By November, most fans will be hard-pressed to remember the Rams’ won-lost record in the preseason, much less name their four opponents. If anyone can recite the final scores of those games by Thanksgiving, well, that would be a little scary.
It’s always tricky to decipher the meaning of a particular preseason. Sometimes trends — good or bad — carry into the regular season. Sometimes they don’t. That’s the way it is with August football.
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So as the Rams gear up for Sunday’s season opener, against visiting Arizona, what do we take away from their 1-3 exhibition record? A relatively low number of injuries, too many penalties, fumbling issues for the regulars and signs of improvement by quarterback Sam Bradford, among other things:
The No. 1 goal of any training camp and preseason always has been staying healthy. When it comes to frontline players —that is, starters or key reserves — the Rams made it to the regular season in good shape. In fact, they could enter the season with all projected 22 starters ready to go.
At right tackle, Rodger Saffold missed only one exhibition game after suffering a dislocated shoulder in the opener. All told, he participated in only 33 preseason plays at his new position, which would be the equivalent of about half of a game. But he appears to have a decent comfort level with making the switch from left tackle, and playing with a brace on the shoulder.
At safety, Darian Stewart missed the final two exhibition games because of a hamstring injury — an ailment that has plagued him before during his time with the Rams. His status is uncertain for the opener, but he might be replaced anyway in the starting lineup by Rodney McLeod.
The No. 3 tight end, Cory Harkey, will miss the first few games of the season because of a slight fracture in the knee area. But Lance Kendricks appears ready to go after missing all of the preseason during his recovery and rehab from offseason knee surgery.
No. 3 defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo returned in the preseason finale after missing almost all of camp because of a foot injury that cropped up in late spring.
If there’s one thing that left coach Jeff Fisher fuming this preseason, it was penalties: There were 43 of them for 294 yards in four games. That’s an average of nearly 11 penalties for 74 yards a game, a rate that might cost the team a victory or two over the course of a 16-game regular season. And those totals don’t include seven penalties, for 55 yards, that were declined.
There were 17 penalties for 123 yards in the Baltimore game alone. Earlier in the preseason, Fisher had the team run wind sprints as a “reward” for having too many penalties. There was a “candid” discussion at halftime of the Baltimore game that had a lot to do with penalties.
Even so, Fisher thinks the penalties will decline now that the 53-man roster has been established and the regular season is here.
“Most of the penalties, as I mentioned after the (Baltimore) game, were fouls committed by players that are either not on the roster, or that are probably going to be inactive (on game day),’’ he said. “We had very few penalties in the game (Thursday) by players that are going to play for us.”
To a large degree, he was right. Only seven of the 17 penalties, and 45 of the 123 penalty yards, were assessed against players on the 53-man roster.
Throughout the preseason, the number of pre-snap and post-play penalties was disconcerting. On offense, there were 14 flags for a false start, illegal formation or delay of game. On defense, seven penalties for encroachment, neutral zone infraction, or too many men on the field.
In terms of post-play flags, there were three penalties on either the offense or special teams for unnecessary roughness or taunting. Nearly half of the penalties in the pre-snap/post-play category were committed by starters, rotation players or core special teams performers.
The Rams had five fumbles and four lost fumbles during the preseason, which over the course of a 16-game schedule translates into 20 fumbles and 16 lost fumbles. That’s too many.
“Yeah. Isaiah (Pead)’s got a couple on the ground,” Fisher said. “He’s going to have to get that corrected. . . .Hopefully we’ll get it behind him, but I’m not going to be hesitant to play him because he’s put two balls on the ground in preseason.”
One of Pead’s fumbles came on a carry from scrimmage against Cleveland; the other, on a kickoff return against Baltimore which the Rams recovered.
Bradford was charged with a lost fumble on a botched center exchange against Green Bay. Wide receivers Tavon Austin and Brian Quick lost a fumble each after making a catch against the Ravens.
Obviously, all of these players will be active on game day, and all were first or second-round draft picks.
If you combine the playing time of the three exhibition games for Bradford, it adds up to 65 snaps, roughly the equivalent of one full game. His totals for that “game” —22 completions in 36 attempts for 368 yards, two touchdowns, a 61.1 percent completion rate and a passer rating of 114.1. All in all, that would be a pretty good day’s work. The one stat that really jumps out from Bradford’s preseason is his yards per attempt (10.2), way above his career average of 6.3.
“Had we felt like he needed more work, we would have created a situation where we’d let him play (against Baltimore), but I think he had a good preseason,” Fisher said. “He’s got a great understanding of what we’re doing. ... He’s ready; he’s ready to go.”
The biggest glitches for Bradford came on the same goal-line sequence against Green Bay, when he misfired on what would’ve been a TD catch by a wide-open Austin, and then botched that fourth-down snap against the Packers.
Overall, the Rams’ third-down efficiency (26.8 percent) needs to improve, but Fisher thinks that percentage will go up once the regular season begins and the Rams are using a lot more of the playbook.