At 8:00 PM ET yesterday, the NFL season officially began, as the St. Louis Rams squared off against the Cleveland Browns. Being the first preseason matchup of the season, we expected to see plenty of players in the rotation, some bland play-calling, and watch the starters ride the bench after a couple of offensive series. To some, that would be a boring game. To others, it was a unique opportunity to watch some “lesser known” players on the field; some that might even make their way onto the 53-man roster at the end of August. Keeping in mind that is still the preseason, here are Ramblin’ Fan’s quick thoughts on the Thursday’s game:
1. The young “stars” appeared to come out a little over-zealous to start the game, there were several missed assignments on defense, a couple of drops on catch-able throws, and some visible signs of “thinking,” instead of merely going out and playing football. That’s completely fine. It is the preseason. These guy are hitting the field for the first time in their career.
2. With Sam Bradford in the game, the offense appeared to move pretty efficiently, even leading the young Rams’ squad 45 yards down the field on the opening drive before Isaiah Pead put the ball on the ground. St. Louis second drive was cut short prematurely, with “drops” by both Austin Pettis and Tavon Austin on, what appeared to be, catch-able throws from Bradford. The 1st-team’s third drive started with a bang, with Bradford hitting Chris Givens deep on a 59-yard completion, followed shortly by a 3-yarder to Givens in the endzone. Three offensive series is not enough to gauge the offense, especially with obviously scripted, “vanilla” playcalling from the sideline. However, it was certainly not a bad start to the “Bradford-Era” in St. Louis.
3. Both the St. Louis Rams and the Cleveland Browns appeared to be heading into the game with few-to-no significant injuries on the roster. That ended in the first quarter, when Rodger Saffold landed awkwardly on his left arm while blocking the Browns’ new-acquired Paul Kruger. Rodger would not return to the game, instead coming out at halftime in street clothes sporting a black sling. According to Jeff Fisher at halftime, “Rodger is going to be OK. He’s going to be all right. X-rays were negative so he’ll be all right. He’s going to be a little sore but he’ll be OK.” However, following the game, he did mention that Saffold would likely miss some undisclosed amount of time with the injury. If “general soreness” keeps Saffold out playing in the next handful of preseason games, the St. Louis Rams will be more than happy. We can only hope that it doesn’t linger into the regular season.
4. Switching to the defense, there was certainly room for improvement on the 1st-team unit. However, in their defense, the play-calling appeared to be heavily scripted; not necessarily reading the defense and adjusting accordingly. Every third down brought in the nickel package, there was little-to-no man coverage or bump-and-run at the line of scrimmage, there were no exotic blitzes. However, as a silver lining, the St. Louis Rams were successful in their first red-zone defensive stand, holding the Cleveland Browns to a field goal after the opposing team had moved to 1st and Goal at the STL 8 yard line.
After the “switch sides” at the end of the 1st quarter, nearly all of the Rams’ starters were sent the bench, including all of the notable players in the front-seven. Brandon Weeden would throw for their first touchdown of the game that opening play, but it was primarily against the 2nd-team defense. Overall, the defense looked a bit “out-of-sorts,” but that comes with the territory of transiting new, young players into the starting lineup. Expect for the 1st-teamers to put on more of a show next Sunday in their preseason bout with the Green Bay Packers.
5. Of the starters, Chris Givens and Sam Bradford looked the most comfortable on the field. Givens, in particular, was obviously the most dominant player in the game, averaging 27.3 yards on three receptions. Here is the breakdown of those catches:
- 20-yard catch on 3rd and 7 (first down)
- 59-yard catch on 2nd and 7 (first down)
- 3-yard catch on on 3rd and Goal (touchdown)
Bradford was obviously looking for Givens in “do-or-die” situations, and Givens answered the phone whenever he was called upon. If this is any indication of how the regular season will play out, Givens could truly “break into the league” with a monster sophomore season.
6. On a negative note, Isaiah Pead appeared to be thinking too much when he was on the field… again. Last season, Pead verbalized his frustration with having to battle for reps and expressed the difficultly in overcoming the mental aspect of the game. That showed on Thursday, with Pead fumbling the football on his first rushing attempt of the season, ending the St. Louis Rams’ opening drive. After his fumble, Pead was noticeably shaken, standing isolated on the sideline with his helmet firmly fixed on his head. He would later show that same “mis-thinking” on kick return, waffling between kneeling or running out the kickoff. If he wants to rip the starting job away from Daryl Richardson, Pead will need to show more than he did on Thursday.
7. Moving away from the “starting” unit, the St. Louis Rams’ coaching staff had their hand’s full attempting to work in some of the “fringe” prospects on the roster. The one defense player that stuck out was Ray Ray Armstrong, the Rams’ undrafted rookie, who converted from safety to outside linebacker. Armstrong appeared to have his nose in on every snap, playing sideline-to-sideline and translating his aggressiveness into three tackles. With very little quality depth at the outside linebacker position, Armstrong was likely a strong favorite to make the 53-man roster prior to this game. If he continues to play aggressively, and effectively, we will undoubtedly see his name on the depth chart in September.
8. On the offense, Benny Cunningham was the most impressive of the lesser-known Rams, seeing a bulk of the reps in the second half of the game. Cunningham took 5 rushes for 20 yards, dragging Browns’ defensemen on every carry. He was also solid in his one kick return attempt, taking the ball out of the endzone for a 36-yard return to start the Rams in excellent field position. With Steven Jackson out of the equation, the St. Louis Rams are likely to keep four running backs on the roster. If Benny Cunningham can continue to play at this level, it is certainly possible that he could jump Terrance Ganaway on the depth chart; or, if nothing else, earn a spot on the practice squad.
9. Greg “the Leg” Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker appear to be in mid-season form already, with both posting some impressive numbers on special teams. Hekker averaged 55.7 yards per attempt on his punts, including landing a “retrievable” ball inside the opposing 5-yard line and bombing a 60+ yarder. During warmups, Hekker nailed three consecutive “coffin corner” punts from beyond mid-field, each of which would have likely rolled out somewhere inside the 5- to 10-yard marker.
Zuerlein was… well, himself. The Rams’ kicking phenom booted two attempts from 50+ yards, nailing both with ease, including one from 54 yards and another from 55 yards. If there were any stadium that represents the polar-opposite of a “dome,” it would be the field in Cleveland, with lakefront winds gusting through the stadium without a moment’s notice. If “the Leg” can make these types of kicks on the Browns’ home grass, he can make them in any stadium in the National Football League.
10. Remember Rams Nation, it is just the preseason! We would have all loved to see Tavon Austin and Jared Cook get some more reps with in the offense, we would have loved to see Chris Givens or Tavon Austin returning kickoffs, we would have loved to see the Rams “send the house” on defense, we would have loved our starters on the field for the goal line stand to start the 2nd quarter…. but, we didn’t! Jeff Fisher and the St. Louis Rams coaching staff obviously have a plan for this preseason. Let’s just sit back, relax, and enjoy the fact that football has officially started again.
Bonus: Brian Quick and Stedman Bailey were also impressive in their time on the field Thursday. They have obviously been soaking in knowledge imparted on them by Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, and it showed on the field…