Before kickoff on Saturday we listed a numbers of things to keep an eye on during the Rams vs. Cowboys game. Spoiler Alert: For the most part we failed on all fronts. The game, overall was not that disappointing, but in terms of the key areas that we should be improving to maintain momentum going into the regular season, we were not up to snuff. Here is a review of those key areas:
1. Can the St. Louis Rams first team offense continue to progress
Last week against the Redskins, the first team offense started off hot and, because of the defense causing turnovers, was able to stay hot and pound out two touchdowns in the first quarter. That was not the case last night. In all fairness to the first team, it was really like the 1b team, since Jackson was primarily held out of the game, give or take a couple of appearances for the sake of play action. However, with Jackson in, Bradford used the play action to his advantage, rocking a 26 yard bomb to Lance Kendricks earlier in the night. Aside from that, everything else looked bad. Bradford went 6 for 17 passing for 64 yards and no touchdowns. He got no help from the receivers, who got a bad case of the “drop-sies,” although Bradford did toss a couple of ball way off target. I would say that it was definitely not progression, but hard to make a judgement when Steven Jackson is not in the game.
2. Rookie starting secondary?
The gossip around Rams camp on Thursday was that we might see our rookie safeties get some time after Jim Thomas reported Craig Dahl and Darian Steward were being sidelined at practice with injuries. Much to my surprise, the safeties that ran onto the field were none other than Quintin Mikell and Craig Dahl. So much for rookie work. We definitely heard both Matt Daniels’ and Rodney McLeod’s name called during the game though, albeit on special teams. McLeod made an exceptional tackle on kickoff, breaking through the would-be blockers and wrangling down Felix Jones, limiting him to a 16 yard return and taking it from 5 yards deep in the endzone. McLeod also got some work with the second and third team defense, one that forced a number of 3-and-outs against the QB shuffling from Dallas in the second half. Daniels did not see much field time, but did put his stamp on the game with a beautifully executed fake punt in which he ran for 30 yards and the 1st down. Still, they did not see any time with the first unit, which may or may not have been a blessing as the starters were getting ripped apart by Tony Romo and the no-name wideouts on the Cowboys.
3. Vernon Gholston’s return to the NFL
Aside from the Josh Gordy trade, Vernon Gholston was probably the most talked about player on the Rams during the second half of the week. Maybe I had stopped looking for him in that game at this point, but, by my observation, Gholston did not see the field until under the 3 minute left in the fourth quarter. Gholston did not record any type of statistic; no sacks, no tackles, no pressures, no pass deflections, no anything. He was not given much of a chance to do anything, but you would assume that, even in limited time, a player of his supposed-caliber would be able to dominate a second or third team offensive lineman. In his defense, it is hard to get anything going in that short amount of time, especially after taking a year off from football, and the Cowboys were definitely in a run first mindset, trying to hold onto the lead at the end of the game. Still, based on the amount of time he was given and his performance in that time, I doubt we will be seeing Gholston after the Aug. 31 roster cuts.
4. The hopeful return of the return game
Coming into this game, the punt return unit was averaging an astonishing 1.7 yards per return. There was not much in the ways of punt returns in Saturdays game, at least on the Rams receiving end. Danny Amendola had a nice 7 yard return after spinning off a would-be tackler. However, why on earth would we throw Bradford’s second best offensive weapon out there to get to the wolves on special teams? I highly doubt, or at least hope, that Amendola’s return in this game was the last we will ever see from him.
In the kickoff return game, which had been only average to this point, Isaiah Pead showed his explosiveness with a pair of returns that set up the offensive in nice position, leading to points on both drives. Pead demonstrated his quickness and ability to follow blockers, breaking one return for 47 yards and another for 30. If he can continue to make those kinds of return, people are going to start talking a lot less about his sub-par performances as a running back and more about his “big play” abilities on special teams.
5. Running back reps for anyone not named Steven Jackson
While Pead was demonstrating his ability to find the seam in the defense and hit the hole during special teams, he did not carry it over to the offense. Pead got to see a ton of time with the first team, but continue to underwhelm with a 9 rushes for 22 yards for 2.4 yards per carry. Marshall Faulk even joked that the offensive line looked like they broke down on blocking, but only when they saw Pead in the backfield. Conspiracy theory? Probably not, but it would explain why Richardson has continued to squeeze through the holes that Pead cannot seem to find. Richardson got a few extra reps with the first time, although a majority of them came with the second unit. Richardson had 10 rushes for 51 yards, as well as a nice 9 yard pickup out of the air. If this game doesn’t stir the talks of a position battle at running back than I don’t know what will, but Richardson is clearly outplaying Pead in every aspect of the run game, no matter which way you spin it. Faulk attempted to save face by citing Pead as an “outside runner” and Richardson as an “inside runner,” which supposedly made things easier for Richardson, but at the end of the day production is production.
Verdict: Pead – Fail; Richardson – Pass
6. Can the offensive stay out of the red in turnover differential
If we take nothing else from this game, we can join in the fact that we are still in the black in the turnover battle. The Rams currently sit at +3 after recovering a Dallas fumble and covering up both of our offesnive fumbles. However, turnover differential and great special teams play is only going to help if the offense can capitalize on those plays and put points on the board.
The clear Rams MVP was Greg Zuerlein last night, after punching through two 50+ yard field goals to reap some gain from Pead’s amazing kick returns. Not turning the ball over is nice, but most would take an extra turnover or two during the season in exchange for a more explosive, dynamic passing offense and some points on the board.