Line goes on the offensive
By Bill Coats
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
OAKLAND, Calif. — When asked Sunday whether he felt as if he was operating behind the Rams' offensive line of the future, running back Steven Jackson barely allowed the questioner to finish.
"Absolutely ... I'm the first one to try to put in my bid for that," Jackson blurted after the Rams' 20-0 victory over the Oakland Raiders. "Especially when 'Big O' comes back, I think we have an offensive line that we could have around here for a while."
Left tackle Orlando Pace, a seven-time Pro Bowler, was unavailable; his season ended Nov. 12 with a torn triceps. So was center Andy McCollum, whose knee injury in the season opener landed him on injured reserve. And for the first time since 1995 — his rookie year with Green Bay — right guard Adam Timmerman was forced to the sideline, with three broken ribs.
"We were playing a lot of young guys," coach Scott Linehan said. "I think the offensive line for the most part played pretty well."
The Rams lined up with rookie Mark Setterstrom, 22, at left guard; Richie Incognito, 23, at right guard; Alex Barron, 24, at right tackle; Brett Romberg, 27, at center; plus veteran Todd Steussie, 36, at left tackle.
It marked the sixth combination the Rams (6-8) have started up front. Although the Raiders tumbled to 2-12 with the loss, they sported the league's No. 6 defense entering the game.
With offensive coordinator Greg Olson again calling the plays, the Rams charged into the teeth of the Oakland resistance. Olson dialed up 36 runs vs. 25 passes, and the 6-foot-2, 231-pound Jackson ground away.
Jackson pounded out 127 yards on a career-high 31 carries. His two second-half touchdowns — a 4-yarder in the third quarter and a 19-yard burst up the middle in the fourth — broke open a tight game.
"I have nothing but respect for that guy," said Setterstrom, who made his fourth consecutive start after spending the first nine weeks on the inactive list. "That's what football's all about, running the rock. It's good just to get back to the simple things."
With Timmerman out, Incognito slid to right guard from center. He acknowledged feeling "completely uncomfortable" at his new spot. "But it went all right," Incognito added. "A little shaky at times, but that's to be expected. It doesn't matter who's in there, as long as we win, we're happy."
Romberg, the Rimington Award winner as the nation's top center in 2002 at the University of Miami, was bordering on ecstatic after his first NFL start.
"Oh, it was awesome," said Romberg, who was signed off Jacksonville's practice squad Sept. 12. "It's been so long since I've had the feeling that I had today. Coming from Miami and winning football games and playing till the end and being on the field and just the camaraderie with the guys ... it all came to a head today."
His personal highlight was knocking a defender to the turf, helping to clear a path for Jackson's second TD. "That's the most excited I've been in a long time," Romberg said. "I jumped on Richie's back. I was pretty stoked."
Romberg and Bulger, working with his third center this season, had only one scary moment — a fumbled snap in the shotgun that Jackson pounced on. "And that was probably my fault," said Bulger, who was sacked four times. "I think (Romberg) held his own in there."
The final three games of the season amount to a tryout for future employment, Romberg acknowledged.
"Oh, definitely. I think it's an audition for everybody, really," he said. "Obviously with the season that we've had so far, you're always trying to find the positive side. We're just trying to come out with three wins and earn jobs."