By Bernie Miklasz
Of the Post-Dispatch
Friday, Jan. 07 2005


SEATTLE - In the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs, wild-man head coach Mike
Martz has a chance to create a masterpiece.

Martz can put all of the regular-season controversies behind him, and remind
everyone of how he made his name and reputation in the NFL. Martz will be in
his element, working at what he does best: conceptualizing an offensive
strategy, identifying the weak spots on the defense, getting the ball into the
hands of his playmakers and game-breakers, and attacking.

All of the essentials are in place for the Rams to do serious damage to the
Seattle Seahawks. Martz has one of the NFL's hottest quarterbacks in Marc
Bulger. He has an improving offensive line. He has four outstanding receivers
in Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald. Martz has a rookie
running back (Steven Jackson) who runs like an old pro, and an old pro back
(Marshall Faulk) who still has the energy of a rookie.

And Martz gets to turn his offense loose to attack one of the league's most
vulnerable defenses. Seattle ranked 26th among 32 teams in yards allowed. The
Seahawks were 23rd against the pass, 24th in defending the run, 27th in sack
percentage, 27th in stopping third-down plays. In the last six games, Seattle's
defense has been plundered for an average of 394 yards and 31.3 points. And
Martz knows where to aim his arrows, having faced this Seattle defense twice
this season.

But this isn't just about the Seahawks' thin defense. It's more about the Rams
offense, and how it's coalescing at an ideal time. After a period of
stagnation, the offense stirred in the last two games. The Rams powered up
against Philadelphia with a bullish running game, then scorched the New York
Jets with every variety of pass.

This Rams offense isn't at the same level as the "Greatest Show" era
(1999-2001) but it's establishing an identity.

"The right thing for me to say is, well, I think we have a nice future and it's
going to work out real good, but I'm thrilled," Martz said. "I'm really and
truly thrilled with this group. ... I've said this before, but I'm so excited
for this organization and this city. We are not where we can be, but sometimes
at night, I get goose bumps just thinking about what these guys are capable of.
It's thrilling for me and I can't wait to continue this for a long time."

The offense is amped for several reasons. Bulger has played assertively after
returning from injury. Jackson's increased role gives the Rams the kind of
wallop they've lacked on the ground since moving to St. Louis, and Martz has
done a good job of inserting Faulk for a change-up look. Placed in a spread
formation with Bruce and Holt, the young receivers can stretch any nickel or
dime defense beyond its limits. The line has firmed up its pass protection. And
Bulger and Martz have gotten the tight end more involved in the passing game.

And Martz has sharpened his play-calling. After some shaky games, after dealing
with injuries and coping with distractions, Martz seems to have his Mojo back.
And make no mistake: Martz's mind can be even more valuable than Bulger's arm,
Jackson's strength, Bruce's hands and Holt's legs.

Add it all up, and the Rams offense poses the same type of problems that the
"Greatest Show" cast once did. What's a defense to do?

"When you deal with their offense, it's hard to say, 'OK, if we stop this then
we'll deal with this,' " Seattle coach Mike Holmgren said. "They have a lot of
weapons. Mike (Martz) can call, and go to, a lot of different things. It's just
a tough team to defend. I have tremendous respect for Mike and the job he's
done there. I think he's a very bright guy."

There are two potential dangers: The Rams could ruin all of their offensive
production by repeatedly turning the ball over. They have the worst turnover
ratio (minus 24) of any team to ever make the NFL playoffs. And second, Martz
must stay one move ahead of Seattle defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes. If Martz
is taken by surprise, he must adjust and do it quickly without losing
composure.

"I expect him to pressure us," Martz said of Rhodes. "We have to get our
running game up to snuff, too, and change gears when we need to. If you go into
this game with the thought, 'This is how we are going to beat them,' and you
start that way, and they change, then you have to morph into something else."

If Martz holds true to that philosophy, it means that he's locked in, fully
focused on his play-call sheet. You get the feeling that the Rams offense is on
the verge of a break-out game. It can surely happen in Seattle, where the Rams
ran mad dashes through the Seahawks in a minor-miracle comeback victory in
October. The Rams are capable of hitting Seattle with Part II, Martz II. His
masterpiece game