| Long brings an aggressive mentality to a team that needs a spark.|
|Joe Robbins/Getty Images|
7 at Philadelphia
14 N.Y. GIANTS
21 at Seattle
12 at Washington
26 at New England
9 at N.Y. Jets
16 at San Francisco
7 at Arizona
21 SAN FRANCISCO
28 at Atlanta
|Randy McMichael, Tight End: One of Marc Bulger's favorite targets this summer, the seventh-year vet has impressed coordinator Al Saunders with his vertical-threat potential. Extensive O-line injuries in '07 forced McMichael to block more, and he had 39 catches, tying a career low. He'll get more chances with the arrival of blocking specialist Anthony Becht.|
They'll need almost everything to go right -- starting with all key parts in working order -- for even .500 to be thinkable.
Al Saunders runs for an hour every day, and while he runs he thinks.Saunders, who was hired last January as the St. Louis offensive coordinatorafter running the Redskins' attack for two years, thinks about his new team'sperformance in practice, about revisions to his 700-plus-page playbook, andabout his time as the Rams' receivers coach in the late '90s, when they were theGreatest Show on Turf and winners of Super Bowl XXXIV. Mostly, Saunders,61, thinks about how he can get this year's attack to resemble that one. He hasa lot of thinking to do.
The Rams were in free fall last season, as player after player succumbed toinjuries. By year's end, 12 Rams, six of them starters, were on injured reserve,and St. Louis was 3-13. This season the hope is understandably to keep healthybodies on the field , specifically the offensive and defensive linemen."Those guys in the trenches decide our fate," says third-year coach ScottLinehan.
The disaster started in Week 1, when Orlando Pace, the seven-time ProBowl left tackle, went down with a torn right labrum and rotator cuff. That leftquarterback Marc Bulger more vulnerable; he was sacked six times against the49ers in Week 2 and suffered broken ribs, eventually missing two games. In Week12 he suffered a concussion and missed two more games. In the 12 games he didplay, Bulger, who had a Pro Bowl season in 2006, was sacked 37 times and threwonly 11 touchdown passes, with 15 interceptions. Linehan brought in formerChiefs quarterbacks coach Terry Shea to repair Bulger's form and, moreimportantly, his psyche.
"With all the injuries I lost my fundamentals and got happy feet," saysBulger. "Terry takes a detailed approach to the game, which helped me a lot. Inever had a season like last season -- it was just a terrible, terrible year. But Iworked hard to get straight this off-season, so whatever happens won't be forlack of effort."
Pace, 32, had shoulder surgery September 2007 and early in camp estimated hewas back to 90% effectiveness. Then in the second preseason game he banged upthe shoulder making a tackle on an interception, although there were no tears tothe labrum or rotator cuff. To boost his flexibility, Pace added yoga to hismidweek training regimen, as did middle linebacker Will Witherspoon, one of thebright spots last season with a team-high 110 tackles.
While the offensive line lost its top player, the defense also had toscramble without end Leonard Little, who had a nagging toe injury that ended hisseason after Week 7. Little, who had 13 sacks in 2006 but only one beforehe was hurt last season, is expected to get significant help from top draft pickChris Long, the Virginia standout and son of Hall of Famer Howie Long. Noted forplaying with maximum intensity on every down, the 6' 3", 263-pound Long isadjusting quickly to coordinator Jim Haslett's aggressive, blitz-heavysystem.
"When he got here he was running all over the place, but now he's getting thescheme down, and we're seeing flashes of the true Chris Long and realize why hewas drafted so high," says linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa. "I'm hoping to tap thatreserve because his potential can pay dividends quickly."
While Long provided reason for hope, the best news of camp was that StevenJackson's contract dispute was resolved. The Pro Bowl running back, who hasaveraged more than 100 yards per game from scrimmage since entering the leaguein 2004, was holding out for a renegotiation of the five-year, $7 millioncontract he signed as a rookie. The deal finally got done on Aug. 21: six yearsat $44.8 million, with just over $20 million guaranteed.
The Rams could only hope Jackson would quickly work himself into playingcondition -- and, like his teammates, stay in playing condition. "Well, ifanything, he'll be fresh," says Saunders. Just more for him to think about onthose long runs. -- Lisa Altobelli