As preseason games go, this will be one worth watching. Week No. 3. First-teamers make more than a token appearance, it's the final game before position battles are decided and, finally, you can sense the regular season is nearing.
There will be plenty of other reasons to watch when the Rams visit the Denver Broncos on Saturday in a nationally televised contest at 7 p.m. (CBS). Here are four:
A week after Aaron Rodgers moved the Packers with ease, the Rams face an even more accomplished quarterback, Peyton Manning. That Manning is expected to play into the second half makes the challenge for the Rams that much stiffer, even if the Broncos keep the play-calling relatively simple. The Rams aren't expected to get fancy on defense, either.
"He's a machine," Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "You have to hold your (defensive) look because if you tell him what you're in, he's going to figure it out and get that ball out before you touch him. He doesn't like to get hit and he's so smart that you can blitz him and have a guy free but you're still not touching him. He's getting the ball out."
It doesn't even matter that much if it's preseason. "He's very, very competitive whether it's the third preseason game or it's the AFC Championship Game," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.
RAMS IN THE RED ZONE
Tight end Jared Cook was practically distraught after the Rams' first-team offense failed to score upon reaching the red zone against the Packers. "When you're part of an offense that's supposed to put up points, those are the things you have to look at because that's our job," he said. "The fact we didn't do that, it's bothersome."
Well, yes, but the Rams' first-teamers reached the red zone only once, though they had five plays inside the 5 to score. The failure to convert rested largely on quarterback Sam Bradford. He overthrew a wide-open Tavon Austin on a play that would have produced a touchdown, then fumbled the snap on fourth down from the 1. "Unacceptable," he said.
Cook's concern over the red-zone failure shows how important he believes it is to put up touchdowns when you get close. "It's big," he said. "It has to start adding up. Things have to start improving."
The Rams could have more opportunities to get inside the Broncos' 20 because their first-team offense also is likely to play at least a half. The first team was done after one drive in the second quarter last Saturday. So far, Bradford has led the Rams to one touchdown in six series. It came on a pass to Chris Givens inside the red zone.
Another week of shoddy tackling and the Rams could be doing some heavier hitting in practice next week. How else can they get used to tackling unless they tackle, which they did not do very well against rookie running back Eddie Lacy and the Packers?
Keep an eye on the linebackers. Will Witherspoon was signed to be a backup but has been thrust into a starting job because of Jo-Lonn Dunbar's four-game PED suspension. Also, rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree has had trouble adjusting to NFL game speed in his first two exhibitions.
"We've seen improvement from Week 1 to Week 2," Laurinaitis said. "Hopefully, there will be more improvement this week. He'll get a good challenge this week with play-action passes and gap passes that Peyton likes to do."
Right tackle Rodger Saffold is hoping to be back on the field after dislocating his left shoulder in the preseason opener. With the first-teamers not likely to play much, if at all, in the preseason finale, this would be Saffold's last live action to get accustomed to switching over from left tackle before the regular season.
Fisher indicated Wednesday that Saffold would play, though the coach did not say whether he would take the field with the first-teamers. Fisher said he has been pleased with the performance of Joe Barksdale in Saffold's absence.
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