Tomorrow will be what many consider to be the most important portion of the buildup to the NFL season, as the St. Louis Rams play their third preseason game against the Cleveland Browns. Most NFL people will tell you that the third of the four preseason games is the biggest, because it’s the time when the starters play the most and basically have a “dress rehearsal” for the regular season. It’s not the end of the world if things don’t go exactly as planned, but with the fourth game usually being a laid back affair that’s meant mainly for fringe players to make a final push at cracking the 53-man roster, this is the last real chance for teams to sharpen things up before the games matter.
Here are a few things to keep an eye on when the Rams take on the Browns tomorrow:
1. How Does the Offensive Line Look?
This will probably be the closest we get to a look at the projected regular season offensive line. Left tackle Jake Long will be making his preseason debut, and it will be interesting to see how he performs in his first game action since suffering a torn ACL in the 15th game of last season. With Long back, we’ll get an extended look at first-rounder Greg Robinson playing his projected position of left guard, where he’ll hopefully have more success than he has over the past couple weeks playing his college position of left tackle.
In addition, center Scott Wells and right tackle Joe Barksdale will be in the lineup once again, and it’s possible that we’ll get to see right guard Rodger Saffold make his preseason debut as well. Even if he doesn’t play, former Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph will fill in for him and be part of a line combination that very well may see action together during the 2014 season.
2. Can the Defense be What We Expect?
Last week against the Green Bay Packers, the Rams’ starting defense was very underwhelming—particularly the defensive line, which generated almost no pressure on Aaron Rodgers. This was an alarming development for a defense that many have been projecting to be one of the best in the NFL, and a defensive line that’s been talked about as a modern “fearsome foursome”. Ultimately, the preseason doesn’t really matter, but it would be nice if we could see at least some signs of life from the defense before the regular season kicks off.
3. How Do the Backup Quarterbacks Perform?
There’s been a battle all through camp between Austin Davis and Garrett Gilbert for a possible third quarterback camp. Though Davis has been listed ahead of Gilbert on the depth chart, Gilbert has gotten a much greater opportunity, and logically it would make more sense for the Rams to keep him around because they invested a sixth-round pick in him.
Saturday will be important for both of the quarterbacks, as it may be their last chance to impress before the initial cutdown to 75 players (which should be much more of a concern for Davis than Gilbert). With Sam Bradford likely to play at least the first half, it should be interesting to see if Davis even gets an opportunity to play. Meanwhile, with Gilbert, he needs to have a good showing to prove that he belongs on the 53-man roster rather than the practice squad. In fact, with the new practice squad eligibility that Davis has been afforded by the adjustments to the NFL’s CBA earlier this week, maybe it will become more of a legitimate competition.
4. Which Players Make Themselves Expendable?
As aforementioned, the cutdown to 75 will occur following this preseason matchup. The Rams likely have most of those decisions already made, but anyone could help or hurt their cause based on their performance Saturday. In addition, with the third preseason game being the one where the starters get their most extended action, fewer players will get into the game. The guys that fail to participate will be strong candidates for early release.