Linehan keeps healthy outlook
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
By the end of September, even the most ardent Rams fans will be hard-pressed to remember the scores. By Halloween, they'll have to think hard just to remember who won and who lost each game. And by Christmas, it will take a while simply to name the opponents.
That's the way it is with preseason football. It can become irrelevant in an instant once the real games start. But trends -- good or bad -- frequently transfer from August to the regular season.
And there weren't too many positive trends that came out of a 1-3 Rams preseason, particularly once you got past a surprisingly crisp performance against Indianapolis in the preseason opener.
— On offense, the first unit failed to score a touchdown all preseason.
— The defense produced only four turnovers and had trouble stopping the run against Houston and against Kansas City's Larry Johnson.
— On special teams, the work of place-kicker Jeff Wilkins and punter Matt Turk was excellent. But the return game and
coverage units showed little improvement.
It was surprising, then, to see coach Scott Linehan rest his starters in the preseason finale against Miami. Of the 22 probable starters on offense and defense, only tight end Joe Klopfenstein and fullback Paul Smith started against the Dolphins.
With a rookie head coach, a new offensive and defensive playbook, and lots of new players, it seemed logical to play the starters some against Miami and try to take some momentum into the regular season. Linehan obviously felt otherwise.
A succession of minor injuries to some of the team's marquee players forced Linehan to adjust his preseason approach following the Indianapolis game. Offensive tackle Orlando Pace suffered a hip, knee, and ankle injury in practice. Then wide receiver Torry Holt suffered a bruised sternum in Game 2 against Houston. In the week leading up to Game 3 against Kansas City, wide receiver Isaac Bruce experienced tightness in his hamstring.
"I started thinking, we're not as young a team here," Linehan said. "I'm going to have to put some thought into the management of our offensive players. We're an older offense, quite a bit older than the team I was just coaching before (in Miami)."
So Linehan pulled back on using his starters, most noticeably against the Dolphins. Linehan felt playing his starters against the Dolphins was not worth the risk of further injury, even if additional work might have smoothed out some rough edges.
"I don't think it's worth it, either," Holt said. "We need guys for the real deal, and that's to play during the regular season. We need everybody healthy."
If nothing else, Linehan can say he accomplished that goal. All 53 Rams participated in Saturday's practice, before taking Sunday and Monday off prior to Denver game week. The Rams made it through training camp and the preseason with only one player -- offensive guard Claude Terrell -- going on the season-ending injured reserve list.
In the previous six camps under Mike Martz, the Rams averaged 2½ players per preseason on IR, or the physically unable to perform list.
"So the big picture is, we're as healthy as we could possibly ask to be," Linehan said. "I think we're in as good a condition as any team I've been around at this point.
"They're in great shape. We don't have any guys with weight issues. So I feel very good about those things. Obviously, how we play -- especially early in the year -- will show whether that's true or not. But I will be surprised if we don't come out and put on a good performance early in the year."
Beyond the desire for injury prevention, Linehan spent a lot of the preseason taking a long, hard look at his bench. As the exhibition season unfolded, the team's depth became more of a concern for Linehan.
"I'd like to be a little bit deeper team," Linehan said. "Hopefully, you'll see a deeper type of team when we're talking next year at this time."
But in the effort to develop depth, there's the possibility of neglecting the starters. Did they get enough work? Running back Steven Jackson, for example, had only 19 carries this preseason compared to 32 last year. Quarterback Marc Bulger threw 30 passes this preseason, compared to 40 last year.
Speaking for the defense, strong safety Corey Chavous said that practice repetitions are almost as important as game experience at this time of year.
"A big part of the preseason is what you do on a day-to-day basis," Chavous said. "I think for us, we've had to really, really get a lot of reps. Not only in the preseason, but during the entire offseason program because we're learning a new scheme. And I feel like we've done a pretty good job of coming together."
As for the offense and its lack of production, Holt says he's not concerned.
"I'm not worried at all -- and I'm serious," Holt said. "We can put up some points."
But Holt realizes that simply flipping the "on" switch now that the regular season is here is easier said than done.
"Once we go out on Sunday against the Broncos, we have to show improvement," Holt said. "It's for real. And in order to win football games, you've got to score points."
As for any fans wondering where's the offense, Holt said, "I would tell them just to hold us accountable."