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Plenty to be proud of in Rams' third preseason game

Rams had plenty to like about what took place in narrow loss to Broncos

ST. LOUIS, Mo. -- Forget that the Rams lost 27-26 at Denver on Saturday night and remain winless in the preseason. First, final scores in the preseason don't matter. 

More important, the Rams had plenty to like about what took place against the Broncos.

Start with right tackle Rodger Saffold. In his return from a dislocated left shoulder, he was able to play the entire first half when the Rams thought he might go only a series or two.

Because Saffold is switching positions from left tackle, he needs as many game repetitions as he can get, and he had not gotten many after injuring his shoulder on his second play of the preseason opener. The Rams initially thought Saffold might miss all of the second and third preseason games, but he was back for No. 3 and played well.

"He surprised us and he surprised himself," coach Jeff Fisher said Sunday at his day-after presser. "Playing with a brace, he's probably a little more restricted in the run game than in the pass game. He was spot on from an assignment standpoint and it was good to get the reps."

Saffold's extended playing time was good for Sam Bradford and the first-team offense, too. With backup right tackle Joe Barksdale out because of an infection, the Rams planned to play Bradford only when Saffold was in the game. They did not want to risk the health of their quarterback to a third-string lineman trying to fend off dangerous Broncos linebacker Von Miller.

With Saffold holding up, Bradford was able to play long enough to attempt 16 passes. He completed nine for 110 yards, including a 3-yard TD to Jared Cook that helped the Rams build a 20-10 halftime lead. 

Their other first-half touchdown had to make the Rams feel just as good, if not better. That’s because it was scored by rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree, who was well on his way to becoming a training camp disappointment.

When Cortland Finnegan stopped Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman, Ogletree came up with a big play. He snatched the football and ran 13 yards for a touchdown.

Ogletree also broke up a pass in the end zone and, in what may have been his most impressive play of the night, intercepted Peyton Manning at the Rams' 36 as the Broncos were driving late in the first half.  

"That guy made a pretty athletic play," said an impressed Manning after the game. "That guy's got long arms, obviously got a pretty wide wingspan. I was surprised he was able to get his hands on the ball."

"Alec's plays were the kind of plays we expect him to make," Fisher said. "That's why we drafted him. We need to keep him on track so he can continue to do that."

Ogletree's interception set the stage for kicker Greg Zuerlein to turn in another shining moment for the Rams. After a 15-yard pass from Bradford to Austin Pettis put the Rams on the Broncos' 41 with one second left in the half, Zuerlein came on and boomed a 58-yard field goal with plenty to spare.

"Based on the way it was going, he had another 10-12 yards," Fisher said.  

The coach also was pleased with the work of his punter, Johnny Hekker. Not only did all three of his punts sail at least 50 yards, he did not place any of them in the middle of the field.

"He was putting it right on the boundary," Fisher said. "That's been our approach. Let's face it, your opportunities on kickoff returns are just not there. The opportunities come on the punt returns. From our standpoint, it becomes an advantage if we can pin a returner on the boundary."

The Broncos did not do as well keeping the ball away from Tavon Austin, and the Rams' rookie made them pay. He turned in the most exciting play of the night when he dashed 81 yards with his first punt return, going down at the Bronco 3 to set up the Rams' first touchdown. As Austin bolted toward the goal line, everyone on the St. Louis sideline was "running down the sideline as well."

They were that thrilled. Regardless of the final score, they had plenty more to be excited about, too.

Notes

* Fisher said an announcement should come this week on who has won the starting left guard competition between Chris Williams and Shelley Smith. Smart money is on Williams.

* Barksdale, the backup at right tackle, should be a go at practice Monday, Fisher said. Barksdale did not travel with the team because of concern about infection spreading from a cut on his arm.

* Second-year safety Rodney McLeod, who started in place of Darian Stewart (hamstring), was singled out by Fisher for a strong performance. Fisher said he also was pleased with the play of rookie safety T.J. McDonald. 

Fisher even gave McLeod a chance of starting ahead of Stewart.

"Typically, guys don't lose their jobs because of injury," Fisher said. "But we'll re-evaluate when Stew comes back."

* The Rams already have "started the process" of trimming the roster to 75 by Tuesday, Fisher said. Rosters then must be cut to the regular-season limit of 53 on Saturday. 

* Fisher was noncommittal on how much Rams regulars will play in the preseason finale Thursday against the Ravens.

"We're going to play the guys that need to play," he said. "If guys have had adequate snaps throughout the preseason, we may back down a little bit."

While the Rams figure to use some of their starters, the Ravens are likely to rest all of their key players. Baltimore will open the regular season against Denver the following Thursday, three days before the Rams play Arizona.
 
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.