Reviewing the Rams preseason
By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
Saturday, Sep. 04 2004

So what do we make of another summer of Rams exhibition football - and a 1-3
summer at that?

The Rams played terribly against Kansas City but superbly against Washington.
They lost fourth-quarter leads against Chicago and Oakland - by that time using
many players who won't be on the team once the final cuts are made Sunday.

By Halloween, you'll be hard-pressed to remember the scores. By Thanksgiving,
you'll have trouble remembering the opponents. And that's OK, because summer
success often has little to do with actual success in the NFL.

In 1996, the Rams went 3-1, still their best exhibition record since the move
to St. Louis. But the regular-season ledger was 6-10 and coach Rich Brooks was
fired.

In 2003, the Rams went 1-3 in exhibition play, yet finished 12-4 in the regular
season, won the NFC West title, and came within a whisker of their third NFC
championship game appearance in five seasons.

But while you can't overreact to what happens in the preseason, you can't
ignore it either. With that in mind, a look at the Rams' boys of summer, 2004:

Offense

While the passing game garners most of the attention, the Rams always have been
very effective running the ball under Mike Martz. Until last year, that is,
when the team plummeted to 30th in rushing offense and 28th in yards per carry.

As a result, Martz said improving the running game, "was a big deal to me in
the offseason. We need to run the football. . . . We have to get back to doing
some of the things that are basic to this offense. And some of that's coaching
- there's no question about it. Making yourself do it."

Who knows if Martz will continue to emphasize the running game during the
regular season. But there's no doubting he did so in the exhibition season. The
Rams finished exhibition play with 480 yards rushing, their highest total since
the move to St. Louis in 1995. Rookie Steven Jackson finished as the NFL's
exhibition rushing "champion," gaining 323 yards on 66 carries.

"Running the football, we made a big emphasis of that in the last few games as
you could see," Martz said. "Regardless of who was in the game, we wanted to
run the football. I think it sets a mentality for the offensive line and the
backs. A toughness."

In the passing game, the Rams spent a lot of time developing the depth behind
starting wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. Kevin Curtis, Mike Furrey,
Dane Looker and Shaun McDonald caught between eight and 10 passes in exhibition
play - and all had their moments.

"I just feel confident that our guys on the perimeter will throw and catch
well," Martz said.

Quarterback Marc Bulger had a rough outing against Kansas City, and he threw a
few terrible passes against Washington. But he closed strong against the
Redskins, and he looked razor sharp in his only series against Oakland.

"He sees things, he's reacting right, he's moving in the pocket and he's under
control," Martz said.

The offensive line improved as a unit over the course of the exhibition season
despite the losses of center Dave Wohlabaugh (hip) and right tackle Kyle Turley
(back), and the continued absence of left tackle Orlando Pace (contract
stalemate).

Obviously, the Rams are a better team with Pace on the field. But they're not
bad without him, and are ready to move on, with or without him.

"It's at the point where we'd love to see Orlando, but the season's starting,"
tackle Grant Williams said. "We can't be wondering and just waiting. We've got
to go on. When he comes in, great. And if he doesn't, game-plan and get ready
to play."


Defense

It's hard to get a read on the defense of new coordinator Larry Marmie. They
were decidedly vanilla in exhibition games - and not just for strategic
reasons.

"That's basically what our plan was for most of the preseason," Marmie said.
"Just to play our base stuff. And hopefully execute well and tackle well, and
do the fundamental things."

For the most part, the Rams stayed in one or two basic defenses, and rarely
blitzed. The idea was to see who could cover, who could rush the passer, etc.

"Let our guys plays football, see who could get off of blocks and make
tackles," Marmie said. "We certainly didn't game-plan these teams."

In the process, the Rams exposed very little to regular-season opponents.

"Hopefully, we'll have a few things that we haven't shown in preseason," Marmie
said in understatement.

Nonetheless, there were a few disturbing trends in the preseason.

For one, the opposing team scored on its first possession in all four
exhibition games.

"We've talked about that," Marmie said. "Obviously, we've got to do more than
talk about it."

The Rams also came up with only one turnover - a forced fumble against
Washington - after leading the league with 46 takeaways last season.

There's also the matter of giving up those late touchdowns against Chicago and
Oakland. The Oakland TD came on a busted coverage on fourth and 4 from the
Rams' 10 with 38 seconds to play.

"We were in man coverage, and obviously, we dropped coverage on the receiver,"
Martz said.

Kevin Garrett got caught up in traffic trying to follow Oakland receiver Alvis
Whitted, who caught the winning touchdown pass, across the field.

There were too many missed tackles against the Raiders, some of which kept
drives alive.

"There were a couple plays where when you put on the film and you look at it,
you're going to say, 'Here's where we had a chance to get out of the drive,'"
Marmie said after the game. "We didn't make that happen. So that's something we
have to get corrected, and we have to learn from. We've got to get better at
it."


Special teams

Place-kicker Jeff Wilkins and punter Sean Landeta had solid exhibition seasons
and are ready to roll. McDonald flashed play-making potential on punt returns,
far more than his 4.1-yard average would indicate. Furrey looked better on
kickoff returns than Arlen Harris. Eventually, Lamar Gordon could get a look
there as well.

The punt coverage team was excellent, not allowing a return of more than 11
yards. But the kickoff-coverage unit sprang some leaks against Oakland, and was
gashed for the 87-yard return by Chicago's Ahmad Merritt in overtime.