Saturday, September 16, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

1. Red Zone Redux

By now, the issue of the Rams’ inability to score a touchdown has been written and discussed at nauseum. Still, it’s the pressing issue facing the Rams after their strong week one performance.

Against Denver, St. Louis dominated in every facet of the game short of the ability to put the ball in the end zone. There were some blocking breakdowns, a few mental errors such as penalties and a few misfires along the way.

The Rams spent plenty of time in practice refining their work in the red zone and Head Coach Scott Linehan and Co. believe it is just a matter of time before they start posting 7s instead of 3s.

“Just knowing that it’s something we certainly need to improve on and just get better at executing down there I really think that’s it more than anything," Linehan said. "You can over-analyze it, but I think we just need to play better and execute better when we get down there.”

San Francisco had no problems allowing points last week against Arizona, whether in the red zone or not. Without Julian Peterson at linebacker, the ***** aren’t as tough to deal with defensively, meaning the Rams should get some opportunities to put the ball in the end zone.

“Everything gets magnified down there,” Bulger said. “It’s quicker. With the new system, I think things happen in the red zone quicker and maybe that’s why I’m not there yet. Maybe it’s the system, maybe not. We’ll get there. Maybe we can score from outside the red zone.”

2. Left Side Vacancy

Not that the ***** had one of the league’s most dominant offensive lines to begin with, but they will likely be without two of their best starters Sunday. Left guard Larry Allen, he of the 10 Pro Bowl appearances, is out with a knee injury.

Next to him, left tackle Jonas Jennings is listed as questionable with a sprained right ankle and likely won’t play either. In their place, the ***** are expected to use some combination of Adam Snyder, David Baas, Tony Wragge and Patrick Estes at the two spots. The most likely combination will have Snyder at tackle and Baas at guard.

After the variety of exotic blitzes the Rams threw at Denver last week, there’s a good chance that St. Louis will try to take advantage of the weakness on the left side. That could include flopping linemen around and moving athletes such as defensive end Leonard Little around on the line.

“It’s basically the same line they had last year that beat us twice,” Little said. “Obviously they’re pretty good over there. It doesn’t change much. (Allen) does add an edge to their line, but it doesn’t change that much without him in there.”

No matter who lines up opposite the Rams will provide a challenge and DT La'Roi Glover says he and his teammates can’t overlook anyone.

“Our approach doesn’t change,” Glover said. “We still want to be aggressive; we still want to try to take it to them. But hopefully, with as many looks we can show to a young offensive line can be to our advantage.”

3. Restore the Gore

The list of running backs the Rams are going to have to deal with this year includes stars such as Shaun Alexander, LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson. One player that didn’t look terribly imposing when the schedule came out was San Francisco back Frank Gore.

Gore won the starting job in training camp and proved worthy in the first week against Arizona when he rushed for 87 yards on 16 carries with a pair of touchdowns. Despite the line woes noted above, Gore combines power and speed and is one of the emerging backs in the league.

Meanwhile, the Rams struggled to stop the run against the Broncos, allowing 161 yards and an average of over 6 yards per attempt. The defense performed well as a whole, but its struggles against the run must be corrected to get where it wants to go.

Needless to say, Gore will be the second serious challenge in as many weeks for a Rams run defense still searching for an identity.

“He’s a hard-nosed runner,” Glover said. “He runs like he’s mad. He’s one of those kinds of guys. He doesn’t like to bounce plays outside much, he really likes to do the dirty work and get the tough yards. One play might be 3 (yards), one play it might be 2, and then he’ll hit you for 10. He’s one of those kinds of guys.”

4. Center of Attention

The Rams will start Richie Incognito at center and Todd Steussie at left guard against San Francisco. After losing starter Andy McCollum to a torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligament in the second quarter against Denver, the Rams plugged in backup Larry Turner.

But with McCollum out for the season, the Rams decided to opt for the best five linemen over changing the mix at one position instead of two. Incognito took the majority of the repetitions with the first team during the week and seemed to grow more comfortable with the assignment.

“Certainly our plan would be, as we go on, that it makes sense for Richie to move in there now because he’s worked it,” Linehan said. “It was a part of our plan in the offseason.”

Without McCollum in the middle calling the protections and making all of the line calls, the Rams are without one of their most dependable offensive pieces. That means they will have to find ways to help the young Incognito out.

Running back Steven Jackson says the loss of McCollum is a big one and it means the Rams will have to pull together and talk more than ever to have success.

“It was a big blow losing Andy,” Jackson said. “I think it makes us focus a little more on our defensive scouting. We could rely on him to make the right calls and nobody else had to worry about it. Now, as an offensive unit will have to communicate and make sure we’re seeing the same thing. It’s a bad situation, but I think it might actually bring us together even closer.”

5. Especially Consistent

It seems like a misprint, but after one week, the Rams rank among the top 10 in some of the major special teams categories. Yes, it was just one week of work, obviously a small sample size, but for a team that has been woeful on the special forces, it was a step in the right direction.

The Rams are 10th in the league in kickoff coverage, holding Denver to 19.5 yards per return. After that strong first outing, the Rams now must find a way to become consistent.

“I know we talked about it being an attitude, an approach, and a mentality,” Linehan said. “The thing I noticed was that they wanted to make a statement. You see those guys running down the field, they cover great on the first one, but Jeff (Wilkins) puts it in the end zone so there’s no return, but you see guys running down there and finishing down there and basically making a statement with their effort. That means they’re responding to what we’re trying to get done. It’s not just promoted by a coach or coaches, or half the team. The team showed that philosophy with their play. That was what felt the best about that.”

The Rams seem to have found a nice mix of backups capable of being contributors on the coverage units. Players like Tony Fisher, Paul Smith, Jamal Brooks and Madison Hedgecock fill their roles well and it showed up in the first week.

Even receiver Isaac Bruce has taken notice of the improved work on special teams even if it is something that should be done on a more regular basis.

“It’s something that’s been focused on now,” Bruce said. “We see it week in and week out, sometimes from other teams, but it just so happens that it happened to us. It’s just strange that we’re commenting that they’re tackling. That’s kind of strange. That’s what they do. That’s what they’re supposed to do. It’s kind of strange, highlighting that aspect of the game. It should be (there every week).”