As with any preseason game, taking a look at an opponent has a much different look because the reality of preseason football is that the players who will be playing much of the game will be reserves or roster casualties when the season begins. Therefore, the standard team studs that would be a problem during the regular season will be watching those guys fighting for roster spots for three quarters or more.
The Rams crushed the Vikings in the season finale last year when St. Louis coach Scott Linehan made his return to the Metrodome in a 41-21 win. The Rams committed to Marc Bulger at quarterback by giving him a six-year contract extension and he will be the cornerstone of the franchise for the near future. Another returnee who will likely see significant playing time is former Viking Gus Frerotte, who has locked down the No. 2 spot. The battle at quarterback will be for the No. 3 spot, with Ryan Fitzpatrick holding a slight early edge over Brock Berlin. Linehan likely won't keep four quarterbacks, so the battle in the second half could have some big implications.
In the running game, Steven Jackson has become the franchise player for the Rams and the centerpiece of their offense. He's likely to see only a series or two. This will give the Rams a good chance to look at rookie Brian Leonard, a second-round pick who can play both halfback and fullback and is a solid receiver out of the backfield. Beyond them, the depth runs thin. Travis Minor is a solid third-down specialist and second-year man Kay-Jay Harris is looking to earn a roster spot by beating out practice squanders Rich Alexis and John David Washington. Look for Leonard and Harris to get longer-than-usual looks. The fullbacks in the system – Madison Hedgecock and Brad Lau are primarily blockers.
The receiver corps for the Rams is prolific, but how much we see of them Friday is up in the air. Torry Holt by his own admission is only about 70 percent healed from offseason knee surgery and might not play. Isaac Bruce and newcomer Drew Bennett will likely get the starting nod, but see sporadic action. With dangerous return man and receiver Dante Hall expected to miss the game, it opens up the door for what promises to be a wild competition at wide receiver. Incumbent Dane Looker likely has a spot locked down, leaving a wide-open competition for a group of receivers with no NFL experience – Marques Hagans, Dominique Thomson, Nate Morton, Derek Stanley and Shaine Smith. There is a chance none of them will make the final roster, but with only one spot likely available, the competition should be fierce. Linehan upgraded the tight end position by adding Randy McMichael, who starred for years with the Dolphins. He joins Joe Klopfenstein, Twin Cities native Dominique Byrd and Aaron Walker in a crowded tight end corps that may not have room for four on the roster.
The offensive line of the Rams is strong at the edges with tackles Orlando Pace and Alex Barron, but not as dominant inside with young guards Richie Icognito and Mark Setterstrom and veteran center Andy McCollum. McCollum is entering his 14th season and is facing a preseason challenge from fourth-year pro Brett Romberg, who made three starts last season while McCollum was out due to injury. Vikings fans will recognize the left side of the line after the starters go out. Former Vikes Todd Steussie and Adam Goldberg are expected to be the second-line left tackle and left guard. Other line roster battles include Drew Strojny and Ken Shackleford at right tackle, although Shackleford has missed time with a knee injury, and right guards Claude Terrell and Milford Brown competing for one roster spot.
On the defensive front, Leonard Little is the man who runs this defense. A Pro Bowler last year, Little had 13 sacks and six forced fumbles and is one of the dominant players in the game. The Rams have cobbled together a defensive line by trading for right end James Hall from the Lions, drafting tackle Adam Carriker in the first round this year and using free-agent money to get La'Roi Glover. The backup spots at tackle seem set with Claude Wroten and Clifton Ryan having an edge over rookie Keith Jackson and undrafted first-year pro Tim Sandidge. On the outside, it could be a different story. Victor Adeyanju started nine games last season and has his spot set, but it's put up or shut up time for fourth-year pro Trevor Johnson, who is facing a challenge from Eric Moore and rookie Ryan Willis for a roster spot. These players will be looking to make a big play to stand out to the coaches in what could be a roster decision based on one or two big plays.
The Rams linebackers haven't been a strength of the team, but big things are expected from 2006 free-agent signee Will Witherspoon, who has sideline-to-sideline speed at the middle linebacker position. He's flanked by speedy Brandon Chillar and Pisa Tinoisamoa, who played through injuries all last season and was rewarded with a long contract extension. Former Viking Raonall Smith is in a battle at outside linebacker, where much was expected from Chris Draft, a free-agent signee who was a starter for the Panthers. But he has been sidelined after suffering a severe asthma attack. With him out, the competition to try to make an impression has opened up, giving more chances for Jon Alston, and Larry Edwards to try to make a statement why they belong on the 53-man roster. As a backup for Witherspoon in the middle, there's likely only going to be one man who stays, and none of the three top contenders – Tim McGarigle, Quinton Culberson or Jamal Brooks – has played a down for the Rams.
As if their aren't enough familiar faces to Vikings fans on the Rams roster, nothing changes in the secondary, where Corey Chavous remains the starting strong safety. He's flanked by free safety O.J. Atogwe, whom Linehan said was one of the most improved players on the roster last season. Former Bears Todd Johnson and Ron Bartell have locked down backup spots, making it more difficult for undrafted rookies Andre Kirkland and Jeffery Dukes to make the final roster. There is also trouble at cornerback. Former top pick Mike Rumph was released late in July and starter Tye Hill has been kept out of much of the training camp workouts while recovering from a serious staph infection. Those openings could be critical to players like Lenny Walls and Bartell, who will likely split time opposite starter Fakhir Brown. Youngsters Josh Lay, Jonathon Wade and Darius Vinnett are likely competing for one spot at most in the secondary.
The Rams did a number on the Vikings in the last game, and the Vikings will surely be looking for an element of revenge. But, with the constant fear of having a star player injured in a meaningless game, don't be stunned to see both teams pull their starters after one or two series and let the game be decided by players who may or may not have a future in the league beyond this month.
Preview: Familiar Faces Return
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