In a meaningless one-point defeat against Peyton Manning and the Super Bowl contending Denver Broncos, the blossoming Rams have plenty to hang their hats on.
St. Louis looked like a team on the verge in spurts against Denver, but this inexperienced team still needs a tune up in a few areas.
As this upstart team prepares for their preseason finale against Baltimore Thursday, let’s take a look at areas of concern and optimism for the retooled Rams.
-The Rams most talked about acquisitions of the offseason all paid dividends when the starters were out on the field.
Rookie wide receiver Tavon Austin was the first to ignite the crowd as he returned the opening punt for 81 yards that he would have scored on if he didn’t run into teammate and fellow rookie Alec Olgetree. Austin returned two punts for a combined 104 yards. His incendiary speed will drastically alter the beginning field position for the Rams offense.
And speaking of the other rookie that unintentionally halted Tavon’s first trip into the endzone, Alec Olgetree silenced critics who were blasting him because of missed tackles and leaving gaping holes in the middle of the field. The Georgia product had two highlight reel plays. The first was a trifecta coming away with the strip, scoop and score on a 13-yard fumble return for a touchdown. The second was an interception that he tipped to himself as Manning tried to sneak one over his head. He almost corralled another one in the endzone, but it bounced off his thigh when he tried to haul it in with one hand. “Tree” finished second on the team in tackles with six, two tackles for loss, two pass deflections and a touchdown.
Jared Cook was the beneficiary of Austin’s electrifying punt return as the Rams scored on the ensuing play with a 3-yard fade from Sam Bradford to Cook in the back of the endzone. Cook first got involved in the action last week with a 37-yard catch and run showing off his size and speed. Totaling four catches for 50 yards against Denver is only a preview of things to come.
The new anchor left tackle, Jake Long, pitched a shutout nullifying rushers on the left side and has stayed healthy during the offseason. His durability is tied to Bradford’s life in the pocket. The two sacks on Bradford came on the right side and up the middle.
-It’s nearly impossible to find a story about the Rams’ fourth year signal caller that’s not saying “make or break year” or “he finally has weapons, let’s see what he finally can do,” or some variation of that. In the preseason, Bradford is 22 0f 36 for 368 yards, two touchdowns and a 61 percent completion rate. Stats and wins mean little less to nothing in the preseason, but if you remove the film from your eyes, Bradford is due for a monster year as he continue to connect with his new targets.
-A once weak in depth linebacker group has the potential to become one of the league’s top units. The stalwart James Laurinaitis will man the middle for years to come, Ogletree looks like the playmaker the Rams drafted him to be and once run-stopper Jo-Lonn Dunbar returns from suspension, the defense will be at full force. With the signing of veteran LB Will Witherspoon and fan favorite free agent rookie Ray-Ray Armstrong continuing to make plays in the preseason–who had a sack against the Broncos–the linebacker corpse is shaping out to be one of the team’s strengths.
-After championing for Isaiah Pead to become lead man in the backfield, head coach Jeff Fisher has named Daryl Richardson as the starting running back. This news isn’t new, but Richardson is no more than a “change-of-pace” ‘back at the least. He instinctively shows he’s a one cut and go guy with decent speed, but his size doesn’t allow him to shed many tackles or garner yards after contact.
Fisher said “he’s going to play the guys who need to play,” regarding his game plan in the final preseason game. Hopefully, that gives guys like fifth-round running back Zac Stacy more reps. Stacy isn’t a burner or pass-cather like Pead or Richardson, but he does offer power running in space. Pead has had a much better showing this preseason, aside from a fumble on his first carry. St. Louis has pounded the notion of a running back by committee approach, but one of the reason might be because there is no one in the backfield that stands out.
-Last year the Rams led the NFL in penalties with 8.06 penalties a game. They were in midseason form against the Broncos amassing 11 penalties for 74 yards. Through three games into the preseason, they have 26 penalties for 169 yards. With a young and inexperienced roster, the Rams may again be at the top of this list. These drive stalling penalties can be the difference of a field goal and touchdown.
-Stop me if you heard this before, but safety Darian Stewart is out because of a hamstring injury. Stewart was penciled in as the starter at the beginning of the offseason, but doubt is creeping on his durability. And not to mention his constant whiffs and blown assignments.
Second-year safety Rodney McLeod Jr. has shown promise in his own right. He is proving to coaches he is a sure tackler, always in the right position and has showed good recognition in coverage. He should’ve had an interception against the Packers off a tipped pass in week two of the preseason, but it was called back because of a phantom pass-interference call. The old myth is a player can’t lose his position because of injury, but ask Alex Smith, Joe Montana and Drew Bledsoe if that is true. McLeod is in serious contention of taking the starting gig alongside standout rookie T.J. McDonald.
-Converting a third down seems like forbidden territory. Against the Broncos, they were 2 0f 13 on third-down conversion attempts and 1-14 against the Packers. Part of the blame goes to the Rams vanilla playcalling on offense and penalty setbacks that put them third-and-forever situations. This is only seen as a minor hiccup, but the Rams have to successfully move he ball down the field.
-Austin Pettis is looking like Brandon Gibson all over again. A practice superstar, but disappears in live action. Pettis first catch of the preseason came against Denver after he was the reportedly “tearing it up in the offseason,” according offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. He is sure-handed yes, but he lacks the ability to separate from man-to-man coverage and looks to have plateaued. Pettis looks the part of possession receiver, but his abilities doesn’t take him beyond that.
Brian Quick is another guy that will possibly receive more reps against Baltimore Thursday. The 6’3″ 220 pound second-year wideout has five receptions for 71 yards this preseason.