- Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- When St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher sat down and watched his team's preseason opening loss to the New Orleans Saints on Saturday, he saw the usual array of good and bad from his team.
"There was some good things, some good efforts, some good plays, no turnovers," Fisher said. "Penalties became the common theme through the game, after we subbed, as did some mental mistakes and some missed tackles and things like that. So clearly a lot to learn from as we told the team. We’re still kind of in the process of grading things and correcting things with them. All in all, I think it was a good exercise."
The preseason "exercises" quite often end with similar assessments from all coaches around the league. At this early stage, there's little use in fretting over the mistakes of a team that was without 18 players, nine of whom are projected to be among the team's 22 starters and others who are expected to play valuable contributor roles.
But yes, it's clear the Rams have some work to do over the next three weeks, especially when it comes to improving tackling (and in turn, run defense) and eliminating penalties.
Poor tackling is a common theme around the league at this time of year. The first preseason game often provides the first attempt to tackle for real. The Rams were clearly rusty in that regard, but Fisher didn't want to use that as an excuse because his team works on tackling form throughout the week.
That didn't translate against the Saints as Rams defenders missed numerous tackles resulting in big gains. The most obvious was safety Cody Davis' miss on Saints running back Mark Ingram on a play that turned into a 22-yard touchdown run. For what it's worth, Pro Football Focus had the Rams down for 10 missed tackles in the game, including four by linebacker Ray Ray Armstrong.
Missed tackles cleared the path for a big rushing day for the Saints, who posted 123 yards and 5.1 yards per carry on 24 attempts. Fisher attributed the rushing yards to a combination of the missed tackle, a missed assignment here or there and a lack of game plan to stop the run. All are things he believes can be corrected in short order.
"A couple tackles to the hole that we missed but some guys doing some things that they hadn’t done before in the scheme," Fisher said. "But not a big concern. We really didn’t load up, stop the run or pressure to do things. We got caught in a few pass stunts, which created some seams in the defense, which obviously in a normal game situation you don’t think those will happen.”
Similar problems arose last preseason and into the opening weeks of the year before the Rams course corrected midway through the season to finish ninth in the league in run defense. Of course, they need to be on an expedited schedule to fix those issues considering they open Week 1 against Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings.
As for the penalties, it's another familiar issue around the league in the preseason. Against the Saints, the Rams had 14 penalties for 118 yards.
Again, Fisher attributed many of Friday night's penalties to subbing in young players and the absence of many of his starters.
"When you have nine starters that don’t play for whatever reason you end up playing a lot of players earlier in the ball game and when that happens some of the inexperience translates into penalties and we had way too many penalties," Fisher said. "I think all but two you can make the case were legit and we have to learn from them."
The idea that the Rams can fix their tackling woes is a much easier sell than the penalties, however. It's an issue the Rams had in the past two preseasons, and Fisher often gave the same explanation for them. But when the season started and the starters were on the field, the deluge of yellow flags rarely stopped. The Rams have been penalized 251 times in their two seasons under Fisher, the most in the league.
So while the tackling and run defense should get better, recent history tells us penalty flags thrown against the Rams will remain a common sight when the real games begin.
3hEric D. Williams