The Rams and Jaguars kick off tonight in the final preseason game for both teams, and the final chance for players on the bubble to make a gameday impression on their coaches before roster cutdowns begin in earnest. After this weekend, 27 players don't have to go home, but they can't come back to the Rams.
Coach Spagnuolo has said that he will play the starters a little longer than usual, a welcome concession to the Lockout-shortened offseason, giving our first teamers a few extra full-speed reps with McDaniels' offense and Spagnuolo's defense. That said, after the first 20 plays or so, the game will devolve into a Battle Royale of desperate players trying to stick on both teams' rosters.
Here are three storylines to watch:
For the Rams: Keep the quarterbacks clean. (For the Jaguars: can they get to the QB?)
The Rams have done an admirable job so far this preseason in keeping their quarterbacks off the turf, allowing only 4 sacks in the first three games. Look for that trend to continue against Jacksonville, which hasn't been able to consistently pressure the pocket since 2008's defensive end draft-day disaster. They traded seven picks to draft two DEs, Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves, who turned out to be colossal busts. Just three years later, neither is with the team.
Jack Del Rio has been struggling to reestablish his team's defensive identity ever since. The Jaguars were one of the easiest teams to pass on last year, a by-product of ranking 30th in sacks. This year's big addition is former Packer Aaron Kampman, who has yet to play this preseason.
Without him in the lineup, the aqua cats have been shut out. Zero sacks so far.
As The Jaggernaut reports, Kampman is set to return tonight, and the hope is that the sacks will follow. But nobody on the Rams' line wants to give up that first one.
For the Rams: Will Mike Sims-Walker have the last laugh?
Back in March, before the Lockout built a wall between players and their teams, Mike Sims-Walker was told that he wouldn't be coming back to Jacksonville. In May, sitting in limbo, he insisted that he didn't hold a grudge.
"I love the Jacksonville Jaguars community with all my heart," Sims-Walker said in a phone conversation. "I'll still say it to this day, but Jack Del Rio is probably one of the best coaches in the NFL."
That said, it's not like Jacksonville is flush with receivers. And now that Sims-Walker is a Ram, and getting ready to face the team that drafted him, made him into an up-and-coming star, and then gave up on him, he's got some complicated emotions about coming back.
"It's definitely bittersweet," he said. "I still have that, I don't call it a chip, I call it a crack. I have a crack on my shoulder. A chip is not big enough for what I got right now."
Sims-Walker, who has already displayed his scoring touch last week in Kansas City, will only have a few series to showcase what the Jags gave up on. It will be interesting to see whether McDaniels and Bradford dial up any plays for him.
For both teams: Keep an eye on Special Teams
Matt Bowen of the National Football Post gives us a few pointers about what to watch for on special teams, where those bubble players have their best and last chance to make a "look at me" play that might help them stick on the final roster. One of the toughest to spot? The "wedge-busters."
Who wants to hit the wedge? We get to see who is tough and wants to try and split the wedge running at top speed. You need talent at the R5 and L5 positions on kickoff (aligned next to the kicker) that is going to attack the wedge.
The Rams under Spagnuolo have placed a big emphasis on special teams discipline, and have raised the productivity of both units significantly under his tenure. Roster battles at crowded positions at WR, LB and DE could be decided during kickoffs and punts.
Wide receivers: Mardy Gilyard (returner and gunner), Dom Curry (gunner and blocker), and rookie receivers Greg Salas and Austin Pettis (returners and gunners)
Linebackers: Chris Chamberlain (wedge buster, tackler extraordinaire), Jabara Williams (downfield tackler), Bryan Kehl (downfield tackler)
Defensive Ends: Eugene Sims, George Selvie, and though he's not on the bubble, look for Robert Quinn to try for an encore of last week's blocked kick.
Lastly, pray for continued good health for the Rams. We've been extremely fortunate so far in the preseason to come away with only a few dings and nicks (with apologies to IR'ed hopefuls Dionte Dinkins, Jerome Murphy and Jermelle Cudjo). Keep the key guys healthy and the young guys hungry and let's get ready for Week 1 against the Eagles.