By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Saturday, Aug. 19 2006

Preseason football games are often categorized as dress rehearsals for the real
thing. For the Rams, tonight's exhibition game against visiting Houston takes
that premise a step further.

It will truly be a dress rehearsal for the Sept. 10 regular-season opener
against Denver. Gary Kubiak, the Texans' new head coach, is a Mike Shanahan
protégé who spent the previous 11 seasons as Shanahan's offensive coordinator
in Denver.

A lot of the things that Denver likes to do, particularly on offense, are being
installed by Kubiak in Houston. So much so that some at Rams Park have taken to
calling Kubiak "Shanahan II."

So tonight's kickoff at 7 will serve as a useful dry run for the Broncos three
weeks hence.

"Yeah, we've talked about that," Rams coach Scott Linehan said.

Linehan expects Kubiak and the Texans -- in true Denver style -- to expose
little of their playbook tonight in the Edward Jones Dome.

"It's going to be pretty vanilla," Linehan said. "But it will be pretty much
the same system (as Denver), which will be good to see how we respond to it."

For coordinator Jim Haslett and the Rams' defense, it means plenty of running
plays to defend. Even with John Elway as the triggerman on the Super Bowl teams
of the late 1990s, the Broncos always have had a strong running attack under
Shanahan.

Despite resting top running back Domanick Davis (knee), Houston had a
Denver-like rushing performance last week in its exhibition opener against
Kansas City. The Texans gained 173 yards on 41 carries in a 24-14 victory over
the Chiefs.

"So this will be a good test for us to see if we can stop the run," Haslett
said. "It also gives us a good test because it's the same type of offense we're
going to play when we play Denver."

In terms of run defense, the Rams certainly got off to a good start against
Indianapolis last week. The Colts managed only 38 yards on 16 carries. It was
the lowest rushing total allowed by the Rams in exhibition play since the
franchise moved to St. Louis in 1995 -- a span of 46 exhibition games.

But it's hard to read too much into exhibition play, particularly just one game.

"Preseason can only go so far," defensive end Leonard Little said. "We're only
playing a limited number of plays. We're not playing the whole game. So we'll
see. If we can start off that way against Denver and do well, then we'll have a
little identity about us on our defense."

Perhaps because of the Denver parallels, Linehan seems to be taking this game
very seriously. Friday's walk-through was closed to the media, and Linehan and
Rams players basically were off-limits to the media. Such an approach is
standard throughout the NFL in the regular season, but it had never happened
before in St. Louis before a Rams exhibition game.

On Thursday, Linehan even closed what was supposed to be the Rams' final open
practice of training camp. (Reporters were allowed to watch, but not fans.) Why
the fan lockout?

"We're doing all our game-plan-type plays," Linehan said Wednesday. "We're
actually going to be going through our opening script, so I don't want
(Kubiak's) best friend who lives in St. Charles to come over and watch
practice. He would never do that, though."

Linehan has even greater incentive to do well against Houston, because the
Texans opted for Kubiak over Linehan as head coach after firing Dom Capers.
Linehan also interviewed for the Texans job in January.

No matter what the surrounding circumstances, after a surprisingly efficient
performance against Indianapolis in the exhibition opener, Linehan is looking
for more of the same against Houston.

"I don't want us to all suddenly think we've got it figured out," Linehan said.
"I think every day we do this we want to improve in some way, but continue to
handle the little things well, the details of the game. The game management
situations, whether it be a coach or a player. How we tackle. How we secure the
ball. All the things that we talk about, that you hear me till I'm blue in the
face talk about."

Of course, one of the primary goals of this, or any other, exhibition game is
player evaluation. The first round of roster cuts is little more than a week
away.

Linehan plans to play his starters longer tonight, perhaps into the second
quarter. But as many as eight Rams, including Pro Bowlers Orlando Pace and
Leonard Little, could be sidelined because of injuries.

"We don't want to put anybody in harm's way if they're not healthy enough to
play a game," Linehan said.