The Los Angeles Rams preseason finale comes after two joint practices with the Bengals under their belt. The first one was productive and beneficial. The second one was cut short when players started swinging helmets. Chippy joint practices are a dime a dozen this season, but after the first went so smoothly most were predicting a rather sanguine event.
Now the two teams will play a Super Bowl rematch with much lower stakes, but it is apparent that both teams are eager to get aggressive.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor worked as an assistant to Sean McVay before coaching the Bengals and runs his ship much like McVay, so neither team will field the starters that made the big game so electric. But regardless, there will be plenty to learn from the rematch, here is a look at two things to watch for on Saturday.
Rams Preseason Finale Preview: Running Backs
The four running backs that have played in the Rams preseason two previous games have collectively averaged 2.6 yards per carry. Raymond Calais leads the group with 3.3 yards per carry. That’s good for the 74th best in the preseason so far. After Calais, the Rams have preferred handing off to Asim Rose and Trey Ragas. The longest runs of the Rams preseason belongs to the backup quarterback, Bryce Perkins. None of which is good news.
The good news is the Rams aren’t reliant on any of the backs that have been active during the Rams preseason games. Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson are still the depth chart’s top two backs. But, what is concerning is how little room there is for injury within the running backs room. A group that, as of late, has struggled to remain healthy.
As it stands as of today, both Akers and Henderson are recovering from soft-tissue issues. Akers of course missed much of last season with an Achilles tear and Henderson was in and out of the lineup due to a variety of injuries. Calais broke his foot in last season’s preseason and Jake Funk has a lengthy injury history going back to college and now includes a hamstring tear suffered 10 months ago that ended his rookie campaign.
Kyren Williams fits in well with this good news/bad news running backs group. He will be making his Rams preseason debut on Saturday against the Bengals. He should inject some life into the listless running game. But of course, his debut was postponed because he too was injured. He broke his foot in May during spring practices.
Last year the Rams had to give up draft capital to add Sony Michel in the wake of Akers’ injury. Fast Foward to now, less than two weeks out from this season’s opening game, the Rams still don’t have a sound plan if one of the top two players gets hurt.
Williams should bring more to the table than Calais or Funk given his career at Notre Dame. In his two years as a starter, he ran the ball 419 times. That’s more carries than Funk and Calais combined for over their nine seasons in college football. (They rushed for 371 yards in college).
It’s unlikely that Sean McVay will play Williams for more than a quarter, if that, but the decision to play him in a Rams preseason game alone makes him someone to watch. McVay obviously wants to see if Williams can be a competent number three running back. Competent means at least 4 yards per carry.
Of course, in doing so, it risks injury in a meaningless Rams preseason game. But it’s a risk they have to take. Teams have to get down to their 53-man rosters by next Tuesday. The Rams will be faced with difficult cuts as it seems they want to keep eight receivers rostered. They have already started that process by cutting Super Bowl hero Kendall Blanton, who was almost immediately claimed by Washington. It’s hard to imagine that the Rams will keep more than three backs among their 53 roster spots.
Rams Preseason Finale Preview: Special Teams
Winning the field position game starts with special teams. Every punt and kick-off determines where the team starts and that means a lot in the grand scheme of a game and a season. The Rams have struggled to win this particular battle. Brandon Powell helped alleviate that, but with most things in football, it centers around blocking and tackling. That’s where the Rams have struggled on special teams.
Being good on special teams takes a good combination of grit, endurance, and brains. It also means you can’t be too good at anything else, or the team will make sure you never play special teams. So in essence, this is where undrafted free agents can carve out a roster spot for themselves. Guys like Jake Gervase and Grant Haley can ensure at least a spot on the practice squad based on their good body of work this Rams preseason. Both have spent the last few years climbing the ladder and putting in the work. And when they have been called up to a big league roster, they play on special teams.
The only way the Rams special teams will improve is with tenacious and dedicated players like Haley and Gervase doing the dirty work and winning the field position battles.
There will be several players that are on the bubble and Saturday’s Rams preseason finale will be the last chance many will have to make an impression on the coaching staff. A big challenge when trying to make that impression is to do it with your head on a swivel. There are always a handful of injuries in circumstances like that. It can lead to some downright stupid play by desperate men. The other ‘on-the-bubble’ guys to watch on Saturday are Roger Carter, Anthony Hines III, Benton Whitley, and Daniel Isom.