02:35 PM CDT on Sunday, August 7, 2005

By R.B. FALLSTROM / AP Sports Writer

The presence of an officiating crew at the St. Louis Rams' practice Saturday night gave the team an idea of how far it has to go.

Unofficially, the offense was whistled for eight false starts. Coach Mike Martz called the mistakes "absolutely ridiculous" and complained about slow substitution. He said if it had been a game, the Rams "would have had about 20 delay of games."

"There's a lot of things that happened out here that when you're practicing you just let it slide, you don't pay attention to it," Martz said. "Well, they called to your attention that some of these defensive backs, you can't grab the jerseys."

"All these false starts and the cadence changes, it's just a lot of simple things that sometimes go unnoticed in practice and you put them in a dress rehearsal like this and it's different."

The practice, watched by an estimated 4,500 fans at Washington University, was a tuneup for Friday night's preseason opener against the Chicago Bears.

"We struggled at times, so it's good to get the bugs out," Martz said.

A positive was a defense that was the team's weakness most of last year. There were five interceptions, two by defensive end Anthony Hargrove, and Martz gave high marks to the revamped linebacking crew that features free agent pickups Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley.

So was the continued strong play of rookie guard Claude Terrell, a fourth-round pick who's jumped in with the first team.

"He's a natural," Martz said. "From the first day, he was chipping up on the linebackers without having to be reinforced to do some of these things."

The quarterback depth behind starter Marc Bulger is something of a mixed bag. Backup Jamie Martin did not participate due to a slightly injured groin, and rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick jumped ahead of Jeff Smoker in the battle for No. 3, getting substantial playing time.

"I was very pleased with Ryan," Martz said. "We gave him a lot of things to do and I thought he handled it very well. I was very pleased with his demeanor and his control of the situation."

Martz said reporters can read "whatever you want" into the fact Smoker, a sixth-round pick last year, didn't get much work.

"We've got to find out about both of them," Martz said. "I'm not very pleased with Jeff's performance and his mental preparation, I'm not very pleased at all."

"And I don't know enough about Ryan yet so we've got to find out about Ryan."

The playing time was a big surprise for Fitzpatrick, a seventh-rounder out of Harvard.

"I need all the work I can get," he said. "It's tough doing all the plays in the meeting room and not being able to get out there and do it on the field, but I got some good reps out there."

But Martz put another rookie, punter Reggie Hodges, on notice. The sixth-round pick is the only punter in camp and he had a rough practice.

"That punter, we've got to do a better job than that," Martz said. "We've got to do way better than that. We'll see what he's got in the preseason."

Players gave high marks to at least the idea of the practice, which gave them a change of pace after nine days of training camp at Rams Park, and to the packed crowd at Francis Field.

"That's just the love here in St. Louis," Hargrove said. "They're just crazy about their teams."

And, sloppy or not, Martz gave players Sunday and Monday off.