Rams - Dolphins Pre-Game Notes / What to Watch
Thursday, August 31, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

PREGAME NOTES

- Ernesto turned out to be not much more than a simple storm and he passed through with little to no damage to the Miami/Ft. Lauderdale area. It’s beautiful out right now and a perfect night for football.

- Although it appears the starters won’t play much, they will play in most cases. Punter Matt Turk and defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy are the only regulars who probably won’t play. Turk is not with the team because of a death in the family that caused him to miss the past couple of days of practice.

- As for Kennedy, his injured ankle will keep him out tonight and Jason Fisk will replace him at nose tackle. That should create some extended playing time for rookie Tim Sandidge and Brian Howard.

- Receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce tested their injuries (bruised sternum and hamstring strain) before the game. It appears they will play, but if they do it will be on a limited basis. That duo will be introduced with the offense tonight.

- The Rams are wearing the white jerseys, but no white pants this week. It’s white on gold for the preseason finale.

- Fullback Madison Hedgecock will dress and could play if needed, but he is still a ways off from a full return because of his ankle sprain.

- Expect to see Ryan Fitzpatrick before Dave Ragone tonight, but there will be plenty of opportunities for both young signal callers.

- The only Dolphin of note who will not dress tonight is cornerback Travis Daniels. Andre Goodman will take his place.

5 THINGS TO WATCH

1. Health Matters

It’s the final preseason game with the Rams heading to Miami to wrap up the exhibition schedule. St. Louis is 1-2 in the first three preseason contests and while that isn’t necessarily important, the final preseason game means one thing.

If the third preseason game is supposed to be the dress rehearsal with the starters playing longer than normal, the fourth preseason game is meant to give the backups one final crack at making an impression and making the roster.

Coach Scott Linehan and his staff have begun putting the final decision together on how long the starters will play against the Dolphins. Don’t expect it to be much.

Most teams use their starters on both sides of the ball for about a series in the preseason finale and some teams elect to hold out their starters all together.

For the Rams, starting receivers Torry Holt (sternum) and Isaac Bruce (hamstring) have been back at practice and could be available to play. But there’s a strong chance the Rams won’t opt to use them for risk of aggravating their respective injuries.

“There’s a chance they could play,” Linehan said. “Whether they do or not, we haven’t determined yet. We’re going to decide that, not just them or anybody, we’re going to decide that with how much we’re going to play our first units.”

With tropical storm Ernesto on its way through Miami in the past couple of days, the field will likely be wet and muddy, meaning the Rams could have to take extra precautions to ensure no further injuries. Leaving Florida healthy will be the team’s top goal in the final preseason contest.

2. Third Goes First

With the strong possibility that starter Marc Bulger and backup Gus Frerotte are only going to play a series or two, the pair of quarterbacks competing for the third signal caller’s job will get plenty of opportunities to prove themselves tonight.

Ryan Fitzpatrick will probably get the first crack at the Dolphins. He has performed well in the preseason in his opportunities. Dave Ragone, who came to the Rams just before camp, struggled some against Indianapolis in the opener, but performed well against Houston in the second week.

Linehan said the time will be divided equally between Fitzpatrick and Ragone. In the preseason so far, Fitzpatrick is 13-of-21 for 110 yards and Ragone is 16-of-22 for 156 yards with an interception.

“Our number three quarterback’s certainly getting a lot of attention, and it should because it’s been a heck of a battle,” Linehan said. “That’s probably going to be the biggest assessment from this game, the obvious assessment. Both will play a very significant amount of the game, split down the middle pretty much.”

3. Time for a Touchdown

There has been criticism of the Rams’ first team offense in the preseason because of its inability to score a touchdown. On 11 possessions, that unit has managed just three field goals.

There have been various reasons given for that failure to find pay dirt, including a vanilla offense, injuries to Holt and Bruce and learning a new system.

“I’m just like everybody else,” Linehan said. “You want to win in preseason. I try to keep the focus on the big picture, which is certainly what we’re trying to get done and we want to do better and play better. But it does give us something to shoot for.”

The red zone woes have been especially troublesome considering the fact that the Rams struggled mightily in that area last year. That is one area that needs cleaning up and it starts with developing a strong running game.

Of course, it’s hard to improve inside the 20 when you don’t get there often.

“We need to be more efficient, especially when we get down in the red zone,” Linehan said. “I really felt our focus going into this game was much improved. I thought we really had a good red zone plan. Our biggest problem was that we didn’t get down there. The one time we get down there it gets called back, and that was frustrating for all of us. It just goes to show you that everybody’s got to be on the same page. You can’t have one guy miss an assignment or make an error or its going to cost you. I think that’s the biggest thing we’re trying to get across to our offensive players, and they understand that. That’s been the best part about this. Nobody’s getting frustrated, they understand that we have to put it together and we have to be in sync. You can’t have 10 guys do the right thing and one guy makes a critical error because it’s going to cost the team.”

4. Returner Wanted

It’s become a familiar refrain, but now Linehan really means it. This is the last chance for somebody to step up and claim the job as the team’s kick returner and, perhaps, steal the punt returner job.

The kickoff return duties have fallen mostly in the hands of receivers Brad Pyatt and Marques Hagans. Pyatt has showed more burst, but Hagans appears to be improving.

In three preseason games, Pyatt is averaging 25.6 yards on five attempts with Hagans at 22.2 on six tries. Kevin Curtis has a single return for 27 yards, but it appears Linehan is hesitant to use him as the returner because of his value on the offense.

That means that either Pyatt or Hagans needs to step to the forefront. Linehan isn’t asking his returners to score touchdowns every time, but he does have an idea of what he’s looking for.

“If we can get ourselves back to the 30-yard line we will show improvement,” Linehan said. “The returner’s job is to get us there if we’ve got good solid blocking, so we’ll keep it the same as last week.”

During practice this week, the Rams have been working some others into the mix, including running back Fred Russell, who is an intriguing option because of his speed and elusiveness.

In a bit of a surprise earlier in the week, Linehan announced that receiver Shaun McDonald would be handling the punt returning duties again, at least for the foreseeable future. Even with that said, Hagans and Pyatt will probably get another look in this final preseason game. If either of them can show something there, it might cause Linehan to reconsider that decision and, at the very least, solidify a roster spot for one of those two players.

Again, Linehan isn’t expecting the second coming of Deion Sanders as a punt returner, just someone who can be consistent.

“It’s a little bit different,” Linehan said. “You can be quicker than you are fast as a punt returner. We’re looking for one first down. That’s kind of the goal with punt returners to catch a punt and get a 10 yard gain on a return. He doesn’t necessarily have to be as fast as a kick returner, but he should be able to make a guy miss side to side, still make that radical cut and get up field and take the gain that’s there. But punt returners are a little shiftier and (have) a little more side to side action.”

5. Running in Place

Although starting running back Steven Jackson will probably play very little if at all against the Dolphins in the preseason finale, there is one area that the Rams would like to see him improve. In fact, it’s an area Linehan would like to see his running game as a whole improve on.

The Rams have had a recent spat of picking up zero or negative yards on running plays, something that has severely limited their ability to work in different things on other downs.

Jackson led the league last season in negative carries and after a strong first preseason outing against Indianapolis has had the problem again. Tony Fisher, Moe Williams and Fred Russell have also struggled to get past the line of scrimmage.

Five of Jackson’s 10 carries against the Chiefs last week went for negative or no yards.

“That’s been a problem,” Linehan said. “It’s hard to overcome negative yards… zero yards, one yard, two yards, that’s going to happen. The negative yardage play is something we have to eliminate. It’s one thing to have a sack, but we can’t have those plays where we lose yardage on a run. Lets say you get an efficient run on first down, you think you’re going to put yourself in third-and-short, then you lose yards on the next call, then you run it again… that’s not acceptable”

Further, the Rams need to make a determination on who the second and third running backs will be. Fisher and Williams seem to be the favorites to land those spots, but Russell is also under consideration and signing Stephen Davis remains a possibility.

“I’d like to see both take their games to another level this game,” Linehan said. “Whether they’re number twos or not, we’ll decide that when we decide who our 53 are going to be. When we get to that 53 and who are our number two back and who are our number three back and who’s going to handle third downs and who’s going to handle a special teams-type back. I think they’ve done everything we’ve asked. I’ve got a lot of confidence those guys will help our team one way or another.”