St. Louis Rams: Ethan Westbrooks
Westbrooks spent the first week as a pregame inactive, stuck behind the team's eight other defensive linemen who were available against the Minnesota Vikings. But when Long suffered the ankle injury that landed him in surgery and the injured reserve with the designation to return list, the opportunity to get Westbrooks involved arose.
Against Tampa Bay in Week 2, Westbrooks got his first taste of regular-season playing time, handling 17 snaps and posting one tackle according to Rams' coaches review. Last week, Westbrooks played 16 snaps and fared better in the coaches eyes with four tackles and a tackle for loss against Dallas.
Although Westbrooks has the versatility to play all over the line, he's worked exclusively at Long's spot at left defensive end so far.
"He’s averaging 15-20 plays a game which is good," coach Jeff Fisher said. "He’ll help to keep Will fresh. We need that. Will played very well last weekend and part of that is because he’s fresh and that allows him to do that. He’s coming on. He’s got the versatility. We didn’t move him around inside like we did in the preseason but Mike (Waufle)'s done a good job with him."
To this point, Westbrooks said the biggest adjustment to playing in the NFL has been playing in the bigger, more crowded stadiums. He's also made it a point to lean on Long for advice when he needs pointers throughout the week.
"I’m getting more acclimated with the whole defense, the speed of the game," Westbrooks said. "Really starting to put an emphasis on my technique from Coach Wauf and Chris. Even though he’s out, Chris has been helping me a tremendous amount in the room and on the field.”
In his nearly three years with the Rams, there's nobody Hayes has grown closer to than fellow defensive end Chris Long. When the news came Wednesday that Long would need ankle surgery that would keep him out for eight to 10 weeks, nobody took the news harder than Hayes.
"He’s one of my closest friends on the team so it’s kind of hard when you hear he is not going to be here but we’ve got a next-man-up philosophy around here," Hayes said.
As it turns out, the next man up in Long's absence is Hayes. In Hayes, Long's left defensive end spot lands in more than capable hands. Amongst the free agents whiffs the Rams have had since coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead took over, Hayes has been on the opposite end of the spectrum as a true diamond in the rough find.
Hayes first signed with the Rams in 2012, following Fisher to St. Louis from Tennessee, where he was once a fourth-round pick out of Winston-Salem State. In the time since, he's become the defensive line's ultimate Swiss Army Knife, providing a stout presence against the run from his end position while offering pass rush ability from the interior.
Over those two season in St. Louis, Hayes has 63 tackles and 12 sacks while working in a reserve role.
The other side to Long's absence is the loss of his fiery brand of leadership. That's another area where Hayes can help provide some cover. Most of the other defensive linemen tend to err on the quiet side but Hayes is the same player who smashed a mirror in the team's locker room after last season's loss to Tennessee, a blow that led to him getting stitches in his arm.
Even without Long, the Rams are confident in what Hayes brings to the table.
"We know that Will Hayes can get the job done," defensive tackle Kendall Langford said. "Whoever we put out there on the field, we are a brotherhood of men and we trust in each other that we’ll get the job done. I don’t think it will be a drop off."
While Hayes figures to get the first shot at replacing Long, it's important to note that it will take more than just one player to fill the void. Hayes is still working his way back into football shape from a trio of offseason surgeries, the most serious of which was a hip procedure. He did not play in any preseason games and was admittedly rusty in his return to game action last week.
Likewise, the Rams would like to limit his snaps when possible to keep him fresh, as evidenced by his 27 snaps against Minnesota last week. That means the Rams will turn to fellow veteran backup Eugene Sims and undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks to ease the burden.
For his part, the always motivated Hayes has even more motivation to play well in Long's stead. He's replacing a good player but an even better friend.
"I hate the idea that Chris got hurt but at the end of the day, things happen and the next man has to step up," Hayes said. "I just don’t want to be a drop off this week, that’s one of the big things. I feel like he would be disappointed in me if I was to go out there this week and just really [struggle]."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- From the moment the St. Louis Rams used the 249th pick in May's NFL draft on defensive end Michael Sam, there was never any doubt that he'd have an uphill climb to win a roster spot on the team's deepest unit.
In so many ways, St. Louis was the perfect place for Sam. It's two hours from the University of Missouri, where he played his college football. There's a built-in fan base of the many Missouri alums in the St. Louis area. Owner Stan Kroenke is also an alum and maintains a home in Columbia. Former teammates such as center Tim Barnes and cornerback E.J. Gaines are already on the roster.
But in the way that mattered most -- the football way -- it was always going to be hard for Sam to make the roster. He found out just how difficult that was Saturday afternoon when the Rams announced Sam was one of the 21 players the team released.
"When we drafted Michael, we mentioned that it was going to be a tough road," coach Jeff Fisher said. "Those four defensive ends we have on the roster are good. And they’re very productive. As well as the tackles. That’s the strength of our football team. But again, it was a football decision."
It was a football decision that ultimately boiled down to two things: whether Sam could beat out Westbrooks and, barring that, impressing the coaches enough to persuade them to go even heavier on the line by keeping 10.
The competition between Westbrooks and Sam started out relatively even. Sam was a seventh-round pick, but Westbrooks was the team's prized find in rookie free agency as he received the largest signing bonus among the team's undrafted rookies.
Sam and Westbrooks dueled in the preseason, posting similar stats in the four games and playing more snaps than the other defensive linemen. But as the preseason wore on, it was clear Westbrooks offered every bit as much talent in a more versatile package.
"He was very, very productive in the preseason for us and played all four spots," Fisher said. "He’s a very, very talented young player that I think has a really good future."
With Westbrooks stating a case too good for the Rams to ignore, Sam's best shot to make the roster came down to whether the team wanted to keep 10 defensive linemen, a number well above the usual standard.
Although Sam played well enough to prove he belongs in the NFL, he wasn't so overwhelming that the Rams couldn't keep him. He played almost exclusively as a left defensive end, and any hopes that he could gain an edge by working on special teams never materialized.
Given the injuries to cornerback Trumaine Johnson and offensive lineman Barrett Jones and the need to keep an extra body at those spots, keeping 10 was just not palatable.
"Nine defensive linemen on a roster is a significant number, especially when you are a four-down lineman team," Fisher said. "Nine is a number that you look at to start the season. If you go with 10, then you are going to be short someplace else, and we are just not there."
The Rams could be is in a position to put Sam on the practice squad if he clears waivers. We'll find out Sunday at noon ET whether he will. Fisher declined to comment on the practice squad, but a league source said the team would like to keep Sam there if possible. Either way, that's no sure thing.
"I was pulling for Mike, I really was," Fisher said. "I don’t say that very often, but I was. Mike came in here and did everything we asked him to do."
Indeed, Fisher isn't exaggerating when he says Sam was not a distraction and his time in St. Louis was all about football. And football was the reason that his time on the roster came to an end Saturday afternoon.
Light at linebacker: It's no surprise the Rams cut four linebackers, leaving only five on the current roster. Though they are likely to continue searching for a sixth linebacker to add some depth, none of the rookies vying for a spot did enough to earn a spot. The Rams gave Phillip Steward plenty of chances to make a case to be on the roster, but he couldn't take advantage. Don't be surprised if the Rams add to the position before the opener against Minnesota.
Quarterback quandary: Again, nobody will be taken aback by the team's decision to cut sixth-round quarterback Garrett Gilbert. He wasn't able to provide the consistency needed to win a spot, though the team could bring him back to the practice squad. But since starter Sam Bradford was lost for the season, the plan has been to add another quarterback with some experience. Even if the Rams had kept Gilbert on the roster, it was almost certainly as a place-holder until they can find a veteran capable of backing up starter Shaun Hill.
What's next: The Rams will spend Saturday evening and Sunday morning piecing together their 10-man practice squad. Many of the practice squad players will be those released by the team in the past week. Some candidates include tackle Sean Hooey, defensive tackle Deantre Harlan, linebacker Lawrence Wilson, cornerback Greg Reid, guard Travis Bond and receiver Austin Franklin.
Rams moves: Released WR Emory Blake, G Bond, DE Kourtnei Brown, S Christian Bryant, DT Matt Conrath, S Avery Cunningham, WR Franklin, QB Gilbert, DT Harlan, LB Aaron Hill, T Hooey, DB Reid, LB Etienne Sabino, DE Sam, TE Brad Smelley, LB Steward, T Mitchell Van Dyk, WR Justin Veltung, OL Brandon Washington, LB Wilson and CB Darren Woodard.
WR Stedman Bailey will be placed on the reserve/suspended list for first four games.
Those answers probably won't come in any sort of official capacity until Saturday, when the league mandates every team trim their roster from 75 to 53 players by 4 p.m. ET. In the meantime, the Rams are facing a difficult decision on what to do at the most-watched battle among fifth defensive ends in league history.
On one hand there's Ethan Westbrooks, the versatile, undrafted rookie out of West Texas A&M who has done nothing but make plays since the preseason began. On the other there's Michael Sam, the seventh-round draft choice out of Missouri who has done nothing but make plays since the preseason began. Both have done enough to show that they belong on an NFL roster.
If the Rams were hoping Thursday night would offer some final clarity, they didn't get their wish. Per usual, both players were up to the task of providing further food for thought. Westbrooks had four tackles, a sack and two quarterback hits. Sam showed he can do more than just rush the passer by offering production against the run with a team-high six tackles.
"This is the hard part about the National Football League in the next couple of days, reducing the roster to 53," coach Jeff Fisher said. "We’ll have some discussions tomorrow and we’ll go from there."
Those discussions will bring into play many factors beyond what can be seen in a stat book. If there's an advantage to be found in this conversation, it's easily seen in Westbrooks' versatility.
Westbrooks has impressed the Rams' coaches and personnel department with his ability to play multiple positions, and his pass-rushing ability from the interior of the line has been even better than they thought.
"If you are versatile, I feel like some teams can look at you like an end, some can look at you like a tackle and if you can do both equally well and teams like that, I feel like that’s a good value to have," Westbrooks said.
At this point, it would be a surprise if Westbrooks isn't on the roster, at least in this corner of cyberspace. But because both players have made strong cases to stick, there still remains the possibility the Rams could keep both players.
Earlier this week, Fisher said he could keep as many as 12 defensive linemen. He was joking (I think), but the possibility of keeping 10 can't be discounted. The question then becomes how they get to that number.
As with any roster decisions, the numbers game always comes into play. And there are factors that could be working against Sam, including injuries to players such as cornerback Trumaine Johnson and Barrett Jones that aren't serious enough to land them on injured reserve, but might effectively double their roster spots as the Rams carry them and an additional player at the position.
"Those are things that all fall into play with these decisions," Fisher said.
Conversely, the Rams also might have something of a need for bodies at defensive end. They played with just three down linemen against Miami because of injuries to backups William Hayes and Eugene Sims. Hayes did not play in a preseason game as he recovers from a trio of offseason surgeries and Sims watched practice this week with his leg in a brace.
The status of that duo moving forward could also be an X factor in the discussion.
Regardless of the Rams' decision, Sam has no plans to sit around and nervously wait, as he did during the draft. He'll head to his alma mater on Saturday to watch Missouri open the season against South Dakota State secure in the belief he did all he could to win a job somewhere in the NFL.
"I’m very confident I will be playing on an NFL roster this fall," Sam said. "I made some big plays in games and in practice I improved every week and I know I can play in this league."
Now we wait to find out where he'll do it.
1. Replacing Johnson: Projected starting cornerback Trumaine Johnson was among the five Rams starters suffering injuries in the first half last week against Cleveland, and though it looked brutal when it happened, it wasn't as bad as feared. Johnson has a sprained MCL in his knee and is expected to miss four to six weeks. That's not good news for a young and thin cornerback group but it's better than what was expected when he left on a cart. But now the Rams must not only figure out the remaining depth at the position, a battle that should include Marcus Roberson, Greg Reid and Darren Woodard, but also who will start opposite Johnson. They'd prefer to keep rookie Lamarcus Joyner as the primary nickelback, leaving rookie E.J. Gaines and Brandon McGee to battle for the spot. McGee has been dealing with an ankle injury and didn't practice Tuesday, which could mean Gaines gets the first shot to step in for Johnson. Either way, it's a good opportunity for all of the young corners to make a statement on where they belong in the pecking order.
2. Time for starters: In each of the other three preseason games, coach Jeff Fisher has been pretty open about how much playing time his starters will get in the week leading up to the game. Not this week. Fisher was noncommittal about how much work his starters will get against the Dolphins other than to say some will play more than others. With some players working back into shape off injury or battling injuries of their own, there's a line between those that need the work and those that don't. Expect linebacker James Laurinaitis to get some work after sitting the first three games with an ankle injury. As for quarterback Shaun Hill, Fisher wouldn't tip his hand. But it wouldn't surprise to see the Rams play it safe with him. Hill took plenty of reps with the first offense in the first week of preseason against New Orleans and it's probably not worth the risk to give him more than some token snaps.
3. Sam vs. Westbrooks: It's been one of the best battle of training camp and though there are others (potential fourth tight end, fourth running back, sixth linebacker, etc.), this is the one that has seen both players rise to the occasion again and again in the preseason. Ethan Westbrooks probably has the edge going into the game, impressing with his work in practice and games and his ability to play all over the line. But Michael Sam has been productive in games, even if practice hasn't been as good. There's still the outside chance the Rams could keep both but this is the last chance for both to make a strong closing statement.
But that doesn't mean we can't take a quick spin around the roster and offer a look at some of the decisions the Rams might have to make when Saturday's 4 p.m. ET final cuts arrive.
For the players listed here, the opportunity to make a strong closing argument comes Thursday night against Miami in the preseason finale.
Quarterback: The question here is whether the Rams will keep two or three. Austin Davis is probably locked in as the second quarterback, at least until or if the Rams find a veteran option they prefer after the available signal-callers crystallize. Rookie Garrett Gilbert hasn't done much in preseason and would stick mostly because the Rams wouldn't want to be short in the event of an injury. But they could probably get Gilbert through to the practice squad with relative ease.
Running back: There are three locked in here, leaving two questions: will the Rams keep four or five? And if not, who wins between Chase Reynolds and Trey Watts? Reynolds is a core special teams player but Watts is working on that part of his game and is a better, more versatile contributor to the offense. Keep an eye on Watts against the Dolphins.
Tight end: The Rams will probably keep four here and it's no secret the battle likely comes down to blocking specialist Justice Cunningham vs. pass catcher Alex Bayer. This is truly a "pick your flavor" situation. Cunningham might have a slight edge because his blocking can also translate to special teams but a big performance from Bayer against Miami might make it tough to allow him to leave.
Offensive line: It's not unusual for the Rams to keep as many as 10 here, however, it doesn't look like there are that many worthy this year. The Rams have more positional versatility with guys who will make the team, which might mean they only keep eight or nine. There are probably seven spots accounted for at this point. The battle for the final spots will likely come down to picking one or two from a group that includes Brandon Washington, Travis Bond, Mike Person and Sean Hooey. They also must figure out what to do with Barrett Jones, who is out with a back injury and doesn't have a timetable for return.
Defensive end: This one is well documented. The Rams will keep nine, perhaps even 10 though nine seems more likely. It's Michael Sam vs. Ethan Westbrooks. It's hard to envision a scenario in which Westbrooks doesn't make the team, especially given his versatility. Sam has been more productive as a pass-rusher in preseason games but doesn't have the ability to move along the line. One thing to keep an eye on in Miami is whether current backups Eugene Sims and William Hayes play. Sims hasn't practiced this week and Hayes still hasn't played in a preseason game. If those injuries are a little more extensive, maybe it opens the door for both Sam and Westbrooks.
Linebacker: There are five in solid shape here but the Rams don't really have a sixth who has stood out. Phillip Steward has played a lot on special teams and that could be a sign he's well positioned, but don't be surprised if the Rams go searching for a sixth linebacker on the waiver wire. Aaron Hill, Lawrence Wilson and Etienne Sabino will get one more shot to prove they're worthy.
Cornerback: With starter Trumaine Johnson expected to miss four-to-six weeks with a sprained MCL, the Rams will likely have to keep an extra body here behind Janoris Jenkins, Lamarcus Joyner, Brandon McGee and E.J. Gaines. That leaves a fight amongst Marcus Roberson, Greg Reid and Darren Woodard for a potential sixth spot. Roberson is the best in coverage, Reid the best tackler and Woodard something of a happy medium. Keep an eye outside the hashes in the second half Thursday night.
DT Aaron Donald, first round, No. 13 overall: Donald played well into this one, clocking 38 snaps before all was said and done. Starting alongside Kendall Langford, Donald didn't do much damage in his time on the field. He didn't show up on the stat sheet but did get in the backfield a couple of times. He'll be better off when he can line up next to Michael Brockers or someone like William Hayes, inside but despite how impressive Donald has been in camp, it's important to remember he's still learning.
DB Lamarcus Joyner, second round, No. 41 overall: Joyner continues to be perhaps the team's most consistent tackler, leading the team with six stops, a pass defended and a forced fumble on his defense-high 51 snaps. Joyner had some rough moments in coverage, though, including one play in which he lost his man as Aaron Rodgers scrambled, resulting in a big completion.
S Maurice Alexander, fourth round, No. 110 overall: Alexander clearly gets more comfortable each week and had a solid performance against the Packers while playing 40 snaps on defense and 14 more on special teams. It's obvious he's going to be a key contributor on special teams right away but he also looks like he's making progress on defense. He finished with five tackles against Green Bay, second most on the team.
CB E.J. Gaines, sixth round, No. 188 overall: Gaines didn't play against the Packers after a strong outing in the first preseason game. Although his injury is unclear, he suffered it in practice earlier in the week, returned to practice and then apparently tested it in warmups before deciding not to go.
QB Garrett Gilbert, sixth round, No. 214 overall: Gilbert was the third quarterback in the game, playing 19 snaps before his day was finished. For the second time in as many weeks, his performance was mostly nondescript. He went three-of-six for 32 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions though it's hard to judge much of his performance considering the shaky protection.
OT Mitchell Van Dyk, seventh round, No. 226 overall: Van Dyk played 39 snaps, including a lot of work at guard. Fellow young lineman Sean Hooey struggled more but Van Dyk wasn't far behind. He's a developmental project who is probably going to have to go the practice squad route to stick around.
S Christian Bryant, seventh round, No. 241 overall: After sitting last week, Bryant made his first preseason appearance, playing 17 defensive snaps and two on special teams. He didn't offer anything in the way of statistical output but the act of being back on the field at least gives him a chance to compete over the next couple of weeks.
DE Michael Sam, seventh round, No. 249 overall: Sam came in later than he did in the first preseason game, waiting until the third defense entered before getting a chance. When all was said and done, though, Sam played 27 defensive snaps with three more on special teams and was effective for most of them. He posted his first sack to go with two tackles and a pair of quarterback hits. He remains in the hunt for a roster spot.
C Demetrius Rhaney, seventh round, No. 250 overall: Rhaney suffered an injury in practice earlier in the week and did not play.
Undrafted rookie roundup: Defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks was one of the team's standouts against the Packers, racking up four tackles, a sack and two quarterback hits on 39 snaps. As expected, his stock is rising. ... Cornerback Marcus Roberson was a surprise starter in place of Janoris Jenkins but played 34 defensive snaps and six more on special teams. He had just one tackle but showed good instincts in coverage and has at least nudged his way into the conversation for a roster spot. ... Tight end Alex Bayer followed his big first outing with a much quieter second effort. On 37 offensive snaps and 11 on special teams, Bayer caught the lone pass thrown his way for 11 yards but struggled as a blocker.
We'll take a look at those who didn't later, but for now, here's three players who either helped themselves prepare for the regular season, bolstered their case for a roster spot or both with strong performances against the Packers.
1. Sam Bradford
We've covered Bradford's return performance at length, but it's worth noting again in this space because he's the most important player in the Rams offense. Bradford not only made it through the game healthy but was mostly sharp in delivering accurate, on-time throws save for a miss to open receiver Kenny Britt down the sideline.
Bradford finished 9-of-12 for 101 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 127.4. His touchdown pass to tight end Lance Kendricks was a particularly welcome sight as he put a fastball into a tight window while standing tall in the pocket.
2. Ethan Westbrooks and Michael Sam
These two have been battling for a potential ninth roster spot on the defensive line all through camp, but both continued building a case for that spot on Saturday. Westbrooks was a bit more active than Sam against the Packers and actually played with the second-team defense, while Sam waited until the third group entered in the second half.
Westbrooks played both end spots and lined up inside on occasion in his 39 snaps and was effective no matter where he played. He finished with four tackles, a sack and two quarterback hits and pushed the pocket a handful of times beyond that. Sam played 27 snaps and posted two tackles, a sack and two quarterback hits while also generating enough pressure to set up linebacker Phillip Steward's sack.
This competition looks like it's really just heating up.
3. Cody Davis
Davis had a really rough first outing against New Orleans in the preseason opener, missing multiple tackles despite being in position to make the play. But Davis rebounded well against the Packers with four tackles and a fumble recovery on 28 snaps. Davis looked more comfortable against Green Bay and looks to have the inside track on a fourth roster spot at safety. He already factored into the 53-man discussion because of his value on special teams, but if he can continue to perform on defense more like he did against the Packers than he did against the Saints, he should be able to solidify his spot.
ST. LOUIS -- The fast-break offense of the Green Bay Packers put the St. Louis Rams on their heels from the opening kickoff, and the Packers never looked back in Saturday's second preseason contest.
Green Bay went on to a 21-7 victory at the Edward Jones Dome. The Rams dropped to 0-2 in the preseason.
Some more thoughts and observations from Saturday's game:
- Aside from a poorly timed and thrown misfire on a deep ball intended for receiver Kenny Britt, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford's first game action in 300 days was a success. Bradford started and led two drives before calling it a day. I had him down for 22 snaps with 12 pass attempts, six run plays and four plays nullified by penalty. He finished 9-of-12 for 101 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions for a rating of 127.4. On those snaps, Bradford only took one real hit but it was a big one from Green Bay's Julius Peppers. Bradford bounced back up with no issues, though. Bradford's second drive was his best work of the day, including a nice throw over the middle to receiver Brian Quick for a 41-yard gain and a perfectly threaded throw to tight end Lance Kendricks for an 11-yard touchdown.
- If anyone had flashbacks to the way the Rams closed the season in Seattle last year when watching the first-team offense attempt to run the ball, you're forgiven. The run blocking was nowhere to be found as Zac Stacy finished with 6 yards on six carries. The Rams definitely miss left tackle Jake Long and right guard Rodger Saffold in that area and, of course, they aren't game planning. Still, if you're going to be a run-first offense, you'd like to at least gain some traction there in preseason.
- The Packers' first-team offense made it look easy against the Rams' top defense on its two drives to start the game. The Rams are playing vanilla schematically, sure, but the Packers aren't exactly showing all they have, either. The Rams generated little pass rush until the second defense entered and the corners and safeties sat back in soft coverage consistently. At one point, the Rams had both safeties lining up 20 yards off the line of scrimmage and dropping back further at the snap. Completions came easy for Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers from there.
- Undrafted rookie defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks continues to impress. He entered before Michael Sam at left defensive end with the second defense and made the most of the opportunity. He had a sack and a couple of pressures before moving around in the second half. Sam was mostly nondescript before reaching Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn for a sack with about seven minutes and 25 seconds to play. Sam isn't standing out as much as Westbrooks but he's doing enough to stay in the picture. That battle will continue over the next couple of weeks.
- No surprises on the list of Rams not playing Saturday, though it was a bit smaller than last week's. Cornerbacks, E.J. Gaines, Janoris Jenkins and Darren Woodard, safety Matt Daniels, fullback Kadeem Jones, linebacker James Laurinaitis, end Sammy Brown, center Demetrius Rhaney, offensive linemen Rodger Saffold, Barrett Jones and Brandon Washington, tackle Jake Long, defensive tackle Michael Brockers and end William Hayes were not in uniform. Jenkins, Laurinaitis, Saffold, Brockers and Long are the only starters in that group. The Rams were without 18 players and nine starters against New Orleans last week.
Some leftover thoughts on the game after watching it again (unfortunately on the TV broadcast since the All-22 is not yet available):
- Defensive end Robert Quinn only played a handful of snaps, with the Rams using him exclusively on obvious third-down passing situations and on one fourth down when New Orleans went for it. He was his usual, disruptive self but was unable to get home as the Saints clearly made it a point of getting the ball out quick.
- Rookie offensive lineman Greg Robinson split his time between left guard and left tackle, starting the game on the inside. It appeared Robinson was responsible for allowing a sack early in the game when he kicked out on a block when he was supposed to block down to the inside. Coach Jeff Fisher confirmed as much Saturday. Fisher called it a communication issue, something that Robinson probably won't struggle with as much when veterans Jake Long and Scott Wells return to his flanks. But aside from that, Robinson seemed to handle himself just fine. Even kicking outside to tackle, Robinson looked comfortable protecting the edge. Granted, it came against the third team defense but it was still a positive step for the young lineman.
- Fellow first-round pick Aaron Donald also continued to show why he's earned rave reviews in camp. He was his usual quick self off the snap and spent plenty of time in the Saints' backfield. The Rams want to be an aggressive, up the field unit but one thing worth watching is whether the Rams will have to get him to dial back his push a little in some running situations. It's strange to say because Donald is at his best pushing up the field but there were a couple of times where he seemed to take himself out of the play because he was in the backfield so quickly and the Saints sent an extra blocker over to keep him from blowing up the play. It may not matter in the real games, though, because the Rams have the benefit of picking and choosing their spots with Donald behind Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers.
- As suspected at first blush, cornerback E.J. Gaines did have a strong performance. He started and played a lot and spent most of the evening around the ball. His instincts to read the play and react allow him to get to the ball fast. He's putting himself in a good position to win a roster spot.
- Two of the team's prized undrafted rookies are also beginning to make their cases. Tight end Alex Bayer has been making plays since the spring but looked faster and more athletic when he was able to cut it loose in a game. He was solid as a blocker, too. Ethan Westbrooks, who could push for a ninth defensive line roster spot, also was active. He chased ball carriers down the field and made three tackles but also flashed his pass-rushing potential. Westbrooks doesn't play special teams like Michael Sam does but he has the versatility to play inside and out, which could help his cause.
- Rookie running back Tre Mason got 15 carries -- more than the Rams would have liked -- and he had some good moments. There were a couple of runs where Mason looked like he made the wrong read and bounced it outside costing himself yards, but he seemed to settle in as the game wore on. Perhaps the most impressive play of his night was a blitz pickup in the second half when he stood up a pass-rusher as if he'd been doing it for years. That's one way to fast track himself onto the field more as a rookie.
- It was clear the Rams had issues with tackling. So did the Saints. We've covered that ground already. But it was particularly noticeable with linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong. Each time the Rams missed a tackle it led to a big gain. They can scheme ways to better defend the run, and they will when the season starts, but Armstrong doesn't look ready to be a full-time linebacker just yet. Some are wondering about an expanded role for him in the defense, and that could still happen, but don't expect it to be a starting down-to-down scenario. The Rams defense, in general, was missing many key components, but middle linebacker James Laurinaitis' absence was the most glaring.
- It should be no surprise that defensive back Lamarcus Joyner made a positive, physical first impression. He proved a solid open-field tackler and looks to have the makings of an outstanding gunner on punt teams. On the first punt of the night, Joyner worked past two blockers and pinned the returner to the other side of the field where he was promptly forced out of bounds.
- There's still plenty to sort out among the backups on the offensive line. Mike Person, Davin Joseph and Tim Barnes look poised to be the top backups beyond the starting five after getting the first opportunity against the Saints.
1. An aggressive defensive approach? The preseason opener doubles as the first opportunity to see the highly-anticipated Rams' defense under the guidance of coordinator Gregg Williams. To add to the intrigue, Williams is facing his former team, the Saints. Reunions happen all the time in the NFL but rarely do they come with the hard feelings that apparently still exist between Williams and the Saints. Williams, of course, was part of the Saints' staff and the supposed ringleader of the bounty scandal which resulted in his yearlong suspension and similar punishments for Saints coach Sean Payton and assistant Joe Vitt. Williams is known for his aggressive, exotic blitzes and while it normally is common procedure to hold back on those things in the preseason, Williams is anything but conventional. He undoubtedly has plenty of schemes he'd like his charges to work on in the preseason, but it'll be worth keeping an eye on the defensive approach to see if Williams goes a little above and beyond the usual vanilla preseason tactics.
2. Sorting out the running backs: It doesn't look like there's much competition for the Rams' starting running back job as Zac Stacy has been largely handling those duties in camp. But the Rams have some things to figure out behind Stacy and coach Jeff Fisher said earlier this week he'd like to get each back about a half-dozen carries in this game. Benny Cunningham is the leader in the clubhouse to be Stacy's primary backup, but preseason games present prime opportunities for players to make moves up the depth chart, especially at this position. Cunningham has been sharp in practice, but rookie Tre Mason has also had some good work, especially this week. Isaiah Pead and Chase Reynolds also remain in the mix. Each back will get his chance to make an early statement as the Rams work through building their depth chart at the position.
3. First glance at Sam: Rookie defensive end Michael Sam has had his share of ups and downs in training camp, starting off strong and leveling off of late. But Sam figures to get an extended opportunity to make a good impression Friday night. The Rams, under Fisher, have rarely played their starters much in the first preseason game and with valuable backup end William Hayes still working back from offseason surgeries, Sam should get a lot of snaps. It's expected Sam will work at left end on defense but also keep an eye out for him on special teams, particularly on the return units where coach John Fassel believes Sam has major potential. Of course, Sam is going to get plenty of competition for a roster spot so the other backup ends are also worth watching, especially undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The first thing that sticks out about St. Louis Rams defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks is the tattoo adorning his face. Westbrooks has plenty of tattoos, but the one on his left cheek, not far below his eye that reads, "Laugh now, Cry later" with a picture of a happy and sad face, is impossible to ignore.
"I was just like I might as well go ahead and get it on the face because if nothing else, it will help motivate me to either be a guy that has a tattoo on his face looking for another job or hopefully I make it in the NFL and don’t have to work too hard to do something (else)," Westbrooks said. "I don’t feel it’s a bad thing now. I don’t regret it. It speaks for itself."
But if things go as Westbrooks hopes, he'll soon be known for much more than his most prominent body art. If he performs to the level he believes he can, Westbrooks will not only win a spot on the Rams' roster, he'll also be the guy who prevents seventh-round pick Michael Sam from making it.
An undrafted rookie free agent from Division II West Texas A&M by way of Sacramento City, Westbrooks is a 6-foot-4, 267-pound road block on Sam's path to history. Westbrooks' track record might pale in comparison to Sam, the co-Defensive Player of the Year from the nation's best football conference, the SEC. But Westbrooks has an impressive resume in his own right.
In 2012, Westbrooks earned the Division II Defensive Player of the Year award when he posted 19.5 sacks and 28 tackles for loss. He earned first-team all Lone Star conference honors last year when he managed 19.5 tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hurries despite increased attention. At January's East-West Shrine Classic, Westbrooks proved capable against better competition when he earned the East team's defensive MVP award after getting two sacks.
Despite that output, Westbrooks went undrafted in May because of discipline problems. He had 30 penalties in two seasons at West Texas A&M, including jumping offside for half of those flags. "I did come from a Division II (school) and there was supposedly stuff said that I had off-the-field issues and things like that," Westbrooks said. "It’s out of your hands when it comes to the draft."
"I thought I was going to get drafted, but it definitely humbles you and shows you that you really can’t do anything about it," Westbrooks said. "You just have to lay back, and when it’s your time to put in that work, that’s what you’ve got to keep doing to get recognized. I’m just glad I got the chance to keep on continuing in my career as a football player."
Wesbtrooks walked into one of the most crowded defensive line groups in the league in St. Louis. As it is with Sam, making the roster figures to be an uphill climb. St. Louis has eight defensive linemen all but engraved on the roster, and though they've kept nine each of the past two seasons, there's no guarantee they will again.
Making matters more difficult, Westbrooks suffered a setback two weeks before training camp when he suffered a hamstring injury while training at Sacramento City. The injury landed him on the non-football injury list at the start of camp and put him behind in the race for a potential roster spot.
Westbrooks returned to practice last week and immediately showed some of the pass-rushing ability that had so many teams coveting his services after the draft. He's jumped into the mix at tackle and end since his return. Because he didn't miss any preseason games, he also didn't miss any prime opportunities to begin making a case for a roster spot.
While Sam's play has leveled off a bit since the opening days of camp, Westbrooks could be primed to make a statement in the next few weeks. For what it's worth, Westbrooks is well aware that he's standing in the way of one of the league's most compelling stories.
But with a 3-year-old daughter and family to provide for, Westbrooks knows what must be done.
"The whole me-and-Michael Sam thing, I wish him nothing but the best in his endeavors on the football field," Westbrooks said. "He has a competitive spirit, I have a competitive spirit -- what better way to really just boost one another or see what one another is really made of, to have that (competition).
"You make your friends and friendships along the way, but it’s a competitive business, and the way they put it is it’s a productive business. So you definitely have to be able to compete and produce, and with that, I guess the cream rises to the top."
Although Westbrooks' story wouldn't be a historic step for the game, it's clear he has dreams of his own. The proof is written all over his face.
In a flurry of moves Tuesday evening into Wednesday, the Rams released four players, signed four more and put two players on the non-football injury list. All the moves dealt with players at the bottom of the roster.
The Rams released wide receiver Diontae Spencer, linebacker Tavarius Wilson, linebacker Caleb McSurdy and offensive lineman Abasi Salimu. All four were rookie free agents signed after the draft in May. They had all spent organized team activities and the offseason program in St. Louis.
To fill the vacated roster spots, the Rams signed offensive tackles R.J. Dill and D.J. Morrell and linebackers Pat Schiller and Lawrence Wilson. That quartet also doesn't come with any noteworthy NFL experience, as none have played in a regular-season NFL game.
Schiller, who played his college football at Northern Illinois, actually comes with a bit of an interesting story. His journey to the NFL was chronicled by the New York Times in 2012.
Elsewhere, the Rams added rookie defensive tackle Ethan Westbrooks and safety Christian Bryant to the non-football injury list. Bryant has continued rehab from a foot/ankle injury since the Rams drafted him. Coach Jeff Fisher said at the end of the offseason program there was a good chance Bryant would not be available to open camp. Westbrooks' injury is unknown.
Bryant and Westbrooks still count toward the 90-man roster, and the Rams can activate them at any time once they've been medically cleared by a doctor.
The non-football injury list functions similarly to the physically unable to perform list but designates players differently. The NFI list is for players who either suffered an injury away from football or, for rookies, players who suffered injuries playing football in college or a league other than the NFL.
That means vacation time for the players, coaches and, yes, reporters. In the meantime, let's get to know some of the lesser-known additions to the Rams roster: the rookie free agents.
Position: Defensive tackle
College: West Texas A&M
Weight: 267 pounds
Stat to know: Westbrooks' final two seasons at West Texas A&M were so impressive it's hard to pick just one statistic but his body of work was so impressive it had many labeling him a potential draft sleeper. In 2012, Westbrooks dominated to the tune of 19.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss. With more attention from blockers last year, he still managed seven and a half sacks with 19.5 tackles. Penalties were a problem for him in college but that type of production is hard to argue with regardless of the competition. For good measure, he also had two sacks against tougher competition at the East-West Shrine Game.
Road to the roster: The Rams handed Westbrooks a fairly sizable signing bonus for an undrafted rookie and the largest among the group the team signed. Clearly, they think highly of him and believe he could compete for a roster spot. Things get more complicated, though, when looking at the competition. The Rams have been happy to carry an extra defensive lineman in the past, bringing nine along to the active roster in each of the past two years. As it stands, the Rams have eight players who appear to be all but locked in to spots barring injury issues. That would leave a ninth spot up for grabs that Westbrooks could potentially seize. But it won't be easy. The Rams don't seem to care much whether that ninth lineman is a tackle or end but seventh-round pick Michael Sam and returning end Sammy Brown still figure into the competition. Defensive tackle Matt Conrath is also in the mix. It may come down to special teams or, like Gerald Rivers did last year, showing major pass rush potential to win the job. Westbrooks has a chance here but it won't be easy.