Posted 9/1/2006 3:31 PM ET
When training camp opened in late July, with Scott Linehan presiding for the first time as a head coach, it was his goal to instill a physical style of play while eliminating the mistakes that led to the firing of Mike Martz after two seasons saw the Rams compile a 14-18 regular-season record.
Players had to learn a new offense with Linehan's imprint, as well as adapting to defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's attacking system.
Linehan believes his mission has been accomplished, but some spotty preseason play still leaves doubt as to the level where this team will finish.
However, to a man, the team is confident, with holdovers figuring there has to be improvement over last season's 6-10 record when everything that could go wrong went wrong. Despite winning only six games, the team battled amid the soap opera that played out on almost a daily basis.
"I feel like last year we really weren't far (off)," wide receiver Isaac Bruce said. "There was a lot of chaos going around, but we competed pretty well. Right now, you can only judge our talent and our ability on the field with Seattle. And I think we played them very well when they were here (last season). We may be flying under the radar just a tad, but I think the addition of coach Haslett and the talent that we have on offense, guys will know."
Defense was the team's Achilles heel the last two seasons, so that is where most of the personnel changes took place. With the season set to open, there are four new starters that arrived from other teams defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, middle linebacker Will Witherspoon, strong safety Corey Chavous and cornerback Fakhir Brown along with three new starters that were on the roster last season: nose tackle Jimmy Kennedy, strong-side linebacker Brandon Chillar and free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe.
"It's a different attitude altogether on the defense," wide receiver Dane Looker said. "They seem to be more attacking. A lot of blitzing. A lot of different looks. We've seen some exotic defenses in practice, where we'll stop in the middle of the receiver meeting room and say, 'Now what coverage is this? We've never even seen it.' Coach Haslett has a unique style of calling defenses."
Witherspoon is anxious for the season to begin.
"I think people are really going to see a different Rams defense than they have in years past," he said. "We're going to show people."
Offensively, most of the pieces of an effective unit remain. There were issues in the red zone last season, but quarterback Marc Bulger was on pace for a 4,000-yard season when a shoulder injury ended his year after eight games.
Despite a lot of chatter throughout the offseason about balancing the offense, Linehan will still throw a lot because of the receivers he has and the addition of rookie tight end Joe Klopfenstein.
"This offense still has the potential to be very, very explosive," wide receiver Torry Holt said. "And I think coach, he's aware of that, and he's going to put us in situations to continue to have success offensively."
Bruce has played with a lot of quarterbacks during his previous 12 seasons, and continues to be impressed with Bulger's capabilities.
"He's more patient," Bruce said. "He's always been a very accurate guy to me. You pretty much know it's his huddle. He knows every route, every protection, and he's a complete leader."
Fans weren't impressed during the first three preseason games when the first-unit offense failed to score a touchdown. Linehan knows everyone can talk all they want, but the proof will be in the pudding when the season opens Sept. 10 against Denver.
"I think they're going to sit back and wait," Linehan said of the fans. "It's human nature. Our focus isn't about that right now. ... But we understand that sometimes it takes time to show that we're getting back on the right track."
Concluded Bruce, "It's got to be a new era. A new coaching staff. I guess coach Linehan is beginning to start his legacy here. So it's going to be interesting to see how it goes."
COACHING: Scott Linehan, 1st year.
REMEMBERING: 2006 record: 6-10 (2nd in NFC West).
PREDICTING: 2006 regular season record: 8-8 (2nd in NFC West).
It has been an offseason of frustration for guard Claude Terrell. After starting 10 games in his rookie season last year, Terrell underwent wrist surgery Jan. 9. He had issues throughout the offseason, but it appeared everything was fine when training camp opened.
However, Terrell believes he re-injured the wrist on the second day of training camp when he fell on it.
"It really started bothering me, but I tried to give it a go," Terrell said. "One arm in this league, that isn't going to get it done. It's disappointing, because I put in a lot of work, and I felt like 2006 would be my year to step to the forefront, make a name for myself and help this team be successful."
Terrell was placed on injured reserve Aug. 28, and was waiting to have another operation on his wrist.
When the Rams made their first cuts Aug. 28, coach Scott Linehan made it a point to meet with each player individually.
"I have and always will," Linehan said. "I explain to them where they were. I think a lot of them have an idea, but I think that they're entitled to (hear) why they were released at this point. We bring them in and I talk to them individually and tell them what I thought they did well, thank them for their time, and give them a little bit of an idea of why we came to the decision. I think people are entitled to that in this business. I just think it's the right thing to do. I don't know what other coaches do necessarily; I just think it is (right)."
Linehan said he remembers being a rookie with the Cowboys in 1987, when he was called to the office of Tom Landry to get the bad news.
"I remember when Tom Landry met with me," Linehan said. "He didn't know me, but he met with me when he cut me and that always made an impression on me. I'll never forget looking across from him. It was kind of a surreal event, actually."
As for how tough it is to cut players, Linehan said, "It's the hard part of the business. The one thing I can share with each of them is that I can tell them that I was sitting in their chair at one time, but it doesn't mean the end. Try to encourage them and let them know, stay in shape. You never know what can happen and never burn any bridges and all those things. Those are all good things to take to heart because a lot of times a lot of things can work out for you somewhere else or back here."
Coach Scott Linehan can only hope that he has a healthy fullback for the season opener against Denver. Madison Hedgecock missed two games with a high ankle sprain, while Paul Smith missed one game, then played gimpy against Kansas City with a calf injury.
"He's not 100 percent, that's one thing that was noticeable in the game the other night," coach Scott Linehan said of Smith. "We've got to work him as much as we can, but we certainly don't want to go into this next game, or the opener, with him feeling the way he felt Saturday night. We've got to take it a little slow with him. It's a little frustrating because we haven't been able to really work a fullback in our offense in the last two weeks."
BY THE NUMBERS: 10 Number of new starters expected to begin the season against Denver on Sept. 10.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You see the guy run? You see him hit? You see him play? He's all over the field. He's a great hitter, he's intelligent and he's a leader. He ... is ... a ... leader." DE Anthony Hargrove on middle linebacker Will Witherspoon.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PLAYER TO WATCH: LG Richie Incognito Officials will be watching the first-year starter after he was called for two penalties for cut blocks in the third preseason game and then talked about doing it so other teams would see it on tape. Incognito earned a reputation for nastiness while at Nebraska, and hasn't played since the 2003 season because of off-field incidents. If he can channel his aggressiveness, the Rams will have a top-notch lineman for years to come.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK:
Rd. 1/15, CB Tye Hill, Clemson Showed aggressiveness and improving technique as he worked to earn a job as the nickel back.
Rd. 2/46, TE Joe Klopfenstein, Colorado Was the starter when camp opened, and never faltered. The 6-5 Klopfenstein will be a target in the passing game, and was improving as a blocker.
Rd. 3/68, DT Claude Wroten, Louisiana State Has the ability to turn on the jets in games. Learning the technique of the position, but should contribute in the rotation at defensive tackle.
Rd. 3/77, LB Jon Alston, Stanford Was hurt by missing off-season work because of rules regarding when he could report, but was starting to feel comfortable as the summer progressed. Has potential, and will likely contribute on special teams this season.
Rd. 3/93, TE Dominique Byrd, Southern Cal So far a disappointment, as he fell to third on the depth chart and was battling for a roster spot. It's hard to imagine the Rams cutting their third-round pick, because coaches still believe in his potential.
Rd. 4/113, DE Victor Adeyanju, Indiana Looks to be a keeper, and will only get better. Has quickness, along with strength. He will be an important contributor in the rotation at end.
Rd/ 5/144, WR/KR Marques Hagans, Virginia Hasn't come along as quickly as coaches had hoped. Which could present a problem on cutdown day. He was still hoping to win a job as the kickoff/punt returner, and then be able to develop as a receiver.
Rd. 7/242, OG Mark Setterstrom, Minnesota Likely to win a backup job at guard, and could be a starter in the not-to-distant future.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Marc Bulger. Backups - Gus Frerotte, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Dave Ragone.
Bulger spent the off-season learning the terminology in Linehan's offense, and there were some moments of frustration. He also experienced some inaccuracy during preseason games, but Bulger has always been a gamer when it counts. The key will be keeping him healthy after suffering shoulder injuries the last two seasons. This year, a comfort zone exists with the addition of Frerotte. Not only did he help the Dolphins win nine games last season, but he did that in Linehan's offense. The battle for the No. 3 job between Fitzpatrick and Ragone came down to the final preseason game. Fitzpatrick seemed to have an edge, but Ragone played for Linehan at the University of Louisville.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce. Backups - Kevin Curtis, Shaun McDonald, Dane Looker, Marques Hagans, Brad Pyatt.
Holt remains one of the league's elite receivers, and has a streak of six consecutive seasons with at least 1,300 yards. He shows no signs of slowing down. Bruce is still a threat and keeps defenses honest, but he has to stay healthy. A sore hamstring resulted in some level of concern when he missed the third preseason game. Curtis can become an unrestricted free agent after the season, and opens things up for the offense with his speed. McDonald has shown flashes at times, and might have his opportunities reduced because Linehan won't use four receivers very much. Looker is solid, and is also the holder for kicker Jeff Wilkins. Pyatt was making a push to be the sixth receiver because of his kickoff return skills. He was battling Hagans for the final receiver spot on the roster. Hagans has shown flashes. The dilemma for coaches is that Pyatt is the better kickoff returner, while Hagans is better on punts.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Joe Klopfenstein. Backups - Aaron Walker, Dominique Byrd, Jerome Collins.
Klopfenstein is the starter, although he and Walker will be on the field when two tight ends are employed. Walker has been one of the surprises of camp, not because of his blocking, but thanks to showing the ability to get down field and catch. Collins has made improvement from his rookie season, and was giving Byrd a run for his money for a roster spot. The closeness of the competition had some believing the Rams could keep four tight ends.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - HB Steven Jackson, FB Paul Smith. Backups - HB Tony Fisher, HB Moe Williams, FB Madison Hedgecock.
With Marshall Faulk unavailable, there is now no shadow hanging over Jackson. He is the starter and has continued to talk about his desire to get the ball. He will, but he also has to improve on his 4.1-yard average per carry in 2005 as well as blocking against the blitz. Hedgecock was hampered by an ankle injury in camp, and Smith moved ahead of him. The question is whether an offense that doesn't use a fullback that much will keep two. Fisher is a solid third-down back, and has been productive as a runner and receiver in Green Bay. He and Williams were vying for the No. 2 job, which doesn't have the coaches totally comfortable. It's why the Rams made an offer in late August to Stephen Davis.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Orlando Pace, LG Richie Incognito, C Andy McCollum, RG Adam Timmerman, RT Alex Barron. Backups - T Todd Steussie, G Blaine Saipaia, C/G Larry Turner, G Mark Setterstrom.
Watchful eyes will be on Incognito and Timmerman as the season begins. Incognito opened camp as the starter and kept it throughout the summer. He has a ways to go with technique, but his personality and combativeness will help overcome technical errors. But he has to avoid bad penalties. Timmerman returns from a subpar 2005 affected by several off-season surgeries. McCollum is solid in the middle, and the edges are in good hands with Pace and Barron. Should Timmerman falter, Saipaia is available, although it took him a while to recover from a neck injury that ended his 2005 season. Steussie provides veteran insurance at tackle and guard.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LE Leonard Little, DT La'Roi Glover, NT Jimmy Kennedy, RE Anthony Hargrove. Backups - E Brandon Green, E Victor Adeyanju, T Jason Fisk, T Claude Wroten, E/T Brian Howard, T Tim Sandidge.
The middle of the line will see a transformation with the departure of Ryan Pickett and Damione Lewis, the arrival of Glover and the move of Kennedy to the nose. Kennedy has talked of being revitalized with former line coach Bill Kollar gone. Now, he will have to show it on the field, where he should be as effective as Pickett was tying up blockers. Glover brings pass-rush ability to the inside, something that has been absent for a while. That push up the middle should also help Little and Hargrove. Little is entering the final year of his contract, while Hargrove needs to step up and be more disciplined against the run and make plays in pass defense. They will often flip-flop between the left and right sides. Green is a high-motor player that provides solid depth. Adeyanju should also contribute as a rookie. Fisk has experience behind Kennedy, with Wroten the most intriguing. If off-field issues are resolved, he has the ability to be a difference-maker. It looked like there wasn't roster room for Howard and Sandidge.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - SLB Brandon Chillar, MLB Will Witherspoon, WLB Pisa Tinoisamoa. Backups - SLB Raonall Smith, MLB Jamal Brooks, WLB Dexter Coakley, OLB Jon Alston.
Witherspoon was the marquee addition of the off-season, and he remains ticketed for the middle, where it is believed he can move around and make plays. On the weak side, Tinoisamoa should be helped by Witherspoon, and make more plays than he has in the past when he had little support. Chillar appears to have the job on the strong side, but Smith has played well. He plays as a hybrid end/linebacker when the Rams utilize three down lineman. Coakley has accepted his role as a backup and special teams player after coming back from a broken leg that ended his 2005 season prematurely. Brooks looks to have won the backup job in the middle, with rookie Tim McGarigle likely headed for the practice squad.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Fakhir Brown, CB Travis Fisher, SS Corey Chavous, FS O.J. Atogwe. Backups - CB Jerametrius Butler, CB Tye Hill, CB DeJuan Groce, CB/S Ron Bartell, S Jerome Carter.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of camp was Fisher, although when healthy he had played at a high level. Injuries sabotaged his 2004 and 2005 seasons, but it looked like he was back to his 2003 form. Brown has been the starter since the first day of camp and held off Hill and Butler, who look to be the first corners off the bench. With Groce still available, there is more depth than the team has had in a while. Chavous was the only sure things entering camp, and he remains the leader of the secondary. Atogwe has been steady, and has shown a desire to hit. Bartell can be a swingman between safety and corner. Carter is solid, but hasn't improved the way coaches hoped. Dwaine Carpenter was still a possibility to be on the roster.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Jeff Wilkins, P Matt Turk, LS Chris Massey.
A huge miscalculation was made last season when rookie Reggie Hodges opened the season as the punter. Special teams coach Bob Ligashesky made that call, but Hodges didn't return the favor. He was cut after a horrific performance against Seattle that directly led to the home loss. Enter veteran Matt Turk this year, and despite a very good showing by Andy Groom, Turk showed a booming leg consistently. Wilkins remains one of the league's top kickers, and Massey was signed to a new contract to be the long snapper.