By Howard Balzer
Monday, August 25, 2008

Just as no one should over-react to poor performances in preseason games, the same is true for good performances.

Still, with increasing negativity regarding the Rams' offense, it was certainly a nice sign Saturday night when the first-team offense scored two touchdowns in the first half. The wolves will be at bay for at least a couple of weeks. Most important, Marc Bulger looked more like the quarterback that passed for 4,301 yards in 2006 and had a passer rating of 92.9 than the one that was beaten and battered last season and had a rating of 14.1 after two preseason games.

In the 24-10 victory over the Ravens, Bulger completed 18 of 25 passes for 182 yards in his two quarters of play, didn't have an interception and posted a passer rating of 119.1. Bulger looked sharp and there was a rhythm to the offense.

It's what coordinator Al Saunders has been trying to accomplish this summer. He is learning about Bulger and discovering what he does best. Saunders stresses that's what the preseason is for.

"We still have a long way to go, but this was good progress," he said. "You always have to remember, these are practices in a game environment."

Asked what led to Bulger's improved play, coach Scott Linehan said, “Our timing was better. Certainly the protection is crucial. If you can’t protect the quarterback and he’s feeling the pressure, he has to move and alter this throwing motion or his ability to stay in the pocket. All of those things factor into it. Up front, they kept him clean, especially this last game. His trust in that and his ability to stand in there and just keep playing, he looked much more comfortable in the pocket than he has in the first two games.

"I just felt he just went out and let it rip last night, which is the way he has to be. That’s the Marc we’re all accustomed to and used to. He’s going to have great days and he’s going to have days that he’s going to have to come out of a quarter where he’s not playing as well. We’ve gone through a lot of things here in this preseason and are great learning tools for this particular year, too. I just think his rhythm was really good and I give a lot of it to obviously our ability to throw and catch and the timing being better, but I give a lot of credit to the offensive line to give him the time he needs to get that done.”

One of Saunders' main goals this summer has been to establish chemistry and continuity in the offensive line. That line has done well, even with Adam Goldberg at left tackle and Nick Leckey at center. Linehan couldn't stop gushing about the line's performance.

“I thought they played outstanding," Linehan said. "I think they really played three solid games. I don’t think the first game was their best but it wasn’t our best game as a team either. But they have improved from there. I thought we really made our greatest strides at offensive line when we went to Tennessee and our two days of practice. It wasn’t the carryover you wanted to see in the game but since then I have seen the group really come together and really play well as far as a unit and that’s what really an o-line is.

"Good o-lines you see in this league, really play well together. If you are going to find a negative in the game, we had some procedure penalties but other than that to go against a team like that and give up no sacks was an outstanding effort. On top of our ability to, at times, run the ball very well, so I think the offensive line as a group has really preformed well all preseason."

When Linehan was asked whether Bulger answered concerns about his play, Linehan smiled and said, “It wasn’t my deal it was your deal. You guys all know, you’ve all done things where you press at things and I think there was some of that. I think you put a lot of pressure on yourself sometimes. It affects your ability to perform. In this case, I just think it was a matter of him going out, relaxing, having fun and getting that smile back on his face. I saw that tonight. I think the way the offensive line played has something to do with that. He looked like his old self to me.”

YOUNG RECEIVERS STEP UP

Was it only coincidence that the offense began making plays when wide receiver Drew Bennett left with a groin injury, clearing the way for even more playing time for rookies Keenan Burton and Donnie Avery?

Bennett has been a colossal disappointment, doing little last season after signing a five-year, $30 million contract that included a $10 million signing bonus. He was bothered by quad and hamstring problems for much of the 2007 season, and now he has a Grade 2 strain of his right groin. Perhaps his absence will be a plus for the offense. He had two more drops before being injured in the first half.

Burton made a falling-down catch in the back of the end zone for the team's first touchdown against Baltimore. Originally ruled an incompletion, Linehan challenged the call and it was reversed. Later, Burton nearly made a spectacular one-handed grab, but as he fell to the turf, the ball came loose and touched the ground. That was originally ruled a catch, but a Ravens challenged resulted in the incompletion. Still, just the fact Burton almost made the catch was extraordinary.

For the game, he had three receptions for 63 yards and Avery had five for 65. Avery also had a 31-yard kickoff return. It was his first game after missing two weeks of practices early in training camp with a hip injury.

Linehan was pleased with how the rookies played. “It didn’t surprise me, because I saw some flashes of really good football," Linehan said. "I saw some flashes of some rookie mistakes. What I was the most pleased with was the speed they played at. They played fast. They kind of changed the game in a lot of ways when they starting making plays and were out on the field together, because they really stood out to me as far as making a difference with the speed of the game.

"It really was fun. I enjoyed it. I know they sparked us in a lot of ways and that’s what youth does sometimes. There’s a lot of reasons you would wait on young players and play them, but these guys are guys we are counting on and we knew we’d count on them as rookies. To be able to play them more than they have before was really good, because you can really look at and see how they would perform in a regular game because they were basically playing with the ‘one’ unit most of the time. It was nice for them to be able to come through and make plays.

That just adds to the confidence of the team. They moved those chains quick. That’s what’s big about skill players with great speed. They have to make those plays. I wasn’t surprised, but I was really happy to see them go out and play at the speed they played at, because a lot of times they slow down instead of speed up.”

Linehan especially liked the way Avery played after having some drops and being a bit rusty in his first game action.

“He looked kind of nervous on a couple of plays," Linehan said. "The bright spot was he just kept playing. He got better as he continued to play in the game and didn’t let himself get down. He’s very, very hard on himself, which is a great trait of his. In fact, I think I told everybody that was the one negative they said about him. The guy is sometimes is a little hard on himself and maybe works too hard, puts too much time in the weight room. Those kind of things, you love to hear as negatives about a player, but I saw it as a real positive last night in that he just kept playing. It didn’t affect his play in the next series. He had a very good approach and attitude about it and knew he’d made mistakes, but he knew he couldn’t harp on them. That was good to see.”

Finally, Linehan concluded, "I think the sky is the limit for those young guys as long as they improve and work hard. They’ve got the ability to get more and more playing time. At this point, we’re just excited about the prospects of them playing and adding some dimensions to our offense that we were looking for. Right now we’re just pleased that they had a good outing and now they’ve got to show that they can back it up with another one and another one.”

Are you listening and watching, Drew?

JACKSON WORKING

As promised, running back Steven Jackson has been putting in extra time as he works to get in as good football shape as he can leading up to the Sept. 7 season opener against Philadelphia. Jackson worked after the team's walk-through Friday, did some things before the game against Baltimore and then more on the team's day off Sunday.

Linehan said following the game Saturday night, “He did get work prior to the game and also had a real full day yesterday afternoon working with the quarterback and the center and basically like a simulation game … a lot of the calls and things he feels like he needs to be ready for.”

When asked about the potential of Jackson playing Sunday night, Linehan said, “The tough part is we’ve got a limited week. We’re not going to be able to go out there and get out in full pads like a whole week of practice, enough to really get him as ready as you’d like for the game, but he will take snaps with, not only the first unit, but the second unit and the third unit, just to catch up on plays.

"We do have a plan, just like we did when he got in. He’s had three straight days of working extra with his pads on and going out and running plays and doing all that while the other players aren’t out there. We’ve just got to keep accelerating and buying time whenever we can get time. And he’ll get a really good workout if he doesn’t play much or at all; I don’t know we haven’t decided, on Thursday, but he'll get a great workout all week. He’s on a little different plan than the rest of the guys.”

CULBERSON THE STARTER?

think he’s put himself in a pretty good position for that. The interesting thing about Chris Draft is he could start for us at ‘SAM’ (strong side) or he could back up for us at ‘WILL’ (weak side) or start for us at ‘WILL’ if we needed, if something happened there, orLinehan hinted at that for strong-side linebacker Quinton Culberson Sunday, saying, “I whatever. The great thing about Chris is he’s ready to play whatever role that we would ask him to play and he’s good at all three positions. ‘Q’ has really played very well for us here in preseason and I thought he probably had his best game. He played his most solid as far as being assignment perfect and those kinds of things.

"He still has made a couple of mistakes here and there, but he’s always around the ball. I think we just have a great situation, where I think we have four starting linebackers, Draft being the most versatile of all three in a lot of ways. We’re not naming a starter at this point, but I think ‘Q’ is making a pretty good statement at this point for playing time at that position.”

SIMPLY NOTING

*For the second consecutive game, the Rams were proficient on third down and stopped the opponent. The Rams converted seven of 15 third-down opportunities (46.7 percent), while Baltimore was one of 13 (0.8 percent). Yes, Baltimore played rookie quarterback Joe Flacco the entire game, but the Rams' defense registered five three-and-outs. … Quarterback Brock Berlin did another solid job in the battle for the No. 3 quarterback job. He led a touchdown drive in the third quarter, and completed 8 of 11 passes for 99 yards and a 100.2 passer rating. Bruce Gradkowski threw a bad interception. Trent Green did not play against the Ravens, but probably will see a good amount of time against Kansas City Thursday. That game will begin at 6 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. because the NFL requested that teams start games earlier because of the Democratic National Convention that night.

*In addition to Bennett, wide receiver Dante Hall suffered what was termed a "minor" high ankle sprain to his left ankle. Hall had a high ankle sprain to that ankle last season. Wide receiver Reche Caldwell will be day-to-day with a hyperextended knee and cornerback Darius Vinnett suffered a sprained knee.

Linehan insists that tackle Orlando Pace is fine, despite suffering a shoulder injury against San Diego Aug. 16. “I think he’s feeling pretty good,” Linehan said. “The doctors took a real good look at it and tested it and it looks like he’s fine. It’s kind of what happens. You get a little banged up when you play and I think it scared him a little bit. It wasn’t anything serious.”