much playing time NE gives its triple threat of Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Even if they only get a couple possessions, it will be the toughest test yet for a Rams secondary that struggled against Sage Rosnefels and the backup Vikings' receivers. The receivers and cornerbacks won't be the only players involved in the passing game. New England collected an impressive group of tight ends in this year's draft, after a serious courtship with Daniel Fells. Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski have combined for 11 catches, 2 TDs and more than 100 yards in two preseason games. Hernandez is the team's second leading receiver in terms of yardage and tied for the most receptions with 7. That will put pressure on the Rams linebackers. Na'il Diggs has repalced David Vobora on the strongside largely because he's got an edge in coverage. Backup Bobby Carpenter, who has been little noticed save for his late game INT last week, was also said to be a solid coverage guy when the Rams swapped Alex Barron for him. Larry Grant has been impressive as the starter on the weakside and will have to continue to build on what he has shown so far. The Rams struggled to defend tight ends last year and can't allow themselves to get beat in midfield this year.
Rams run game vs. NE front seven
New England's starting defense - they run a 3-4 - looks a little different around NT Vince Wilfork. Behind them, the Pats have a solid group of linebackers, with the impressive rookie Brandon Spikes playing next to Gerald Mayo in the middle. Of course, Spikes could be replaced by Gary Guyton who returns to the field this week. If the Rams' blockers can get to the second level effectively Steven Jackson could own the field. Keep an eye on FB Mike Karney, he's under some pressure to justify his roster spot thanks to some solid work by rookie TE Michael Hoomanawanui whose been working some at full back.
Rams pass protection vs. NE pass rush
The Pats have just two sacks so far in the preseason, but this week they'll have both their outside linebackers, Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess, are together for the first time in the preseason. They will be without DE Jermaine Cunningham, a second round pick out of Florida this year. Rodger Saffold and the rest of the offensive line looked much better last week, holding up well in pass protection, but they're not playing the Cleveland Browns this week. You can bet that the Pats have taken at least a few looks at tape of the Rams first two outings to get a sense of weaknesses in their pass protection, after all this is the Patriots and we know they have a certain affinity for video.
Rams passing game vs NE pass defense
Drew Brees and Matt Ryan both got stifled somewhat by the Pats. Sam Bradford may have that much potential, but this is a big test for him. Not only will the offensive line have to help him out in pass protection, along with the other blockers, the receivers will have to hit their routes and timing with regular season precision. CB Leigh Bodden returns to action for the Pats tonight, and they've had a solid showing from this year's first round pick CB Devin McCourty, who plays a Spags-esque style of press coverage. Cleveland's corners did a good job of taking the receivers out of the picture for the Rams. That can't happen this week. More than likely, the Rams will have to use their running backs in the passing game, an area NE struggled with last year. It's a similar thing with the tight ends, so if you don't like short passes, this could be a tough game to watch. Nevertheless, the Rams offense has to find a way to make those short passes work, namely by turning them into larger gains by getting some yards after the catch. That's the new gold standard in the NFL, and the Rams have to start seeing that from some of their receivers, tight ends and running backs..