Running on Empty
By Howard Balzer
Thursday, November 06, 2008
It was a somewhat surreal day on the Rams' practice field Wednesday. Beginning preparations to play the Jets Sunday, running back Steven Jackson was inside getting treatment on an injured quad. Backup Antonio Pittman was running on the side, and insisting he can play this week despite a bad hamstring. Travis Minor was watching after failing a neuropsych baseline test Tuesday after suffering a concussion Sunday against Arizona. He will be tested again Friday.
On the field, Kenneth Darby, in his 10th practice with the team, took many of the snaps with the first team. Samkon Gado, in his first practice, was the backup. Coach Jim Haslett and offensive coordinator Al Saunders are simply dealing with the hand they have been dealt, and trying to make the best of it.
Haslett said earlier in the week that Jackson would have to participate in at last one practice this week at full speed to be able to play Sunday. Asked what the game plan is for the running game, Haslett said, “I’m thinking right now that Darby and Sam are our two running backs. And then if the other three miraculously come around and play then we’ll be better for it. That’s how I’m going into it.”
As for how successful he expects to be running the ball, Haslett said, “We’re going to try to move the ball; we can only go with what we have. It’ll be a great challenge for us, it really will. Our line is going to have to play well, our fullback has to play well, our receivers are going to have to block inside people on plays. We’re going to try to give it the best we can and hopefully the running backs are good enough and they hold up and we gain some yards.”
Making things even more difficult is that the Jets are fourth in the league in rushing yards allowed and average per attempt (3.1). Manning the middle is massive nose tackle Kris Jenkins, who Haslett said is "probably one of the most dominant guys in the league right now. The guy is an unbelievable force. Two, three guys can’t block him, he stays in on passing situations, he’s quick, he’s powerful, to me he’s one of the best players in the league right now that I’ve seen.”
Quarterback Marc Bulger agreed, saying, "He could be the defensive player of the year. He is that good right now, he is dominating guys."
Commenting on the rest of the defense, Bulger said, "They’re young outside, but the kid that played at Pitt (cornerback Darrelle Revis), he’s been playing awesome. The 3-4 scheme presents problems for us. They are sound and they don’t make many mistakes. They’re a solid defense.”
Of course, Bulger knows being able to run the ball is necessary to develop consistency with the offense. With the inexperienced runners, Bulger said, “You have to simplify it for our young guys, but at the same time you can’t go too simple because we don’t know if they’re going to put eight guys in the box (doubtful), we don’t know if they are just going to say, ‘Hey, they have young guys at running back, we’ll play Cover Two and stop the run and be able to stop the pass.’ There’s a lot of things you have to be ready for.
"I think with Steven back there, you know that it’s going to be eight in the box, pretty much every week. With one of these guys, like I said, we’re not sure, so it’s going to put a lot of responsibility on our line. If we can get our running game going, you can dictate the defense a little bit, but it’s going to be up to us to prove that we can get more than two yards a carry against them.”
Jenkins is scary to watch on tape. There are instances where he simply manhandles opponents and virtually throws players to the ground. One Rams insider said, "(Brett) Romberg better be ready to play because Jenkins might break Nick (Leckey) in half."
Leckey, the Rams' undersized starting center knows he has his work cut out for him against Jenkins. Said Leckey, “It is paramount for me just to be able to get the job done because he is playing well. He is getting off the ball. He is penetrating, he is slanting and angling and stuff like that. He is doing some great things for sure.”
Asked if having a low center of gravity might help, Leckey said, “I think it is important to get those first two steps into the ground and if you are lower than him, you do have a better chance of blocking him.”
Good luck, Nick, and double check your health insurance.
WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
The Rams' two newest running backs have interesting stories in how they arrived in St. Louis.
Darby joined the team from the Falcons' practice squad Oct. 14 and entered the league as a seventh-round pick with Tampa Bay in 2007. The third leading rusher in Alabama history, Darby had an excellent junior season, but a slight knee injury his senior year along with the death of his 59-year-old father from cancer, made it a tough year.
"I just wasn't focused on football," he admitted. "I would go back and forth to be with him (in Huntsville) and then he passed during the season. Now, I feel he is looking over me. I have always had faith that my time would come sooner or later. I'm looking forward to the opportunity if it comes."
Darby has a tattoo on his right arm that says, "Like father, like son."
Asked if he thinks Darby can handle Jackson’s work load, Haslett said, “I don’t know, I haven’t seen him in a game situation; he's looked good in practice. He runs lows to the ground; he’s got powerful legs, smart. I think this is a good opportunity for him. But, he’s not going to carry Steven’s load, I mean, we’ll find out. We’re going up against the No. 4 run defense in the NFL, so this will be a great challenge for him.”
Said quarterback Marc Bulger, “He’s only been here a couple of weeks, but he’s really quick, explosive. From what I have heard from coach Haslett and everyone, he can play. Whoever goes this week, we think we have capable guys. It’s going to put a lot of pressure on our line to make those holes, but I think they are definitely capable.”
Gado was out of football all year after the Dolphins elected not to tender him as an exclusive rights free agent in February. He worked out six days a week, had spring tryouts with New England and the Giants, but was still hoping for a call from a team. Gado was getting ready to send out applications for medical school and he had started a job Monday as a patient care assistant in the emergency room at Providence Hospital in Columbia, S.C.
That night, the call came from the Rams to come to St. Louis for a tryout. He credits offensive coordinator Al Saunders for the opportunity since Gado started out as a rookie free agent with the Chiefs in 2005 where Saunders was the offensive coordinator.
Said Gado, "I talked to him in the summer and told him that I was trying to find a team. He told me to stay on him and if something opened up, he would be sure to give me a call. Sure enough he did.”
Being with Saunders before helped, as did being with Miami last season where Cam Cameron's offense has the same language with the offensive system.
Asked if he is ready to play after having no offseason program or training camp, Gado said, “I would not be here if I didn’t think I could. You have to be ready when your number is called. If you knew how hard I worked, I think you would think that I am ready to play. I am very confident that I am.”
Said Haslett, “He’ll have to be ready. If he gets in the game, we’ll make sure we run things that he knows. He had a few problems (in practice), the guy just got here last night and had a two-hour meeting last night and a two-hour meeting this morning and you're going to go out and run everything. The problem is going to be the shifts and the motions when he’s in there. He’s not really sure of all that yet, but he’s a smart kid, he’s very, very intelligent and he works hard.”
RESPONDING TO ADVERSITY
Haslett is curious to see how his team handles the adversity of two straight losses after winning the first two games after taking over for Scott Linehan.
Said Haslett, "We're in a situation right now where we just lost two games in a row, we're going on the road to play a good football team, with maybe the best quarterback that ever played the game. You're down, you're injured, you've got a bunch of nicks and bruises, and who the heck knows who's going to play. ... This should be a great challenge for us to see if we go up and respond.
"We're not going to change our approach. The most important thing is that we go try to get a win this week. ... I don't think you can look ahead, you've just got to take it one game at a time. It changes every week. Your personnel changes, the game changes, the situation changes every week. It's just how you handle it."
HILL TO GET SECOND OPINION
Last week, it appeared cornerback Tye Hill was ready to play again, although if he had he would have been the team's fifth cornerback. He also would have had to play on special teams.
As it turned out, Hill was inactive, but he also told reporters his knee had to be drained Sunday morning after admitting to feeling discomfort last week when he returned to practice after dealing with a knee injury.
Hill said he will go to Alabama next week to get a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews. "I've never dealt with a knee injury before," Hill said. "I thought I was going to be OK last week, but it's been a hassle ever since. I couldn't run Sunday and I can't run now."
*On Oct. 21, 2001, the Rams went to New Jersey to play the Jets with running back Marshall Faulk unable to play. Backup Trung Canidate rushed for 195 yards and two touchdowns in the victory.
*Defensive end Eric Moore suffered a strained neck against Arizona and did not practice Wednesday. There is still a chance he could be available to play this week against the Jets.
*Wide receiver Derek Stanley has a minor ankle injury and was limited in practice Wednesday. He is expected to be available for Sunday's game against the Jets. The plan is for Stanley to return kickoffs and punts. Wide receiver Donnie Avery and cornerback Jonathan Wade have also worked returning kickoffs.
*Safety Todd Johnson was back at practice after missing two games because of a bruised kidney. He will be back on the four main special teams units.
Bulger when asked what it's like meeting the new running backs: “It’s not different than anything else. You go into your meeting this morning, a couple of the guys happened to be in Trent (Green) and my seats. So we introduced ourselves and said, ‘OK, you guys are three rows back.’"