McNeal: Preseason is over but Rams’ true identity remains to be seen

ST. LOUIS — The Rams beat the defending Super Bowl champions, led Peyton Manning 20-10 at the half and limited Aaron Rodgers to a pair of field goals.

A pretty impressive preseason, you say.

But hold on. They also were shredded by Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden, run over by Packers rookie Eddie Lacy, finished 1-3 and seemed to rarely go more than two consecutive series without a fumble or a penalty (including 17 against the Ravens).

Not too promising then, huh?

Well, tough to say that, too. In the silly season known as the NFL preseason, the main goals seem to be guarding your playbook and limiting the number of blown-out knees and wrecked shoulders.

From that perspective, Jeff Fisher and his Rams enjoyed a virtually perfect preseason.

Only one starter, right tackle Rodger Saffold, suffered an injury (dislocated shoulder) and he returned a week ago. Because he missed all of the second preseason game, Saffold was one of just a few starters who played in the Rams’ 24-21 victory over the Ravens at the Dome Thursday night. Fisher said he told the first-teamers about two hours before kickoff that they wouldn’t be playing in the finale.

Unless someone such as Chris Long, who hasn’t practiced since leaving last Saturday’s  Broncos game, is more banged up than we know, the Rams will open the season with all 22 starters healthy. That comes with a catch, though, as NFL coaches are reluctant to share any injury info they aren’t obligated to.   

Fisher has been even more guarded about the Rams’ offensive plans. They used the term “vanilla” so often to describe their schemes for preseason games that you’d think they’re in the ice-cream business.

Third-year receiver Austin Pettis, who qualifies as a veteran on this offense, cracks a wry smile when asked if he knows what kind of attack the Rams are planning.

“We’re a young team and we don’t fully know our identity yet,” he said. “I know through OTAs and camp, the coaches are putting that all together. When the season comes around, we’ll take a shot and see what’s working.”

Quarterback Sam Bradford, who did not play against the Ravens, is more than ready to find out, too.

“It will be nice to get into an actual game week with a game plan, talk to Schottie (offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer) this weekend and early next week and figure out exactly what we want to do,” Bradford said.

“The preseason is tough in the fact that you run pretty much everything you have but there’s not really a game plan. It will be nice to get into a game week and know exactly what’s going to be on the call sheet and what our plan of attack is.”

Though Bradford will learn that plan early next week, the rest of us will have to wait till Arizona visits the Dome for the Sept. 8 season opener. But after watching numerous practices and all four exhibitions — at least the parts when the first-teamers were playing — we can shed a few insights into what is supposed to be a much-improved offense.

Let’s start with the obvious. It will look very different from last season. The departure of mainstay running back Steven Jackson not only has made this Bradford’s team, it has left the Rams without a bruiser back (though watch out for Benny Cunningham). That should result in a more open attack.

Rookie receiver Tavon Austin looks like the real deal. After showing off his punt-returning skills against the Broncos, Austin flashed his dance-and-dodge running on a couple of catches against the Ravens.

Even though new tight end Jared Cook was kept under wraps for the most part, it’s easy to see why Bradford has been talking up his new teammate. Cook hasn’t missed much that has been thrown his way in practice, and though he’s 6-foot-5, 254 pounds, he possesses the speed of a wideout.

Chris Williams, the former Bears bust, won the competition at left guard, as general manager Les Snead confirmed during Thursday’s telecast. Now it will be interesting to see if Shelley Smith even makes the 53-man roster.

Cunningham has emerged as the second-best running back after starter Daryl Richardson. Though he didn’t get his first carry until the final minute of the third quarter, Cunningham finished with 76 yards on eight carries.

He broke off a 29-yard run on his first attempt, which, along with a 16-yarder in the fourth quarter and a 17-yarder against Green Bay, gave him the team’s three longest runs of the preseason. He has come a long way since blowing out a knee last year at Middle Tennessee State and then signing as an undrafted free agent.

“I put it behind me as soon as I got to St. Louis,” he said. “I didn’t want to use it as an excuse, so I considered myself 100 percent healthy every day. There were days I came out of practice and I didn’t feel like I wanted to. I sucked it up and tried to show the coaches I was ready to go.”

Think you did enough to make the team?

“Hopefully,” he said. “Hopefully.”

Cunningham will find out if he made the 53-man roster sometime before final cuts must be made by Saturday afternoon.

The rest of us will have to wait a while longer to get our first real look at the 2013 Rams.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at