It doesn’t seem that long ago that NFL fans were begging for training camps to begin and now we are already past the halfway point of the preseason. The Rams have been hot and cold in their preseason debutes, but are coming off an impressive showing against the Kansas City Chiefs. Fisher is one of those coaches that is set in his ways (albeit winning ways), and will continue to the play the preseason games on his own terms, running the offensive sets and defensive schemes that he wants, regardless of what the opposition decides to do. Even if the St. Louis Rams don’t necessarily care about the final score, all teams want to have positive momentum heading into Week 1 of the regular season. They started that momentum last week and hope to build on it going into this weeks matchup against the Dallas Cowboys. Here are six things to watch for this week during the game tonight:
1. Can the St. Louis Rams first team offense continue to progress
The St. Louis Rams starting unit is coming off a turnaround performance against the Kansas City Chiefs. Unlike the Colts game, the offense was able to keep the monument going on their two drive, picking up 151 total yards and, more importantly, capping off both drives off with a touchdown. The offense was firing on all cylinders, with Bradford averaging 11.3 yards per throw and Jackson hammering away for 7 yards per carry.
Looking to the other side of the field, the Cowboys defense has been playing pretty well, blanking Oakland on the scoreboard in their first preseason game and “laying the hurt” to QB Philip Rivers before the ‘Boys handed the game to Charley Whitehurst and the Chargers second and third team units. The first team defensive pressure on Rivers forced two interceptions, and the run defense did not give up a single rush over 10 yards.
This should be the most “realistic” matchup for the St. Louis Rams starters, since virtually every team other than the Rams will be sitting their starters in Week 4 in preparation for the regular season. The Cowboys have some elite pass rushers, although we likely won’t be seeing DeMarcus Ware who is nursing a hamstring injury sustained early last week. However, we will see the a couple of rising stars in the Dallas secondary, with almost-drafted Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, who was responsible for both of Rivers interceptions in Week 2.
2. Rookie starting secondary?
We relayed the reports from Jim Thomas on Thursday that safeties Darian Stewart and Craig Dahl would likely be sidelined on Satuday due to injury. This means we could potentially see three of our rookies playing significant time with the first team defense. There has been no reports yet on who will start at safety alongside Quintin Mikell or who will get the nod as the starting nickel corner. If all the stars align, we could be seeing Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, and Rodney McLeod on the field at the same time against QB Tony Romo. Even if all Johnson and McLeod don’t start, they will see significant playing time with the second and third units.
3. Vernon Gholston’s return to the NFL
Vernon Gholston was picked up by the St. Louis Rams on Wednesday, shortly following the surprise shipping of Josh Gordy to the Colts. Most were shocked, or at least confused, but the signing of Gholston, who had been labeled by most as a “draft bust.” However, Jim Thomas shed some light on that situation by revealing that four lineman in the defensive rotation did not practice Thursday with the team, leaving the Rams a bit shorthanded. Everyone seemed to have an option about whether or not Gholston could strive here in St. Louis, including us at Ramblin’ Fan, but no one will know until we see him on the field.
However, if you were hoping to see him out there battling for significant reps with Quinn and Long, you will be disappointed come Saturday. “We expect him to play a few plays this week,” Fisher said following Thursday’s practice. “We’re not going to do a lot with him, but we’ll get him out on the field and let him rush a little bit.” With roster cuts coming next Monday and next Friday, there is little time for Gholston to prove himself at Rams Park.
4. The hopeful return of the return game
After the controversial rule changes in 2010, which moved the ball from the 30 to the 35, some expected the end of the beloved kickoff return. For the most part that has been true, with a marked drop off in the number of kickoff returns attempts during the 2011 regular season. However, this should have no effect on the punt return, but apparent the Rams did not get that memo.
So far, the return-by-community group has combined for an impressive 1.7 yards per attempt, not counting fair catches. To put that in perspective, 1.7 yards is roughly 5.1 feet, so, theoretically, a player could have made a longer return by simply falling forward, feet planted in the ground, and reaching for the yards. Assuming that the player is 6’0 tall and can at least extend the ball to the top of their head, they would average, at minimum 2 yards per return.
Of course, it is not that simple, but the Rams can use all the help they can get on offense. Keep an eye on special teams to see if there is some consistency on who is returning the punts and hopefully less consistency in the yards per return column.
5. Running back reps for anyone not named Steven Jackson
Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson seemed to have mentally switched places, with the 7th-round Richardson arguably playing better than the 2nd-round Isaiah Pead. There were some rumblings at the beginning of the week about a potential “roster battle” for the spot behind Steven Jackson on the depth chart. I highly doubt that we will be seeing those whispers come to fruition, but have no doubt that Richardson will see a little extra time with the second unit. It should also be interesting to see how Pead responds to his underwhelming first half of the preseason. Can he prove to be the long-awaited, change-of-pace back up to Jackson? If not, will Richardson continue to impress and work his way into more reps with the second team?
6. Can the offensive stay out of the red in turnover differential
So far, the Rams are sitting pretty with a +2 turnover ratio. The offense has only thrown one interception, but has given up a couple of costly fumbles, especially in the Colts game. Luckily, the defense harassed Matt Cassel and the Kansas City Chiefs to keep the Rams out of the red. Lets see how the Rams offense and defense holds up against an arguably more impressive offense and defense in the Dallas Cowboys.