Rams Inside Slant

The Rams are a confident team as they prepare for the regular-season opener against the San Francisco *****.

After all, this was a team that despite being 2-6 on the road in 2004, still had two running backs (Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson) combine for more than 1,300 rushing yards, two wide receivers (Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce) each surpass 1,000 yards and a quarterback (Marc Bulger) that finished 36 yards shy of 4,000 even though he missed nearly three games.

So, it's understandable that this team believes, with Jackson starting and improved defense and special teams, they can return to the elite of the league.

"These guys are special," coach Mike Martz said after a preseason win over Detroit. "This is a very special group of people that has the integrity... you say hey it's time to go now. We have been looking at personnel. We are done experimenting; it's time to go play now. That's what we did."

The Rams not only lost six road games last season, but they were blown out in five of them. It's why they put added emphasis on the Aug. 29 game in Detroit.

"We're on the road the first two games, and this was the last exhibition game we had on the road," Bulger said. "So it was nice to prove to ourselves a little bit that we can win on the road. Preseason or not, it was Monday night. They came out in new uniforms, and were fired up a little bit, so we played well."

Throughout the summer, Martz has talked about how potent his offense might be. But he also often reiterated that the success traces back to the offensive line. And that line stood out against the Lions, and it was a line virtually identical to the groups that helped the Rams advance to Super Bowls in the 1999 and 2001 season.

In '99, the line started with Orlando Pace at left tackle, and then went to left guard Tom Nutten, center Mike Gruttadauria, right guard Adam Timmerman and right tackle Fred Miller. In '01, it was Pace, Nutten, Andy McCollum at center, Timmerman and Ryan Tucker at right tackle.

Pace, Nutten, McCollum and Timmerman are in their usual spots, while Tucker's brother Tex is now the right tackle.

"They are so similar, I often think it is Ryan," Timmerman said recently of Rex.

Nutten was signed out of retirement last summer because the Rams had a revolving door at left guard during training camp. He was unsure about returning this year, but underwent toe surgery in the offseason and after feeling good, re-signed just before camp started.

Martz is happy about the chemistry of the group.

"You can't have guys on your team this many years that play at that level that have been through so many good things and not have some allegiance or get attached to them," Martz said.

Jackson, who combines great power and strength with speed, served notice after the game against the Lions that the Rams will be a team to contend with in 2005.

"He (Martz) shook it up in the locker room," Jackson said, "and we had to come out and give an impressive performance on Monday night and let the league know that the Rams are planning to do something this year."

Said Bulger, "We're two weeks away right now (from the regular season), and it's time. That was pretty much our motto last week: It's time to get ready. It's not the preseason anymore. We need to hone our skills."

COACHING: Mike Martz, 6th year (54-33).

REMEMBERING: 2004 record: 8-8 (2nd in NFC West); lost in divisional playoff game to Falcons, 47-17.

PREDICTING: 2005 regular season record 11-5 (1st in NFC West); lose in NFC title game.

NOTES, QUOTES

—Jeff Smoker was still on the Rams' roster after the cutdown to 65 players, but it didn't appear that would last very long.

Coach Mike Martz came out with his strongest support yet for rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick, a seventh-round pick.

"He just continues to just kind of stun me, really," Martz said. "Without telling him, he stands in the huddle and lets that clock go down, scrambles when he's backed up on a pass instead of making a risky throw, hits a couple of big plays.

"Has he made this roster? Yeah, he's made this roster. Absolutely. He made this thing about three weeks ago in my mind."

Martz made it seem as if he might surprise a lot of people by still keeping Smoker after Sunday's cutdown to 53 players.

"If you have four good ones, you keep them, don't you?" Martz said. "Who knows? I know, but you won't know."

—The news was good on CB Terry Fair, who was motionless on the field for several minutes in the team's Aug. 29 Monday night game against Detroit. Fair was kept overnight in as Detroit-area hospital, but returned to St. Louis the following day.

He was on the practice field two days after the game, although he didn't participate in drills.

Martz said Fair didn't "appear to have any structural damage whatsoever. ... They said that in another week, he should be able to (play). We're going to send him to our neuro people here ... just to make extra sure that he's fine before we proceed with him."

Fair, who hasn't played since the 2002 season, was in a battle for a roster spot before the injury.

Said Martz, "A week ago, I wasn't sure Terry makes this team. But last week in practice, he made this team. He made a significant jump. I just was very pleased with his approach to everything."

Assuming Fair does make the 53-man roster, he is expected to be able to practice next week and be available for the Sept. 11 season opener.

—Rookie fullback Madison Hedgecock scored a touchdown against Detroit, and is making his presence felt in his competition with Joey Goodspeed.

"It's one of those plays that you don't expect out of a rookie fullback," coach Mike Martz said of the touchdown. "Madison's really stepped up and done a nice job."

While he learns the offense, Hedgecock said he is fine with playing special teams. "My role's a special-teams player and a lead blocker," Hedgecock said. "That's what it's always been. ... Pretty much special teams is how a rookie really establishes himself.

"I've just got to come out and do what I can do, and try to play to the best of my ability. And whatever happens after that, that takes place on its own."

—As of Wednesday (Aug. 31), two brothers of running back Marshall Faulk were unaccounted for in the New Orleans area. Another of Faulk's brothers left New Orleans Sunday with his mother.

"You can't get away from it," Faulk said of the coverage in papers and television, even ESPN. "But there's nothing you can do. "It's a helpless feeling."

BY THE NUMBERS: 10 — The number of games, including the preseason (three) in which the Rams had no takeaways in 2004.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "These are the hardest things in the world for me. ... I talked to a few of them, the veterans, the guys that I'm attached to. I try to let the position coaches that have more of an association with some of these younger players deal with this, because they see them every day. I think it's easier for them. Plus, I'm a chicken. I just can't do it. Not tough enough." — Coach Mike Martz, on letting his assistants break the news to players that have been released.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

It seems apparent there are those in the Rams' organization disappointed in the back injury suffered by defensive tackle Ryan Pickett.

Injuries happen, but insiders are grumbling that Pickett's back woes are traced to not being in shape when training camp started.

You'd think a player entering the final year of his contract would dedicate himself, but it didn't happen.

It also looks like Rams strength and conditioning coach Chris Clausen paid the price for Pickett's largesse. For several years, Clausen and Dana LeDuc have been listed as the team's strength and conditioning coaches, with neither considered above the other. Clausen is in his 14th year with the Rams, LeDuc his seventh.

However, things changed last week. On the Aug. 24 roster put out by the team, in the coaching list at the bottom of the roster, both were still listed as strength and conditioning.

The next day, LeDuc's title was changed to Head Strength Coach, with Clausen being listed as Assistant Strength Coach.

PLAYER TO WATCH: CB Corey Ivy — A feisty guy signed mainly to compete on special teams, the 5-8 Ivy has played well as a nickel back and played extensively with the first unit against Detroit because DeJuan Groce had the flu. Ivy isn't tall, but he covers like a blanket and is a solid tackler.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK:

Rd. 1/19, OT Alex Barron, Florida State — Didn't sign until camp was more than two weeks old, and appears to have little chance of playing this season unless there is an injury. He was working at left tackle instead of right tackle, where the Rams had him ticketed until the time he missed.

Rd. 2/50, CB Ron Bartell, Howard — Has excellent size and athletic ability, and will contribute once he becomes comfortable with his technique.

Rd. 3/66, S Oshiomogho Atogwe, Stanford — Is competing for free safety job, and even if he doesn't win it, will contribute on special teams as he learns the defense.

Rd. 4/117, S Jerome Carter, Florida State — Started the first two preseason games before being replaced, but showed enough to have coaches excited about his future. A big hitter, Carter should help the special teams improve.

Rd. 4/134, G Claude Terrell, New Mexico — Lacked the stamina to play a complete game, but Terrell showed the ability to learn the defense and played hard. He might not end up playing much this season, but definitely has a good future.

Rd. 5/144, TE Jerome Collins, Notre Dame — Looks like he'll be the team's third tight end, and will help on special teams in active for games.

Rd. 6/210, P Reggie Hodges, Ball State — Has a strong leg, and only needs to show consistency. He will be under the microscope when the season begins.

Rd. 7/250, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, Harvard — Perhaps the biggest surprise of the summer, Fitzpatrick won the No. 3 job with a combination of smarts and poise. Coach Mike Martz favors quarterbacks that can manage the game, and Fitzpatrick showed that ability from day one.

Rd. 7/251, FB Madison Hedgecock, North Carolina — His presence helped raise the game of incumbent Joey Goodspeed, and it wouldn't be surprising if Hedgecock is starting by the end of the season. Intense and combative, Hedgecock should be a force from the start on special teams.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS:

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Marc Bulger. Backups — Jamie Martin, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jeff Smoker.

Bulger is unquestionably the leader of this offense, and he should be poised to have a potentially monster season. Despite missing two full games and most of another, he nearly reached 4,000 yards passing for the season. The targets are there, as is the confidence. Jamie Martin's offseason practicing the offense helped solidify him as Bulger's backup. Fitzpatrick has beaten out Smoker as the No. 3 quarterback.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — HB Steven Jackson, FB Joey Goodspeed. Backups — HB Marshall Faulk, HB Arlen Harris, HB Aveion Cason, FB Madison Hedgecock, FB Chris Massey.

It's now down to business for Jackson, who takes over as the starter ahead of Faulk. Faulk's role has developed as the summer passed, but since he is as healthy as he's been in several years, don't be surprised to still see him be a key component in Martz's varied offense. Harris and Cason could be battling for one job, and special teams might be the deciding factor. Harris lost weight in the offseason, and was quicker than he has been in the past. Goodspeed received a strong challenge from Hedgecock, who is also good on special teams. Massey has the toughness to be a regular fullback, but he won't be risked there except in an emergency because of his long snapping prowess.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Brandon Manumaleuna. Backups — Roland Williams, Jerome Collins.

The coaches keep waiting for Manumaleuna to maximize his physical attributes and consistently show some passion for the game. Williams has that, and perhaps it will wear off on Manumaleuna. If it doesn't, Williams could see a lot of playing time. His experience and speed can add a dimension that has been missing from the offense at tight end. Williams opened camp as the starter, but then suffered a minor knee injury that cost him two preseason games.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce. Backups — Kevin Curtis, Shaun McDonald, Dane Looker, Dominique Thompson, Jeremy Carter.

It's difficult to imagine any NFL team with as deep as a receiving corps as this one. Holt should be a perennial Pro Bowl player for the rest of his career, and Bruce shows no signs of slowing down. Curtis and McDonald emerged as big-play threats last season, and both should continue to ascend. Curtis can do it all as a receiver, while McDonald must be handled with care because of his lack of size. Looker was almost forgotten last season, but he remains a possible go-to guy on third down.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Orlando Pace, LG Tom Nutten, C Andy McCollum, RG Adam Timmerman, RT Rex Tucker. Backups — T Alex Barron, T Matt Willig, T/G Blaine Saipaia, C/G Larry Turner, G Darnell Alford, G Claude Terrell, C Toby Cecil, G Richie Incognito.

Stability here is paramount for a team that relies so much on its offense. The question during camp was at right tackle and left guard. Barron missed too much time in camp to be a factor at the start of the season. Tucker opened camp at left guard, then was moved to right tackle and improved as the summer wore on. The rookie Terrell started the first two preseason games, but when Nutten showed he had recovered from off-season reconstructive toe surgery, he was installed as the starter at left guard. Pace attended his first training camp since 2002, and coaches believe he will be better this season than he has been the last two years. McCollum is the most underrated center in the league, while Timmerman remains tough, but is coming back from off-season surgeries on both shoulders and his foot. Depth should be better than it's been for a while. Saipaia is versatile, while Willig's arrival made Grant Williams expendable. Incognito remains unsigned and is expected to miss the season because of knee surgery he had after the draft.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DLE Leonard Little, NT Ryan Pickett, DT Jimmy Kennedy, DRE Anthony Hargrove. Backups — T/E Tyoka Jackson, DLE Brandon Green, NT Damione Lewis, DT Brian Howard, DT Jeremy Calahan.

The starting group is strong, but depth, especially at end, was suspect entering camp. Green emerged as a force, and he will have to prove he can be effective in regular season games. The strength of the starters is based on the belief that Hargrove and Kennedy will emerge this season as difference-makers. Both were starting at the end of the 2004 season, and defensive line coach Bill Kollar expects both to ascend rapidly this season. Little is expected to play with a vengeance after performing last season while a trial for drunk driving was hanging over his head. Pickett rarely receives accolades, but his dirty work on the nose should be rewarded this season if the team's linebackers play better. However, his status for the opener is questionable because of a back problem. This is a key year for Lewis, who is no longer a starter and is entering the final year of his contract. He has the inside quickness to get to the quarterback. Howard and Parrella are competing for a backup job. Jackson is an able fill-in both inside and outside.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — SLB Pisa Tinoisamoa, MLB Chris Claiborne, WLB Dexter Coakley. Backups — OLB Brandon Chillar, MLB Trev Faulk, MLB Robert Thomas, OLB Drew Wahlroos.

There are two new starters in a group that tackled miserably last season. New additions Claiborne and Coakley should contribute toughness, leadership and the ability to make plays. Tinoisamoa is the other starter, and his game should rise now that he has had repaired a dislocated shoulder that bothered him for the entire 2004 season. The arrival of Claiborne and Coakley has also improved the depth. Thomas, a former starter, will be a backup, along with Chillar, who had some starts as a rookie last season. Faulk is also in the mix for a backup job, and special teams will be a major consideration. Wahlroos was hoping to win a job because of his special teams ability.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB DeJuan Groce, RCB Travis Fisher, SS Adam Archuleta, FS Michael Hawthorne. Backups — CB Corey Ivy, CB Ronald Bartell, CB Terry Fair, CB Kevin Garrett, S Michael Stone, S Mike Furrey, S Jerome Carter, S Oshiomogho Atogwe.

The cornerback depth received a blow when Jerametrius Butler was lost for the season because of a knee injury. That left Groce to team with Fisher as the starters, and Ivy won the job as the nickel back. He is undersized, but is a tremendous competitor and tackler. Bartell struggled with technique, but should improve with experience. Fair had a scare in Detroit, but what looked to be a serious injury ended up being a sprained neck. Archuleta started camp as the free safety, but was moved back to strong after he played in one preseason game. Hawthorne currently is the starting free safety, but Atogwe and Furrey remain in the mix. Carter started the first two preseason games at strong safety, but needs some seasoning.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Jeff Wilkins, P Reggie Hodges, LS Chris Massey, KR Terry Fair, KR Arlen Harris, KR Aveion Cason, PR Shaun McDonald.

Wilkins slightly slumped last season, especially on his shorter kicks. But he remains a money kicker and is in no danger of losing his job. The Rams don't even have another kicker on the roster. Hodges showed some inconsistency during the summer, but will likely be given the chance to see what he does in regular-season games. He will be on a short leash. Massey is one of the better snappers in the league. A looming question is the return game, which has provided few sparks since Tony Horne and Az-Zahir Hakim. Fair was returning kickoffs and punts until his neck injury. If he isn't ready, Harris or Cason are expected to return kickoffs with McDonald the punt returner.