The St. Louis Rams will host their final dress rehearsal for the 2012 NFL regular season, Thursday night at the Edward Jones Dome, when they’ll take on the Baltimore Ravens in the final game of the NFL preseason.
Last week, the Rams showed they have a whole lot more work to do if they’re going to compete against the good teams in the NFL.
Tonight, we’ll find out if this club has something worth watching, or if this season might be another rough year for the blue and gold.
Here’s our look at five things to watch for tonight as the Rams host the Ravens.
Key No. 1 — Defensive bounce back, especially in the secondary.
Twice this preseason, the Rams secondary has gotten torched. First by rookie Andrew Luck in the preseason opener against the Colts, and again last week, by Pro Bowl veteran Tony Romo and the Cowboys.
Tonight against the Ravens, whether Baltimore’s starters play or not, the Rams defense needs to show once and for all, that it can actually stop somebody.
No more 200 yard first quarters, or 300 yard first halves. The Rams “D”, especially young players Janoris Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, Kendric Burney, and Quinton Pointer, need to be good in coverage and put a stop to the big passing days opposing quarterbacks have had against them.
Head coach Jeff Fisher believes they can do it.
“That (Dallas game is) behind them,” Fisher said. “They’ve forgotten about it. A good secondary will correct those mistakes and forget about it.”
Key No. 2 — Let Steven Roll.
Unlike previous seasons, running back Steven Jackson will play in all four Rams preseason games, including starting the ballgame tonight against the Ravens.
What was unusual though last week, was Jackson didn’t carry the ball at all.
In fact, it was pretty clear that when Jackson was in the game, the Rams were going to throw, and when he came out, they were going to run, with Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson getting all the first-string carries.
Tonight, expect Jackson to get extensive work running the ball and catching a few passes out of the backfield. Fisher said the Rams want to be sure they have their Pro Bowl tailback ready for the season.
“Yes, he’s going to carry a little bit,” Fisher said. “You can tell we kind of gave him the week off from last weekend from the standpoint of carrying the ball. But I’d like to get him some reps and get him banged around a little bit and get him ready for Detroit.”
Key No. 3 — Dogfight at tight end.
Even after the first set of cuts, the Rams still have six tight ends on the roster.
The club will probably keep four, with starter Lance Kendricks as the only sure thing.
So that means, Cory Harkey, Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan, DeAngelo Peterson, and native St. Louisan Mike McNeill, all have once last shot to impress the coaches and earn a spot on the regular season 53-man roster.
McNeill, an undrafted second-year player out of Nebraska, has been impressive throughout camp, and spent significant time this week, working with the No. 1 offense in practice.
Harkey and Peterson are rookies that both have shown flashes of superior athleticism, while Mulligan and Hoomanawanui are veterans that seem to excel at blocking.
Key No. 4 — O-Line continuity.
With starting center Scott Wells missing most of camp rehabbing from knee surgery, and right guard Harvey Dahl due to sit out tonight due to an infection, the Rams will complete the entire preseason without its projected starting line having played one down together.
Dahl is expected to be ready for the opener, and Wells looked fine in his first action last week, this team will rely heavily on its line play, and that means this group needs to find its cohesiveness quickly.
With Dahl out, young players Jose Valdez and Rokevious Watkins will likely get some time with the starters. Hopefully, that group will be able to make holes for Jackson and also keep quarterback Sam Bradford upright.
Key No. 5 — How many undrafteds will make the team?
With final cuts set for Friday, the Rams have 15 undrafted free agents still on their roster heading into tonight’s game against the Ravens.
Question is, how many of them will survive the weekend and find themselves on the Rams’ 53?
Quarterback Austin Davis seems to have won the No. 3 quarterback job, and punter Johnny Hekker is a definite.
But other than that, only Fisher and his staff know for sure which undrafted guys have a real shot at making the club.
McLeod started last week at safety. So he seems close to landing a roster spot, and at least one (and possibly two) of the undrafted tight ends might make it.
For the rest, tonight’s contest might be their final chance to make their NFL dream come true, or it might just be the final game of their career.
Kickoff tonight at the Dome is set for 6 p.m.