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Saturday, August 17, 2013
What to watch: Packers-Rams

By Nick Wagoner

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The Rams and Packers kick off tonight at 8 ET at the Edward Jones Dome.

St. Louis is coming off a 27-19 loss in the preseason opener at Cleveland and makes its home debut for 2013.

Hometown fans hoping to see the Rams unveil some of the new weapons they acquired in the offseason will likely leave disappointed as all indications are that the team will again stick to the vanilla game plan it used last week.

With that in mind, here are five things that are worth keeping an eye on as the Rams host Green Bay.

Right tackle redux: Projected starting right tackle Rodger Saffold suffered a dislocated left shoulder two plays into the opener in Cleveland. He hasn’t practiced all week and won’t play against the Packers.

Joe Barksdale, who replaced Saffold last week, has taken almost all of the work with the first-team offense in practice this week and will make the start in Saffold’s place.

Barksdale fared pretty well in Saffold’s stead last week and the chance to start could give him some valuable reps for a group of backup offensive linemen that doesn’t have much in the way of experience.

Behind Barksdale, the Rams don’t have much in the way of tackles. Chris Williams, who started last week at left guard, could get a look at right tackle. The same can be said for rookie Barrett Jones and Brandon Washington, both of whom are projected to play on the interior but have filled in at right tackle this week.

Spread it around: The majority of the starting offense played just 14 snaps last week, leaving for another week the long anticipated first looks at tight end Jared Cook and receiver Tavon Austin. Neither caught a pass against the Browns as Austin was targeted once and Cook did not get a look.

Starting wideout Chris Givens stole the show last week with three catches for 82 yards and will again be involved, but the Rams would like to at least get the likes of Austin and Cook an opportunity or two to contribute.

Going deeper: All week, Rams coach Jeff Fisher has made it known that the first units will play a little longer on both sides of the ball. Part of that is to get the primary starters a few more reps than they had last week, but the other reason is he wants to get some of his younger players who are down the depth chart a chance to play with the top units.

Namely at running back and receiver, don’t be surprised if youngsters such as Zac Stacy, Terrance Ganaway, Benny Cunningham, Brian Quick and Stedman Bailey see a few snaps with the first-team offense.

Looking at linebackers:  Veteran Will Witherspoon is all but certain to step into the starting role in place of suspended starter Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Dunbar is eligible to play but Fisher made it clear he wants to use the main workload to prepare the players who will start on the season on Sept. 8.

Witherspoon is a known commodity as he enters his 12th season in the league. Rookie starter Alec Ogletree will also look to bounce back from a rough start last week in Cleveland.

What might be more intriguing in this area is the hunt for talented depth that can serve as reliable backups for the starting group. Josh Hull is the only backup linebacker with any game experience but the Rams have some intriguing options that figure to get work with the No. 2 defense.

The three undrafted rookies -- Ray Ray Armstrong, Daren Bates and Jonathan Stewart -- have flashed potential during camp and proved to be potential long-term contributors on special teams. It seems likely at least one of those three will make the active roster and tonight’s game serves as the next chance to make a strong impression.

Corner three:  Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins are pretty well entrenched as the starters at cornerback. Trumaine Johnson entered camp as the likely third corner in nickel packages after he finished the 2012 season as the team’s third corner.

Johnson is probably still in the lead to fill that role again this year, but rookie Brandon McGee seems to be at least stating his case for the job.

McGee got some reps with the first-team defense as the third corner in practice this week and it’s worth monitoring to see if he gets a shot to do it in the game. Considering Fisher’s statement that he wants to give some different young guys a chance to play with the first team, it’s entirely possible McGee will at least get a few reps in that role.