As most fans know, the NFL preseason is designed to get the kinks out, develop continuity, evaluate and weed through 90 hopefuls en route to choosing the 53-man roster that best gives an organization a chance to win its division.
With the Rams their third exhibition contest this Saturday vs. the Broncos, the evaluation process is well underway. And the window is closing fast – the first wave of cuts, to 75 players, will take place Aug. 27.
This is the NFL’s youngest team, but that cannot be used as an excuse for some of the meltdowns, pressing and indecision that occurred on the field against the Browns and Packers. It is, in fact, mildly concerning for a fan base that wants the Rams to live up to the post-draft and pre-training camp hype.
But when one digs in and studies the first two preseason games, attends every OTA practice and training camp session, the picture becomes clearer: a group of young talented young men without much cohesion just yet. We have seen flashes of what could be, and maybe will be, in the way of offensive firepower but still are looking for that explosive running game on a consistent basis. Sam Bradford and Chris Givens’ deep-ball chemistry has picked up where it left off at the end of the 2012 season, and the short-to-intermediate passing game already looks exponentially improved thanks to the addition of tight end Jared Cook and his run-after-the-catch skills, which surfaced in last weekend’s Green Bay game. Along the offensive line, injuries and positional battles have prompted a game of musical chairs at left guard and right tackle. Despite being young outside the numbers, the receiver group will also need to grow up in a hurry. Refreshingly, the Rams now have the depth on the edge to spread the field and gash opponents with the run or through the air.
Defensively, the group has started slowly but is picking up steam. Other than several missed tackles in space and getting run over by rookie running back Ed Lacy, the unit displayed a bend-but-not-break aptitude against the Packers, not to mention a good counterpunch to stuff the run. Tim Walton’s troops are working hard to run to the ball with good collision, though their wrap and finish needs further consistency. Tackling is a mindset, and the basic fundamentals that have been taught and drilled into them since the Pop Warner level must be applied daily to shore up the current issues. Takedown tackling skills come together with live game reps, and those reps presently come in the way of preseason games only.
That third phase of football, the special teams unit, is no less important to monitor. They gave up a punt return for a touchdown vs. Cleveland, only to bounce back with a strong punting and coverage performance against Green Bay. As for kicker Greg Zuerlein’s alleged “inconsistency,” people, field goals of 50-plus yards are not chip shots. Bank on this kid to two or more games this year with his leg.
As players battle to earn a spot on the Rams’ roster, it all starts in the huddle – on both sides of the ball. Before the huddle breaks and the players prepare to battle their opponent, this young team needs to stay mindful of the five most important processes in football: assignment, alignment, recognition, execution and, on every play, finish. It’s about coming together as a team, getting better every day, staying healthy through these last two games. Then, all focus will point toward the Arizona Cardinals in the Sept. 8 season opener.