Coming off Friday night’s 26-24 loss to the visiting New Orleans Saints, the Rams will return to the practice field this week with a fair list of lessons learned from the first week of the preseason.
It’s easy to throw weight behind a certain individual performance or single aspect of the game to try to draw out long-term conclusions, but perspective is key in the preseason and many of the Rams’ issues faced on Friday night can be chalked up to their missing more than a handful of starters. With that said, there are still plenty of takeaways from the team’s first game action of 2014.
At the top of that list is backup quarterback Shaun Hill.
With Sam Bradford on the bench for precautionary reasons, Hill led the offensive charge from the outset and looked more than capable in doing so. After defensive end Chris Long gifted the offense with generous field position after intercepting a Luke McCown pass at the line of scrimmage, Hill and running back Zac Stacy wasted no time in getting the Rams out to an early lead.
Four consecutive runs helped set up a nice 24-yard completion over the middle to tight end Jared Cook, which set the Rams up at the New Orleans 17. Two plays later, Hill showed a veteran patience in waiting for tight end Cory Harkey to emerge wide open in the flats and cruise in for a touchdown from 16 yards out. Hill would get the Rams on the board again midway through the second quarter when he found wide receiver Stedman Bailey in the corner of the end zone from 24 yards out. Bailey made a nice adjustment on the throw to his credit, and Hill would exit the game after that drive finishing 5-7 for 84 yards and the aforementioned two touchdowns. Hill looks to be quite a savvy pickup early on.
Another big positive was a handful of rookies and young undrafted free agents actually stepping in and making their presences felt in their respective quests to make the final roster.
Most notably present was sixth-round cornerback E.J. Gaines, who displayed a knack for being around the ball and an NFL-level physicality. He led the team in tackles on the night with six and was generally quite sound in pass coverage. On the offensive side, Alex Bayer made the most of some late game opportunities as he works to establish himself among the Rams’ group of tight ends. He’d lead the team in both receptions and yards (five for 71), which included one 42-yard catch-and-run on the team’s final offensive drive. The play put the Rams in great position to steal the game late, but they’d ultimately botch the game-winning field goal attempt.
In that same regard, the competition for the final defensive end slot got that much more heated with the results from the team’s first game. Michael Sam, now the NFL’s first openly gay player to compete in a preseason game, received plenty of media attention after his first game action garnered a tackle, a quarterback hurry, and generally positive reviews. However, Sammy Brown and Ethan Westbrooks are fighting for a job as well and did their part to stay afloat. Brown looked stout against the run and picked up two tackles of his own, while Westbrooks showed an ability to create pressure from both the inside and outside of the line, racked up three tackles, and was Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated Rams defender for what it’s worth. Keep an eye on this group as the preseason progresses.
In the interest of balance, the game wasn’t without its fair share of sloppiness. Penalties and missed tackles played a big role in determining the final outcome. The Rams were gouged repeatedly in the running game for some big plays by running back Mark Ingram, most notably on his 22-yard touchdown scramble in the second quarter that featured whiffs from linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong and safety Cody Davis. The Rams were unofficially credited with 10 missed tackles on the night, six of which came from Davis and the preseason-hype machine Armstrong. Both have been stalwarts on the Rams special teams units, but will have to raise their respective levels of play if they expect to contribute at a greater level defensively. The Rams gave up 123 yards on 24 carries, and will look to shore up their tackling and block-shedding in the weeks to come.
Finally, the penalties.
With the clock winding down in the fourth quarter, the Rams got the ball deep in their own territory down two points with a chance to win the game. A false start penalty right off the bat put them on their own 16-yard line, but it was then that quarterback Austin Davis found Bayer for a 42-yard gain. Suddenly in Saints’ territory, the Rams were again victims of their own undoing. A confusing delay-of-game penalty moved the Rams back five yards, but they managed to get themselves to the New Orleans 31. Now within range of kicker Greg Zuerlein, Davis was called for intentional grounding on third down. Now facing a 59-yard attempt from the 41, Zuerlein’s game-winning attempt went wide and the Rams would settle for the 26-24 loss. The Rams were flagged 14 times for 118 yards in the game, an early discouraging flashback to last season.
All in all, we saw in preseason Week 1 exactly what one would expect to see in preseason Week 1. The Rams rested players, weren’t overly aggressive (especially on defense), and the level of play as a team was subpar at times as a result. The Earth keeps spinning. Look for the Rams to shore up the fundamental aspects of their game in the weeks ahead.