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    What to Watch: Answered

    Saturday, August 11, 2007

    By Nick Wagoner
    Senior Writer

    What to Watch Answered

    1. Health Matters

    THE SITUATION: The most important part of any preseason game is, as always, coming out of the game as close to as healthy as a team was before it. Heading into the preseason opener against Minnesota, the Rams are relatively healthy.

    Aside from common hamstring and soreness issues that are the norm for a training camp, the Rams have made it through with only a couple of injuries that have affected any players of note.

    The players returning from injury or surgery – center Andy McCollum, left tackle Orlando Pace, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa and receiver Torry Holt – all seem to be fine and working in and out of the lineup intermittently as they regain strength.

    With the continued health of the starters the top priority, don’t expect to see much of the likes of Marc Bulger, Steven Jackson and Isaac Bruce against the Vikings. And players such as Pace and Holt might not play at all.

    “Certain players, maybe based on experience, will get a few more plays this series regardless of what group they are with,” coach Scott Linehan said. “But for the most part it will be similar to last year. I think our twos will work a little more into the second quarter through maybe the first half. We haven’t decided yet for sure. Our third groups will primarily work the second half.”

    ANSWER: All of the starters got a little bit of extended work as Bulger, Holt, Bruce and Pace along with most of the rest of the top offensive unit stayed on the field for a pair of possessions in the first quarter. Only Jackson was limited to just one series in which he had a pair of catches out of the backfield. The entire group on defense played the majority of the first quarter with only starting defensive tackle La’Roi Glover not making an appearance as he recovers from an ailing hip pointer. The rest of the squad came out of the game relatively healthy with only receiver Dominique Thompson suffering some broken ribs that will keep him out a few weeks.

    2. Many Happy Returners

    THE SITUATION: The status of returner/receiver Dante Hall remains in question heading into Minnesota. Hall has been battling an injured hamstring that has slowed him at practice in recent days.

    Hall has been back on the field and taking more repetitions as his condition improves, but Linehan is unsure of whether he will play. More than likely, the Rams won’t want to take any chances with Hall. But Hall has emphasized the need to get his timing with his new teammates so it’s possible he will return a kick or two.

    After that, though, Linehan will almost certainly turn the return duties over to a pair of receivers. Rookie Derek Stanley and second-year receiver Marques Hagans will handle all of the return duties after Hall exits (if he plays at all).

    That battle could have an interesting affect on the battle for the sixth receiver spot (read on) as Hagans and Stanley do their best to improve their standing with solid return efforts.

    ANSWER: Hall indeed did not play against the Vikings and Hagans and Stanley made the most of the opportunities they were given in his place. Hagans, in particular, was excellent on his return opportunities. He took his lone punt return chance back 25 yards with a nice burst up the middle and followed with a 30-yard kick return. Stanley made a strong impression on the receiving end and added a punt return for 11 yards and two kick returns for 41 yards.

    3. The Third Back

    THE SITUATION: One of the more intriguing competitions developing in this year’s training camp is the battle for the third running back spot behind starter Jackson and rookie Brian Leonard.

    While Jackson isn’t likely to get too many touches or opportunities at all against the Vikings and Leonard will get his fair share of opportunities, Friday’s game will be the first real opportunity for someone to emerge among the trio of backs competing for the third and likely final tailback spot on the roster.

    The first candidate is veteran Travis Minor.

    “I had Travis for a year in Miami,” Linehan said. “He is a guy who has been a starting tailback. In ’03 he started nine or ten games for Miami. So, he has started in this league and was very productive. He was a great college player and is an excellent special teams player. What he brings to the table is to start some snaps and play a role and also be really good on special teams.”

    Rich Alexis, who has turned some heads in training camp, will also get an opportunity.

    “I think the deal with Rich is that he is a young guy who has never really been in a position to have a lot of carries,” Linehan said. “He has the best opportunity to do something he has never been able to do and that is show what he can do in the preseason. He’ll get a number of snaps to compete for that spot too and also show that he can be a special teamer.”

    The final combatant is Kay Jay Harris, who spent time on the field with the Rams last year and proved to be a solid contributor on special teams and a solid running option as well.

    “Kay Jay has been here and has played some games for us on special teams and at tailback,” Linehan said. “He will be in the mix.”

    All three of those backs should get plenty of touches and opportunities to prove themselves. But the battle won’t come to an end until after the final preseason game against Kansas City.

    “We will make that assessment after we play these four games,” Linehan said.

    Friday night’s game will be the first chance for those guys to make an impression and could go a long way in determining the final outcome.

    ANSWER: None of the three backs behind Leonard made much of an impact in terms of running the ball. Minor had three carries for 7 yards with a long gain of 4. Alexis, who got the first opportunity behind Leonard, had five carries for 12 yards with a long of 5. Harris was probably the best of the second batch of backs, carrying three times for 25 yards with an impressive 17-yard scamper that was the longest of the night.

    4. Q School

    THE SITUATION: Certainly, the preseason is a time for the coaches and scouts to evaluate all of the roster and for players to make their case for a roster spot. Generally, the most heated competition comes down to battling for spots 46-53 on the roster or there about.

    One player making a lot of noise in training camp who figures to have watchful eyes on him during the preseason opener and the games to follow is linebacker Quinton Culberson. As fellow linebackers Tim McGarigle, Chris Draft and Jon Alston have missed time in camp for a variety of ailments, Culberson has taken advantage of the many opportunities it has created for him.

    “Culberson is a guy who we had really good grades on and thought he was a really good player in college,” Linehan said. “He was a guy who ended up at linebacker, but started at a few different positions and grew into the linebacker spot. He has great instincts and a lot of natural talent to play the position. I think the best thing we can do for him is leave him at one for a while and let him get comfortable and see how he does in games.”

    Watch for Culberson to get a lot of playing time soon after the starters come off the field and get every possible chance to state his case.

    ANSWER: In unofficial pressbox statistics Culberson posted three stops but had a solid overall performance. Culberson seemed to be around the ball a lot, including a nice pass breakup and was effective at busting the wedge on special teams. He was on the field for a long time, too, with Tim McGarigle out and did his best to make a case for a roster spot.

    5. Receiving a Chance

    THE SITUATION: Much like the battle for the third running back spot, it’s pretty obvious what it will come down to for a potential sixth receiver position on the depth chart.

    The aforementioned Hagans certainly figures into the mix and will get as many opportunities receiving as returning against the Vikings.

    “I think Marques is definitely one of the guys that has really improved from where he was a year ago,” Linehan said. “It was a new position for him last year, coming in being a college quarterback and we were putting a lot of emphasis on him being a returner and playing some receiver. Now he has had an excellent offseason and he’s going to be competing for a roster spot.”

    The other top contender for that spot is Dominique Thompson, who has spent the past two years on the practice squad, patiently awaiting his chance and learning from fellow receivers and coach Henry Ellard.

    “Dominique is one of those guys who, from when he came here to where we had him last year, my exposure to him is that he has really improved,” Linehan said. “He now wants to get onto the field and be an active player. He doesn’t see himself as a practice squad player, a guy who is being developed, but a guy who can make the active roster and be a guy who can play in this league. Preseason is huge for him.”

    Stanley is also in the mix for that spot, but hasn’t showed the receiving skills of Hagans or Thompson.

    Rest assured, there will be plenty of chances for all to make their case starting against Minnesota.

    ANSWER: Heading into the contest, it seemed that Thompson and Hagans had the inside track on a possible sixth receiver spot with a litany of other candidates on the outside looking in. But Stanley made a strong case for himself with one of the best performances by any player in Friday’s game. Stanley had four grabs for 61 yards and would have had a touchdown if not for a misjudged call by the officials. Hagans made a big 16-yard grab to set up the game winning field goal and finished with two catches for 25 yards. Thompson suffered some bruised ribs on a hard hit as he took a reverse around end for a gain of 9. He added one catch for 3 yards.

  2. #2
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    Re: What to Watch: Answered

    Nice summation

    GO RAMS!!

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