Deep Thoughts: Rams never stopped looking long
By Jim Thomas

Of the Post-Dispatch

Things haven't reached 2000 levels, when the Rams dialed long distance at epic levels and every game was a track meet. They completed 13 passes of 50 yards or more that season, and averaged almost a first down (9.36 yards) on every passing attempt.

But the deep ball is creeping back into the St. Louis offense. Shaun McDonald caught a 52-yard touchdown pass to defeat Seattle 33-27 in overtime on Oct. 10.

Torry Holt opened the scoring Monday night against Tampa Bay with another 52-yarder, and then closed things out with a 36-yard TD catch in a 28-21 victory.

Through six games this season, the Rams have connected on eight pass plays of 30 or more yards, which is twice as many as they had at this point in '03. Quarterback Marc Bulger is averaging 8.01 yards per passing attempt, nearly 1 yard higher than the team average in both the '02 and '03 campaigns.

"Marc's throwing the deep ball like he had in the past," coach Mike Martz said. "For a while there, he wasn't throwing it as well. I think he is just very confident right now about throwing the deep ball. Very confident."

Martz has regarded Trent Green, the former Ram now with Kansas City, as one of the best deep passers around. Martz felt Bulger displayed a similar touch in 2002, when he got seven starts in place of an injured Kurt Warner.

But that touch wasn't always there in 2003, when Bulger started from Week 2 through the rest of the season. "He was a little tentative with the deep ball," Martz said. "You get a guy running down the field, and he didn't want to miss him."

As a result, Martz said the Rams placed extra emphasis on throwing deep in practice during minicamps and training camp. Getting a full offseason and preseason to throw with the top receivers didn't hurt, either, in terms of timing and chemistry. Bulger didn't do that entering the '03 season because Warner was the starter.

Is Bulger throwing the long ball better this season?

"Maybe," Bulger said. "For me, I haven't done anything different. But we're hitting them. That's all that matters, I guess."

As to why that's the case, it could be the extra practice repetitions. Or greater familiarity with his receivers. Or simply the kinds of coverages the Rams are seeing in games. It's probably all of the above.

"We have a lot of deep balls called throughout a game," Bulger said. "But you only get that certain look you want maybe once out of every five times you call a deep ball. We've been fortunate with some of the coverages we've (gotten), and that's probably just a good job of game planning."

Bulger also points out that there's a lot more to throwing long distance than just dropping back five steps and heaving it 50 yards.

"Because on a lot of our deep balls, we have so many options where they can come out," Bulger said.

Often times, Bulger is releasing a deep ball before the intended receiver even makes his cut. He's almost throwing to a spot, trusting that his receiver will be there when the ball comes down.

"Right now, he has a better feel for the speed and when he needs to get rid of the ball," Martz said.

Isaac Bruce, for one, doesn't think the deep ball ever left the Rams' offense. "I just think that sometimes defenses dictate that they don't want to get beat deep, and they take it away," he said.

But by doing that, defenses open up other avenues for the Rams' offense.

"They give up the deep crossing (patterns), or that helps our run game with them playing Cover 2 and we're able to run the ball even more," Bruce said. "So I don't think it ever left, I just think we kind of take what the defense gives us."

Lately, the Rams have been seeing more mixed coverages instead of the Cover 2 zone - a scheme that plays the safeties deep and is designed to prevent the big play. An improved running game may be one reason the Rams are seeing less Cover 2. Teams want at least one safety near the line of scrimmage to help in run support.

No matter what the defensive scheme, teams around the league know that the Rams like to go long whenever possible. It's been their m.o. since Martz returned to the franchise in 1999 as Dick Vermeil's offensive coordinator.

"They get big plays down field - long passing yardage," Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks said last week. "I think now, with the addition of (Steven) Jackson in the backfield, you have another serious threat at running back besides Marshall Faulk. I think that's another element that's been added. ... But the passing game still comes down to big plays. And Marc has been doing a good job of finding open receivers."

Miami coach Dave Wannstedt, whose Dolphins play the Rams on Sunday at Pro Player Stadium, knows this better than most. "Most of their routes are deep routes," Wannstedt said. "So they're a little bit different than some teams that way. If you're going to give them the deep ball, they're going to take chances with it. And take some shots at it."

So far the Dolphins have been very good at preventing the deep ball. The Dolphins (0-6) may be winless, but they have the NFL's top-ranked passing defense. They are yielding a league-low 5.61 yards per passing attempt, and have one of the league's better cornerback tandems in Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain.