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Rams-Broncos: What to watch

8/24/2013

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams travel to Denver for tonight’s third preseason game against the Denver Broncos. They kick off at 8 p.m. ET.

The third preseason game is generally considered the closest thing to a regular-season game as you’ll find on the exhibition slate. Rams coach Jeff Fisher said this week that his starters would continue to get more snaps this week against the Broncos.

That could depend on how the starters fare, though. In last year’s third preseason game against Dallas, Fisher had said the starters wouldn’t play much more than they did the previous week against Kansas City. The Rams changed course when both starting units struggled mightily against the Cowboys and played well into the second quarter.

Because the starters are likely to play a bit longer, here are five things to keep an eye on as the Rams visit the Broncos:

  • Safety first: Presumptive starting safety Darian Stewart’s hold on that spot is growing more tenuous with each day he misses because of a hamstring injury. He played nine plays last week against Green Bay before departing, and did not practice all week. That clears the path for Rodney McLeod, who replaced Stewart last week against the Packers and handled all the first-team repetitions this week in practice. McLeod has been solid in limited opportunities, but tonight’s game could provide him a chance to win the job outright.

  • Saffold’s return?: Right tackle Rodger Saffold returned to practice this week on a limited basis, and has spent part of the week lobbying for the chance to play against the Broncos. That proposition seemed like a bit of a longshot, but might have turned in Saffold’s favor in the past 24 hours. Joe Barksdale, who has served as Saffold’s replacement while Saffold recovered from a dislocated left shoulder, did not make the trip to Denver because of an infected cut on his hand.Saffold was likely a game-time decision before Barksdale’s situation popped up, but now I’m told there is a good chance he’ll be in the lineup tonight. The game reps are much needed for Saffold, who has only two live plays under his belt at his new position.

  • Rookie test: The Rams' defense has repeatedly struggled defending tight ends and the middle of the field in the first two weeks of the preseason. A big part of that struggle has been the continued adjustment to the NFL of rookie starters Alec Ogletree (linebacker) and T.J. McDonald (safety). Ogletree and McDonald have had their issues with identifying and handling their assignments in the first two preseason games. That makes the opportunity to play against Denver quarterback Peyton Manning and Co. an important potential learning experience for the rookie duo.The Rams would like to see the pair take a step forward in terms of reading keys and handling assignments after a couple of rough weeks.

  • Finding a finish: The Rams' first-team offense has moved the ball pretty well in the first two preseason games, but has mostly come up empty in the points department. In fact, that group has posted only a lone touchdown in what amounts to nearly three quarters of play. Quarterback Sam Bradford has been sharp in posting a rating of 125.0 on his 20 pass attempts, but missed a wide open Tavon Austin for a touchdown and followed by a fumble at the goal line last week.The Rams would like to get in the habit of finishing drives with touchdowns sooner than later.

  • Behind Bradford: Bradford will likely play the entire first half and maybe a series or two into the third quarter. When he departs, the backup quarterback situation is worth monitoring once again.The battle for the backup job between Kellen Clemens and Austin Davis is about as clear as mud through the first two preseason games. Neither has done anything to separate despite each getting a chance to work with the second team in practice and the games.Tonight is Davis’ second chance to come in first after Bradford. One of the two needs to put together a strong performance, or the Rams might soon have to start looking at potential outside options for the job.