NFL

2009 team preview: St. Louis Rams

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Inside Slant
Throughout the offseason, the goal of neophyte head coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney was to rebuild a roster with younger, bigger and stronger players.

It remains a work in progress, but both feel they are on the right track

Spagnuolo wants a team that is "focused, disciplined and tough" and an offense that will run the ball with Steven Jackson.

After a preseason win over Cincinnati, Spagnuolo said, "There were some pieces in there with the first groups now that kind of looked like we envisioned it. (We were) running the football effectively, moving the offense down the field and scoring a touchdown. The defense coming out and stopping people."

The toughness begins with free-agent center Jason Brown, who is adding leadership to the unit, and right guard Richie Incognito, who has the ability but must mature and control his emotions on the field.

"This is the identity we're trying to create," Incognito said. "Physical up front and get the running game going. So they're dialing it up, and letting us really get behind our pads and get in a rhythm. With the running game, you can't start calling it and then get away from it later in the game. You've got to dial it up early and keep it coming."

The Rams spent the summer trying to find capable backups to Jackson, and the biggest surprise was the emergence of Samkon Gado. Other spots were still in contention as the final preseason game approached. Still, hopes for being competitive ride on the hopefully sturdy back of Jackson.

In 2006, Jackson led the NFL in combined yards from scrimmage with 2,334. Of course, he played in all 16 games and had 436 touches (346 rushes, 90 receptions).

The last two seasons, he has missed the equivalent of 10 games and totaled 1,273 (2007) and 1,421 (2008) yards, while having just 275 and 293 touches, respectively.

Jackson states simply, "I am ready." Spagnuolo says, "He sure looks ready to go, and he's been a consummate pro."

Concluded Devaney, "He's got great hands and is a complete guy. He's had two freak injuries the last two years. Minus that, he's as good as anybody in the league."

COACHING: Steve Spagnuolo, 1st year.

REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 2-14 (4th in NFC West).

PREDICTING: 2009 regular season record 6-10 (3rd in NFC West).


Notes and Quotes
--QB Marc Bulger began throwing in practice Aug. 30, just shy of two weeks before he suffered a chip fracture of the pinky on his throwing hand taking a snap from center.

Bulger didn't take any snaps in practice all week, and hasn't played since the first few series of the first preseason game Aug. 14. However, he emphatically said he would play in the season opener against Seattle Sept. 13, and added, "If we had a (regular-season) game tomorrow, I could play."

Bulger said playing is just a matter of dealing with some pain. He said, "The first week, there was swelling. I couldn't really bend my finger. But now, I can do everything. There's no pain unless, when I grip the ball and throw, there's a little bit. But it's improved a lot in the last 14 days."

When asked about the full month it will have been since Bulger last played and the opener, coach Steve Spagnuolo said, "That's a long stretch. I think you've always got to be concerned. But you are dealing with a guy that's played a lot of football. It'd be different if it was a first- or second-year guy. We'll just trust in his experience from the past."

--After cutting their roster to 75 players Tuesday (Sept. 1), the Rams put another slash in their 2006 draft when cornerback Tye Hill was traded to the Falcons for a seventh-round pick in the 2010 draft.

Earlier in the day, tight end Joe Klopfenstein, the team's second-round pick that year, was placed on waivers.

The Rams had five selections in the first 93 picks in '06, and none is still on the roster. The only players from that draft still around are defensive end Victor Adeyanju (fourth round) and center/guard Mark Setterstrom (seventh).

Aside from Hill and Klopfenstein, three third-round picks are gone: defensive tackle Claude Wroten, linebacker Jon Alston and tight end Dominique Byrd.

Still, the departure of Hill was a mild surprise since he had been starting since the start of camp and was trying to rebound from two injury-filled seasons (2007-08) when he played a total of just 12 games.

Said Jonathan Wade, who for the time being becomes a starter, "Hearing news like that always shocks you. It was like, huh?"

Hill was pulled out of meetings in the morning to be told the news.

"I was definitely shocked," he said. "But you know that's the nature of the business. I was in team meetings, got some treatment, and then they told me, 'Coach Spags wants to see you.' "

The Rams could be eyeing other teams for another cornerback, something Spagnuolo alluded to when he said, "Obviously, there is a possible move but we may or may not do that."

With Ron Bartell the only sure starter, the remaining cornerbacks are Wade, Justin King, rookie Bradley Fletcher, Quincy Butler and rookie free agent Cord Parks.

Said Spagnuolo, "I like all those corners over there to be quite honest with you. Obviously, we're not going to be able to keep them all. I have said all along that I thought that there was a lot of competition over there."

--Left guard Jacob Bell returned to practice Aug. 30, two weeks after suffering a concussion on the first play of the first preseason game against the Jets.

He was hopeful of playing in the final preseason game Sept. 3, and was working to catch up after missing valuable time.

"I'm staying after practice, doing some stuff on my own," Bell said. "Just really trying to get the reps. I feel like I was in a great spot before the (Jets) game - where I needed to be. These (missed) two weeks are a setback, no matter how you look at it."

After experiencing instability on the offensive line over the last several seasons, the Rams hoped to change that this year.

However, as soon as Bell returned, right guard Richie Incognito missed some time with a sprained knee. First-round pick Jason Smith has yet to cement himself as an opening-day starter.

It appears likely whatever the starting line will be for the season opener, that group will be working together extensively for the first time in a game situation.

Said coach Steve Spagnuolo, "It's important for the whole offense to have continuity, and we always talk about it being up-front first. We'll have to settle in on five guys and have two backups, or three or four, whatever those numbers are."

BY THE NUMBERS: 1 -- Number of wins the Rams have at home over a division opponent in the last four seasons.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I didn't remember going to New York. I didn't remember anything. I was messed up. That's what happens. You get a concussion, it's like time travel. You see little blips, and then, two days, three days later you start remembering everything." -- Guard Jacob Bell on the concussion he suffered Aug. 14 against the Jets.


Strategy and Personnel
PLAYER NOTES

--CB Tye Hill, a first-round pick in the 2006 draft, was traded to the Atlanta Falcons for a seventh-round pick in the 2010 draft.

--CB Jonathan Wade moved up on the depth chart to be a starter after Tye Hill was traded to the Falcons.

--LB Larry Grant suffered a sprained knee in practice Monday (Aug. 31) and is expected to miss two weeks.

--TE Joe Klopfenstein, the team's second-round pick in the 2006 draft, was placed on waivers Sept. 1 in the cutdown to 75 players.

--QB Marc Bulger will miss the final preseason game against the Chiefs because of a chip fracture in his right pinky finger. Bulger said he will play in the season opener against Seattle.

--FB Mike Karney, who missed two weeks of practice early in training camp because of an ankle injury, is sidelined again by an injury to the same ankle, but in a different spot.

PLAYER TO WATCH: MLB James Laurinaitis - It didn't take long for the second-round pick to move into a starting position, and his development and improvement will be important for the defense to progress. Laurinaitis has been a quick study, and rarely makes a mistake a second time. Still, to be successful, the team's defensive tackles will have to be able to keep blockers away from him.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/2, OT Jason Smith, Baylor - It's only a matter of time until Smith is the starter at right tackle. His pass blocking is what needs improvement, but the will is there as Smith usually stays after practice to work on his technique.

Rd. 2/35, LB James Laurinaitis, Ohio State - He should be the team's starter in the middle for a long time. Laurinaitis will be consistent and always work to get better.

Rd. 3/66, CB Bradley Fletcher, Iowa -- The Rams like his size and athleticism. The only thing lacking is experience, and he will likely get that quickly.

Rd. 4/103, DT Darell Scott, Clemson - Progress has been in small steps, but that's often the case for rookie defensive tackles. This is a position where the Rams need help.

Rd. 6/196, QB Keith Null, West Texas A&M - He was in a battle with Brock Berlin for the No. 3 job, and while there was no guarantee he will be on the roster, his upside should enable him to beat out Berlin.

Rd. 7/211, RB Chris Ogbonnaya, Texas - There's a chance he could be released, but if that is the case, he'll likely land on the practice squad. His upside is more than Antonio Pittman, so the roster decision the team makes will be an interesting one.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Marc Bulger. Backups - Kyle Boller, Keith Null, Brock Berlin.

Bulger has missed time in camp because of a broken finger, but is still expected to start the season opener against Seattle. His absence has provided extra playing time for Boller, who has shown the team he can be a capable backup. His accuracy is still a question at times. Null has shown a strong arm and good size, so will likely edge Berlin for the No. 3 job.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Steven Jackson, FB Mike Karney. Backups - Samkon Gado, Kenneth Darby, Antonio Pittman, Chris Ogbonnaya.

Jackson came to camp in great shape and buying into coach Steve Spagnuolo's team-first mantra. The offense will be built around him, so his health is the No. 1 issue. Karney was signed to be clear holes for Jackson, but ankle injuries have affected his summer. Gado came out of nowhere and looks to be the No. 1 backup. He can also block in a pinch at fullback. On plays where Jackson is out, who is in the game will likely depend on the situation. Darby has been slowed by a knee injury, but he's a good receiver and can pick up blitzes. Pittman and Ogbonnaya are probably fighting for a final roster spot.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Randy McMichael. Backups - Billy Bajema, Daniel Fells.

This position is featured in the Rams' offense, which should mean plenty of balls for McMichael and Fells. Even Bajema has shown good hands during camp. McMichael, though, has to work on cutting his drops.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Donnie Avery, Laurent Robinson. Backups - Keenan Burton, Tim Carter, Ronald Curry, Derek Stanley.

There was good news when Avery returned quickly from a broken foot suffered Aug. 7. He adds lightning speed and quickness to the passing game. Robinson has shown himself to be sure-handed, and he finds a way to get open. Burton has skill, but must stay healthy. Carter and Curry could be keys to how well this group performs. Carter has outstanding speed, but has underachieved during his previous stints in the league. Curry is trying to show he still has something left. Stanley can make big plays, and also returns kicks.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Alex Barron, LG Jacob Bell, C Jason Brown, RG Richie Incognito, RT Jason Smith. Backups - T/G Adam Goldberg, G John Greco, C/G Mark Setterstrom.

If this group can stay healthy and play together, it can be pretty good. There's still a chance Goldberg might start instead of Smith when the season begins, especially with the first two games on the road at Seattle and Washington. Bell has to show he's back from the concussion he suffered Aug. 14. Setterstrom is more than capable at left guard, the position he was playing when a knee injury wiped out his 2007 season. He also missed all of 2008 with another knee injury. If the Rams keep more than eight linemen, tackle Renardo Foster or guard Roy Schuening could earn spots.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DLE Leonard Little, DT Gary Gibson, DT Clifton Ryan, DRE Chris Long. Backups - E Victor Adeyanju, E James Hall, T Adam Carriker, T Hollis Thomas, T Darell Scott.

Gibson has been the surprise of camp, but it remains to be seen whether he can win enough battles against top-flight offensive linemen. Carriker missed time in camp because of an ankle injury, and there are questions whether Ryan can hold up for 16 games unless his snaps are limited. Hall and Adeyanju could see time inside. Little has been slowed by a knee problem in camp. Injuries had a major impact on the soon-to-be 35 year old the last two seasons. Long has to show big improvement in his second season. If Thomas can get in game shape, it is hoped he can be a plugger in the middle of the line.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Will Witherspoon, MLB James Laurinaitis, SLB Chris Draft. Backups - David Vobora, Larry Grant, Chris Chamberlain.

Moving to the outside, Witherspoon should be able to make more plays. However, that will come down to how well the defense controls opponents on first down. Laurinaitis will improve all year, while Draft is a crafty veteran. Vobora and Grant, when he recovers from a knee injury, could also see time on the strong side. Chamberlain is solid on special teams.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Ron Bartell, RCB Jonathan Wade, FS Oshiomogho Atogwe, SS James Butler. Backups - CB Justin King, CB Bradley Fletcher, CB Quincy Butler, S Todd Johnson, S Craig Dahl.

Many questions, especially after the trade of CB Tye Hill. For now, it looks like King will be the nickel back, but that's not written in stone. He could get an opportunity, along with Wade, as a starter. The safeties are solid with ballhawk Atogwe and Butler.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Josh Brown, P Donnie Jones, LS Chris Massey, KR Samkon Gado, PR Derek Stanley.

On a team with many question marks, there are none here, at least with the kickers, Brown and Jones, and the long snapper, Massey. Stanley might also get a chance returning kickoffs if Gado doesn't show some breakaway ability.

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