NFC West: preseason

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A three-game schedule featuring Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and the defending Super Bowl champions would normally be enough to make any team cringe.

Unless, of course, that trio of consecutive games didn’t count. Such is the case for the Rams, who will play the second of those preseason games Saturday night in Denver against Manning & Co.

Because that murderer’s row is on the exhibition slate rather than the regular-season schedule, the Rams actually view the opportunity to play teams widely considered Super Bowl favorites as a net gain.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsThe Rams' defense sees Peyton Manning & Co., a week after facing All-Pro QB Aaron Rodgers.
“It should, it absolutely should,” end Chris Long said. “Obviously, neither team is going to be throwing everything they’ve got at the other team but certainly for everybody, it’s going to be beneficial to have seen two of the best quarterbacks in the game and then next week after that depending on how much [Joe] Flacco we see, I don’t know about that, he’s a heck of a player too. It’s important to get that work and it helps us out a lot.”

The Rams opened the preseason in Cleveland against a team that seemed to plan for the game a bit more than most do for an exhibition opener. Last week, the Rams hosted Rodgers and the Packers, and although Green Bay didn’t have many of its top players active, it didn’t hesitate to throw in some wrinkles that the Rams would see more of in the preseason.

Rodgers’ ability to use play-action was particularly effective and useful for the Rams' defense. Projected rookie starters Alec Ogletree and T.J. McDonald got an important lesson on discipline and maintaining assignments at linebacker and safety, respectively.

Tight ends have been an early headache for the Rams' defense, in no small part because linebackers and safeties have been out of position or blown assignments. Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron had a 30-yard catch in the opener, and last week Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley posted four catches for 78 yards in less than a half.

It won’t get any easier this week against Manning and the Broncos. The third preseason game is generally viewed as the one bearing the most striking resemblance to a regular-season game. That means Manning and his group could play into the third quarter and will likely have some offensive game plan in place.

“Yeah, that’s a huge challenge,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “The guy is brilliant. He’s a machine. He studies the game extremely hard. I have the utmost respect for him. He’s one of those guys you have to hold your look because if you tell him what you’re in, he’s going to figure it out and get that ball out before you can touch him.”

Laurinaitis recalled playing Manning during his rookie season in 2009, when Manning was still with Indianapolis, and marveling at how quick the quarterback would get rid of the ball.

“He got that ball out so fast it was frustrating,” Laurinaitis said. “He doesn’t like to get hit very often and he’s so smart that you can blitz him coming free, and if someone touches him he’s getting the ball out. It will be a great test for our young guys and old guys alike, everybody. It’s a good test to be facing a future Hall of Famer.”

The Rams' offense should be challenged plenty as well. Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton didn’t hesitate to blitz regularly in the first preseason game and the Packers did the same, oftentimes with a loaded run box to force the Rams to max protect.

Denver linebacker Von Miller is still eligible to play and could view playing the Rams as an opportunity to take out some frustration for his six-game suspension. How much Miller plays is unknown, though his first-team repetitions decreased on the heels of the suspension.

The Rams will get an additional conditioning test in Denver as they adjust to the altitude.

Earlier this week, Rams coach Jeff Fisher indicated his starters would play into the third quarter. After disappointing performances in the first two games, the Rams won’t stray too far from their simplistic preseason approach, but they will look to have a bit more success than they did against Cleveland and Green Bay.

Regardless, playing Manning and the Broncos on the road should provide another strong preseason test.

“I think it’s great,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “Obviously, you want to face the best each week. You want to face someone that’s going to make you better. I feel like all of the defenses that we’ve seen have made us better, and we’re just looking to improve each week, to go out and play a clean game, execute what’s in the game plan and really try to limit the penalties.”

Good morning, NFC West.

The division has three exhibitions on the schedule Thursday night, giving us something to assess beyond training camp practices. The Thursday night lineup -- St. Louis at Cleveland, Denver at San Francisco and Seattle at San Diego -- comes one day before Arizona opens its exhibition schedule at Green Bay.

Our new Rams reporter, Nick Wagoner, will have you covered on the St. Louis game, which begins at 8 p.m. ET. I'll take it from there with the San Francisco (9 ET) and Seattle (10 ET) games.

NFL teams somewhat controversially charge full price for exhibitions, requiring season-ticket holders to buy tickets to 10 home games instead of just the eight meaningful ones. The preseason games have value for those interested enough to follow position battles throughout the roster. Mostly, though, fans are left to hope key players avoid significant injuries.

I'll be back in a bit with a look at notes of interest for the Broncos-49ers and Seahawks-Chargers games. Nick will take a look at Rams-Browns.

49ers: Shooting outside Candlestick

August, 21, 2011
8/21/11
1:34
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Attempts to re-watch NFC West games Saturday night don't seem so significant after receiving this statement from the San Francisco 49ers:
"The San Francisco Police Department is investigating a shooting incident following Saturday's NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders outside Candlestick Park. No other information regarding the incident is available from the 49ers at this time."

That last sentence makes it premature to speculate on a motives even though anyone familiar with the Raiders-49ers rivalry will naturally wonder whether fan tensions were to blame.

Here's hoping the victim recovers and any perpetrators are caught.

Update: Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle has lots of details. Turns out there were two victims. The one injured most seriously was wearing a shirt disparaging the 49ers. The suspect was wearing Raiders gear. Not sure what to make of that.

What to make of Rams' run on turnovers

September, 5, 2009
9/05/09
1:02
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Brian writes via Facebook: Takeaways,takeaways, takeaways. Rams have 12 in 4 preseason games. They have also shown the ability to tighten up in the red zone on D. Spags' imprint is definitely wearing off on this team.

Mike Sando: The Rams forced one turnover during the 2008 preseason and only two the year before. They have 12 this preseason, including seven fumble recoveries. What does it mean? Well ...

The number of turnovers forced per game did not correlate from preseason to regular season in 2008. The statistical correlation produced a negative number (minus-.114). The more mathematical people in the community here can put that in perspective, but the greatest possible correlation is 1.0.

The Rams forced one turnover in four preseason games last season. They forced 1.6 turnovers per game during the regular season. The difference of nearly 1.4 turnovers per game from preseason to regular season marked the second-widest absolute disparity in the league. An unusual preseason total appeared untrustworthy as an indicator for the regular season.

The Chargers forced a league-high 12 turnovers during the 2008 preseason, or three per game. Their 16-game regular-season total was just 24, 17th in the league and 1.5 fewer per game than in preseason.

Twelve of the 15 top turnover-forcing teams in the 2008 preseason saw their turnovers per game decline during the regular season. None of the 15 experienced significant improvements. None of the top five turnover-forcing teams during the 2008 preseason ranked higher than 17th in that category during the regular season. However, two of the teams ranked sixth through eighth ranked among the top five, with Baltimore first and the Jets fifth. Both teams were simply better on defense than the Rams.

The Rams' preseason thievery might not mean much, in other words.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky and Mike Sando

Is more better?

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is confident the answer is yes. At the recent owners' meeting, he talked about expanding the regular season from 16 to 17 or 18 game, while cutting back the preseason, which he acknowledged doesn't meet the league's standards for its product with its fans.

Owners could vote on the issue this year, but such a change would then have to be bargained for as part of a new agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA).

 
  Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
  Commissioner Roger Goodell is in favor of expanding the NFL's regular season.

Would it be the right move? AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky backs the bigger regular season, while NFC West blogger Mike Sando is against it.

They do their best to hash it out in this week's edition of Double Coverage.

Kuharsky: The NFL will never trim the preseason without converting some of it to real games, and the preseason is unquestionably the biggest rip off for ticket buyers in sports. Goodell clearly realizes that fans are fed up with meaningless exhibition games decided by fourth stringers that cost full price and are a mandatory purchase for season-ticket holders. Yes, a lot of things will have to be adjusted to accommodate an 18-game NFL regular season -- pay, the size of rosters, TV deals, etc. But more professional football that counts is a good thing, and taking the schedule further into February, the worst month on the sports calendar, is fine with me. I think it needs to be 18 -- not 17 -- games in order to keep balanced home and road schedules. If it's 17 and you talk about neutral sites, we're talking about leaving all these palaces built for football unused for actual games.

Sando: We can all agree there's a problem. Look, I know what it's like to fork over full price for preseason tickets, all while watching a horrible product on the field. That was my fate as a Raiders season-ticket holder years ago. I could barely afford my upper-level seats for the regular-season games and it was maddening to pay for games that didn't count. But I also think the NFL needs to think hard before further diluting its product. We already have too many teams. The league clearly doesn't have enough quarterbacks to make it through the current 256-game schedule. Adding two games per team would add 64 starts for quarterbacks.

Kuharsky: Funny, I never pictured you wearing a silver-and-black dog collar, Mike. As for 64 more quarterback starts, I'm fine with that too. The team that picks Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf and the team smart enough to have Byron Leftwich as its backup instead of Ryan Fitzpatrick should reap the benefits of choosing correctly as often as it can. A team like the Bears that constantly fails to address the position effectively should suffer the consequences. If it's a side effect to a longer season that the teams that scout and groom quarterbacks the best have an advantage in a longer season, so be it. It's the most important position in the game. If the resources you have for finding and developing a player or players are insufficient or ineffective, here are a few more games where the people who are good at it get a chance to show you why you should be better at it.

Sando: Quarterback injuries are the real problem here. We can talk about the league putting skirts on quarterbacks and legislating contact out of the game, but quarterbacks will keep getting hurt. It's the nature of the position. Fifty-three quarterbacks started games in 2008. The number was 64 in 2007 and 50 in 2006. The Browns had four starters last season. The Chiefs, Lions and Seahawks each had three.

 
  AP Photo/Michael Conroy
  An expanded regular season schedule would force teams to groom a backup QB, like the Colts' Jim Sorgi, in case injuries occur.

The more games the NFL adds, the harder time quarterbacks will have staying healthy. Don't know about you, Paul, but I'd rather watch the third-stringer play in August than January. Think about it. If you're a Colts fan, would you rather endure a couple of meaningless games in August or would you rather endure Jim Sorgi starting a playoff game after Manning's body finally gives out in Week 19?

I don't think people understand what a 16-game schedule does to these players' bodies. The NFLPA understands, and that's why I think the 18-game schedule could be a tough sell.

Now that we've settled that issue, what about the record books? The jump from 14 to 16 games three decades ago already diminished the 1,000-yard season. If the league goes to 18 games, players would have to average only 55.6 yards per game to reach 1,000 yards. I realize the AFC South had only two 1,000-yard receivers last season -- the Cardinals had three, by the way -- but that seems ridiculous.

Kuharsky: A tough sell until players negotiate themselves two or three more in-season paychecks. And you want more quarterback development? There it is -- teams better get or groom themselves a quality backup because he will play. Wear and tear is definitely the biggest issue, and to make this schedule boost happen the league will have to give in on pay as well as on issues of jobs, service time connected to pensions and benefits. I would be in favor of a second bye week as well, which would help with recovery times and work just fine if the regular season started earlier because of a shortened preseason and ended later with a Valentine's Day Super Bowl.

I completely disagree with the record-book argument as a factor. A 1,000-yard rushing season hasn't meant much for a running back since the league went from 14- to 16-game regular seasons in 1978. A recalibration there is long overdue already. Fans and media can handle it if the benchmarks don't come in nice round numbers. That's hardly a reason not to play more.

This isn't baseball, where we know the numbers automatically, where 56 and 2,632 evoke images of Joe DiMaggio and Cal Ripken. What's the all-time rushing mark? I admit I've got to run to pro-football-reference.com to get Emmitt Smith's 18,355 yards. In 2008, Drew Brees was in range of Dan Marino's season record for passing
yardage (5,084), but it's not like a high percentage of fans or media know Marino's mark by heart. When Brees or someone else breaks it with two extra games, we'll understand the framework of it.

 
  Luc Leclerc/US Presswire
  Brady Quinn (10) was one of four Browns quarterbacks to start a game in 2008.

There is nothing that can happen in an 18-game season that I can't count on you to put in context, and a spreadsheet, to help me comprehend. You and I and all our colleagues can evaluate production in an 18-game season in the context of league history and the old 16-game paradigm.

Sando: Any discussion of extending the season should indeed pull baseball and basketball into the fold. Both sports play more games than most busy people are willing to follow. The NFL enjoys a tremendous advantage by playing fewer games than those other sports.

If not for the physical demands of football, short-sighted owners would trade the long-term good of the game for profits associated with seasons running 82 or 162 games. Jumping to 18 games isn't going to kill the NFL, but it's certainly going to dilute the regular season while putting more players at risk for injuries. Is that progress?

Kuharsky: It is to me if the primary argument against it is that it dilutes the regular season.

Eighteen games is still a reasonably small season, every game is still going to have a big bearing on the final standings and, again, we're talking about trimming half the pitiful preseason sham. I don't feel like it will put the NFL in the neighborhood of baseball, basketball or hockey in terms of over-saturating the sports landscape. A lot of taxpayer money went into building these stadiums. Let's put them to meaningful use more often.

ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd always talks about the NFL's willingness to evolve. I think an expanded regular season qualifies as just that.

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