Saturday, September 3, 2011

Forget 4-0, Rams are focused on the Eagles

Steve Spagnuolo was just minutes removed from completing an unbeaten preseason, and just hours away from starting a weekend of roster cuts. So when does he start thinking about Philadelphia? He couldn't tell a lie.
"Uh, two weeks ago," Spagnuolo replied, evoking laughter from reporters Thursday in Jacksonville.
Quarterback Sam Bradford also came clean.
"Yeah, I've definitely peeked at some Eagles film," Bradford chuckled. "Obviously, the preseason's great because you get some work in live situations. But I'd be lying if I said that my mind was totally into the last couple games and wasn't focused on Philly."
So here come the Eagles — to the Edward Jones Dome for the Sept. 11 season opener. The challenge for the Rams is to make sure the "Dream Team" doesn't turn opening day into a nightmare.
"Yeah, it's going to be exciting," defensive end Chris Long said. "They're a great team. We'll get in there and watch some film on 'em immediately. It's gonna be an awesome challenge and a good barometer to see where we are."
As for the preseason, Rams veterans have been around long enough to know that 4-0 in exhibition play doesn't mean much. When asked if he could take anything out of preseason perfection, running back Steven Jackson flatly replied:
"Absolutely not. ... We always talk about any time they keep score you go out to compete and win the game. But preseason is just that. It's a fine-tuning, allowing guys to get back in the groove of football, allow talent to be evaluated. But now, come next week, we've got to get ready for Philadelphia and the scoreboard really matters."
So what mattered about this Rams preseason?
• Learning the new offense.
It's hard to get a bead on what exactly to expect from coordinator Josh McDaniels. There were preseason games when the Rams emphasized the run, and games when they seemed to put more emphasis on the pass. But Bradford, the man under center, has a growing comfort level in the scheme.
"We were put in a lot of different situations, saw several different types of defenses," Bradford said. "When you look at what we were able to do, I think the things that we did (against Jacksonville), we were much more comfortable with than we were Week 1. We saw some things (Thursday) that I don't know if we would've been able to adjust to in Week 1."
Bradford expects to see new wrinkles from McDaniels on a weekly basis as the season progresses. But the core principles and plays, he has down.
• Establishing the running game.
Even though the Rams found the going tough against Tennessee and Jacksonville, they still finished with 451 yards rushing. That's their fourth-highest total in the 17 preseasons since the franchise moved to St. Louis in 1995, and only 29 yards off the "St. Louis" Rams preseason high of 480 yards in 2004.
Even though the per-carry average was only 3.3 yards, Jackson looks ready to roll after his busiest preseason since 2005, and it's clear that the addition of backups Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood provides quality depth. Beyond the handoffs, the success of the screen pass against the Jaguars was encouraging to coaches and players.
"That was something that we really wanted to work on," Jackson said. "Over the last three weeks we've been unable to get the screen game going. So that was a point of emphasis going into the game, getting the timing down with the offensive linemen and just making sure we got some reps at it before the (regular) season."
• Run defense.
The results were spotty here. The Rams yielded 4.6 yards a carry. After springing major leaks against Tennessee, they had some moderate ones against the Jaguars. In particular, Spagnuolo was not happy with the run defense in the first half, when the Jaguars gained 82 yards on the ground, including runs of 27 and 14 yards.
"And there was one particular play that we've worked on that was a little frustrating," Spagnuolo said. "A simple communication to the end and it gets taken care of. "
But it wasn't, and as Spagnuolo noted: "When you don't stop something, you're going to see it again."
• Receiver search.
The Rams look like they've unearthed a gem at tight end in rookie Lance Kendricks, who led the team in catches (11), receiving yards (155) and touchdowns (three). Spagnuolo, though, has consistently tried to play down expectations for the second-rounder from Wisconsin.
"I think Lance has done a great job both from the mental part of it and physically making plays," Spagnuolo said. "What we've got to remember, we haven't seen everybody's best for every play, for 60 minutes. So I don't want to be blinded by the fact that we did do some good things in training camp. We had some young guys step up. But it's gonna get a lot tougher certainly beginning on Sept. 11."
The top three wide receivers — Mike Sims-Walker, Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola — all had their moments but didn't get a ton of work. Much of preseason was devoted to seeing what others could do. Mardy Gilyard, Danario Alexander and Donnie Avery all got plenty of work, but none of the three should rest easy about earning a final roster spot. Not with rookie draft picks Austin Pettis and Greg Salas in the mix, or even with Dominique Curry's special teams ability a factor.
"It's one of those things you don't like to see because I think we've got a great group of wide receivers," Bradford said. "I think we've got seven or eight guys who could legitimately play for this football team. I'm not really sure who they're going to keep and who they're not. But I know the guys that are here, we're going to be ready to roll next week for Philly."
As of now, and apparently for the past couple of weeks, that's all that matters for the Rams.

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