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Preseason Power Rankings No. 20: St. Louis Rams

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v St Louis Rams Getty Images

The St. Louis Rams were a trendy pick to possibly make a push for the playoffs last season. A 1-3 start to the season put the Rams in a hole and losing Sam Bradford for the year after seven games was the final nail in the coffin to their playoff aspirations.

But the Rams could take positives out of last year’s performances. Their defense became a nightmare to opposing quarterbacks as Chris Long and Robert Quinn led a scary defensive front and Zac Stacy showed promise as a possible replacement for Steven Jackson.

Unfortunately for St. Louis, they find themselves at the bottom of the best division in the NFL.The Rams added 11 draft picks to their roster as the continue to retool their talent under head coach Jeff Fisher. What are the prospects for the upcoming season? We take a look at the roster below as training camp approaches.

Strengths.

St. Louis may have the best defensive front in all of football. With Chris Long and Robert Quinn combining for 27.5 sacks last season and Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald manning the interior, the Rams will be a handful for any offensive line their square off against. In addition, the Rams still have depth along their front with Kendall Langford, Eugene Sims and William Hayes as rotational players.

James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree give the Rams a nice pair of linebackers they can rely on. Also, Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks are a dependable tight end pair.

Greg Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker provide a strong duo of specialists as well for St. Louis.

Weaknesses.

While the Rams defense proved fearsome at times last season, there were still a could problem areas on that side of the ball. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Will Witherspoon struggled at times at the strong-side linebacker spot. In addition, Darian Stewart and Rodney McLeod had issues at safety after T.J. McDonald suffered a broken leg and was placed on the short-term injured reserve list. Those areas remain question marks heading into training camp.

St. Louis is still lacking a true No. 1 option at receiver and depth in their secondary as well.

Changes.

Cortland Finnegan was released by the Rams over the offseason, which elevated Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson into the presumed starting roles ahead of training camp. Johnson could get pushed for his starting job by rookie Lamarcus Joyner, but Joyner may be best suited in the slot.

First-round selections Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald both should slot into the starting lineup on each side of the ball. Robinson is slated to replace the departed Chris Williams at left guard with Donald supplanting Kendall Langford at defensive tackle.

Camp battles.

Most of the major position battles should come on the defensive side of the ball for the Rams. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Ray-Ray Armstrong will battle for the third linebacker position, Trumaine Johnson could be pushed by second-round pick Lamarcus Joyner for the starting job opposite Janoris Jenkins at cornerback and Rodney McLeod could be challenged by fourth-round pick Mo Alexander at safety.

On the offensive side of the ball, the receiver position seems to be wide open. Tavon Austin’s role is secure as caught more passes than any other St. Louis receiver last year.. However, the Rams have a gaggle of receiving options behind Austin without much separation between them. Chris Givens likely enters camp as the team’s top option on the perimeter after leading the receiving corps with 569 yards last year. Kenny Britt, Austin Pettis, Stedman Bailey and Brian Quick all will be vying for playing time as well.

In addition, Isaiah Pead and third-round pick Tre Mason will likely battle for the backup role to starter Zac Stacy at running back.

Prospects.

The Rams sit looking up at the best division in football. Seattle and San Francisco met in the NFC Championship game last season and the Arizona Cardinals were playing as well as anyone at the end of the regular season.

St. Louis faces the real possibility of being an improved team but still not seeing much improvement in their overall record.

Sam Bradford is entering the final year of his rookie contract. The Rams could take a bigger leap than anticipated if Bradford can finally take the step forward in proving he can be one of the league’s better signal callers. Bradford was completing nearly 61 percent of his passes and had posted a 14-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio before his season ended due to injury.

The Rams keep taking baby steps in their quest to improve from their decade of futility. However, they’ll need more than baby steps of improvement to run down the teams at the top of their division.

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Cary Williams criticizes Eagles’ practice regimen

Cary Williams AP

In comments remarkable for their timing (after a win moving Philadelphia to 3-0), their audience (the media) and their directness, Eagles cornerback Cary Williams was reportedly critical of the team’s practice regimen following the club’s 37-34 victory vs. Washington on Sunday.

According to Andy Schwartz of CSNPhilly.com, Williams said the club’s practices have left him worn down — and Williams indicated other players felt similarly.

“I’m not the only guy that feels burnt out. I’m just a guy that’s man enough to stand up for players and just say that we’re burnt out,” Williams said Sunday, per CSNPhilly.com. “My legs hurt. My legs were done in the fourth quarter. My legs were done in the third quarter. My legs were done before the game started.”

According to CSNPhilly.com, Williams suggested “you can’t continue to run your team into the ground and expect great results.” He also noted the Eagles didn’t get a rest day after the win at Indianapolis on Monday night. Per CSNPhilly.com, the Eagles ran last Tuesday.

Williams’ remarks are an unexpected controversy for coach Chip Kelly as Philadelphia turns its attention to next Sunday’s game at 1-2 San Francisco. However, Williams’ comments come with the Eagles atop the NFC East and having outscored opponents 74-24 in the second half.

Still, it’s possible Williams has made some valid points. Of course, it’s also possible his remarks were made in the heat of the moment after a long, demanding game. But Williams made the comments in the public forum in a robust media market, so there’s no getting away from them, and Kelly will surely be asked about them this week. Also, with Williams indicating other Eagles have similar feelings about the practices, it’s a given reporters will be asking his teammates what they think of the workouts. And Williams, surely, will be asked if he stands by his remarks. Here is a story that will spawn follow-up stories, for there are other questions to be asked now that wouldn’t have been pondered otherwise.

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Sunday night wrap-up: Ben Roethlisberger wakes up

Pittsburgh Steelers v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

The rumors of the demise of the Steelers offense were greatly exaggerated.

The Steelers offense went through a drought since the first half of the opener, but did just enough at the right times to beat the Panthers 37-19, with Ben Roethlisberger looking like Ben Roethlisberger again.

The Steelers quarterback found something resembling a rhythm in the second quarter, and was rewarded for his patience in the second half. He threw a pair of touchdown passes to Antonio Brown, and finished the night 22-of-30 for 196 yards.

That was more than enough to beat the Panthers, but perhaps a sign that the Steelers have found the kind of balance they’ve been looking for under offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Roethlisberger had a couple of chunk plays, but mostly worked the intermediate spaces.

And he worked them well.

Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:

1. The Panthers would love to be able to run the ball, but the way they’re built right now, it’s hard.

Their offensive line is both patchwork and young, as both tackles are new to their jobs (right tackle Nate Chandler was a defensive tackle two years ago). They’re rotating journeyman Fernando Velasco and rookie Trai Turner at right guard.

If not for having an anchor in center Ryan Kalil and a promising young player in left guard Amini Silatolu, it would be a total mess. And those two were beaten several times, which is a really bad sign.

At least they have the good sense to not beat their heads against the wall, with just five rush attempts in the first half (for 10 yards). It’s not what you’d expect against a leaky Steelers run defense (which came in allowing 174.0 yards per game on the ground), or from a team that has spent so heavily on backs over the years.

2. Oh, and by the way, Cam Newton’s not nearly right, from a physical standpoint.

The Panthers quarterback didn’t have much of an offseason because of ankle surgery, and then suffered a rib injury which kept him out of the opener. He’s wearing body armor just to be on the field, and was getting pinned in the pocket by three-man rushes.

Were he well, he’d have spun out of a few of those pressures and run, regardless the status of his line.

But he’s not, which makes him a bit of a sitting duck.

3. Now that he’s realized that you can’t smoke a bunch of weed on the way to the airport, Le’Veon Bell’s become a really good running back.

He was able to find holes in a good Panthers run defense, and looks better since losing some weight this offseason.

He’s a solid between-the-tackles runner, and has enough burst to make big plays out of small cracks, as he did on his 81-yard burst in the third quarter. He finished with 147 yards.

The Steelers gashed the Panthers for 264 on the ground, with LeGarrette Blount adding 118 and a touchdown late.

4. The Steelers haven’t drafted as well as they’re accustomed to in the past, and that will create depth problems eventually.

The depth was tested in the second half, when linebackers Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones and cornerback Ike Taylor left the game in the third quarter.

Taylor suffered a pretty grotesque-looking arm injury, and the fact they immediately applied an air cast made it apparent it was broken.

5. The Panthers made a conscious decision to part ways with Steve Smith, primarily because he didn’t play well with others.

They clearly miss having proven offensive targets, but the guy they could have used Sunday night was Ted Ginn.

Watching undrafted rookie Philly Brown bobble away the game in the fourth quarter by letting a punt bounce off his chest and into the end zone for a Steelers touchdown was sad.

Ginn split for Arizona in the mass evacuation of the receivers room, though wanted to keep the guy who emerged as an offensive threat and a trustworthy returner.

But they didn’t really have the money to make a competitive offer, since they used the franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy, which put more than 20 percent of their salary cap into Hardy and defensive end Charles Johnson.

That made them top-heavy, and susceptible to injury or the commissioner’s exempt list. So while it was nice to think about having a pass-rush secured, it left them thin in so many places.

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Ryan Shazier leaves with knee injury, won’t return

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

One of the bright spots of the Steelers defense had a short night.

Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier has left the game with a knee injury, and won’t return.

Shazier was caught by one of his own teammates while trying to back away from a pile, and immediately limped to the sidelines, where trainers were looking at his right knee.

The first-round pick from Ohio State has been a revelation, the rare rookie who can start for Dick LeBeau. We’ll probably find out tomorrow whether he will again anytime soon.

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Steelers take 9-3 lead over Panthers into halftime

Pittsburgh Steelers v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

Are you ready for some field goals?

The Steelers have a 9-3 edge over the Panthers at halftime, in a game featuring solid defense on both sides.

The Steelers embarked on a 16-play, 87-yard voyage in the second quarter, but came away with just a field goal.

An apparent touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton was negated when the Steelers wideout was ruled to have stepped out of bounds.

Otherwise, the Panthers have given up some running yards, but held when needed.

The Steelers are out-rushing them 66-10 at the break, and both quarterbacks are taking some hard shots.

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49ers fall under .500 for only second time under Harbaugh

Harbaugh AP

Since Jim Harbaugh became head coach of the 49ers, things have been good.  Far more often than they’ve been bad.

Things have been so good that Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals puts the 49ers under .500 for only the second time since Harbaugh arrived in 2011.

Like last year, the 49ers have lost two in a row after winning the opener.  In 2013, the 49ers responded to adversity by winning five straight.

To do that again, the 49ers will have to beat the Eagles, Chiefs, Rams, Broncos, and Rams.  This team simply may not be good enough to reprise that feat, which could explain what Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News called “[o]ne of the most tense 49ers post-game locker rooms I’ve ever been in, especially for a regular-season game.”

Kawakami also shares the full transcript of Harbaugh’s press conference, which had even less useful content than his usual media availability.  If that’s even possible.

It remains possible that the 49ers will turn things around.  But it won’t be easy, and the margin for error in the top-heavy NFC West already is shrinking.

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Chris Harris: Russell Wilson “better than” Andrew Luck

Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson AP

For the second time in calendar year 2014, the Seahawks beat the Broncos on Sunday, and as was the case in Super Bowl XLVIII, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was impressive in victory.

And after the Seahawks’ 26-20 overtime win vs. the Broncos, Denver cornerback Chris Harris reportedly suggested Wilson, a third-round pick in 2012, was superior to Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, the top pick in the same draft.

Russell Wilson is better than (Luck). No question,” Harris said after the game, according to Vic Lombardi of CBS 4 in Denver.

On Sunday, Wilson completed 24-of-34 passes for 258 yards with two touchdowns and one interception against a Denver defense improved from a season ago. He also rushed nine times for 40 yards. Wilson was efficient, on-point and in-control in overtime, hitting 4-of-6 passes for 35 yards and racking up 21 yards on four carries on a drive ending in the game-winning touchdown by Marshawn Lynch.

The Broncos have faced the Colts twice in the last calendar year, falling at Indianapolis in 2013 and besting the Colts in Denver two weeks ago. But the Broncos have yet to knock off Seattle in a game of consequence in the last two seasons. And when the game reached extra time on Sunday, Wilson had the Broncos’ number.

And clearly, Wilson has garnered the respect of Harris. The Broncos’ cornerback has, in turn, provided a nice chunk of sports radio programming for Monday, free of charge, for the “Luck or Wilson” debate is one where the ardent on either side can make some compelling arguments.

But we know which side Harris is taking.

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Jared Cook apologizes for shove of Austin Davis

Cook Getty Images

During Sunday’s defeat-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-victory against the Cowboys, Rams tight end Jared Cook celebrated a dropped touchdown pass by shoving the man who threw it, quarterback Austin Davis.

After the game, Cook apologized.

“My actions from today’s game were truly a mistake,” Cook said on Twitter, “unintentional and in the heat of the moment.  There is never an excuse for unsportsmanlike conduct and I apologize to everyone.  I want to thank my teammates again, Austin Davis and William Hayes for their support on the sideline, the Rams organization and especially to all of our fans for whom we fight so hard for your love and continued support.”

It sounds as if Davis has accepted the apology.

“On the sidelines we were all frustrated, we’re trying to kind of keep it together,” Davis said, via ESPN.com.  “That stuff happens all the time.  We talked, we’re fine.  I didn’t even think twice of it.”

The loss dropped the Rams to 1-2, putting them two games behind the 3-0 Cardinals and one game behind the 2-1 Seahawks.

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Defenses dominating early in Panthers-Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

The Panthers are proving they can still play defense without Greg Hardy.

But the Steelers are holding up pretty well for themselves.

A hard-hitting first quarter has resulted in a 3-3 tie, and both quarterbacks have taken some hard shots.

Ben Roethlisberger was just drilled twice by Panthers sub Mario Addison, while Cam Newton came up limping after a shot by Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons.

It might not match some of the offensive fireworks of the day’s earlier action, but it’s a different kind of compelling.

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DeAngelo Hall appears to be done for the year

Hall AP

While an official diagnosis has not yet come, it’s not looking good for Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall.

Per a league source, the early indication is that Hall has suffered a torn Achilles tendon.  If so, he won’t be playing again in 2014.

While only preliminary, it’s usually easy to determine whether an Achilles tendon is torn, since that thing at the back of the heel linking the calf muscle to the foot is, you know, gone.

Earlier this year, Hall signed a four-year, $17 million contract to stay in Washington.  He’ll earn a base salary of $1.25 million this year, and he’s due to make $4 million in 2015.

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Rooney says he, Mara, Mueller “understand the scrutiny” of investigation

ArtRooney AP

When the NFL opted to hire former FBI director Robert Mueller to investigate the league’s handling of the Ray Rice case and the NFL appointed Giants co-owner John Mara and Steelers owner Art Rooney II to oversee the investigation, legitimate questions were raised about the true independence of the so-called independent investigation.

While Commissioner Roger Goodell has defended the independence of the investigation, the investigation lacks the appearance of independence, which prevents it from being regarded as truly independent.

Nevertheless, the principals intend that the investigation will be independent.

Rooney told Michele Tafoya of NBC’s Sunday Night Football from tonight’s game at Charlotte that he, Mara, and Mueller “understand the scrutiny” they’ll be under, and that none of them wants to be part of a “whitewash” or a P.R. exercise.

Rooney also said that he believes Goodell still has the support of the owners, and that one mistake should not jeopardize an otherwise stellar career.  Still, it’s possible that Mueller will reach a conclusion that justifies if not requires a change in Commissioner.  By making such broad declarations before the investigation is over, Rooney potentially undermines even more the appearance of independence.

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Chiefs earn first win, knock off Miami 34-15

Kansas City Chiefs v Miami Dolphins Getty Images

In a performance highlighted by three TD passes from quarterback Alex Smith and 132 yards rushing from Knile Davis, the Chiefs pulled away for a 34-15 victory on Sunday afternoon in Miami.

Two of Smith’s TD passes went to running back Joe McKnight, who had never scored a regular season offensive touchdown before Sunday. But McKnight, the former celebrated USC recruit and Jets tailback, was a key cog in the Chiefs’ victory, catching six passes for 64 yards, including a four-yard score that extended the Kansas City lead to 27-15 with 4:35 left.

From there, the Chiefs’ defense closed it out, forcing a pair of fourth-down stops. The final points came on tailback Cyrus Gray’s six-yard TD score with 13 seconds left and the outcome no longer in doubt.

Davis, who filled in for the injured Jamaal Charles, handled a heavy workload well, carrying 32 times. He did fumble twice, losing one, though it didn’t cost Kansas City any points.

Smith, meanwhile, was tough and sharp, completing 19-of-25 passes for 186 yards. He was sacked five times, including once on a safety, and the Chiefs’ ability to protect him over the course of the season is something to watch.

But on Sunday, Smith came up big for his team, which notched its first win of the season.

The Dolphins, on the other hand, have now lost two games in a row after a Week One win vs. New England. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was just 21-of-43 passing for 205 yards and a touchdown on Sunday, and he was sacked four times. The Miami defense has had better days, too; the Chiefs converted 9-of-16 third downs in victory.

The loss drops the Dolphins one game behind the Patriots and Bills in the AFC East. Miami (1-2) plays Oakland (0-3) in London next Sunday. The Chiefs will host the Pats on Monday night.

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Seahawks beat Broncos in Super Bowl rematch

lockette AP

It was a lot more competitive than the Super Bowl, but the end result was the same: The Seahawks beat the Broncos.

In today’s rematch of February’s Super Bowl blowout, the Seahawks once again jumped out to an early lead and were up 17-3 at halftime. But this time around the Broncos were poised and collected, and they worked their way back into the game, forcing overtime with a touchdown and two-point conversion in the final minute of the fourth quarter.

Unfortunately for the Broncos, Russell Wilson, who had a big game, engineered a 13-play, 80-yard drive in overtime, culminating with a Marshawn Lynch touchdown run, and the Seahawks won 26-20. Wilson also threw a beautiful 39-yard touchdown pass to Ricardo Lockette early in the game, used his feet to make plays all day, and even caught a pass on a trick play. It was a big game on a big game for Wilson, a young quarterback who has already led a whole lot of big wins.

But the Broncos’ defense played well, and new additions including Demarcus Ware and T.J. Ward — who weren’t with the Broncos in the Super Bowl — have made Denver better. That’s a positive step for the Broncos.

And it’s also positive that Peyton Manning, even when it appeared he was beaten, found a way to hit Jacob Tamme on a beautiful touchdown pass to send the game into overtime. Manning found holes in the Seahawks’ secondary, it just took him until the fourth quarter to find them.

The Broncos can feel good about the fact that they went to the toughest place to play in the NFL and stood toe-to-toe with the Seahawks, rather than wilting as they did in the Super Bowl. But the Broncos aren’t yet in the Seahawks’ class.

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Peterson hopes to resolve charges in 2014, return to action

Peterson AP

Last week, lawyer Rusty Hardin said that Vikings running back Adrian Peterson will stand trial on Texas child-abuse charges in 2015.  That plan could be changing.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, an effort will be made to accelerated the trial date, with the goal of getting it set for 2014.  The broader goal will be to resolve the charges in time for Peterson to return to action for the Vikings this year.

Of course, Peterson would need to resolve the charges in a way that doesn’t expose him to a potential suspension without pay under the personal-conduct policy.  Currently, he’s suspended as a practical matter with pay, until the legal process is resolved.

More information is expected this week regarding the anticipated trial date.  If exonerated, it would suddenly becomes easier for the Vikings to keep Peterson beyond the 2014 season.

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Broncos storm back to force overtime in Seattle

peyton AP

In a game that appeared to be lost, Peyton Manning and the Broncos have stormed back to force overtime in Seattle.

The Super Bowl rematch has lived up to the billing, with the Seahawks jumping out to a big early lead, the Broncos hanging around, the Seahawks appearing to take the game over with an interception on what looked like it could be the Broncos’ final chance, and then Peyton Manning leading his team back with a sensational touchdown pass to Jacob Tamme.

The Broncos have scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to make the score 20-20.

Overtime is going to be fun.

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Jason Peters: I didn’t think, I just reacted

Jason Peters, Chris Baker AP

Eagles tackle Jason Peters was ejected from Sunday’s victory over the Redskins for throwing punches at Redskins defensive tackle Chris Baker and other members of the Washington team during a scrum in the fourth quarter.

Peters went after Baker after Baker laid out Eagles quarterback Nick Foles with a block during an interception return that ultimately never happened because the pick was overturned on a replay. Peters said standing up for his quarterback was the only thing going through his mind as things escalated near the sideline.

“I wasn’t having it,” Peters said, via CSNPhilly.com. “That’s just a cheap shot. You’re taking on the smallest guy on the field and you’re cheap-shotting him, and he’s not even trying to make the play. I just reacted. I shouldn’t have did what I did, but I was just trying to protect my quarterback. I really wasn’t thinking. I seen him hit him, and I just reacted.”

Baker said he thought he made a “legal football move,” which wasn’t the ruling by the officials who ejected him for the hit.

“I was doing what I was taught,” Baker said. “And that’s to go get a block. I didn’t look to see if it was the quarterback. All I saw was someone going toward the ball, and I got my head in front and lowered my shoulder, which is a legal football move. Doing what I was taught to do, and I get punched in my face on the sideline, and the next thing you know I’m ejected for a block.”

Both Peters and Baker are expected to be fined by the league this week along with several other combatants in Sunday’s melee.

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