Los Angeles Rams Preseason: 5 Storylines vs Chargers

OAKLAND, CA - AUGUST 19: Cooper Kupp , right, and Sammy Watkins celebrate A Kupp touchdown against the Oakland Raiders in Week 2 of the Rams preseason. Watkins could be the aerial focal point against the Los Angeles Chargers, as Kupp will not play due to a strained groin muscle. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - AUGUST 19: Cooper Kupp , right, and Sammy Watkins celebrate A Kupp touchdown against the Oakland Raiders in Week 2 of the Rams preseason. Watkins could be the aerial focal point against the Los Angeles Chargers, as Kupp will not play due to a strained groin muscle. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

The Rams preseason schedule stays in the AFC West for the second straight week with a “Fight for LA” matchup with the Chargers

The Los Angeles Rams preseason hits a critical juncture. Their Week 3 exhibition against the Los Angeles Chargers on Saturday likely will be the last one to feature most of the Rams’ prominent players.

The Rams preseason, however, also has an additional feature that has been lacking the past few years: Momentum.

The offense looked as good as it has in years in the 24-21 win over the Oakland Raiders last week. The defense, which is missing a handful of players, still held its own and made a few plays against dangerous quarterback Derek Carr. Now, the Rams are looking to build upon that performance and give themselves something else lacking in recent seasons: Confidence.

Here are five keys to watch as the Rams take on the Chargers.

5. Cornerback depth

Trumaine Johnson had an interception last week against the Raiders and could thrive in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ scheme. With NFL offenses increasing spreading the field, Johnson is going to need a lot of help in the Rams’ hopes of featuring a strong back end.

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Unfortunately, cornerbacks Kayvon Webster and Nickell Robey-Coleman will not play as they take care of undisclosed health matters, per the Los Angeles Times. That gives Troy Hill, Kevin Peterson and Michael Jordan more opportunity.

Hill must bounce back from an ugly play last week against Oakland. Michael Crabtree caught a red-zone slant in front of Hill last week. He juked Hill to his knees and bounced outside to the end zone. The Rams are looking for a bounce-back game from Hill.

Jordan had a strong outing in the preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys. He sat out last week. Another strong showing could vault him up the depth chart in time for the season opener.

4. Backup running back battle

The Rams already have made starter Todd Gurley more of a pass-catching weapon out of the backfield. That has helped the team absorb the absence of Lance Dunbar. Dunbar likely will start the season on the Physically Unable To Perform list because of a lingering knee injury, ESPN.com’s Alden Gonzalez reported.

That leaves Malcolm Brown as Gurley’s backup. Justin Davis and Aaron Green will fight for more playing time. Los Angeles needs one of the backups to step up and provide some reassurance that the offense won’t falter without Gurley taking every snap. Davis had some exciting runs against the Cowboys and needs to build on that to challenge Brown for playing time.

3. Incorporating Sammy Watkins

Newly acquired wide receiver Sammy Watkins recorded two receptions for eight yards in his first action as a Ram last week. He needs to play a much bigger role in the Rams preseason game against the Chargers. Watkins did help spread the field against the Raiders last week. He and quarterback Jared Goff nearly hooked up for a touchdown pass, but the ball bounced off Watkins in tight coverage.

Now that Watkins has had more time to absorb the playbook, he should be a more viable weapon. The Rams should try to get a few downfield passes to Watkins to see how well he can open up the field for the other Rams skill players. Watkins also should have more opportunities because rookie Cooper Kupp is sitting out as a precaution to nurse as strained groin.

2. Embracing the defensive culture

An NFL.com story on defensive coordinator Wade Phillips revealed that part of Phillips’ success comes when his players don’t always do what his scheme dictates. Phillips told NFL.com:

"You don’t want players that do exactly what you say because they have no initiative themselves. You get some guys who are great young men that want to do everything you say, but they get carried away with that. When you need to make a play, you need to have the initiative to say, ‘Hey, Coach told me to do this, but the ball’s right there. I got to make the play.’"

How well the Rams have embraced that philosophy has been difficult to gauge because of several prominent players missing on defense.

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Defensive lineman Aaron Donald continues his holdout. The secondary has been depleted, as mentioned above. Inside linebacker Mark Barron will not play, and outside linebacker Robert Quinn’s status is up in the air.

Still, for the Rams unit to be successful, the players they do have available must continue to balance their understanding of the scheme with their natural instincts to get to the football. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr sliced up the defense on a pair of first-half drives last week. The team can’t let Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers do the same.

1. Jared Goff’s consistency

The dust still hasn’t settled on quarterback Jared Goff’s 16-of-20 effort against the Raiders for 160 yards, one touchdown and three drives resulting in 17 points. Goff showed some flashes during the tumultuous 2016 season as well. But now, he needs to put together back-to-back strong games to give the Rams confidence that he is a much better offensive leader heading into 2017.

Goff showed a strong command of the offense last week. That included a strong showing from the offensive line that kept Goff upright, as ESPN.com reported. Gurley was able to run the football effectively against the Raiders. Kupp sliced through the Raiders secondary to make several big plays.

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Kupp will not be Goff’s security blanket against the Chargers, but Watkins might be. Goff needs to adapt to the weapons he has available. He also must continue to march the Rams down the field with consistency.

The second-year signal-caller likely will not play in the final preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. He needs a body of preseason work to show that he’s ready for Sept. 10. One isolated Rams preseason success against the Raiders is not enough.