By Bill Coats
Of the Post-Dispatch

The Rams trailed Super Bowl champion New England by two points just before halftime Nov. 7 when defensive end Leonard Little was called for roughing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The 15-yard penalty extended a possession that resulted in a field goal, and the Pats cruised to a 40-22 victory.

The call infuriated Rams coach Mike Martz as well as Little, who felt that the hit was unavoidable and legal. "I didn't hit him up high, I hit him in the chest area," Little said. "If it was helmet to helmet, then I could see them making a call. But hitting him in the chest and the stomach area ... I mean, what can I say?"

Their ire was fueled further because an earlier hit by linebacker Mike Vrabel on Rams quarterback Marc Bulger wasn't flagged. Martz phoned Mike Pereira, the NFL's supervisor of officials, the next day to air his discontent.

On Sunday it was more of the same when the Rams drew another dubious roughing-the-passer penalty. Tackle Jimmy Kennedy dropped San Francisco quarterback Tim Rattay just after he released an incomplete pass on third-and-7 at the *****' 7-yard line.

Asked Monday if he were baffled at the way the roughing rule is being interpreted, Martz said: "Baffled wouldn't be the term I would choose. There were six of them that were the same hit (on Bulger) in Buffalo ... same hit, same thing, and it doesn't get called. But we get that every week with these quarterbacks.

"I'm angry about it and frustrated. I don't understand it. I've complained about it. I don't know what to tell you."

Saipaia will start

Martz announced Monday that Chris Chandler would start on Sunday at Carolina while Bulger's bruised right shoulder mends. Martz also said that right tackle Grant Williams, who gave up the sack on which Bulger was injured, had lost his starting job.

Blaine Saipaia entered Sunday's game late in the third quarter after another Williams mistake nearly resulted in a sack of Chandler. Saipaia will be in the lineup vs. the Panthers, Martz said.

"There's a lot of things I like about Blaine," Martz said. "He has great feet, he's very strong, he has a terrific punch in pass protection. He's very athletic, can be off-balance and recover and make the block. He's a good run blocker. I think he has all the tools to develop into a really good player"

Williams has been playing with several nagging injuries that "really diminished his strength and his ability to take on some things," Martz said. "You can see it when you watch him set. He tries to compensate. ... He began to struggle out there, and we needed to get him out of the game."

Saipaia, 6-foot-3 and 310 pounds, made his first NFL start Nov. 21 in Buffalo because Williams was banged up. Saipaia said he thought he played "all right. I know I could've done a lot better."

Martz gave him higher marks, though. "For an offensive lineman's first start in the National Football League, that was pretty significant. He did a pretty good job," Martz said. "He's going to make some mistakes, but physically, I think that he probably gives us a better opportunity right now. We need that guy that can take a bull-rusher on and stop him. He can anchor down pretty well. He's got that strength and that pop that you're looking for."

Saipaia will face a big challenge, lining up against Julius Peppers, one of the league's top defensive ends. Peppers has nine sacks, which is tied for eighth in the NFL.

No room for McDonald

The Rams are last in the league in punt-return yardage, but don't blame the guy with the ball in his hands, Martz advised, even though Shaun McDonald is averaging just 4.3 yards a return.

"It's not Mac," Martz said. "You stand back there and watch those guys coming down unblocked ... I'd start squawking like a chicken if I was him. I mean, nobody's blocking anybody on our punt return. Mac just hasn't had any room to breathe back there. ...

"Let's give him a chance to get going, for crying out loud. We just don't do that."