Hiding his hand
Friday, September 8, 2006
R.B. FALLSTROM ~ The Associated Press
The preseason revealed little about new head coach Scott Linehan and his revamped team.
ST. LOUIS -- A highly unsatisfactory preseason could not end fast enough for new St. Louis Rams coach Scott Linehan.
Too many games that presented injury risks, too many older players that needed to be conserved for the games that count and too many players to evaluate led to too little in the way of tangible results for a team hoping to rebound from a 6-10 record in the chaotic conclusion to the Mike Martz era.
"I'm looking forward to playing the regular season," Linehan said. "The preseason is a very distant memory for me."
Linehan rested both of his marquee wide receivers, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, in the third preseason game due to minor injuries. He gave virtually all the starters on both sides of the ball the day off in the preseason finale.
For those and other reasons, the new regime failed to set a tone for the revival with a 1-3 record. Flawless execution in the preseason-opening victory over the Colts was the highlight. The three games that followed were far from it: The first-string offense had zero touchdowns in 11 possessions, and a rebuilt defense featuring five new starters got pushed around at times and made few big plays.
All of which makes the Rams something of a mystery team entering Sunday's opener against the Denver Broncos, who made it to the AFC championship game a year ago.
Quarterback Marc Bulger cares little for preseason performance and points out that the Super Bowl champion Steelers, who were winless in the exhibitions, are not likely to play out that trend and go 0-16.
"It didn't look like we were the Bad News Bears out there," Bulger said. "I think we'll be ready to play on Sunday, and I know we've prepared like we should have."
Linehan said the Rams were pure vanilla in the preseason on both sides of the ball. The defense blitzed a lot in the opener, then backed off the last three games.
"The big picture is I think we're as healthy as we could possibly ask to be," Linehan said. "I think we're in as good a condition as I've been around a team at this point.
"I would be surprised if we don't come out and put on a good performance in the beginning of the year."
The biggest changes are on a defense ranked 30th last year that was fortified by middle linebacker Will Weatherspoon, tackle La'Roi Glover, cornerback Fakhir Brown and safeties Oshiomogho Atogwe and Corey Chavous. Three of the four were free agents and Atogwe played sparingly as a rookie after being picked in the third round.
First-round pick Tye Hill is a cornerback who'll likely play in nickel and dime packages while he learns the NFL. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett will be trying to restore his reputation after being fired by the Saints.
"We got better," said defensive end Leonard Little, who had 9 1/2 sacks last season. "Those are the type of players we need."
There are only three new faces on offense, where the biggest question mark is an aging line. Linehan put center Andy McCollum, 36, and guard Adam Timmerman, 35, on notice even before training camp that their time may be winding down.
Throughout camp, both walked the halls at Rams Park between practices with ice bags attached to each knee.
Linehan ran a difficult, physical camp, but as it wore on he had to make concessions to a roster that includes 15 players 30 or older.
"We're an older offense, quite a bit older than the team I was coaching before," said Linehan, the offensive coordinator last year with the Dolphins. "The big picture is I think we're as healthy as we could possibly ask to be."
Left guard Richie Incognito adds an infusion of youth and an element of feistiness to the line after rehabbing from kneecap surgery that knocked him out his rookie 2005 season. Incognito was whistled twice for chop blocks in one preseason game, and readily admitted it was a tactic aimed at getting into the opposition's psyche.
The other newcomers are fullback Paul Smith and rookie tight end Joe Klopfenstein. Smith played sparingly due to a calf injury, while Klopfenstein, a second-round pick, impressed with all-around skills in the most competitive position battle of camp.
The Rams, though far removed from their years as the Greatest Show on Turf, still are well-stocked at the skill positions. Holt is the first player in NFL history with seven straight 1,300-yard seasons, and Bruce is one of only 11 players in league history with 12,000 yards receiving. Neither has shown signs of slowing.
Running back Steven Jackson is an impressive package of size, speed and shiftiness, and veteran Stephen Davis, signed last week, will be his backup.
Bulger is one of the more accurate quarterbacks, if he can stay healthy. Bulger missed half of last season with a shoulder injury, so the Rams upgraded by signing backup Gus Frerotte.