The St Louis Rams won their first game of the pre-season with a dominant 33-14 victory, away to Cleveland. With a more complete starting package playing for longer, this was a valuable opportunity to assess the state of the franchise as it heads into the regular season. Here are my observations…
What I Liked
The Defense That’s a bit more like it! After two uninspiring outings, the defense came on big, with the suffocating performance that we were expecting. The Rams kept the Browns below 180 yards, with an impressive 32 yards rushing. Given the struggles with the run defense over these past few weeks, it was pleasing to see such a significant improvement. The front seven were particularly impressive, despite the absence of James Laurinaitis and Jo-Lonn Dunbar, and the impact that a returning Michael Brockers had on the front-line was noticeable (for as long as it lasted!). The defense forced takeaways and applied pressure on the opposing quarterback, notching four sacks, including Robert Quinn’s first one of the year, with rookie Michael Sam recording another two. More impressively, the second-string defense held its own against Cleveland’s starters. Yes, it was against the Browns, but there are finally signs that Gregg Williams has arrived.
The passing game With the running game still failing to get going, the quarterbacks and receivers took over the offense, with eyebrow-raising results. As a group, Sam Bradford, Shaun Hill, Austin Davis and Garrett Gilbert threw for 330 yards, distributing the ball to ten different receivers, with two touchdowns. Maintaining a pattern that has been evident throughout the pre-season, five players had at least one reception for over twenty yards, with Chris Givens’ long-overdue 75-yard jaunt the pick of the bunch. Davis was particularly efficient, leading those two scoring drives. The receivers ran crisp routes, and it was encouraging to see Bradford in particular take some shots downfield. If these performances continue, the Rams will not have to live by the running game again…which, given the limited success so far, is not necessarily a bad thing.
Brian Quick This links up with the above paragraph, but I still felt it was worthy of mention. Quick led the team with four catches, and while his forty-seven yards (with one touchdown) might not be astronomical, this mention illustrates how positive Rams Nation is feeling over the third-year receiver. I must admit I was skeptical about the reports from training camp that Quick was experience some kind of career resurrection, but there has been a noticeable improvement, particularly in his attitude and general involvement in the game. Last week, Quick was at the end of a 41-yard strike and forced another big gain through an interference call. Against Cleveland, he fought for receptions and scored. Quick is back in the Rams’ receiver equation, and his rebirth could not be coming at a better time.
What I didn’t like
Bradford’s injury As the father of two young children, there are enough things keeping me up at night than having to worry about Bradford’s knee. Number 8 has looked strong and poised in both his pre-season appearances, but it cannot be encouraging that he walked off the field injured after only throwing 21 passes over two games. Bradford tore his ACL after having been playing very well so far this preseason which is truly disappointing for Bradford and Rams Nation.
The Rams’ triumph was further marred by injuries to cornerback Trumaine Johnson – who will be out for about six weeks – and knocks to Roger Saffold and Michael Brockers, both making their pre-season debuts after recovering from injury. A worrying list already with a few weeks left to start!
Kickoff Coverage Incredibly, the Browns gained more yardage in kickoff returns (202) than they didon offense (178). This represents a poor performance by the coverage teams. The Rams cannot afford to give opposing teams good field position, and it is a testament to the quality of the defense that the Browns were not able to take advantage of these returns. The coverage teams need to get to the ball-carriers with more urgency and more conviction and prevent a momentum-shifting big play from special teams. This has not been much of an issue over the pre-season, but it was shocking how easily Cleveland’s returners were getting past our players.
Penalties Ah, yes, that old chestnut. The Rams just do not seem to learn, despite Coach Fisher’s punishments and offers of rewards. Players keep making bone-head plays that reflect a lack of concentration – simple issues such as false starts, procedural violations, and holding. Luckily, the Rams did not give up any major plays through penalties, and surprisingly recovered well from some of them (particularly in the opening drive), but nothing saps offensive momentum like going backwards. This has been a perennial problem for a while and the players need to realize that these simple things can hold the franchise back.
Some other observations
Trey Watts had a good game and placed himself in contention in an already crowded backfield…Speaking of the backfield, I remain unconvinced by Zac Stacy as this offense’s featured back and expect a rotation with Tre Mason and Ben Cunningham when the regular season starts…Are Roger Saffold’s ankles made of crystal?…Has anyone seen Tavon Austin lately?…Less field goals, more touchdowns on those long drives, boys…Michael Sam will end up on an NFL roster – I just hope the Rams are able to find room for him…Austin Davis is a far superior backup quarterback to Garrett Gilbert, who currently has no place on this roster…