St. Louis Rams: Denver Broncos

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.

Rams-Broncos: What to watch

August, 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.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A three-game schedule featuring Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and the defending Super Bowl champions would normally be enough to make any team cringe.

Unless, of course, that trio of consecutive games didn’t count. Such is the case for the Rams, who will play the second of those preseason games Saturday night in Denver against Manning & Co.

Because that murderer’s row is on the exhibition slate rather than the regular-season schedule, the Rams actually view the opportunity to play teams widely considered Super Bowl favorites as a net gain.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsThe Rams' defense sees Peyton Manning & Co., a week after facing All-Pro QB Aaron Rodgers.
“It should, it absolutely should,” end Chris Long said. “Obviously, neither team is going to be throwing everything they’ve got at the other team but certainly for everybody, it’s going to be beneficial to have seen two of the best quarterbacks in the game and then next week after that depending on how much [Joe] Flacco we see, I don’t know about that, he’s a heck of a player too. It’s important to get that work and it helps us out a lot.”

The Rams opened the preseason in Cleveland against a team that seemed to plan for the game a bit more than most do for an exhibition opener. Last week, the Rams hosted Rodgers and the Packers, and although Green Bay didn’t have many of its top players active, it didn’t hesitate to throw in some wrinkles that the Rams would see more of in the preseason.

Rodgers’ ability to use play-action was particularly effective and useful for the Rams' defense. Projected rookie starters Alec Ogletree and T.J. McDonald got an important lesson on discipline and maintaining assignments at linebacker and safety, respectively.

Tight ends have been an early headache for the Rams' defense, in no small part because linebackers and safeties have been out of position or blown assignments. Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron had a 30-yard catch in the opener, and last week Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley posted four catches for 78 yards in less than a half.

It won’t get any easier this week against Manning and the Broncos. The third preseason game is generally viewed as the one bearing the most striking resemblance to a regular-season game. That means Manning and his group could play into the third quarter and will likely have some offensive game plan in place.

“Yeah, that’s a huge challenge,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “The guy is brilliant. He’s a machine. He studies the game extremely hard. I have the utmost respect for him. He’s one of those guys you have to hold your look because if you tell him what you’re in, he’s going to figure it out and get that ball out before you can touch him.”

Laurinaitis recalled playing Manning during his rookie season in 2009, when Manning was still with Indianapolis, and marveling at how quick the quarterback would get rid of the ball.

“He got that ball out so fast it was frustrating,” Laurinaitis said. “He doesn’t like to get hit very often and he’s so smart that you can blitz him coming free, and if someone touches him he’s getting the ball out. It will be a great test for our young guys and old guys alike, everybody. It’s a good test to be facing a future Hall of Famer.”

The Rams' offense should be challenged plenty as well. Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton didn’t hesitate to blitz regularly in the first preseason game and the Packers did the same, oftentimes with a loaded run box to force the Rams to max protect.

Denver linebacker Von Miller is still eligible to play and could view playing the Rams as an opportunity to take out some frustration for his six-game suspension. How much Miller plays is unknown, though his first-team repetitions decreased on the heels of the suspension.

The Rams will get an additional conditioning test in Denver as they adjust to the altitude.

Earlier this week, Rams coach Jeff Fisher indicated his starters would play into the third quarter. After disappointing performances in the first two games, the Rams won’t stray too far from their simplistic preseason approach, but they will look to have a bit more success than they did against Cleveland and Green Bay.

Regardless, playing Manning and the Broncos on the road should provide another strong preseason test.

“I think it’s great,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “Obviously, you want to face the best each week. You want to face someone that’s going to make you better. I feel like all of the defenses that we’ve seen have made us better, and we’re just looking to improve each week, to go out and play a clean game, execute what’s in the game plan and really try to limit the penalties.”
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In need of repetition and opportunity to play his new position in a real game, Rams offensive tackle Rodger Saffold has spent part of his week lobbying to return to the lineup Saturday night in Denver.

Saffold suffered a dislocated left shoulder two plays into the preseason opener in Cleveland, a game which doubled as his debut at right tackle after spending his first three seasons on the left side. He returned to practice on a limited basis this week but he's well aware that any playing time between now and the start of the regular season is essential in getting fully adjusted to his new position.

[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Rodger Saffold
AP Photo/David RichardIn need of reps at his new offensive line position, the Rams' Rodger Saffold is hoping to return to game action on Saturday.
"Those reps are seriously important," Saffold said. "That's why I hope they lean toward putting me in for a little bit and then after that I can go from there. But I think the way we are taking it is a smart way. It feels completely stable now. I'm ready to go out and play again."

Saffold's status for Saturday night remains to be seen despite his pleas to play. Rams coach Jeff Fisher said Wednesdsay that Saffold was "much better" and there were "expectations that he would play." What Fisher didn't say was how soon Saffold's return would occur.

In practice this week, Saffold slowly eased back into the mix. He didn't participate Monday and then did some light individual work Tuesday. On Wednesday and Thursday, he started to work his way back into team drills though he'd still be considered limited if regular-season designations were being used.

Wearing a brace on his shoulder underneath the pads, Saffold said he feels like the shoulder is stable and he can do normal things like reach and punch without pain. That's a step in the positive direction after an injury that initially looked like it could keep him out much longer.

Entering his fourth season, Saffold has consistently battled the injury bug. He missed six games in 2012 with a knee injury and seven contests in 2011 because of concussion, ankle and pectoral ailments. The shoulder injury set off a wave of concern for an offensive line with plenty of veteran talent but also a recent history of injury issues.

Saffold's injury happened on a simple pass protection against the Browns on Aug. 8. Cleveland pass-rusher Paul Kruger attempted to bend the right edge against Saffold. Kruger tried to slap Saffold's arms away as Saffold pushed through the arm slap, but as he attempted to work Kruger's arm to push him away he flipped over and crashed to the ground. He instantly knew the shoulder had popped out backward.

Asked if his adjustment to the right side might have led to the injury as he still tries to refine his fundamentals, Saffold acknowledged the possibility.

"When you're in a game, the adrenaline is rushing," Saffold said. "So you've got to be more patient sometimes than you are on the practice field. That's something you need to get a hold of so I don't end up putting myself in bad positions, leaning and stuff like that."

Joe Barksdale replaced Saffold against Green Bay and fared well in his stead. If Saffold can't play against the Broncos, Barksdale figures to get the call again. The ultimate decision will come down to Fisher and head athletic trainer Reggie Scott, regardless of Saffold's request.

"I always feel like I'm ready to go," Saffold said. "We've got to think about this smart, but I'm really confident. I think me telling them how confident I feel, they could give me a chance to go."