Even given the wide variety of wild and whimsical things that can happen in an exhibition opener, this one promises to be a curiosity seeker’s delight.
Kevin Greene playing defensive end? The Rams acting angry when opposing wide receivers approach? Marcus Dupree getting equal billing with Cleveland Gary? John Robinson vs. Jerry Glanville in a meaningless game?
After an off-season filled with intriguing and unanswered questions, the silence of the Rams will be broken tonight.
No, not even the Rams can say how things will go when they unveil their new, attacking defensive style tonight against the Atlanta Falcons in the Gator Bowl.
Especially not the Rams.
The Rams play the Falcons twice during the regular season. This meeting, a rare exhibition game between division opponents, is sure to be the most confusing.
The Rams have had months to sit and talk and prepare for these four dress rehearsals before their Sept. 1 opener, but sitting and talking and preparing almost never solve your problems.
The real kinks have to be ironed out on the field. It’s a game that means nothing in the standings, but for new defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher, it’s the first live-action chance to see his players stand or fall with the new system.
Fisher has changed every aspect of Fritz Shurmur’s 3-4, soft-zone style, importing the Philadelphia Eagles’ complicated brand of defense-by-devastation.
Greene was a linebacker on the left side, now he’s mostly a defensive end on the right side.
Jerry Gray was a cornerback who specialized in dropping back into zone coverage, then snapping up to meet the ball when it arrived in his area. Now, he is just another older player attempting to recover from knee surgery in a defense that demands that cornerbacks chase receivers all over the field.
The defense was used to sitting back and doing the same things over and over again, now Fisher has them rotating and faking and blitzing based on quick calls and instant reactions moments before the snap.
Will all this change result in an orderly and successful exhibition opener for the Rams? Fisher will see with the rest of us.
“Yeah, there’s some curiosity,” Fisher said. “The players want to see how it all works out, and I want to see how they pull it off.
“We’d like to see people hustling to the ball, swarming the ball, turnovers--three turnovers this week would be great. They need to play with emotion.
“If we come out of this game saying we played hard, we played with emotion and were enthusiastic, then we’re on the right track.”
The traffic cop in the Fisher defense is the middle linebacker, which just happens to be the Rams’ most competitive position. Larry Kelm, Frank Stams and Glenell Sanders will get equal shots trying to keep things under control tonight.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m on top of it, other times you wonder where you’ve been for the last two weeks,” Stams said. “I was just saying to Larry that it’s a position that you’ve got to keep fresh in your mind, I mean, as far as making the calls and knowing the defense, because there’s so many things.”
For all the Rams’ concentration this off-season in trying to manufacture a dangerous pass rush, Fisher said attacking the Falcons’ run-and-shoot pass scheme is not a priority.
Defenses are built block by block, and tonight’s lesson is more basic: Stop the run. Fisher says the night will be a success if the Rams defense can just do that.
“I’d like to see us be consistent against the running game,” Fisher said. “We’ve got to be physical, be able to stop the run and the passing game out of the two-back offense.
“My worst nightmare is if we can’t stop the run on first and second downs.”
Since the Rams’ defense is still a work-in-progress, Fisher says it will be nearly impossible to prepare to stop the unorthodox run-and-shoot, a system that blows apart many basic offensive precepts.
When the Falcons go to that four-wideout set and start sending receivers all over the field, Fisher won’t mind if his defense gives up some yards. He just wants to see it compete.
“The run-and-shoot offense is going to create some problems for us given the newness of our system and the basics that go in,” Fisher said. “But we’ll be able to evaluate our people from a competitive standpoint and who steps up and who steps back in the two-back offense throughout the game.
“There’s some curiosity from a blitz standpoint. I think they’d prefer blitzing every down right now. They’re acquiring that kind of mentality, which is good, but we can’t exist that way. We’ve got to do a little bit of both.”
Offensively, the Rams aren’t in the midst of a major transformation, but there, too, some compelling questions will get their first, tentative answers tonight.
Quarterback Chuck Long, who threw only five passes last season and never got a chance to prove the Rams right or wrong for trading a high draft choice to acquire him, should get chance to do one or the other tonight.
With starter Jim Everett not in the game plan against a defense that probably wouldn’t mind hurting a quarterback in a meaningless game, Long is slated to start and play the first three quarters. Mike Pagel, who could steal Long’s backup role with sizzling play this summer, is scheduled to play the fourth.
Otherwise, the first half should showcase the Rams’ twin tailbacks, Gary and Dupree. Robinson has spent a great deal of energy trying to make sure his team has a sure-fire power running game, and Gary and Dupree are two highly talented athletes competing for the starting spot.