Jeff Fisher has a plan for the Rams, and it revolves around raw young players with unique athletic gifts. If you give these athletes lots of playing time, you hopefully accelerate their ability to reach their potential.
Three weeks into the preseason, we're seeing it happen with rookies Tavon Austin, Alec Ogletree, TJ McDonald, and a host of others. Just a week ago, we put Austin's skittering offensive debut under the microscope, and Ogletree was being targeted mercilessly by opposing quarterbacks for the second week in a row.
Tavon Austin this week: 116 total yards on three plays, and all but putting his first NFL points on the board with an 81-yard punt return that needed just one key block (by Ogletree) at the end.
Alec Ogletree this week: 6 tackles including 2 TFLs, a fumble forced, recovered and scored, and an interception off a Hall-of-Fame quarterback that set up a last-second field goal.
TJ McDonald this week: 3 tackles, a blocked field goal, and a (clean) hit that sent Demaryius Thomas to the sidelines.
It's worth noting that Fisher is not a young coach. He is not learning on the job, even while his players are. Putting a team this young on the field requires steadfast patience and a long view. But he may be getting returns much faster than anticipated.
Restarting a stunted growth process
Of course, rookies aren't the only young players that Fisher expects to show rapid growth. Sam Bradford, in his fourth year of the NFL, is finally having the kind of "sophomore year" showing that many expected from him back in 2011. Standing behind an offensive line bookended by Jake Long and Rodger Saffold, and working with the same base offense for two years in a row, is doing wonders to restart a growth process that had been stunted here in St Louis.
Statistically, Bradford did not have the kind of offensive day that his counterpart did: 9-16-110-1-0 vs Peyton Manning's 25-34-234-1-1 line. But when they both walked off the field at halftime, Bradford's team held the lead.
Digging into his performance, seven of Sam's nine completions went for a first down or a touchdown, and he made big plays happen when he needed to. Notably, facing a third and six at his own 28 yard line, Bradford had a running back come open in the flat, right in front of his face, and well in front of the sticks. It would have been an easy completion, and it would have very likely failed to get a first down. That was the throw that Old Sam, coached to always look for the safe play, would have thrown. Instead, the ball was fired over the middle to Chris Givens for 17 yards and a new set of downs.
It's only the preseason? Yes, as far as how coaches treat game-planning. But we can still look at foundational aspects of a player's play, and where a quarterback keeps his eyes is a foundational piece. This is manifested in the yards-per-attempt stat. (8 yards per attempt is the bar for a quality NFL starter, a bar that Bradford has been well under.)
2010 (preseason / regular season): 6.1 / 6.0 YPA
2011 (preseason / regular season): 7.6 / 6.1 YPA
2012 (preseaon / regular season): 7.8 / 6.7 YPA
2013 preseason, so far: 10.2 YPA.
Even on short passes, his footwork is so much cleaner and calmer. Check out this GIF of his touchdown throw (h/t @Daniel_Doelling) to Jared Cook in the first quarter.
Honestly, this shouldn't be remarkable. This is what a veteran NFL quarterback is SUPPOSED to look like, given a golden scoring opportunity. But then you remember. This is Sam Bradford, and these are the Rams, and it has been a decade since we had an offensive foundation capable of making a play look this easy.
(If you want a reminder of those facts, fast forward to the Rams' next drive, which stalled out when Austin Pettis couldn't manage more than a three-inch vertical leap at the goal line.)
Bradford also took advantage of another golden opportunity at the end of the half. With time enough for only a handful of plays, Bradford found Cook for 22 yards and Pettis for 15 more to get Greg Zuerlein into scoring position. He kicked a 58-yarder with a second left on the clock.
Moreover, the pass to Cook erased a 7-yard loss on a sack. The pass to Pettis erased a 5-yard loss on an illegal formation penalty. When you talk about "quarterbacks making their teams better," this is an example of how it's done.
I had to rely on game radio for the second and third quarters, so my immediate observations will be a little more limited than normal. But I did come away with a few concrete impressions:
– Not a perfect day by far for the Rams OL, but Rodger Saffold had a quiet day at right tackle, and that's a very good thing.
– Chris Williams is reportedly ahead of Shelley Smith in the left guard position battle, but it isn't for his run blocking. He had a comically bad attempt at pulling out and getting to the second level in the first quarter.
– That said, I'll take a solid pass protecting OL ahead of a great run-blocking OL any day.
– Speaking of position battles, Rodney McLeod did well with his opportunity at starting safety today, with Darian Stewart out. He looked very good in coverage, and delivered a few noteworthy thumps.
– I didn't get to see them play, but there appeared to be very little positive to say about our backup offensive line. Depth will be a real problem, on the line and at quarterback. That's the kind of depth every fan hopes will never be exposed.
– Demaryius Thomas provides a sneak preview of the player that Brian Quick might become. It's noteworthy that the Broncos are able to line him up in the slot as well as on the boundary. Running crossing routes with a guy that big is just unfair to opposing defenses.
– Robert Quinn didn't tally a sack, but he gave Ryan Clady fits all night. A more attentive referee crew could have called Clady for "partial beheading" on at least one blatantly held pass rush.
– Undrafted rookie Darren Woodard might have leapfrogged fellow hopefuls like Robert Steeples tonight, showing up on the stat sheet with 3 passes defensed and a well-earned interception in which he read the Denver receiver's route and physically boxed him out to get to the ball.
– The Rams' speed on defense neutralized the stretch running play as well as I've ever seen. However, they continue to give up big running plays up the middle. Here's hoping that Kendall Langford has another gear that has yet to kick in this preseason. He got manhandled up front.
– I continue to be a little chafed at the rigidity of the Rams' receiver rotation so far. I see very little reason why Brian Quick and Stedman Bailey should not get time with the first team offense, and against first team defenses. Both have shown playmaking ability, and could use real reps with Sam. But then again, coaches have their reasons for doing things (see Pead, Isaiah in week 2) and may be motivational at root.
– Ray Ray Armstrong is going to have his own cheering section in St Louis before long (yay-yay ray-ray all day-day!), if he keeps making plays like he has been doing.
– 11 penalties called against the Rams, none more damaging than the 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct against Ty Nsheke and Al Lapuaho on back to back plays to push them back from the Broncos' 7 to the 37. Good way to get cut.
– Cory Harkey limped off the field and did not return. Quietly, he has become a very important contributor this preseason, with his blocking and surprising catching ability. Fair to call him a poor man's Delanie Walker. Hopefully he will return unscathed.
– It was awful classy of Jeff Fisher to give playing time to 4th string quarterback Tim Jenkins in front of his hometown fans. He completed his only pass of the night for a first down to Brian Quick, and exited with a 95.8 passer rating. And with the way Austin Davis and Kellen Clemens have been playing, hey, why not give someone else a look?
– By all that's holy, Benny Cunningham should see his name ahead of Isaiah Pead's on the depth chart. Cunningham cuts without fear, and is not afraid of contact. Zac Stacy also impressed on a couple of runs, merely by showing "push-the-pile" ability. There will be few wide-open holes for Rams RBs this year. Toughness will be a necessity.
Watching a HOFer at work
Sighted at the end of a meaningless preseason game, in a pouring rainstorm: Peyton Manning warming up on the sideline as though he was getting ready to go back in. Greg Gumbel pointed out the throwing glove on Manning's right hand — he was using the slippery conditions to break in the glove, taking snaps from his center and zipping the ball to an assistant.
As Chris Brown points out in an excellent article for Grantland, this incessant drive to gain knowledge, to always be looking for a way to get an edge, is how a very good quarterback, even a great quarterback, achieves the highest plateau of performance.
It all starts by learning how to avoid mistakes. Mistakes can be caused by bad weather or unfamiliar equipment, or by a new wrinkle in a defensive look, or by underestimating an opponent, but with enough work they are all preventable.
We have chided Bradford for his "safe" play in the past, but his drive as a quarterback has a similar quality. He has done his best to minimize mistakes, whether his own or his receivers. When all he had to work with was Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola, his ball placement was often low and/or behind, and away from his receivers' frame, where only they could get their hands on it. This often killed opportunities for yards after catch, but it also gave him a chance to make a positive play.
The net results so far have been far from great, but Bradford is in position to reset a lot of expectations this season. If he extends his play from this preseason, bundling big plays with mistake-free decision-making, he can reinsert himself in the up-and-coming-quarterbacks conversation. Meanwhile, Manning is still showing them all how it's done.