NFC West: Rams Camp 2012

Three things: Chiefs-Rams

August, 18, 2012
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Three things to watch for Saturday night in the St. Louis Rams' second exhibition game, this one at home against Kansas City (8 p.m. ET):

1. First-team execution. The Rams lost 38-3 in their exhibition opener, the largest margin of defeat in a preseason game since the team moved to St. Louis for the 1995 season. That was not good, obviously, but preseason outcomes aren't nearly as important as how the starters execute when given a chance to play. The Rams moved the ball pretty well early in the game against Indianapolis. I'll be watching for progress on that front, specifically on third down. Can the starting offense finish a drive in the end zone? How the offensive tackles play will remain in focus.

2. Rookie RB rebound. The Rams expect rookie second-round choice Isaiah Pead to provide a change of pace, and eventually more, for starting running back Steven Jackson. Pead struggled early in his preseason debut. He fumbled. He contributed to a botched handoff. Pead is better than that. Let's see how he handles the mechanics of the position, and whether he finds any running room.

3. Pass defense. The Rams gave up very little on the ground, especially early, during their opener against the Colts. Indy had 13- and 9-yard runs right before halftime, when those runs were inconsequential. It was the Rams' pass defense that had problems against Andrew Luck, despite some early pressure by defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn. Was Indy game-planning to make a prized rookie QB look good? Rams coach Jeff Fisher indicated that might have been the case. Either way, the Rams will be looking for some first-team progress against the pass. They'll be looking to see whether Craig Dahl or Darian Stewart stands out for the right reasons at strong safety. Dahl, battling Stewart for the starting job, was late in support against one of Luck's touchdown passes.
Experienced NFL quarterbacks know an unfavorable matchup when they see one.

Instead of running the ball into a stacked front, they'll change the play to something more favorable.

The St. Louis Rams plan to do this to an extent, but in an effort to establish a physical mentality, they also play to run the ball even when defenses know what's coming. We discussed this subject in the "Camp Confidential" item two weeks ago.



"Everyone wants to throw the ball, but if you look at the teams for the most part over time that have consistently had success, they are physical," Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said from training camp two weeks ago. "And when the team that you are playing knows that you are going to run the ball, and you can still run it, that is a pretty good thing."

The chart, produced with data from ESPN Stats & Information, shows where NFC West teams ranked in yards per carry against "loaded" fronts -- those featuring more defenders in position to make tackles than available blockers on offense. I've included figures for the New York Jets because Schottenheimer coordinated their offense. The Rams actually had more carries against loaded fronts than the Jets had, but the Jets had a higher average against them.

"We want to develop a physical mindset around here that goes with offense, defense and special teams," Schottenheimer said. "Coach (Jeff) Fisher demands that and plays that way. It’s more of a mindset. They’re going to load the front because we're going to be good at running the football. We'll call runs and still run them. If there's a free guy, Steven (Jackson), Isaiah (Pead), they'll handle it."

The approach will be more effective, in theory, if the Rams have sufficient perimeter weapons to prevent defenses from focusing too heavily on the run. Of course, many things will become more effective for the Rams if that is the case.

Bradford ankle surgery? Fisher says no

August, 17, 2012
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St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford may or may not require ankle surgery following the 2012 season.

Bradford
Bradford
The fact that the ankle remains a subject for discussion nine months after Bradford injured the ankle against Green Bay is more annoyance than pressing concern.

Bradford has been functioning fully during practices. I thought he appeared healthy when watching the Rams practice a couple weeks ago. Coach Jeff Fisher told reporters Thursday that Bradford was "doing fine" and would not require surgery even if Bradford aggravated the injury. Jason LaCanfora of CBSSports.com cited sources with a different take.

"You can go in and fix it and you’re talking about 4-6 months, or you can just rehab it, which he did," Fisher said. "Sometimes, it takes a little bit longer, but he's really not having any issues."

Bradford played through the injury as much as he could last season, earning respect from teammates, including Steven Jackson. Bradford expressed no regrets two weeks ago when I asked him about playing through the injury.

"If there is a chance to stay in the game, I'm always going to play," he said.

The ankle continued to bother him through the offseason, but not enough to keep Bradford off the field. That means Bradford is experiencing what many NFL players experience: lingering effects from various injuries.

The Rams' decision to install a run-oriented offense should help Bradford weather whatever protection problems continue while the team works through personnel issues on its line.

So much on the line for NFC West

August, 15, 2012
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The 2011 St. Louis Rams started three players at left tackle, two at left guard, two at center, three at right guard and three at right tackle.

So much for developing the continuity offensive lines need to play their best.



The Rams hope to avoid a repeat this season, and they still might. But it'll be a while before this line comes together.

Knee surgery has kept new center Scott Wells from practicing. Centers can be critical for handling protection calls. The Rams are hoping Wells can get on the field next week. The line won't have its leader until Wells returns.

Quinn Ojinnaka is working at left guard after rookie Rokevious Watkins, a player the team wanted to groom for the position, reported to camp out of shape.

At right tackle, Barry Richardson has supplanted incumbent starter Jason Smith in the lineup.

For more on the Rams' line, check out Tony Softli's recent interview with line coach Paul T. Boudreau (video here).

The chart shows how many starters NFC West teams used at each position on the line last season. Some players started at more than one position. For example, nine players contributed to the 13-starter total for the Rams. Adam Goldberg, Jason Brown and Harvey Dahl started at multiple spots.
One of the most painful games for Sam Bradford and the 2011 St. Louis Rams produced some good, after all.

[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Sam Bradford
Steven Bisig/US PRESSWIRESam Bradford's performance against Seattle last season made an impression on Steven Jackson.
Bradford, severely limited by a high-ankle sprain during a Dec. 13 game at Seattle, was no match for the Seahawks' defense when the Rams sent him around the corner on second-and-goal bootleg from the 1-yard line.

Safety Atari Bigby hammered Bradford, forcing a penalty for intentional grounding when the quarterback tried to unload the football at the last moment.

What good could come from that Monday night defeat in Seattle?

"Sam definitely showed me something that night," Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson said from Rams camp recently.

Bradford was hardly able to move, and the Rams' season had long since lost meaning. Sitting out would have been a smart move from a purely practical standpoint. Bradford's decision to play anyway made a statement that resonated with Jackson, the Rams' undisputed leader.

"At that point, I knew that regardless of the situation, he wanted to lead the team," Jackson said.

Bradford is coming off a rough second season. It's fair to question how he'll handle adjusting to a third offensive system in as many years, or if he'll develop as once expected from a skills standpoint.

The Rams don't have to worry about Bradford's leadership credentials. A stamp of approval from Jackson stands as the highest honor in St. Louis' locker room.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Conventional wisdom is batting .667 and possibly 1.000 when it comes to NFC West quarterback races.

Colin Kaepernick has emerged as the clear-cut leader for the No. 2 role in San Francsico, coach Jim Harbaugh said Tuesday. Matt Flynn is leading the race for the No. 1 job in Seattle and will make his second start in two exhibition games.

The terrain is a bit trickier in Arizona, where Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt spent part of his media session addressing Adam Schefter's report for ESPN suggesting John Skelton was leading Kevin Kolb in the race to start for the Cardinals.

Whisenhunt said what he pretty much had to say, that the process has yet to play out. Neither quarterback in Arizona has made a strong move for the job. Skelton could be the favorite by default. And with three exhibition games remaining, the Cardinals have time.

I'm heading to Arizona for the close of Cardinals camp early next week. Looks like we'll have plenty to discuss at that time.

Arizona faces Oakland on Friday at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Raiders lost their exhibition opener to Dallas, 3-0. The Cowboys completed 15 of 27 passes for 165 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. That included 3-of-6 passing for 30 yards from Dallas starter Tony Romo.

The Cardinals' top two quarterbacks have not yet thrown a touchdown pass in the preseason. Rich Bartel has one.

Rams camp battle update: Left guard

August, 13, 2012
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Revisiting the St. Louis Rams training camp battle we previewed back in early July:

Left guard: Rokevious Watkins versus Bryan Mattison was the projected camp battle. It hasn't materialized.

My take then: "Watkins is a rookie fifth-round choice with college experience at both guard and both tackle spots. He's listed at 338 pounds and has weighed considerably more, but the scouting reports question his strength. Mattison started four games for the Rams last season after two seasons in Baltimore as a backup. I've wondered whether Quinn Ojinnaka might project as the starter here, but he's more apt to play tackle. Barry Richardson could be a consideration, as well."

The update: Ojinnaka has gotten the first-team snaps to this point. Watkins reported to camp out of shape. His chances should improve over time.

Richardson has been working with the first team at right tackle, ahead of Jason Smith. Richardson also played left tackle against Indianapolis in the preseason opener. Mattison practiced with the first team at left guard only when the Rams needed Ojinnaka to fill in for Rodger Saffold at left tackle.

Against the Colts, Mattison made a couple good blocks for Isaiah Pead in the second quarter. Ojinnaka appeared more comfortable in pass protection than as a run-blocker. The job appears to be Ojinnaka's to lose, but the team will want more of a mauler in the position long term. Developing Watkins has to be a priority even if Ojinnaka is better suited to start right away.

Kevin Hughes, an undrafted free agent in 2011, played left guard late in the game. He gave up a couple quarterback pressures under difficult circumstances as the Rams were well behind at that point.

This could be a position for the Rams to address in the 2013 draft.

Three things revisited: Rams-Colts

August, 12, 2012
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Looking back on three things discussed here before the St. Louis Rams' preseason opener Sunday against Indianapolis, a game the Colts led 35-3 as I filed this in the fourth quarter:

1. Isaiah Pead's debut. Steven Jackson started the game at running back and found room initially, finishing with four carries for 17 yards. The Rams ran Jackson three times to start the game. They worked Pead, one of their rookie second-round choices, into the game quickly. Pead generally struggled. He fumbled once and contributed to another fumble through a botched exchange on a delayed handoff from the shotgun formation. Pead carried 10 times for 33 yards, with a long run of 11 yards.

2. Dueling No. 1 overall QBs. The Colts' Andrew Luck was outstanding in his NFL preseason debut, outproducing the Rams' Sam Bradford. Luck, like predecessor Peyton Manning in 1998, connected for a touchdown on his first preseason pass attempt. Luck completed 10 of 16 passes for 188 yards and two scores. He read the Rams' coverages effectively, including when he found a receiver matched against linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar down the middle of the field for a gain to the 1-yard line. Bradford completed 7 of 9 passes for 57 yards. That included a quick, high pass to Austin Pettis for a conversion on third-and-short. Pettis made a couple tough catches. Bradford seemed to have a good rapport with tight end Lance Kendricks. There wasn't much happening down the field for Bradford, however. He went deep for Steve Smith up the left sideline, but a defender was near, Bradford had pressure in his face and the pass sailed out of bounds.

3. Jenkins' impact. The Rams' promising rookie corner started and played extensively. He had tight coverage on Colts receiver Reggie Wayne early in the game, forcing Luck to scramble. The Rams stopped Luck short of the first-down marker on the play, forcing a punt. Luck challenged Jenkins with success when he found rookie T.Y. Hilton for a sideline completion on an out route. Jenkins jumped the route, but Luck had enough velocity on the ball to find Hilton before Jenkins could arrive. Jenkins was not in coverage on either of Luck's scoring passes.

Three things: Rams-Colts

August, 12, 2012
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Three things to watch for Sunday in the St. Louis Rams' preseason opener at Indianapolis, scheduled to kick off at 1:30 p.m. ET:

1. Isaiah Pead's debut. Starting running back Steven Jackson doesn't need much work. Getting Pead ready for the regular season has to be a priority. The Rams would like him to emerge as a change-of-pace threat with the potential to supplement Jackson's usual 1,000-plus yards with 400-500 yards of his own. That was the model for No. 2 running backs when the Rams' new offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, was with the New York Jets. Pead has shown promise in camp. He appears talented. But the second-round choice from Cincinnati missed organized team activities thanks to a college calendar that prevented him from reporting as early as most rookies could join their teams. Pead figures to need the reps. He could also be a candidate to return kickoffs.

2. Dueling No. 1 overall QBs. The Colts' Andrew Luck will get most of the attention as the top player chosen in 2012. Much has changed for the Rams since they made Sam Bradford the top pick in 2010, but the team still expects great things from him. How well will the Rams protect Bradford? Will Bradford develop a quick rapport with any of the team's young receivers, notably second-round choice Brian Quick and fourth-rounder Chris Givens? Will he appear as confident and lively in a game situation as he has appeared during camp?

3. Jenkins' impact. Second-round choice Janoris Jenkins has impressed the Rams with his athletic ability and feel for the game during the early stages of camp. Coach Jeff Fisher has come right out and said he expects Jenkins to become a top cornerback. Teammates, including veteran corner Cortland Finnegan, have pointed to Jenkins as an impact player already. There are no guarantees we'll see evidence of that in a preseason environment. But if Jenkins is indeed going to become a playmaking force right away, why not get things going against the most decorated college quarterback in recent memory? Jenkins also has ability as a return specialist.
Veteran NFL head coaches know better than to pump up a rookie prematurely.

That's what makes Jeff Fisher's comments regarding cornerback Janoris Jenkins so remarkable -- and so encouraging for St. Louis Rams fans.

Check out Fisher's comments Thursday:
"Well, he basically can do everything that’s required of a corner, an elite corner, for that matter, with the footwork and the change of direction, ball skills, tackling, and understands the defense. He's going to be a very good corner in this league."

Throwing in the "elite" reference was strong stuff. Closing with a declarative statement on Jenkins' future as a "very good" corner drives home the point.

Fisher, a cornerback for the Chicago Bears in the 1980s, has coached defensive backs and coordinated defenses. He knows elite corners when he sees them, and he is stating plainly his belief that Jenkins, who has not yet participated in so much as an exhibition game, fits the mold. That is encouraging for a team that ran out of corners last season.

The Rams last placed a corner in the Pro Bowl when Aeneas Williams made it for his work during the 2001 season.
Jason SmithJeff Curry/US PresswireJason Smith has had his hands full working against Chris Long (91) during training camp.
The St. Louis Rams hired Paul T. Boudreau as offensive line coach in part because they hoped he could help 2009 first-round draft choice Jason Smith realize his potential.

That remains the plan even though veteran Barry Richardson has started siphoning off first-team snaps from Smith heading into the Rams' exhibition opener Sunday at Indianapolis. Richardson, 26, started Kansas City's last 32 games.

The move to get more snaps for Richardson so early in the evaluation process affirms Boudreau's commitment to putting the five best linemen on the field no matter what. It's a bad initial sign for Smith, who has had his hands full in camp against defensive end Chris Long in particular. But it's a good sign for the Rams that their line coach isn't going to prop up a highly drafted player at the expense of the team.

"We're going to play the best five," Boudreau said during an interview at Rams camp last week. "Don’t matter if you're a draft choice, doesn't matter if you’re a free agent, doesn't matter if you've been cut by four teams."

Boudreau, who was with Atlanta through last season, drove home that message early in his tenure with the Rams. He pointed to Rams guard Harvey Dahl, one of his former Falcons players, as proof. Dahl and tackle Tyson Clabo became mainstay starters in Atlanta even though neither was drafted and both had been released repeatedly.

Smith's status as the second overall choice of the 2009 draft isn't going to get him anywhere. To win the starting job, Smith will have to improve in pass protection.

"His whole thing that he needs to work on the most is understanding angles in protection, understanding he has long arms but he doesn’t use them and try to get his length back in protection," Boudreau said. "Try to use his hands. He wants to hit a guy all the time and you don't have to hit a guy in pass protection. You just have to stay in front of him. When he does it right, you have to really emphasize it on the tape."

Smith, 26, started six games last season, missing the final 10 games after suffering a severe concussion while making a tackle following a turnover against Dallas in Week 7. He started 15 games the previous season and five as a rookie.

The Rams' previous leadership drafted Smith as a left tackle, but the right side is a better fit for players with limitations in pass protection.

Boudreau, who coached the Rams' line in 2006-2007 as well, put together an Orlando Pace highlight video for Smith to study. Pace, the first overall choice of the 1997 draft, was a seven-time Pro Bowl choice and five-time Associated Press All-Pro selection.

"I had a bunch of snaps of Orlando in one-on-one pass protection situations, showing him how patient Orlando was, and his angles, the things he did to just kind of ride a guy by the quarterback," Boudreau said. "He didn’t kill the guy. You don’t have to beat 'em up. It’s like playing basketball. Stay between your guy and the hoop. And so when I showed him Orlando and showed him how smooth he was, and it all was because of his patience, and I said we’ve got to slow this thing down for him. He's a work in progress."

Setting expectations for Pead, James

August, 8, 2012
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The St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers used second-round draft choices for running backs this year.

Both teams have established, older runners coming off productive seasons.

The Rams' Isaiah Pead got extensive reps Wednesday while veteran Steven Jackson received a day off. The 49ers' LaMichael James returned to practice after missing time with illness. Both young backs should get extensive work during the exhibition season, but what about when the games start counting?

Change-of-pace roles seem most likely. Jackson and the 49ers Frank Gore, while older, have remained productive lately. Both are good all-around players.

The Rams envision Jackson posting an eighth consecutive 1,000-yard season while Pead provides a few hundred yards. That was the model for Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer when he was running the New York Jets' offense.

For some perspective, I put together a list showing the 10 second-round draft choices with the most rushing yardage as rookies since 2000. Three of the 10 produced as rookies in tandem with 1,000-yard rushers:
I'm looking forward to seeing James in 49ers camp upon arriving there Sunday.

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

August, 8, 2012
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Bernie Miklasz and I touched on every NFC West team during our latest conversation on 101ESPN St. Louis.

That included my take on the Arizona Cardinals' quarterback situation at roughly the 8:30 mark of the audio posted here.

John Skelton is going to start the Cardinals' second exhibition game, scheduled for Friday night at Kansas City. That was the plan after Kevin Kolb started the opener Sunday.

Kolb, who missed seven games to injury last season, can make a positive statement by gutting it out against the Chiefs despite the painful chest injury he suffered in the Hall of Fame Game. The injury Kolb suffered in that game will make it tough for him to twist his upper body in powerful motions, but every chance to play appears important for a quarterback fighting to win his team's starting job.

"I expect him to play," coach Ken Whisenhunt said, according to Kent Somers.

Kolb: "I was able to toss it a little bit. I'll keep trying to push and giving it the best effort I can. We'll just see what I'm capable of."

Camp Confidential: St. Louis Rams

August, 2, 2012
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Jeff Fisher experienced plenty during 16-plus seasons as an NFL head coach, but his initial team meeting in St. Louis represented a career first.

The Rams' new leader was addressing a room filled with players he didn't know.

"That was different, but you could tell within the first three minutes of him being up there, with his presence, that the team was his," assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said.

Fisher won over the Rams, and not with a fiery speech or with bold promises.

"It's something that you can't put your hand on and touch it, but it's palpable," McGinnis said.

It's called quiet confidence born of experience, and it's what the Rams needed from their next coach after posting a 15-65 record over their previous five seasons, all under less experienced leadership. There's an authenticity to Fisher that resonates. Quarterback Sam Bradford first saw it during a nearly two-hour meeting with Fisher, conducted before Fisher agreed to take the job.

"I think the biggest thing for me when we met was, there was no nonsense," Bradford said. "Everything that he has said has been valuable information. There is never that talk just to talk. That is what everyone really respects about him."

Thanks to Fisher, the feeling at Rams camp has shifted from "if" the team can right itself to "when" it will happen.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Jeff Curry/US PresswireQB Sam Bradford has some new young talent to work with this season at the skill positions.
1. Can the Rams help Bradford? It's easy to forget that Bradford had two 300-yard passing games in his first five starts last season. The high-ankle sprain he suffered in Week 6 changed the trajectory of his season. Bradford wasn't the only one hurting. The Rams suffered more losses to injury in a season than all but one NFL team since 2002, according to Football Outsiders. They had no chance.

The plan this season will be to take pressure off Bradford with a run-first offense. That approach represents a philosophical about-face from the thinking former coordinator Josh McDaniels promoted last season. McDaniels' offense would have worked better under different circumstances. In retrospect, the Rams lacked the personnel to make it work, particularly after losing key players to injury.

The offensive personnel could be better this season. Young prospects at running back (Isaiah Pead) and on the perimeter (Brian Quick, Chris Givens) give the team fresh options. But no one is quite sure what the team has at wide receiver. It's also unclear whether young tackles Rodger Saffold and especially Jason Smith can give Bradford the protection he needs when the Rams do put the ball in the quarterback's hands.

The Rams have additional first-round draft choices over the next couple seasons. There's a good chance they'll use them mostly to bolster the offense. In the meantime, they'll protect Bradford through the design of their offense.

2. Another year, another offensive scheme. The Rams are learning their third offensive system in three seasons. Last season, the idea was for Bradford to help get the Rams into the perfect offensive play for whatever defense the opponent was running. This season, Fisher and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer want the Rams to run the ball for the sake of running it, even against loaded fronts.

This could be the Rams' most run-oriented offense from a philosophical standpoint since the team moved to St. Louis for the 1995 season. Longer term, it's fair to wonder whether this is the best offense for a franchise quarterback to realize his full potential as a passer. For now, though, the philosophy will play to the team's offensive strength (Steven Jackson) while minimizing a primary weakness (pass protection).

"This offense is ground, pound and we’re in your face," Jackson said. "Regardless of how much a team studies about us, they are probably going to be able to tell, out of this formation, this is what they like to run. So now the mentality has gone from trying to be tricky or crafty to more so, 'This is my hole, this is where I’m going, stop me.' Completely different attitude."

3. Are the Rams OK at outside linebacker? St. Louis is set at middle linebacker with James Laurinaitis, a player the organization wants to build around (expect a new contract for him soon). The question is whether the outside linebackers -- Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh -- represent much of an upgrade for a team seeking to improve its run defense.

Another question: How much does it really matter? The league isn't exactly brimming with elite outside linebackers in traditional 4-3 schemes. The position has been de-emphasized. The Rams will run their defense through Laurinaitis. Dunbar will remain on the field with him on passing downs.

The Rams could use ascending young talent on the outside. They had too many more important needs this offseason to justify throwing precious resources at a position of lesser value.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeChris Long
Jeff Curry/US PresswireLeft end Chris Long, coming off a 13-sack season, anchors a promising young defensive line.
Head coach and quarterback are the two most important figures in a football operation. The Rams have the right people in those positions. That gives them a chance.

The Rams also have the pass-rushing talent Fisher needs to run his aggressive defense. Left defensive end Chris Long is coming off a 13-sack season. On the right, 2011 first-round choice Robert Quinn is serving notice, at least in practice, that he's the best pure pass-rusher on the team. His ability to close on the quarterback even when off-balance or falling sets him apart from most.

I wondered coming into camp whether last season inflicted irreparable damage to Bradford. That was not the case. There hasn't been a more impressive player on the practice field to this point. It's stunning, in retrospect, that a team with such a talented quarterback could suffer through a 2-14 season. So many things had to go wrong.

Day after day, play after play, Bradford impresses even the most seasoned observers. Receivers coach Ray Sherman, most recently with the Dallas Cowboys, has been around accomplished quarterbacks throughout his coaching career. The list includes Warren Moon, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Boomer Esiason, Randall Cunningham, Brett Favre, Steve McNair and Tony Romo. He used the word "special" to describe Bradford.

"His temperament is just so calm," Sherman said of Bradford. "He has a demeanor about him and Brett was like that -- when he spoke, guys listened. They tune in. They know, 'We take care of this guy, he's going to take us a long way. He's going to do some special things.'"

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Look at the schedule. Road games against Detroit and Chicago in the first three weeks. Green Bay, New England and San Francisco during a three-game stretch at midseason. Four of the final six games on the road. Only seven true home games overall, the New England game having been moved to London.

No one said this job would be easy for Fisher and his veteran staff.

Danny Amendola looks like the best receiver on the team. He's a terrific slot receiver, but with an 8-yard career average per reception, he won't strike fear into opponents. Quick and Givens, though promising draft choices, are rookies nonetheless. It's an upset if either becomes a force right away and a bonus if veteran Steve Smith fights through recent knee troubles to become a factor.

Bradford has the talent to rack up yardage when healthy, but he might not have the weapons to finish drives with touchdowns. Think back to the game at Green Bay last season. Bradford threw for 328 yards with a 64.4 completion rate at Lambeau Field, but the Rams still lost, 24-3.

Also, the Rams are going to a run-first offense at a time when the passing game is king in the NFL.

"Sitting in our first offensive meeting, it was made clear that our identity as an offense, we’re going to be known as being a physical unit that can run the ball versus whatever," Bradford said. "It doesn’t matter if people put 8-9 in the box, we’re going to run the ball. That’s what we’re going to do, and we’re going to pound them and we’re going to wear them out, and then we’re going to take our shots."

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins might already be one of the three or four most talented players on the team. He's starting opposite free-agent newcomer Cortland Finnegan. "He is game-ready," Finnegan said. "I think he’s one of those special guys."
  • Brandon Gibson has been one of the better receivers in camp. That was the case a year ago, and it might have said something about the quality of the position overall. I'm looking at Gibson as a barometer for the position this season. It's good for the Rams if other receivers pass him on the depth chart.
  • The Rams won't know for sure until they put on the pads, but they're hopeful rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers can be more than just a run stuffer. They need him to factor as an inside pass-rusher as well. Having three relatively recent first-round picks on the defensive line -- Long, Brockers and Quinn -- gives Fisher and the defensive staff talent to work with.
  • Speaking of the defensive staff, I never heard Gregg Williams' name come up once during the first four days of camp. The NFL suspended Williams before he could get much work done as defensive coordinator. Fisher has never been one to panic. He's as cool as they come. The Rams moved on long ago. McGinnis: "I've been with Jeff when we were 10-0, and I’ve been with him when we were 0-6 and came back and won eight of our last 10. He doesn’t change. That type of self-confidence is transferable to a group. It’s transferable to individuals. That excites me."
  • Jackson, down to 235 pounds with 5.1 percent body fat, appears fresh in camp at age 29. Thomas Jones was that age when he rushed for 1,119 yards in Schottenheimer's offense with the Jets. Jones followed up that season with 1,312 yards at age 30, and 1,402 yards at age 31.
  • Rookie running back Pead stands out as an obvious talent. He's shifty. The question is whether he can pick up the offense quickly enough for the team to trust him in pass protection. The academic calendar at the University of Cincinnati prevented Pead from participating in organized team activities. He's behind from that standpoint, but he's got talent, and Schottenheimer likes using two backs. Those Jets teams referenced above had enough carries left over for secondary backs to gain 400-500 yards per season.
  • Long and Quinn had their way with the Rams' offensive tackles in pass-rushing situations. That could change some once players put on pads. Offensive linemen can become more aggressive at that point. I would expect the trend to continue, however. I'm expecting Long and Quinn to reach double-digit sacks.
  • Defensive end Eugene Sims played 25 percent of the Rams' defensive snaps last season. Look for that number to rise in 2012. The Rams' new staff likes his athleticism.
  • Jason Smith needs to become more patient as a pass protector at right tackle. He too frequently wants to bury the opponent. That's not necessary in pass protection. It's dangerous, in fact. Line coach Paul Boudreau went into the archives to produce a highlight reel showing former Rams great Orlando Pace letting opposing rushers come to him. Smith lacks Pace's talent, but if he can emulate Pace's patience, the Rams will have a better chance keeping Bradford upright.
  • "Gee-zee" would be rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein. Some are calling him "Greg the Leg" as well, and for good reason. Zuerlein has been powering through field goal tries from the 60-yard range. He made 23 of 24 attempts at Missouri Western State last season, including all nine tries from 50-plus yards. We'll see how it translates to the NFL. For now, though, the Rams aren't missing veteran Josh Brown.
  • The Rams have the youngest roster in the NFL, including the youngest specialists. They could be counting on a rookie, Johnny Hekker, to punt away from Patrick Peterson. That sounds risky, and it is, but the results can only get better. Peterson returned two for touchdowns against the Rams last season.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Jeff Fisher likes a punter with a good arm.

That is one reason the Fisher-coached St. Louis Rams signed a rookie punter, John Hekker, with an 80 percent completion rate on five attempts at Oregon State.

"He can throw, and that's a big part of our punt team," Fisher said following practice Wednesday.

Special-teams trickery can devastate an opponent and swing a game's outcome.

"The Music City Miracle" accomplished both for the Tennessee Titans against Buffalo in a playoff game following the 1999 season.

Fisher was the Titans' coach when Frank Wycheck's lateral freed kick returner Kevin Dyson for the winning touchdown in that game. Now in his first season coaching the Rams, Fisher still values a good special-teams ruse. The players St. Louis retained from last season certainly know the value of one.

The Rams had played San Francisco tough through most of three quarters of their Week 17 game last season when 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree scored on a 14-yard reception from kicker David Akers. The 49ers won, 34-27. Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo was probably on his way out anyway, but if there had been any hope for him, that play had to kill it.

"It was just probably the lowest I've ever felt," Rams safety Quintin Mikell said this week. "I felt so bad for 'Spags' and I felt bad for the Rams' fans and I felt bad for everyone that was associated because that was just inexcusable at that point."

Sounds like the Rams plan to be on the other end of such plays.

The threat of a fake punt or fake field goal can keep a coverage team honest. That has some value even if the fakes themselves don't always work.

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