PACE Reports to date are encouraging as left tackle puts shoulder to the test.

Rams left tackle Orlando Pace stonewalls defensive end Chris Long during a training camp drill.
(Chris Lee/P-D)By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
07/30/2008

MEQUON, WIS. It's not as if Marc Bulger crosses his fingers every time he drops back to pass. Offensive line coach Steve Loney doesn't hyperventilate during line drills. And offensive coordinator Al Saunders hasn't attached a rabbit's foot next to the blocking schemes on his practice scripts.

But it's safe to say there was and remains a level of curiosity and anxiety about the health and welfare of Orlando Pace. You can talk all you want about the outlook and possibilities at the "skill" positions, but if Pace's surgically repaired right shoulder doesn't work this season, it will be hard for the St. Louis offense to do so.

As Scott Linehan succinctly puts it: "Left tackles, they're hard to come by. And he's one of the best of all time. You miss them when they're gone. You can't really replace them."

The Rams learned that the hard way last season. You could almost hear the air go out of the Edward Jones Dome last Sept. 9 when Pace felt his shoulder pop trying to block Carolina defensive tackle Kris Jenkins. The result was a torn rotator cuff, a torn labrum and season-ending surgery 11 days later.

Between training camp practice sessions a couple of days ago at Concordia University Wisconsin, Pace recalled the "small state of depression" he went through for several weeks after the injury.

There was nothing small about the depressed state of the Rams' offense following Pace's injury. Bulger was battered and under siege; the running game lacked consistency; and the losses mounted as the Rams spiraled to an 0-8 start and a 3-13 season.

Besides being one of the best pass blockers of the modern era and an efficient run blocker, he poses a threat mentally for opposing defenses in terms of preparation, and what center Brett Romberg calls the challenge of "going against a legend like Orlando."

Conversely, the mere sight of the player known as "the Big O" on the practice field is uplifting for players and coaches alike. As the Rams approach the end of their first week in Wisconsin, the early returns have been encouraging.

"Looking at Big O, he came in (to camp) in incredible shape," said wide receiver Torry Holt, Pace's training camp roommate at Concordia. "He looks like a basketball player. He's got his smile. He's got his confidence. He's going through his drills. He's not complaining.

"He seems to be healthy. And for him to be healthy, that just anchors our offensive line. He's the standard up front. If he's healthy and playing well and excited, then it should translate all across the board to those other guys (on the line)." MORE
Rams camp photos from Tuesday

In the backfield, when Pace is healthy and productive, Bulger knows his backside will be protected 99 times out of 100.

"It's confidence for Marc," Holt said. "Marc knows, whenever in doubt, shuffle to the left (toward Pace's side of the line) and then get rid of the ball."

In the offseason, when he wasn't at Rams Park, Pace was in his adopted offseason home of Orlando, Fla., working with a trainer on his rehab and conditioning. So in terms of weight management and cardiovascular work, he's in great shape.

Now that training camp has arrived, he must get his body and his head into "football" shape.

"I feel good," Pace said. "But you never know until you take that one shot. ... The tough thing about practicing now is just mentally being willing to throw the arm in there and use it, not even thinking about it."

As early in camp as Saturday, Pace said his right shoulder felt a little sore. But he added, "Everything is sore."

In the early going of camp, Pace has been taking part in all of the individual drills with the exception of the intense one-on-one pass-blocking sessions.

"That's a time where the defensive line, they don't have to concern themselves with runs, draws, any of that stuff," Loney said. "So they're just laying their ears back and running as hard as they can to the (backfield)."

The Rams want to keep Pace out of such situations until they're convinced he has full confidence in using his right arm.

In terms of 11-on-11 or "team" drills, Pace participated in about 40 percent of such plays during the first few days of camp. No need to rush it.

"A year ago at this time, coming off the other injury, I was more concerned because he wasn't using that arm yet or was waiting to get confidence in it," Linehan said.

(Pace missed half the 2006 season because of a triceps injury in his left arm.)

"But Orlando's getting in there and going (this summer)," Linehan said. "It looks a lot more like the old Orlando to ..