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From Top to Bottom, Rams Have Very Few Flaws

After just one day at training camp, it's easy to see that Sean McVay and the Rams—now featuring Brandin Cooks, Marcus Peters and Ndamukong Suh, among other newcomers—are going to be good.

WHO: Los Angeles Rams
WHERE: Irvine, Calif.
WHEN: Wednesday, Aug. 15
HOW: Drove from Chargers camp to UC Irvine (about 15 minutes in midday L.A. traffic)

After a uniquely competitive practice, let me just state the obvious: The Rams are a very, very good football team.

On Wednesday we were treated to very minimal individual drills, and lots of game scenarios and first-team offense vs. first-team defense. From watching practice and talking to people in the Rams’ circle, I get the sense that Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters are as good as advertised, and the same goes for Ndamukong Suh. The collective presence of the newcomers seems to bring out the best in two guys on the brink of stardom: safeties John Johnson III and Lamarcus Joyner. While Todd Gurley flashed, the defense ruled the day, with several of Jared Goff's passes being intercepted or broken up.

Some of that may be attributed to the offensive playcaller: Head coach Sean McVay asked passing game coordinator Shane Waldron to call the offense Wednesday because McVay knows defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’s defense to the extent that he’d rather not call plays that exploit its few deficiencies. (Nothing against Waldron, but I think we can all agree McVay is the better-equipped playcaller.)

Suh looks like his usual dominant self, which makes the prospect of Aaron Donald joining the show all the more enticing. Whether or not the Rams get a deal done for the reigning Defensive Player of the Year is anyone’s guess, but once the two get on the field together, the Rams figure to be one of the few teams—if not the only team—in the NFL to get constant interior pressure without stunts or blitzes.

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One thing that stuck out after conversations with McVay and a handful of his players: This training camp has featured less position work and more one-on-one game scenarios—a shift from last year’s camp, which is by design. After Los Angeles finished 4-12 in 2016, the team spent the following training camp figuring out its identity at every position. Now the team that went 11-5 last season is mapping a path to the Super Bowl, one practice at a time. “I think, anytime you’re going into Year 2 you’ve got more continuity,” McVay says. “You say, O.K., now that we know exactly who your players are, you try to create more competitive situations.”

“We’re not soul-searching anymore. ... We’ve got our feet in the dirt,” defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman says. “Now we’re trying to get that good work.”

There weren’t many weak spots, but I do worry about these linebackers. Suh and Donald should take some pressure off converted safety Mark Barron and Cory Littleton, but I could see pass catching running backs and agile tight ends exploiting this defense in the short passing game. Utilizing a box safety to support Barron and Littleton should be an early-season go-to.

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OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT: The Rams have a beer garden for fans next to their practice field. I swear I did not partake. Also: The UC Irvine mascot is the Anteaters. As the bartender at the beer garden informed me, “The football team is undefeated.” (They don’t have one)

STORYLINE TO WATCH: I’m excited to witness Goff’s third season, this time with the reliable deep threat of Brandin Cooks in the fold. Cooks slides into the No. 1 receiver spot in Los Angeles, so expect his impact to create better opportunities for short and intermediate threats like third-year tight end Tyler Higbee, and of course, Gurley, who caught a career high 64 passes last season. McVay is expecting Goff to take that next step into becoming an extension of the coaching staff—the player who understands the intent behind every play design, and the myriad problems that can arise in with protection and coverage.

“There are so many endless things that go into being a quarterback,” McVay says. “There has to be a constant evolution, and we all have to be on the same page. I need him to feel comfortable communicating things he likes and doesn’t like.”

TOP POSITION BATTLE: The Rams know who they are, but there’s an outside linebacker spot seemingly up for grabs. The top contender, Matt Longacre, has missed time with a biceps injury.

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OFFBEAT OBSERVATION:The Rams are the first team I’ve ever seen take a halftime break during a training camp practice. In the middle of an 11-on-11 session the team abruptly broke and headed for the UC Irvine locker rooms, where McVay said they sat and rested for 10 or 15 minutes and talked amongst themselves before returning to the field. The rationale: Starters on both sides of the ball needed to get their bodies accustomed to the halftime cooldown and subsequent warmup they’ll experience in game.

“The biggest thing is, regardless of how we approach the last three games in the preseason, we know we’re not going to be in a situation where we play our starters before and after halftime,” McVay said. “We know we’re gonna have to do that Sept. 10 against the Raiders so we wanted to have them get a bunch of work in, simulate halftime, then you have to get back out there, get yourself loose and get rolling again.”

PARTING THOUGHTS: These guys are scary. The talent Les Snead has accumulated on defense while sacrificing draft capital could shift the thinking of contending NFL teams for years to come if it works.

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