St. Louis Rams: 2013 preseason reaction Week 3

Observation deck: Rams-Broncos

August, 25, 2013

By his own admission, St. Louis Rams rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree struggled to gain traction in his first two preseason appearances. Missed tackles, blown assignments and poor reads plagued Ogletree in those first two games, and again Saturday night in the first quarter against Denver.

But when Ogletree stripped Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman, scooped up the fumble and returned it 13 yards for a touchdown, the light seemed to go on.

Ogletree went on to breakup two passes and come up with an interception in the process of showing why Rams coach Jeff Fisher wanted him so much in the first round of April’s NFL draft.

By no means is Ogletree a finished product, and he did have those hiccups in the first quarter, but the Rams have been looking for progress and got plenty of it against the Broncos.

Other observations from the Rams' 27-26 loss:
  • Before the game, Fisher made it clear he wanted to get a look at rookie Tavon Austin returning punts. He got two glimpses and had to like what he saw. Austin had two returns for 104 yards, including an 81-yarder to set up the team’s first touchdown.
  • Austin probably should have scored on the return but ran into Ogletree and slowed down a bit. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, as the Rams got to work their red-zone offense again. Quarterback Sam Bradford hit tight end Jared Cook for a 3-yard touchdown on the first play.
  • The first-team offense attempted just five running plays against a loaded run box and didn’t go anywhere with those tries. The Rams have seen loaded run boxes two weeks in a row and have generated almost no running threat to speak of. They’ll need to be better in that regard come the regular season but if the preseason is an indication, teams are going to make the Rams prove they can beat them in the pass game before they back off.
  • The Rams were the league’s leader in penalties last season, and already look to be in midseason form in that regard. They continue to struggle with pre-snap infractions and racked up 11 penalties for 74 yards against the Broncos.
  • Both teams played the first half at a breakneck pace, especially the Broncos. Denver ran 49 plays in the opening 30 minutes, picking up 290 yards. Because the Rams forced two turnovers, Denver managed just 10 points. Denver quarterback Peyton Manning attempted 34 passes.
  • Bradford had his worst outing of the preseason but still looked sharp. He finished 9-of-16 for 110 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions for a rating of 98.4. Bradford continues to look comfortable in his second year in coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s offense.
  • Tackling was much improved for the Rams’ first-team defense after a series of whiffs in their two previous preseason outings. There was only one glaring missed tackle from that group. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis was particularly active, posting eight tackles in unofficial press-box statistics.
  • It was a strong night for the Rams' top unit on special teams as they got Austin’s two punt returns, a blocked field goal from safety T.J. McDonald, a pair of field goals (including a 58-yarder) from Greg Zuerlein and outstanding punting from Johnny Hekker. Noticeable, universal improvement for a group that surrendered a long punt return for a touchdown in the opener against Cleveland.
  • Undrafted rookie linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong showed up again, coming up with a sack and a pair of tackles in relief work. He’s put together a strong preseason and has positioned himself to make the 53-man roster.
  • Perhaps most important, the Rams made it out of the game relatively injury-free. Tight end Cory Harkey limped off in the second half and guard Ryan Lee was shaken up, but, at least at first glance, the Rams made it out of another one without any serious injuries of note.
A look at how the Rams fared in five key areas of Saturday night’s 27-26 loss to the Broncos.

Safety First: As expected, Rodney McLeod got the start in place of injured starter Darian Stewart, who was a pregame scratch because of a hamstring injury.

McLeod didn’t get a ton of opportunities but was solid in the chances he did get, making four tackles. He didn’t appear to have any glaring missed tackles and provided good coverage on tight end Jacob Tamme to keep the Broncos out of the end zone in the first quarter.

It’s unlikely McLeod did enough to win the starting job alongside T.J. McDonald, but he certainly didn’t do anything to take himself out of the running, either.

Saffold’s Return?: Rodger Saffold pushed to play all week as he returned to practice from a dislocated left shoulder. When Joe Barksdale, Saffold’s replacement, didn’t make the trip to Denver because of an infected cut on his hand, it became a necessity to have Saffold back in the lineup.

For the most part, Saffold held up well in his return. Making just his second start at right tackle, he had a couple of shaky moments but kept Denver pass-rusher Von Miller at bay for the most part.

Miller did beat Saffold once but quarterback Sam Bradford stepped up in the pocket and Miller missed the sack opportunity. Of more concern, Saffold earned flags for a false start and illegal formation in the second quarter.

All told, Saffold played 24 offensive snaps with the first group and seemed to have no issues with the shoulder.

Rookie Test: In some ways, it was another rough start for linebacker Alec Ogletree in the first quarter, but he more than atoned for it in the second.

Ogletree put on a show in the second quarter, providing ample evidence why the Rams coveted him in April’s NFL draft. Ogletree stripped Denver running back Ronnie Hillman, scooped up the ball and returned it 13 yards for a touchdown.

The light seemed to go on from there as Ogletree dropped deep in coverage for a pass breakup he nearly intercepted and a tackle for a 3-yard loss on the ensuing drive. He followed with a similar drop that he actually hauled in for an interception on Denver’s following possession.

Safety T.J. McDonald got in on the act as well, coming up with a first-quarter blocked field goal. Ogletree had six tackles, two for loss, two passes defended, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, an interception and a touchdown and McDonald had three tackles and a blocked field goal.

It wasn’t a perfect night for the pair despite those gaudy statistics, but it was certainly a big step in the right direction.

Finding a finish: The Rams have had some trouble finishing drives with touchdowns instead of field goals or missed fourth-down conversion attempts.

They wasted no time getting a red zone chance Saturday night as Tavon Austin’s 81-yard punt return gave them possession at Denver’s 3. Bradford wasted no time cashing in that field position, hitting tight end Jared Cook for a touchdown on the first play.

That would do it for offensive touchdowns as the first-team offense played the entire first half. The Rams did reach the red zone again, but Bradford and receiver Austin Pettis just missed on a connection for a touchdown and settled for a field goal. They settled for a pair of field goals from kicker Greg Zuerlein.

Behind Bradford: The Rams continued their game of musical backups with Austin Davis getting the first crack to work with the second-team offense. Once again, Davis did nothing to separate himself from Kellen Clemens in the competition for the No. 2 job.

Davis played the third quarter and, as all backup signal-callers have in this preseason, came under heavy pressure most of the night. He finished 5-of-9 for 40 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions for a rating of 66.9.

Clemens entered with 3:37 to go and fared a little better. He finished 2-of-5 for 18 yards and threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zach Potter to give the Rams a chance to win on a two-point conversion.

Neither Davis nor Clemens has been able to do enough to take a lead and the decision on Bradford’s backup will have to wait for at least another week.