NFC West: Shaun HIll

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The official opening of the NFL free-agent period is finally upon us. At 4 p.m. ET today, all of those "unofficial" deals can be signed and the piles of cash will be handed out accordingly.

For the St. Louis Rams, it's probably best to temper expectations. They don't have the money or inclination to go out and spend big on some of the top-name free agents, especially with other teams in position where they have to spend their massive amounts of cap space just to reach the salary floor.

That doesn't mean that nothing will happen, just that it might not be in the first wave of free agency.

Kendricks
Here's a rundown of how things could shape up and what to keep an eye on as we approach the new league year.

In house

TE Lance Kendricks -- Things have been mostly quiet on the Kendricks front, but there have been some rumors out there of potential interest around the league. The Rams like Kendricks but it seems likely he'll land elsewhere. The Atlanta Falcons represent one potential match and something could happen fast there.

OT Joe Barksdale -- Like with Kendricks, whatever interest Barksdale has received has mostly been kept under wraps. But there have been some mighty big contracts handed out to offensive linemen during the negotiating window, so it stands to reason Barksdale will have plenty of interest and offers. He could land something in the $6 million range with the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers, among those mentioned as possible landing spots. If, for some reason, that market fails to materialize and Barksdale's price tag drops, the Rams could get back in the mix.

WR Kenny Britt -- This is the free agent most likely to return to the Rams. They have been working diligently to try to get things done and Britt's name hasn't come up much in the initial wave. The Rams remain confident they'll get him back. As with all free agents, it's a fluid situation but this is too good of a fit and match to not work out unless some team swoops in with a bigger offer than expected.

QB Shaun Hill -- It speaks to the lack of good quarterback options out there that Hill's market has been more active than the others. Or, at least, it's been better publicized. Vikings reporter Ben Goessling reported Minnesota has offered a framework of a deal to Hill, and that's one possibility. Dallas and Oakland have also reached out to Hill's representative and Chicago has been rumored to have interest. The Rams would like to keep him but might not want to get into a bidding war.

Outside options

OG Justin Blalock -- We laid out all the reasons Blalock might make sense as a short-term option for the Rams. With three vacancies on the line, it seems like the Rams might have to add one veteran who is a little older. Adding a player like Blalock doesn't prevent adding another guard in the draft, either.

OC Stefen Wisniewski -- Oakland is apparently going to land Rodney Hudson when free agency begins, which means Wisniewski is likely to land elsewhere. But the price of Hudson (around $9 million a year) could drive Wisniewski's rate beyond where the Rams might be willing to go. It's not out of the question that something could work out but the Rams won't overextend to make it happen.

A linebacker -- Don't be surprised if the Rams look to bolster their linebacking corps. After starters James Laurinaitis, Alec Ogletree and Jo-Lonn Dunbar, the Rams have no experienced depth and if they find the right fit, they could potentially upgrade at the Sam position and use Dunbar as a jack-of-all-trades backup.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In assessing his team's performance in 2014, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher ran down a list of things he felt his team did well during the course of the season.

As Fisher discussed the performance of the defense, he pointed to that group's ability to keep opponents out of the end zone. And then he pointed to the thing that often seemed to cancel out much of the good that the defense was able to accomplish.

[+] EnlargeJeff Fisher
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsOne reason why Jeff Fisher's Rams went 6-10 -- they allowed 10 returns for touchdowns.
"Our defense, in points allowed, I think was fourth or fifth at 17.7 points per game," Fisher said. "If you exclude the returns."

Ah, yes, the returns. When all was said and done in the Rams' 6-10 campaign, they were on the wrong end of 10 opponent returns for touchdown either from special teams or while the Rams were on offense. Those 10 returns for touchdowns, usually coming in the form of interceptions brought back, were the most in the NFL this season.

Making matters worse, eight of those returns came in the second half of games when the result was usually still hanging in the balance. It doesn't take John Nash to figure out the math on how those returns often influenced the outcome of many of the Rams' close losses.

The Rams had an interception returned for a touchdown in a three-point loss to Dallas, gave up two return scores in what turned into a six-point loss to Philadelphia and coughed up a fumble that was returned for a score in a three-point loss to San Diego. There's no way to know how those games would have played out otherwise but that's at least three examples of games there for the taking were it not for such miscues.

"Our offense, on the other hand, we only scored 18 points per game," Fisher said. "When you’re allowing 10 returns for touchdowns, then you have a point differential of less than a point -- you’re going to lose some football games. That’s kind of what happened to us. In our five returns for touchdowns, we won four of those five games. It’s not new news, it’s just reality of the National Football League. It’s hard to overcome those kinds of things. There’s one team in the playoffs right now that is minus in takeaway/giveaway and that would be the [Indianapolis] Colts. Everybody else that’s minus is watching this weekend."

The timing of those mistakes also made a big difference in games that turned out more lopsided than they really were as a direct result of the costly giveaways.

In losses at Seattle and Arizona and at home against San Francisco, the Rams were down by seven or less in the fourth quarter in all three games only to have turnovers returned for touchdowns that immediately expanded the deficit to a point the Rams could not make up.

“It’s not only when they take place, it’s against who that they’re taking place in close games," Fisher said. "Those things, ball security’s got to be very, very important to us."

Until the Rams can have an offense good enough to overcome such mistakes, ball security must be not just a top priority but the top priority.

 

QB snapshot: Shaun Hill

December, 23, 2014
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A quick observation of quarterback Shaun Hill and how he played in the St. Louis Rams' 37-27 loss to the New York Giants in Week 16:

Hill
Hill finished with his best performance of the season in terms of passing yards (290) and his 69.9 QBR was his second-best total of his eight starts this season. Overall, he was 24-of-32 for 290 yards and two touchdowns with an interception for a passer rating of 110.2.

But Hill missed some big opportunities, including a wide-open Stedman Bailey in the back of the end zone on a drive that resulted in a field goal and a wide-open Tavon Austin down the field on a deep pass.

Once again, Hill didn't get much help from his offensive line as he was under fire for much of the day, and Hill continues to struggle when under duress. He was 1-of-7 for 1 yard when hit, under duress or both against the Giants. For the season, Hill is now 20-of-42 for 143 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating of 36.1 and a 13.2 QBR in such situations.

By way of comparison, Giants quarterback Eli Manning was 6-of-7 for 181 yards and a touchdown under similar circumstances.

It's not breaking any new ground to say the Rams need help at quarterback in the offseason, but plugging some holes on the offensive line also would go a long way toward helping whomever that quarterback might be.

QB snapshot: Shaun Hill

December, 16, 2014
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A quick observation of quarterback Shaun Hill and how he played in the St. Louis Rams' 12-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 15:

Hill
After helping the Rams to wins in three of his first four starts since returning to the top job, Hill struggled mightily against Arizona's stout defense. Hill didn't get much help in the way of protection as the Cardinals pressured him on 28 percent of his 43 dropbacks.

True to its personality, Arizona brought the blitz on 48.8 percent of those dropbacks and got to him for two sacks. But whether it was the Cardinals' blitz or the simple threat of it, Hill was skittish as the pocket around him broke down repeatedly. The right side of the offensive line, in particular, was mostly overmatched by Arizona's front.

Against Arizona's standard pass rush -- four rushers or fewer -- Hill was 8-of-18 for 123 yards with two sacks and an interception. He finished the game 20-of-39 for 229 yards with no touchdowns and an interception for a QBR of 22.4. That's his lowest QBR as a starter for the Rams.

Despite the struggles of the Rams' offense, St. Louis had an opportunity to win the game in the fourth quarter. Hill missed receiver Stedman Bailey on third-and-3 at the Arizona 43. What should have been an easy completion for a first down and probably more fell incomplete, and the Rams' drive died a play later.

"He [Bailey] had running room," coach Jeff Fisher said. "He had a lot of space if he catches that ball. It’s a high throw, Shaun missed him, but that was a potential big play for us.”

 

W2W4 revisited: St. Louis Rams

December, 12, 2014
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Looking back at three things to watch from the St. Louis Rams' 12-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday night:

1. Sacking Stanton: The Rams pass rush had been rolling entering the game, but the Cardinals found the recipe to help slow them down. St. Louis finished with just one sack, though it was able to generate pressure plenty of other times to force incompletions or flush quarterbacks Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley from the pocket. Still, with the Cardinals working with a banged-up offensive line, it was a letdown performance for a Rams defense that had 13 sacks combined in the previous two weeks.

2. Big-play chances: Quarterback Shaun Hill had been pretty good throwing down the field since becoming the starter again, but he struggled mightily against Arizona. Hill was 4-of-13 on passes traveling at least 10 yards in the air against the Cardinals, with no touchdowns and an interception (a late heave) while averaging 7.9 yards per attempt. In Weeks 11 to 14, Hill had been completing 50 percent of such passes with an average of 13.9 yards per attempt, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The inability to hit on some big plays, while the Cardinals landed a few, set Arizona up for a couple of field goals. The Rams' inability to do it left them trying to scrap for every yard.

3. Stick to the formula: The Rams have found success this year when they don't turn the ball over and/or win the turnover battle. It had been a simple formula as they were 4-0 going into Thursday night when they don't have any giveaways and they had not lost a game when they had a positive turnover differential. That theory held true against Arizona, but not in the way the Rams would have wanted. Running back Tre Mason coughed up a fumble in Rams territory that led directly to one of the Cardinals' field goals. On the other side, the Rams missed a few golden opportunities to get a takeaway of their own, including a near-miss of an interception by cornerback Janoris Jenkins and a forced fumble the Rams were unable to come up with. It was minus-two, including Hill's late heave, but it was enough to help tip the scales to Arizona.

QB snapshot: Shaun Hill

December, 9, 2014
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A quick observation of quarterback Shaun Hill and how he played in the St. Louis Rams' 24-0 win in Week 14:

Hill
Hill once again offered the Rams exactly what they need, which is to say a solid if unspectacular performance against the Washington Redskins. With the Rams' defense rolling, Hill's mission is simple: Take care of the ball, and take advantage when opportunities arise.

Against the Redskins, Hill was able to do both, though it wasn't a flawless performance. He finished 16-of-22 for 213 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 133.3 and a QBR of 47.6.

Many of Hill's struggles came when the protection broke down. He was sacked four times, including one blindside hit on which he fumbled, but the Rams were fortunate enough to recover. Hill still does a much better job of handling pressure than Austin Davis. He completed both of his pass attempts against the blitz for 10 yards and a touchdown but was also sacked twice in those situations.

Hill has now won three of four starts since he returned to the top job. If he can again play 60 minutes without turning the ball over, the Rams will again have a chance to win. For what it's worth, Hill has never started three consecutive games without a turnover, so that's something he'll try to accomplish Thursday against the Arizona Cardinals.

QB snapshot: Shaun Hill

December, 2, 2014
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A quick observation of St. Louis Rams quarterback Shaun Hill and how he played in the Rams' 52-0 win over the Oakland Raiders in Week 13:

Hill
With Hill under center, it's probably best for the Rams to start devising ways to get him out in space to make things happen on the run. OK, not really, but Hill did manage to score his first rushing touchdown since 2008 against the Raiders.

Of more importance, though, was how Hill was able to manage the game in the early going and stake the team to a quick lead. In this space last week, we discussed how rare it is for Hill to go consecutive games without a turnover, but he managed to not give it away against the Raiders. That's a tribute to where Hill is in terms of comfort with the offense.

Given Hill's experience, Rams coach Jeff Fisher trusts the quarterback to make decisions at the line of scrimmage before the snap. That paid off in a big way against the Raiders, as Hill was able to get the Rams into good looks and diagnose where blitzes were coming from beyond the basic checks that most quarterbacks are given.

Hill was 7-of-12 for 87 yards and two touchdowns for a passer rating of 121 and a QBR of 82 against the blitz Sunday.

If Hill can be that productive this week against a Washington Redskins unit that blitzes the fifth-most of any team in the league, the Rams will be in good shape to win consecutive games for the first time this season.

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

November, 30, 2014
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ST. LOUIS -- A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 52-0 win over the Oakland Raiders at the Edward Jones Dome:

What it means: Finally free from the brutal schedule that saw them play nine consecutive games against teams with winning records, the Rams showed what they can do when faced with an inferior opponent. Yes, an inferior opponent. That phrase hasn't been linked to many teams the Rams have played in the past decade or so, but it was clearly evident Sunday. The Rams haven't yet reached the level of a playoff team, as evidenced by their 5-7 record, but they've at least made enough progress to be able to handily defeat a team they should. You couldn't say the same for other Rams teams of recent vintage.

Stock watch: Up -- WR Stedman Bailey: After Kenny Britt's big day against the Denver Broncos two weeks ago, the Chargers made a concerted effort to take him out of the game plan last week, and Bailey made them pay. The same thing happened this week, and Bailey again stepped up with a big performance. He had five catches for 100 yards, a new career high, and would have had more, but the Rams didn't try to pile on in the second half. He even chipped in a tackle on special teams. Expected to be a legitimate top-two receiving threat entering the season, Bailey is starting to make good on that promise.

Hill bounces back: Shaun Hill's disappointing finish in San Diego last week left him answering questions all week about how he would bounce back. As it turned out, the 13-year veteran appeared entirely unfazed. In the first half alone, Hill was 13-of-22 for 183 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a rating of 116.3 as the Rams scored touchdowns on their first five possessions. Oakland's record is clearly awful, but the Raiders' defense entered the game 17th in the league in yards allowed per game.

Long returns: Defensive end Chris Long returned from the injured reserve list after the Rams activated him Saturday, and he played for the first time since the season opener against Minnesota. Long played quite a bit and delivered his first sack of the season in the third quarter and recovered a fumble in the fourth after a Robert Quinn sack.

Game ball: RB Tre Mason -- There were many choices here in such a blowout, but none offered the combination of immediate production with immense potential for the future of Mason. Mason flashed his speed on an 89-yard touchdown run that was the second-longest in franchise history and shiftiness on his 35-yard catch-and-run for the team's first touchdown. He finished with 164 total yards on 17 touches with three scores for the best performance of his young career.

What's next: The Rams head back out on the road for some Robert Griffin III-related fun as they take on the Washington Redskins. Safe to assume the big 2012 trade the teams made will be discussed at length as the Rams again seek consecutive wins for the first time this season.

QB snapshot: Shaun Hill

November, 25, 2014
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A quick observation of St. Louis Rams quarterback Shaun Hill and how he played in the Rams' 27-24 loss in Week 12:

Hill
Hill made his 29th career start against the Chargers and had his share of struggles after a strong outing against Denver last week. He finished 18-of-35 for 198 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions for a passer rating of 54.2 and a QBR of 27.4. He also had a fumble that was recovered for a touchdown.

None of those passes will stand out more than the last-minute interception Hill threw to Chargers safety Marcus Gilchrist with the Rams going in to take the lead or, at worst, tie it. Turnovers were a problem with Austin Davis, and the Rams hoped Hill would rectify the issue with his experience.

But Hill's history suggests that might not happen. Only twice in his career has he gone two consecutive starts without a giveaway and he's never strung together more than two without turning it over.

Oakland is next on the schedule, and the Raiders rank 31st in the league with eight takeaways in 2014.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- If it wasn't already clear why the St. Louis Rams decided to go back to veteran Shaun Hill at quarterback this week, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer offered further explanation this week.

Davis
Hill
Simply put, Austin Davis' propensity for turnovers, not just the sheer volume but the way in which they seemed to turn into immediate points was the driving force behind the decision.

“Austin has played really well for the most part," Schottenheimer said. "I think the big thing for us was the turnovers. It’s hard to win in this league when you’re turning the football over. We brought Shaun here to be the backup. Austin kind of kept the job because he was playing so well, but now that Austin’s struggling a little bit we just feel like Shaun’s a guy that’s played. Obviously, has the experience. He’s been in this situation before and will go out there do some things and give us just some energy and things like that.”

More than energy, the Rams hope that Hill can cut down on the type of crushing mistakes that have dotted Davis' time as the starter. In his eight starts and nine games, Davis threw four interceptions and coughed up two fumbles that were returned for touchdowns. Five of those six returns for touchdown have come in the fourth quarter.

Considering the Rams' knack for starting fast and finishing slow, they can't afford those types of costly giveaways with the game on the line. With Hill back in the mix, the Rams won't ask him to take over games and throw it all over the field. Instead, they'll hope that Hill can be the steady veteran hand they signed him to be and hoped he would be when he initially replaced Sam Bradford.

After a couple of days of watching Hill get back to work in practice, Schottenheimer said he doesn't expect there to be much rust to knock off.

“He looked really good out here," Schottenheimer said. "He’s been preparing. He’s a pro. He’s been in this role before. We were teasing a little bit that he looked a little out of shape. Maybe had too many snacks over the last couple weeks, but he’s looked really pretty good, done a nice job. Ball’s coming out of his hand well. Making good, clean decisions. I don’t see the rust.”

 
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher's endorsement of Austin Davis as his starting quarterback earlier this week could be classified as lukewarm at best.

"He didn't have his best half," Fisher said. "He missed some opportunities, he made some bad decisions, had difficulty seeing at times. And over the last couple of weeks he's thrown four interceptions but we're going to hang in there. He's working real hard. So we'll see where it goes."

Fisher went on to tick off a handful of opportunities Davis missed and mentioned his propensity for holding on to the ball too long. When I wrote about it Monday night, I wrote the following:

[+] EnlargeSean Hill
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonIn Shaun Hill, the Rams are opting for a veteran quarterback who won't hurt the team with mistakes.
"If that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement it's because it probably isn't."

Of course, nobody could know just how tepid that endorsement was. At least not until Wednesday morning when Fisher informed his team at a meeting that Shaun Hill would be reclaiming the starting job this week against the Denver Broncos.

In the big picture, it probably doesn't matter much who starts at quarterback for the Rams because it's probably too late for them to make a postseason run at 3-6 with Denver and a trip to San Diego up next.

But going back to Hill now makes sense for one primary reason: The Rams' defense is starting to live up to expectations and they can't afford to have a quarterback who gives points away, especially in the fourth quarter.

That's been one of Davis' biggest issues since he became the starter in Week 2. Davis has thrown nine interceptions this season with four of those returned for touchdowns (all in the fourth quarter). He also has coughed up a pair of fumbles that have gone for scores.

Those instant points have prevented the Rams from winning games that were there for the taking with no better example than the most recent against Arizona last week. He threw two interceptions and fumbled once in the fourth quarter of a game the Rams led with less than 10 minutes to go. One interception and the fumble turned a 3-point deficit into a 17-point losing margin.

Since the Rams beat Seattle on Oct. 19, Davis is 45-of-79 for 481 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions for a passer rating of 61.2 and a QBR of 7.3. That isn't to excuse the struggles of the offensive line and others but clearly those numbers aren't good enough to win consistently.

After the loss to Arizona, the always honest and professional Davis pointed to his inability to keep his eyes downfield and go through his progressions as the reason for his recent struggles. It's something he's battled with since entering the league in 2012 and was a primary reason the team released him in 2013.

"I think the thing you have to do is just kind of let it all play itself out," Davis said Sunday. "They are putting guys everywhere and moving them from everywhere. The ability to learn from this and get your eyes downfield and not on the rush is something that I’ve got to do."

In turning to Hill, the Rams are going with the veteran hand that was supposed to guide them after losing Sam Bradford in the third preseason game. Were it not for a thigh injury in the season opener and Davis' big performances against some weaker defenses early in the year, Hill probably would have reclaimed the job when he got back from the injury.

The hope now is that Hill can be the steady leader for an offense in dire need of a boost. And, if nothing else, manage the games effectively so that the recent yeoman's work of the defense isn't for naught.

Over the past two weeks, the defense has allowed an average of 299 yards per game, including just 54 per game on the ground. And the pass rush has revved up to the levels expected at the beginning of the season with 11 sacks in those two games.

In other words, the defense is playing well enough for the Rams to win. With Hill back in the mix, the Rams are betting he can help the offense play well enough not to lose.

 

 

 
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Despite a disastrous fourth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, Austin Davis will remain as the St. Louis Rams starting quarterback. At least for now.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher addressed Davis' Sunday afternoon struggles with the media early Monday evening and made it clear the Rams don't have immediate plans to go back to veteran Shaun Hill as the starter.

[+] EnlargeDavis
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAustin Davis tossed two interceptions against the Cardinals, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
"He didn't have his best half," Fisher said. "He missed some opportunities, he made some bad decisions, had difficulty seeing at times. And over the last couple of weeks he's thrown four interceptions but we're going to hang in there. He's working real hard. So we'll see where it goes."

If that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement it's because it probably isn't. When Fisher named Davis the starter earlier in the season, he said Davis would get some leeway and not be pulled at the first sign of trouble. But there's little doubt that Davis has tested that patience over the past couple of weeks.

Against the Cardinals, Davis finished 17-of-30 for 216 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions for a 62.6 passer rating. One of those interceptions was returned for a touchdown and Davis also coughed up a fumble that was taken back for a score. On the season, Davis has six turnovers that have led directly to points for the opponent, including four pick-sixes.

It's no coincidence that Davis' struggles have been more obvious in recent weeks as the Rams have played better defenses. Seattle, San Francisco and Kansas City all rank in the top seven in the league in yards allowed per game and Arizona is tied for second in takeaways. Those teams also haven't hesitated to dial up the blitz against Davis, bringing an extra pass-rusher a combined 25.9 percent of the time. In those same weeks, Davis has been under pressure on 38.3 percent of his drop backs.

Arizona sacked Davis six times on Sunday with many of those coming in the closing moments after the Cardinals had jumped to a big lead. On the outside, it can often be hard to tell if pressure and sacks are the fault of the quarterback, the offensive line, the receivers or someone else.

While the Rams' issues have been an amalgamation of all those things, Fisher didn't hesitate to acknowledge Davis' need to get the ball out quicker.

"At times, give the defense credit, there is going to be an unblocked rusher," Fisher said. "You have to get rid of the football. The quarterback has got to get rid of the football. He's got to see that. Austin can't take a sack in field goal range. It's a combination. It's the quarterback. We had a couple pass-rush games where we got soft but the ball has to come out."

It's also imperative for the receivers to create separation consistently, which hasn't exactly been a hallmark of the Rams in this or any other recent year. Again, Fisher said there were some chances that didn't materialize because the ball didn't come out on time.

"We had a number of opportunities for significant catch and runs yesterday," Fisher said.

The ability to stare down the pass rush and deliver accurate passes under pressure is, perhaps, the most important trait of an NFL quarterback. It's something Arizona's Carson Palmer did again and again before his knee injury Sunday.

When the Rams released Davis before the 2013 season, it was a move made in part because of his struggles keeping his eyes downfield, going through progressions and getting rid of the ball.

As the quality of opponent has increased, that weakness has bubbled to the surface again.

"I think the thing you have to do is just kind of let it all play itself out," Davis said. "They are putting guys everywhere and moving them from everywhere. The ability to learn from this and get your eyes downfield and not on the rush is something that I’ve got to do."

It's a lesson Davis readily acknowledges but one that's easier to discuss than it is to fix. For at least another week, he'll get his chance.

Rams QB Hill questionable for Sunday

September, 19, 2014
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams quarterback Shaun Hill was limited in practice for the third day in a row and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys, coach Jeff Fisher said Friday afternoon.

 Hill has been battling a thigh injury since the season opener against the Minnesota Vikings and made progress this week by doing at least a little work in practice but he will once again be considered a game time decision.

Last week, Fisher called Hill a game time decision and the Rams ultimately kept Hill active but only as a third quarterback for emergency situations. It's possible he could fill a similar role this week.

Austin Davis again took nearly all of the repetitions with the first team in practice and would again get the call to start should Hill not be ready to go.

Elsewhere on the injury report, the Rams remain a little banged up at cornerback. Brandon McGee (foot) and Trumaine Johnson (knee) did not practice Friday. Both have been ruled out for this week. On the bright side, Lamarcus Joyner is back in the mix after missing last week with a back ailment. Joyner practiced all week and did not appear on the injury report.

The Rams also tweaked their practice squad a bit by adding cornerback Jemea Thomas and releasing receiver Justin Veltung.

Receiver Tavon Austin (knee) and tight end Cory Harkey (knee) also did not practice for the third day in a row though both did some work on the side. They'll be questionable for Sunday. If that pair can't play, don't be surprised to see receiver Stedman Bailey and tight end Alex Bayer pick up some of the slack.

Left guard Rodger Saffold returned to practice Friday after missing Thursday with an illness.

Here's Friday's complete injury report:

Out: Johnson (knee), OL Barrett Jones (back), McGee (foot)

Questionable: Hill (thigh/calf), Austin (knee), Harkey (knee)

Probable: Wells (not injury related), Saffold (illness)
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- After an early evening Thursday practice, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher made it clear that a decision on the starting quarterback will again be made before Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys.

Hill
But the decision could be a little more difficult this week with veteran Shaun Hill making progress toward a return from an injured thigh. Hill remains limited on the official injury report but did more Thursday than he did Wednesday. Austin Davis continued to get the vast majority of the work with the first-team offense.

"Shaun was limited today," Fisher said. "He did more, but we're still day to day. It will most likely be a pre-game decision like it was last week."

The Rams worked Hill out before last week's game against Tampa Bay and decided he could be active as a third quarterback capable of taking shotgun snaps in an emergency. He could follow a similar path this week if the Rams decide to go with Davis on game day.

Elsewhere on Thursday's injury report, the Rams did not have guard Rodger Saffold because of an illness and cornerback Brandon McGee was downgraded from limited participation to did not participate because of a foot injury. Center Scott Wells, who did not practice Wednesday, returned to full participation Thursday.

Here's the full breakdown:

Did not participate: WR Tavon Austin (knee), TE Cory Harkey (knee), CB Trumaine Johnson (knee), OL Barrett Jones (back), Saffold (illness), McGee (foot)

Limited participation: Hill (thigh/calf)

Full participation: Wells (not injury related)
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Per the St. Louis Rams' policy, quarterback Shaun Hill hasn't been available to speak to the media since after the regular-season opener against the Minnesota Vikings.

Hill
 Injured players are off-limits until they start doing more in practice. But Hill, who practiced on a limited basis on Wednesday, was made available for the first time since after that game and injuring his thigh/calf.

That's because he's starting to make genuine progress toward a return. While Hill has yet to do any work in 11-on-11 team drills, and his status for this week remains uncertain, he said Wednesday he's making strides.

“Better and better every day, absolutely," Hill said. "That’s about all I can say about it. It certainly is getting better every day.”

Wednesday's practice offered the most tangible evidence since the injury that Hill is indeed improving. He was also listed as limited in last Friday's practice though that was a bit generous given how little he did. In Wednesday's workout, Hill did more in individual drills and appeared to be moving around better than he did late last week or even in pre-game warmups last week in Tampa Bay.

Since he suffered the injury, coach Jeff Fisher has been clear that Hill is still his starter so long as he's healthy. The question has been when Hill will meet that standard. Fisher has also emphasized the need not to rush Hill back to avoid making the injury worse.

Asked Wednesday what he needs to see from Hill to plug him back into the starting lineup, Fisher reiterated those thoughts.

“More than what we’re seeing right now," Fisher said. "Again, this is about not setting him back so we don’t want to put him in position out here on the field to where we’re risking setting him back. He’s day-to-day, and we’ll see where it goes.”

Austin Davis, who started last week against the Buccaneers, took the vast majority of the reps with the first team Wednesday with backup Case Keenum getting a few more reps. Davis led the Rams to a win in that game and will start again this week in the event that Hill doesn't show Fisher and the coaching staff what they need to see.

“I think that’ll be determined later in the week," Hill said. "But, the idea going in is to just keep progressing and see what happens when we get later in the week.”

Hill opened the first game against Minnesota 5-of-5, but the lingering memory of his interception near the end of the first half has persisted.

Hill and Fisher have said that interception was due in part to the injury, offering that Hill was trying to throw it away but couldn't get it out of bounds because he lacked the leg strength to drive it that far while on the run.

For Hill, whose last start (prior to this season's opener) came in 2010, the injury has been frustrating even if it isn't a severe one.

“That is something I struggled with, big time, originally when it happened," Hill said. "It’s been hard for me to get on the field, especially the last few years. And finally when you get the chance, for that to happen, it’s harder to come back off. What can you do? You pick yourself back up and get yourself back as quick as you can.”

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