Rams Practice Observations: Aug 18 (morning)

One day after Marc Bulger’s announced pinky injury, I drove out to Rams Park for this morning’s session: a marathon 2 1/2 hour practice. My camera battery died halfway through, so I spent the latter half of the session watching and Twittering.

When I arrived, running backs were being put through blocking drills by Sylvester Croom, the former coach for Mississippi State and Alabama, who loves nothing more than pure smashmouth football. He emphasized starting hip and weight placement for pure power, and kept barking “eyes up!” as players came out of their blocks. Of the bunch, Karney was by far the best — and he was a welcome sight on the practice field after sitting out nearly two weeks with a sprained ankle.

The first session rotated all of the running backs, even the reluctant Steven Jackson. But as the whistle blew for new rotations, the fullbacks stayed behind for more work: Karney, James Johnson, and Samkon Gado. Apparently the team really wants to make something of his advertised versatility.

“He’s a smart football player. Guys that have the ability to play two positions are really, really valuable in this league. So we’ll keep cranking him. And I watch Sam, too, in every special-teams period taking a lot of reps. He’s a warrior out there. I have a lot of respect for Sam.”
Steve Spagnuolo, quoted by Bill Coats

Croom spent a lot of time with Gado, trying to coach him up — perhaps to the detriment of James Johnson, who really felt like a third wheel in the rotation. Of the three, Gado gets the least push, and took one nasty spill as he accidentally “chipped” the blocker instead of plowing into it. But the investment in him was obvious.

As I shifted my attention to the offensive drills, I noticed Jason Smith lined up with the first team offensive line, next to Incognito! Exciting stuff, until I noticed Adam Goldberg lined up at left tackle… wtf?

Turns out Coats was just posting an update: Barron was out with a “mysterious injury” that later became “swelling in the knee.” He missed the entire practice. The good news, the makeshift line — with John Greco starting at left guard in place of Jacob Bell — appeared to not miss a step. During these white-on-white offensive drills, the linemen were working in lockstep.

One thing I noticed, and apparently some posters on the P-D boards have noticed it as well, is that Jason Smith wears knee braces on both knees. The working hypothesis is that this is a preventative measure, not a sign that our 23-year-old pick has 35-year-old joints. Anyone have confirmation?

Kyle Boller, Dick Curl

As Rams QB coach Dick Curl looked on, the Rams shuffled pretty equally a rotation of Boller, Null, and Brock Berlin, who continues to play through a strained MCL. To be honest, he didn’t look half bad today, while Null had a rare off day in practice. Several times he appeared to be staring down Sean Walker, trying perhaps to rekindle the magic from their end-zone connection against the Jets, but misfiring. Boller also had several ugly deep throws, missing his targets badly. On one snap, Chris Draft flew in on a linebacker stunt, and Boller nearly crapped his pants, hurling the ball into the turf before he remembered that he had a red jersey on and couldn’t be hit.

At this point, my camera died, just as I was zooming in for a shot of Blues president John Davidson on the sidelines. He’s a big man … looks like he could suit up and give some of these youngsters a go on the blocking sled.

Next year, I’ll invest in some audio equipment … even though this was a non-tackling practice, the lines were really hitting in the trenches. Especially during a 4th-and-1 on a simulated drive, as Mike Karney bulled through the line. He was also utilized a couple of times as a target on screen passes — which Boller was at least accurate on, and displayed a nice touch as well. As you might expect, Hellboy turned immediately downfield, flying low and looking for someone to steamroll. He’s going to be a weapon.

Though he only worked with the second-team offense, Daniel Fells showed some of the softest hands on the field. The ball never makes a sound as he brings the ball in, and he seems to have a good rapport with both Berlin and Null on patterns. McMichael by comparison has sure hands, but noisier and it appears that more effort is required. Whether they were poor throws or not, McMichael also rarely gets yards after the catch, even in these types of drills. Often he finds the turf before he finds those additional yards.

The whistle blew again, and the team changed from 11-on-11 drills into some other sim work, and the first team offensive and defensive linemen moved to a secluded part of the field to work on one-on-one battles. Just as has been the story all camp, James Hall dominated in his individual drill, pasting John Greco with a swim move and making the coach standing in as quarterback run for his life!

Meanwhile, Chris Long looked gassed even against a second- or third-tier lineman like Philip Trautwein. He too often gets simply swallowed up. However, in the previous scrimmage, I did see him lined up between the tackle and the tight end — and from this vantage, he had the wheels to get pressure. I’m not sure if they were presenting a hybrid 3-4 look or if it was just a funky alignment, but it starts to seem as though they’re going to have to move Long away from the tackle in order to get anything out of him.

As the team moved back for yet another round of scrimmages, the defense had its back to my position, allowing me to watch the D-backs and receivers for a while. Unfortunately, this is when I saw a lot of poorly thrown deep balls, so it was hard to judge the effectiveness of the coverage. Justin King was targeted on one ball though that was a near mirror image of the sideline pattern that Marc Sanchez victimized him on. Again King was step-for-step with his man, but this time he got his head around as the ball came in. He didn’t necessarily get a hand on the ball, but it did fall harmlessly to the turf. Score it a “B”. On another play, camp hero Quincy Butler made a nice aggressive play, coming over the back of Sean Walker and getting two hands on an incoming pass to knock it away.

Butler will likely be the last and most painful name to be cut from the 53-man roster — I’m not sure the Rams have an opening for him, looking at ESPN’s projection of the likely opening day roster. But he has worked himself into a prominent position with the Rams, and will certainly be a practice squad player, and be the first man up in case of injury.

Finally, as an unexpected surprise, Donnie Avery walked out — in uniform, but not wearing pads or a helmet — and stood by as his teammate Keenan Burton worked punt return duty. Avery was not noticeably limping or favoring his foot — indeed, he wasn’t even wearing a protective boot. It could be that his injury is less serious than we thought. We can only hope.

Update from Nick Wagoner:

For the first time since suffering the injury, Avery is without a boot on his foot. Signs are pointing to a possible early return for Avery. “Donnie wants to go,” Spagnuolo said. “That’s Donnie. Keenan was the same way in the spring. I told those guys I’d rather have guys like that but we are just going to be smart.”