Monday, August 27, 2007

Linehan Confident in Offense

By Brett Grassmuck

Three of four preseason games are in the books, and although the Rams’ offensive first unit has yet to score a touchdown, coach Scott Linehan remains confident that his offense is better than it was at this point last season.

“I can tell you this: I’m one-hundred percent more comfortable with where we are on offense, believe it or not, than where we were a year ago,” Linehan said. ‘I think our depth is better. If you were to fast-forward and say this is going to be our roster, these are the guys that are going to step in if something happened to the starters, I’d feel much more comfortable with whom we’d be able to put in there and how effective they’d be.”

The Rams’ first-team offense has not been able to find the end zone, but it has had success moving the ball against three of the NFL’s top defensive teams. Against Oakland, a batted ball and an illegal procedure penalty in the red zone limited the first team offense to only a field goal.

“I’m not concerned about (not scoring),” Linehan said. “I’d be more concerned if we couldn’t move the football – if we couldn’t get a first down or we couldn’t drive the ball against the three defenses we’ve played.”

The Rams’ first team offense did not find the end zone in the 2006 preseason, and it led to a slow start, although a season-opening victory against Denver on the strength of six Jeff Wilkins field goals.

“I recognize that, and we recognize as a coaching staff that we didn’t score last year in the preseason, and we started slowly,” offensive coordinator Greg Olsen said. “I just think it’s a totally different set of circumstances as to why we haven’t scored this season as opposed to last season. We’ll continue to work on the problems that we have identified, and I’m confident that we’ll get them fixed for the first game.”

Penalty Kill : The Rams’ defense showed some positive signs on Friday, coming up with their first two turnovers against the Raiders, but five pass interference penalties lead to scoring drives and eventually a victory for the Raiders.

“They were all close plays,” Linehan said. “You can sit here and argue all day that it’s incidental bumping or maybe both guys are in contact. To me, if you’re playing tight coverage and playing man coverage, you really have to be right with your technique.”

Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said he was unsure of a few of the judgment calls by the officials, but stressed that the Rams have not had a problem with pass interference, even with their aggressive defensive style.

“We had a few last year, and you’re going to get that, but we haven’t had a problem with it,” Haslett said. “If there’s a receiver running by our corners, or we’re panicking on a ball, then you’re nervous, but you didn’t see that in this game.”

Roster Battles Rage On : Linehan said the battle for the center position between Andy McCollum and Brett Romberg is still too close to call, but a decision will be made on the starter before Thursday’s preseason contest against the Chiefs.

With guard Richie Incognito out with an ankle injury, guards Claude Terrell and Milford Brown are battling for the backup position. Terrell started against Oakland, but Brown received his share of snaps.

“The strong part of our team right now is our depth inside at the center and the two guards,” Olsen said. “There’s competition still going on at that position. A lot of people like to talk about Romberg and McCollum, but you’ve got some guys at guard that are battling as well on a daily and weekly basis and trying to find what their role is going to be. We’re happy with the competition inside.”

On the defensive side, two converted linebackers are vying for the eighth spot on the defensive line. Defensive ends Trevor Johnson and Eric Moore have been impressive during the preseason and both would add depth to the Rams’ pass rush.

Injury Update : Wide Receiver Dominique Thompson and Linebacker Tim McGarigle, who have both been sidelined by injuries for the first part of the preseason, will return to action on Thursday against the Chiefs.

“This is kind of like the bottom of the ninth for (McGarigle), and a lot of guys come up with big hits in the bottom of the ninth,” Haslett said. “We know what Timmy is and what kind of player he is. It’ll be good to see him in action this week. He’ll get a lot of playing time this week, and we’ll get to judge him on that.”

Rams Trim Roster : With the Rams roster needing to be trimmed to 75 players by Tuesday, the Rams released 10 players following Friday night’s contest at Oakland: wide receivers Rasheed Marshall, Nate Morton and Markee White, running back Kay-Jay Harris, fullback Brad Lau, punter Fred Capshaw, defensive end Alton Pettway, linebacker Larry Edwards and defensive backs Jeffery Dukes and Harrison Smith.

The roster currently sits at 76 players, so one more cut will have to be made before Tuesday’s deadline.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Rams' Offense Remains Ineffective


Those looking for positive signs from the Rams didn't have much to hang their helmets on in Saturday night's exhibition game against San Diego.

The first-team offense, albeit minus running back Steven Jackson, was held off the scoreboard. The first-team defense was so-so at best against the potent Chargers running game. And special teams sprang several leaks, including one tidal wave: an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown by Darren Sproles.

It all added up to a 30-13 loss to the Chargers that must have left the Rams' coaching staff thankful that it's still only August.

"There's not a whole lot of positives in the loss," coach Scott Linehan said. "I'm sure when we watch the film ... there's going to be some things we're going to look at and say, 'That wasn't so bad.' But right now, it's hard to put a lot of positive spin on it."

With their starting offenses on the field, San Diego and the Rams both advanced the ball twice into enemy territory in three possessions.

The difference? San Diego converted its first such possession into a touchdown. The Rams, meanwhile, lost the ball on turnovers on both of their possessions. And that pretty much was the difference in Saturday's exhibition contest played in a half-empty Edward Jones Dome — that, and San Diego's punt return for a touchdown.

Keep in mind that neither team's Pro Bowl running back touched the football Saturday. The Rams' Steven Jackson, who led the NFL in yards from scrimmage a year ago, was in for only one snap. The Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson, who finished No. 2 in yards from scrimmage last season, was not in uniform.

The Rams nickeled and dimed their way downfield after taking the opening kickoff. Despite no play gaining more than 9 yards, the Rams advanced the ball to the Chargers 26, where they had a first down with just over 8 minutes to go in the opening quarter. But after taking a short pass from Marc Bulger, Madison Hedgecock had the ball stripped by San Diego linebacker Shaun Phillips. Shawne Merriman recovered the fumble for the Chargers.

Linehan looked at the replay not once, but twice, on the big scoreboard screen in the dome before tossing his red flag. But Linehan's replay challenge was unsuccessful.

In any event, San Diego made the most of the turnover, marching 71 yards for a touchdown. Tomlinson's understudy, Michael Turner, had gains of 17 and 9 yards on the drive, with linebacker Will Witherspoon and cornerback Tye Hill missing tackles that could have shortened each gain considerably.

Wide receiver Vincent Jackson scored the touchdown on a 5-yard reception from Philip Rivers with 1:48 left in the first quarter. Jackson came down with only one foot in bounds, but members of referee Larry Nemmers' officiating crew ruled that Jackson was pushed out of bounds by Rams defenders.

The Rams took the ensuing kickoff and advanced quickly into Chargers territory. On first and 10 from the San Diego 25, Bulger went to the end zone, but his pass intended for Torry Holt was picked off by Chargers safety Clinton Hart with 11:49 left in the second quarter.

"They stayed true to their coverage," Bulger said. "I probably should have put it on (Holt) more, put it on his body more. I led him a little too much."

Bulger and the starters played one more series before giving way to the backups, but went three-and-out. So in five series with the starting offense this preseason, albeit most of them with rookie Brian Leonard as the feature back, the Rams haven't scored a point, much less a touchdown.

"You want to always come out and do your best," Bulger said. "But we're not going to panic. We definitely want to come out and score more touchdowns and finish drives. We're really good at making adjustments during the game. ... It's a little difficult to do that now, because you don't want to show things."

In three of those first-team possessions this preseason, the series has ended with a turnover — two interceptions by Bulger and the Hedgecock fumble. Together, the Rams are minus six in two exhibition games. They have committed six turnovers, but their defense hasn't come up with a takeaway.

"It starts with the head coach, making sure we continue to work on it," Linehan said. "We emphasize it. We talk a lot about (turnover margin). But we have not executed that in preseason. ... And that's got to change."

Monday, August 13, 2007

Leonard Passes First Running Test

Granted, it's just the preseason. But Brian Leonard's first NFL touchdown didn't even bring a perfunctory spike from the Rutgers running back.

In fact, Leonard handed the ball to the referee so quickly that the official was still signaling "touchdown."

"I think the ref was surprised," Leonard said. "He had to reach down to grab it."

Leave it to Rams teammate Steven Jackson to recognize the significance of Leonard's 10-yard touchdown run Friday night against Minnesota.

"He said, 'You've got to get the ball, man,'" Leonard recalled. "'That's your first NFL touchdown.' So Steven was actually running around looking for it. That's just the kind of guy he is."

Jackson apparently found the football Friday in the Metrodome, because equipment manager Todd Hewitt has the ball and will send it out to be "painted" in commemorative fashion.

So chalk up one for the Leonard trophy case. The Rams hope it's the first of many for Leonard, although Jackson obviously is the main man in the St. Louis backfield. The Rams drafted Leonard in the second round in April to spell Jackson, serve as a third-down back and use his size (6 feet 1, 226 pounds) to pass block. So far, so good.

"Just in the first preseason game, he met all of those expectations that we had of him," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "He caught the ball very well. I thought when he had the chance to run the football, he made the most out of his opportunities. ... And he showed some intelligence in the protection part of the game."

Leonard conceded that he was nervous at the start, resulting in a couple of missed holes.

"First couple carries, I was just running," Leonard said. "I wasn't reading my blocks too well. After I settled down, got a few plays in me, I was all right. I think I read the blocks better and had a couple nice runs."

Sure enough, the more he played, the better he looked. By game's end he had more yards rushing (36 to 33) than Minnesota's heralded running back, Adrian Peterson, the No. 7 overall pick in this year's draft.

After a while, it became just football for Leonard. Once he settled in against the Vikings, he displayed a knack for knowing when to put his head down and steam toward a first down, and when to try some shake-and-bake to try to make a defender miss.

"That's the first thing you notice about him as a runner," coach Scott Linehan said. "He just has great instincts. He sees the hole. He gets it done a different way than Steven Jackson. But that's not unusual. He's a guy that understands how to utilize what he does best — which is great vision and run downhill. He makes the decision, and he very rarely takes lost yards."

Although he's less than a year older than Leonard, Jackson, 24, does have three years in the NFL and is serving as a mentor of sorts. Leonard already has grown to admire Jackson's practice habits. And he has taken mental notes on Jackson's running style.

"He's had a huge impact on me," Leonard said. "When Steven hits that hole, he bursts through that hole, and lowers his shoulders, too."

As a result, Leonard has tried to lower his pad level before contact on runs.

"In college, you can get away with it a little bit," Leonard said. "You can play with a high pad level and you can break the arm tackles. But at this level, you've got to lower your shoulders to break those arm tackles."

Jackson already has advised Leonard to try using a little "wiggle" from time to time as a runner.

"Steven told me: 'It's a long season, buddy. You better try to make some of them miss sometime,'" Leonard said.

Those may be words to heed, because Leonard came out of the Minnesota game with sore ribs — although it didn't prevent him from practicing Sunday.

Sunday, August 5, 2007 NFL Training Camp 2007

By John Clayton

ST. LOUIS -- Five observations from St. Louis Rams training camp, gleaned from the team's practices:

1. Carriker coming on strong

I can't remember the last time a college end moved to nose tackle, but first-round choice Adam Carriker looks like a beast in the middle of the Rams' defense. His development could be the key to the season. Carriker has added 20 pounds since the draft; he now weighs 310 pounds. He worked with former Raiders' star Howie Long on drills to learn how to use his hands better and the impact is certainly noticeable. In some drills, Carriker was throwing veteran interior linemen around. The thought is Carriker can anchor the line and improve the team's ability to stop the run, which has been a major weakness for the Rams in recent years.

2. Secondary concerns

The four-game suspension of cornerback Fakhir Brown will hurt the Rams a great deal. Although he's an unknown commodity around the league, Brown has the best coverage skills on the team. His experience and speed enable him to cover particularly well in the first 12 yards of a receiver's route. Brown is appealing the suspension, which stems from a drug screening he says he missed because he was confused about its location. Under league rules, a missed test is the same as a positive test, so the odds of Brown winning his appeal aren't very good. Tye Hill looks much more comfortable as the starter opposite Brown. A first-round pick in 2006, Hill is very good in man coverage. Ron Bartell will start in Brown's absence. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett uses a little more man coverage than most teams, so Brown's return is critical.

3. Hall to help end game

Defensive end James Hall looks like a good addition. Tired of losing in Detroit, Hall became a negative force in the Lions' locker room. His behavior in Detroit, however, doesn't mean he's a bad guy; years of losing can make good guys appear to be bad guys. The Rams think Hall will help their run defense as a base end on the left side. Leonard Little is the playmaker at the right-end position. He's the main pass-rusher and veteran leader along the line. At 6-foot-2, 280 pounds, Hall is expected to give the team its most complete left end in years. In recent seasons, the Rams have tried some undersized ends who were better pass-rushers than run-stoppers.

4. Jackson ready to break out

Steven Jackson looks sensational. His goal is to gain 2,500 total yards, and he has a great chance to do it. He reported to camp in perfect shape. At 231 pounds, Jackson is a big back with great moves and surprisingly good hands. Rams' coach Scott Linehan puts Jackson in the LaDainian Tomlinson-class and thinks he will be among the top five running backs in the league statistically. Over the past couple of years, Jackson has learned how to take care of his body. He works constantly in the weight room and has also tried to improve his speed. With Marshall Faulk retired, Jackson is in the spotlight in this offense. He has the potential to catch 100 passes and rush for 2,000 yards if given the touches. This should be his best season yet.

5. Safety in numbers

Anyone questioning whether Marc Bulger is worth $65 million needs to watch him in practice. He's perhaps the most accurate quarterback in football. Bulger signed a six-year, $65-million contract as camp opened. His receivers love him; he is so accurate, smart and he can place the ball exactly where they like it. What's fun is watching him work on one area of the game. Bulger spent a good portion of the first week of practice throwing precise, high passes to Drew Bennett and Randy McMichael in different parts of the end zone. Torry Holt is coming back from a minor knee surgery, so Bulger hasn't had many reps with his go-to guy thus far. With contract negotiations done and no worries about free agency, Bulger is focused on perfecting the efficiency of the offense.