By Barry Waller

Gridiron Gateway

Last week, there were those who felt the Rams didnít run the ball enough against the Carolina Panthers, as fans and many media members always believe after losses. In reality, with only little used Arlen Harris and Avian Cason available to tote the pigskin, there would be little change in the final outcome had Martz tried to grind it out last week. The Panthers weakness is allowing deep passes, not stopping the run, but Chandler wasnít given enough time to throw the ball deep, and was quickly rattled into mistakes.

Chandler will again be at the helm this week, after Martz decided late in the week to keep Marc Bulger on the sidelines another week to allow his shoulder to heal better for the Monday night home game against the Eagles two days after Xmas.

However, this week the game plan is expected to be far different than the Panthers affair. The Cardinals defense is third worst against the run in the NFL, and Martz now has the duo of Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson back in his arsenal.

Unless the Cardinals are forced to bring seven or eight players close to the line to stop the run, there wonít be many long bombs on Sunday, especially not with the leagueís second leading pass rusher, former Ram Bert Berry, who has 12 sacks in 2004, lining up for Arizona. The insertion of rookie Larry Turner at left guard due to Tom Nuttenís knee problem is just one more reason to keep the game plan simple and physical, and on the ground. Turner, an unknown, but talented seventh rounder last April, will be seeing his first action of his NFL career.

With right tackle Blaine Saipaia making just his second NFL start ever, and right guard Adam Timmerman nursing a shoulder injury serious enough to require off-season surgery next year, and only journeyman Darnell Alford as backup help on the sidelines Sunday, it may be up to the two backs and the Rams improving defense to bring home a crucial victory Sunday. At least the temperatures in the desert wonít make a thin roster an impossible task, but thatís little consolation

For the Rams, who simply MUST win this division road game, period.

It wonít be easy, because Dennis Greenís club is far improved from the meeting with the Rams in the opener, a game the Rams barely won at home. Green still has a quarterback problem, but he still has Emmitt Smith, who has played inspired football all season. At age 35, few backs have ever put up the numbers the future Hall-of-Famer is in 2004. Smith has scored nine times, and gained 732 yards on the ground thus far, as well as 70 more on ten receptions.

The Cardinals offense has also seen their 2003 MVP Anquan Bolden, come back after missing over half the season with a knee injury. After two less than stellar performances upon his return, Bolden exploded with a nine catch 109 yard game against the Forty-Niners. His return gives the Cardinals two major receiving weapons in Bolden and rookie Larry Fitzgerald. Look for the Cardinals to use Smith runs to set up play action passes deep against the Rams secondary. They will double and triple team Rams pass rush stud Leonard Little, and keep their fullback in to block any blitzing Rams.

It will be up to the other Rams linemen to foil the Cardinals plans, and there will be lots of pressure on the Rams cornerbacks and safeties in this game. If the Rams try to give Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler too much help on the talented young Cardinals receiving duo, they leave themselves open to getting burned by tight end Freddie Jones, still one of the better receiving tight ends in the game, as well as screens and flat passes to Smith. Those type plays will no doubt be a red zone staple for the Cardinals.

Arizona sports a huge offensive line that can be effective against a smallish Rams line, and their kicker, Illinois grad Neil Rackers, is having a Pro-Bowl year.

The two opposing defenses will take the field with the same goal Sunday, and the offenses will both be concentrating on stopping the otherís big time pass rusher. Whichever defense gets the job done will win this game for their team, especially creating turnovers. Both defensive units will be seeking to shut down the run, and then force the guy behind center to beat them in difficult third and long situations.

It could end up being a game where special teams can make a huge difference as well. For the Rams to win, they have to hit on all cylinders, at least the ones still operating. They must not suffer through early game ineptitude on defense, as they did last week before recovering to play OK. They must not waste red zone chances by turning the ball over on offense, or throw away possessions by bobbling punts. They must reverse the third quarter malaise that has plagued this club all year, instead taking charge early in the second half with long scoring drives. They must not stop drives with penalties, by putting Chandler in long yardage situations.

In other words, they mustnít do the things that have gotten them to the 6-7 mark they carry to Arizona, things they have especially had problems with in road games. If they can make Cardinals quarterback Josh McCown run around and throw into double coverages to beat them, they should win the game, especially if Jackson and Faulk can get it done for 75-100 yards each.

If the Cardinals stop the run, or the Rams penalty themselves into having to pass too often, and Smith eats up yardage to open up the pass for McCown, the 2004 season hopes for the Rams will probably be dead, barring a sweep of the final two home games against the Eagles and Jets, both already headed for the playoffs.