Monday, September 4, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

After a grueling training camp, four uninspiring preseason games and the tedious process of installing a new system on both sides of the ball, the Rams, fans, coach Scott Linehan, and everybody else are ready for the games to matter.

The regular-season opener is less than a week away as St. Louis begins its preparation for Denver at the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday. That means the game planning has already begun for the Broncos.

In fact, the Rams actually started looking at the Broncos last week instead of watching much tape of the Miami Dolphins for the preseason finale. When that game came around, Linehan and Co., decided to sit the majority of the starters instead of playing them and risking injury.

It was a decision some time in the making for Linehan.

“I think at some point what you have to do in managing a team like ours is realize that we’re not very young on offense,” Linehan said. “I’m going to have to put some thought in the management of our offensive players. We’re an older offense, quite a bit older than the team I was coaching before. The only adjustment was pulling back a little bit when it came to the game.”

All through training camp and the preseason, the Rams managed to stay relatively healthy. There isn’t much more that a team wants to get out of the preseason than that. But, as camp wore on and the repetitions piled up, left tackle Orlando Pace suffered a sprained ankle, knee and hurt his hip, receiver Torry Holt bruised his sternum and receiver Isaac Bruce tweaked his hamstring.

That rash of injuries caused Linehan to pull back on the reins and let his players heal. Ultimately, it meant the starters would not play against Miami and Holt and Bruce were held out of the Kansas City game.

Quarterback Marc Bulger said it’s a tough balance to find between getting enough work in the preseason to be sharp when the real thing comes and risking serious injuries.

“You want to get the work, but there’s a fine line with the injury factor,” Bulger said. “It is a business, too, and if Steven or Torry or somebody went down then he has to answer to a lot of people. We walked that fine line. I think we got a lot of good work in practice and we have a 16-week schedule here. There’s plenty of time to second guess ourselves.”

Much of that potential second guessing comes from a preseason of veritable indifference to the way the first-team offense performed in the exhibition season.

The Rams came out strong in the opener against Indianapolis, piling up 404 yards with an even distribution between the run and pass. And though the first-team offense didn’t score a touchdown in that game, it did move the ball well, meaning it was just a matter of time before it would break through.

Instead, the offense regressed some in each of the next pair of games. The first-team offense managed just three field goals in 11 possessions, prompting questions about how well they had adjusted to Linehan’s system and, once again, about how the team will execute in the red zone.

In spite of the numbers, though, Linehan remains confident in his offense being able to flip the switch this weekend and it won’t hurt that he will have his full complement of weapons available.

“Our lack of production has been points,” Linehan said. “We moved the ball with them and the only problem was scoring when we should have in the red zone and having a couple of turnovers at the end of the first half last week, which wasn’t indicative of how we played up until that point. Our average per play was good and all those things as far as execution of the plays we were running (looked good). So, you see it and say that it would be a lot of fun in a certain game to have Torry and Isaac in there, but that’s not the way it worked out. You do have to understand that they are going to be there on the 10th of September. There will be no holding starters out of that game, I can promise you that.”

Perhaps Linehan might be too optimistic, but if anyone knows from experience that a poor preseason showing doesn’t necessarily translate to the real thing, it’s Linehan.

As the offensive coordinator in Miami last year, Linehan’s Dolphins struggled to manage a first down, let alone a touchdown. Even Linehan began to wonder if his offense would gain any yards against the Broncos in their season opener.

The Broncos had dominated their preseason slate, winning comfortably in most of their contests. Alas, Linehan saw up close that preseason doesn’t carry over.

“I told you guys that we shouldn’t have won one (preseason) game last year in Miami and we beat Denver 34-10 in the opener,” Linehan said. “Denver was undefeated and beat everybody by an average of 21 points in the preseason. That doesn’t mean this year that that’s the way it’s going to be this year, but I’m just saying that preseason is really hard to judge as to how you’re going to play in the regular season…But I think we made progress. I’m really not concerned at all about it.”

In addition to some costly penalties that held the offense back, the Rams’ offense was pretty plain in most situations. Linehan didn’t want to show much of his hand to anybody in the preseason, choosing to take advantage of the fact that there will be little to no tape of the real offense or defense available to opponents when they play the first-year head coach’s team.

“It’s been pretty vanilla,” Linehan said. “I have to be honest with you. I wouldn’t categorize it. It’s the St. Louis Rams offense. You’ll see things that are progressive in nature. You’re going to see a lot of the same kind of approach, but we’re going to run the ball and we’re going to set up a lot of potential big plays with our ability to do that. The fact that we have the playmakers we do on the outside and the receiving corps, I think it’s a great compliment to the running game that we’re going to implement and our ability to adjust to throwing the ball when teams want to come up and stop the run. I think that’s going to be more of what you see from us rather than a certain style of offense.”

In four preseason games, the offense (starters and backups) managed 293.3 yards per game while the defense gave up 286.5. Offensively, the team posted an average of 4.6 yards per play and 70 first downs. Bulger was 17-of-30 for 215 yards with no touchdowns and an interception for a rating of 65.3.

Admittedly, Bulger and the rest of his offensive teammates are still adjusting to the new system being installed. That’s part of the reason for the struggles also and Bulger knows he still has plenty of work ahead of him.

“I think it’s going to be a learning curve,” Bulger said. “It could be a couple of years, hopefully it doesn’t take me that long but I have a good base. As long as I stick to my rules and stick to what he’s coaching me to do I think I’ll be fine.”

There is nary a team in the NFL without its share of question marks entering the season. The Rams have plenty of their own, especially with a new head coach and a new program in place. But Linehan is quick to remind everyone that the real answers to those questions won’t come until the real games begin.

“The big picture is, I think we’re as healthy as we could possibly ask to be, I think we’re in as good a condition as I’ve been around a team at this point,” Linehan said. “I think we’re on the right track and I feel very good about those things. Obviously, how we play, especially early in the year will show whether that’s true or not, but I would be surprised if we don’t come out and put on a good performance in the beginning of the year.”