Since Jeff Fisher last coached in an actual NFL game, much has changed in terms of how teams are allowed to prepare for those contests, especially in the preseason.
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement has mandated strict guidelines on everything from allotted practice time to how often teams can wear pads in those practices.
That isn’t to say that Fisher will change how he deploys his players drastically from his days in Tennessee when the Rams open the preseason on Sunday against Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium.
What it does mean, though, is that when the Rams and Colts kick it off at 12:30, it would be wise to expect a lot of trial and error in terms of playing time for starters as well as the Rams’ general approach to the exhibition schedule under Fisher.
“You set out to win the games,” Fisher said. “Obviously every time you compete on the field you want to work towards and achieve a victory. As far as the first preseason game, we’re looking forward to watching them play. We want to see the rookies respond under pressure, which there is obvious pressure in the first one. You stay somewhat basic. You don’t try to out-scheme somebody and spend all this time, you want to see them block and tackle, you want to see them execute the fundamentals against a good opponent.”
In terms of a goal or a desired record, preseason games mean very little as an indicator for regular season success. It doesn’t take much of a history lesson to go back to last preseason when the Rams went 4-0 and actually defeated the same Colts team in impressive fashion yet finished the season 2-14, the same record as Indianapolis.
A perfect preseason record can create unrealistic expectations just as, say, a winless exhibition record could perhaps create far more panic than is necessary. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle and that’s just how Fisher views the four games his team will play before opening the regular season on Sept. 9 at Detroit.
“I don’t know where that comes from, 0-4 in the preseason, that’s a lot of stuff for you guys (media) to talk about between the end of the preseason and the opener,” Fisher said. “So, you prefer to win some games, but I was told this team was 4-0 last year. That’s all in the past. To answer your question, we like to play…What you want to do through the preseason is not give up a lot of points, keep the penalties down – keep them way down – protect the football, block and tackle and execute and let the score take care of itself.”
The greatest value of the preseason games is the opportunity to evaluate players in real game situations to help make determinations for the final 53-man roster. It’s especially beneficial in helping to find the players to fill out the bottom part of the roster but also to help find some delineation between two players or more who might be competing for a starting spot.
With that in mind, Fisher isn’t devoted to a set number of plays, series or minutes for any of his starters. It’s natural to assume that a veteran like running back
“They’re different,” Fisher said. “Jack may play a few plays less than the next guy, but philosophically speaking I think we pretty much, follow what everybody else does. Couple series to a quarter and then guys that may be competing for a starting job may play, you know, they may go in and come back out. So, you’re talking about anywhere from 12 to 20 plays.”
Preseason games, especially the first one, allow for the starters to do some fine tuning but primarily serve as a way for the young, unknown players to stake their claims to a roster spot by performing well under the lights.
The second half, in particular, will almost certainly belong to a variety of rookies and assorted youngsters competing for spots on the final roster and even the eight-man practice squad.
Because of the new rules on practice, most training camp workouts don’t allow for many reps for the guys on the bottom of the depth chart. Instead, those players actually end up getting more work during games than they do in an average practice.
When those players do get their chance to play, Fisher said he doesn’t want to see them doing more than is asked in an effort to stand out.
“It’s when given the opportunity, go do the right thing,” Fisher said. “When you get an opportunity go cover a kickoff, stay in your lane, go make a play. Apply what you’ve been taught on the practice field and in the classroom on the playing field. They all have ability, and unfortunately we can’t keep them all, but we are going to try and get them all in the ball game.”
As for the actual approach to the game, the preseason contests don’t nearly approach regular season games in terms of the preparation and planning that go into it.
The Rams, like all teams in the league, don’t want to give away much of anything in terms of their schemes so game planning is kept to a bare minimum. In the case of the Colts, they run a 3-4 defense which is different than what the Rams have practiced against in training camp so there does have to be some adjustment for that.
“We’ll continue to add things as the preseason goes on,” Fisher said. “(We) expect more of the players in Week 3 and Week 4, but each opponent is different. Out of fairness to the players, you need to somewhat prepare them. For example they’ve been practicing against an even front, four-man front, and in all likelihood we’re going to be going against an odd-front, a three-man front, so you need to give them a chance to be successful. But as far as all the things that we carry in the regular season, we don’t get close to that.”
Offensively, the Rams are working to grasp and execute the new scheme put forth by new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Bradford and Co. will get about a quarter or so, less for some, more for others, to run the new system and see how far along they are.
Schottenheimer won’t be trotting out much in the way of trick plays or misdirection and wants to see his group simply execute with the opportunities it gets.
“We’re looking forward just to seeing the schemes that we’re going to run, how it fits with our players,” Schottenheimer said. “We want to see the guys actually go hit somebody else, but we’re looking for execution. It’s going to be good to hit somebody else. We’re about almost 75 percent of the way through the installation. Obviously, we won’t use it all, show it all, but we want to see these guys play together. There will be different combinations of people and hopefully we’ll have some success.”
On the other side of the ball, the Rams are also putting in a new system under the guidance of a group of coaches including assistant head coach Dave McGinnis.
The Rams will get an interesting challenge from the Colts in the form of rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, who is flanked by young talents such as tight end Coby Fleener and established veterans like receiver Reggie Wayne.
Again, don’t expect the Rams to be throwing out exotic blitzes but more to focus on getting the calls in and out seamlessly and working on basic fundamentals of tackling and covering.
“We’re really looking forward to this,” McGinnis said. “I mean, this is stepping up into the next phase and stage of what we need to get. This football team is ready to play somebody else. We need to test ourselves against somebody else. I think that what we’ve done, the way that Jeff has brought this football team along, the phase that we’re in, getting ready to play somebody else, it’s coming exactly at the right time. We feel like we’re making progress, but again your progress is measured incrementally and we need to measure it against somebody else.”