First off, a confession: I didn't watch the Rams' fourth preseason game. I'm not one of those people that pooh-poohs the value of the preseason, but that last week is often a gruesome spectacle with few starters and little resemblance to actual football.
That said, we can perform a little archaeological dig through the remains before we seal the preseason up in its tomb. Some clear themes and takeaways emerged:
While showing progress, the Rams seem intent on shooting themselves in the foot.
Few teams have positioned themselves for dynamic growth like the Rams have this offseason, loading up with weapons on offense and defense, and building a young core on top of a veteran coaching staff that has already built its foundation here. They have been catching the eyes of many a national pundit, even predicted to finish ahead of the mighty 49ers by SI's Andy Benoit.
— Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit) August 28, 2013
If that pie-in-the-sky prediction is going to come through, the Rams will have to clean up their penchant for turnnovers and penalties.
Sam Bradford has played a mostly spotless preseason, but his skill players have been laying the ball on the turf. Isaiah Pead and Tavon Austin both fumbled in the span of five minutes last night. Brian Quick, who otherwise had a much-improved preseason, also lost a fumble this week and couldn't control a last-second, game-winning catch as he went to the ground last week.
Jeff Fisher's playmakers on defense have shown equal penchant for getting the ball away from the opposing offense, which could help build a decided edge in the turnover battle, but only if our offensive players take care of their own end.
The Rams finally have the talent in place to go 10-6 or better. But until they equal that talent with discipline, this is a .500 team.
If you have two backup QBs, you don't have any
The Rams have to be concerned with the lack of development of Austin Davis. Coming into preseason, the job of primary backup to Sam Bradford should have been his to lose. But Fisher believes strongly in the power of competition and earning your reps, and judging from Davis getting mop-up time behind Kellen Clemens in weeks 2 and 4, he hasn't done that.
More concerning to me than Davis' spotty accuracy (which is concerning) is his lack of recognition. Several times he has been noticeably stymied by defensive looks and shifts, forced to hold the ball and either take his punishment, or drop his eyes and take off running. Where last year he looked quicker and more instinctive, Davis now looks like a "see it, throw it" quarterback.
Meanwhile, to borrow a phrase from the disaffected youth of today, Clemens is what he is. A hard-nosed gamer who isn't very good. But at this point, he is probably still better than Davis.
Isaiah Pead is testing his coaches' resolve
Draft slots and in-born talent aside, Isaiah Pead has been thoroughly outplayed by lesser runners. Daryl Richardson beat him out for first position behind Steven Jackson last year by simply being more decisive and more determined through the hole. Now, undrafted rookie Benny Cunningham (built like a dump truck with ankles) is showing more creativity and ability in space, both as a runner and a returner.
The Rams' coaching staff has sounded committed to Pead — after all, they did invest a high round draft pick in him for a reason — but he has done little to earn that commitment. He may survive this weekend's cuts, but only because he won't count against the Week 1 roster thanks to his PED suspension.
Cunningham's 29-yard run off right end was a showcase run, but one can't help but wonder what if it had been Pead carrying that ball.
At the snap, the entire offensive line breaks hard to the left, with tight end Zach Potter pushing the Ravens' containment OLB well into the second level. Cunningham reads the play and immediately cuts back behind Potter's block and scampers untouched down the right sideline.
Now presumably, any running back could have gotten those yards, once you get into space. And the Isaiah Pead we saw on tape from Cincinnati had the strength, balance and finishing ability to potentially get past the deep safety that ended up pushing Cunningham out of bounds. If Pead is running, that might have been a score. But would Pead have made the same read at the start? And would he have been as decisive in his cutback away from his blockers? Evidence of either in a Rams uniform have been sorely lacking.
There is a worry that we have been overselling Cunningham, that he is another preseason marvel like Keith Toston or Benny Ogbonnaya. But if Pead cannot outwork him or outperform a lesser runner for the second preseason in a row, he gets farther and farther away from that Cincinnati game tape that justified a second-round pick.
Jeff Fisher's defensive projects are working
A former defensive back himself, Fisher has always drafted multiple DBs per year, every year he has been in the league. This year, though, two of them are playing at linebacker, and playing well. First rounder Alec Ogetree and UDFA Ray Ray Armstrong are both converted safeties, and both are opening eyes with their range and ball-hawking ability.
Ogletree has had an off-and-on preseason and is still a liability against the run, as Coach Venturi points out, but the light bulb came on in a big way against Denver last week.
— 101espn (@101espn) August 28, 2013
When you can intercept Peyton Manning, people take notice and Ogletree is now being called "one of the most impressive rookies of the preseason" by NFL.com. That might be a little heady for one good quarter of football, but you can see the potential is there.
Meanwhile, Armstrong is playing linebacker for the first time in his career this preseason, and looks to be well ahead of the learning curve. He will likely be the primary backup behind Will Witherspoon while Jo-Lonn Dunbar serves his four-game suspension, not just out of necessity but by virtue of his play so far.
Will the Rams keep Six WRs? Only if one isn't really a WR…
The final stat line wasn't kind to the three players jockeying for position among the presumptive sixth wideout spot. Combined, Nick Johnson, Justin Veltung and Emory Blake caught one of the seven passes thrown their way. Johnson did catch his for a touchdown, but there is a lot of speculation that the Rams' WR corps on the final 53 man roster will only be five deep.
Where one has a chance is in the return game, and that's Justin Veltung's spot to lose. While Tavon Austin's return role has been restricted to punts, only two players currently on the roster have impressed in kick returns – Veltung (28 yards per return) and Cunningham (34.5 yards per return). The less said about Pead's work there the better.
Personally, I prefer to have a dedicated return man even if he offers nothing else in the way of offense. Starting field position is a big determinant of points. Starting at or behind the twenty is a handicap that a capable return man can overcome.
However, the Rams' tight end picture also clouds this decision. Jared Cook is a hybrid who will be as important as any WR in this offense. But the blocking work of Cory Harkey and Zach Potter has been impressive, and could be necessary to our run-blocking hopes. Typically a team will keep 3 or 4 TEs and 6 WRs, but I could see Cook's role shifting that balance.
This may end up giving Cunningham the return job, which would not at all be a bad thing.