Monday, November 8, 2004

By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

With eight games behind them, the Rams are exactly halfway through the season. Usually by this point of the year, pretty much every team in the league has a good idea where it stands. Usually.

That is not the case this year, though, far from it. St. Louis stands 4-4 with a variety of surprising losses and shocking wins mixed in. Don’t feel too bad for the Rams, though. They are joined by just about every other team in the league. Heading into Week 10 (Monday night’s game not included), there are 21 teams in the league with records between 3-5 and 5-3 (Minnesota is 5-2 going into Monday night).

That kind of parity has left many doors open for St. Louis. Sunday’s 40-22 loss to New England, though, was the latest setback for a team that has lost its past two games to arguably the league’s worst team (Miami) and best team (the Patriots).

So, which team, exactly, is St. Louis? Are the Rams the team that came up with a dominating defensive performance and explosive offensive effort in a stunning fourth quarter comeback on the road against Seattle? Or is St. Louis the team that made mistake after mistake and got manhandled by a beaten-up New England team at home?

The answers to those questions probably won’t be delivered for a few weeks, or maybe not until the end of the season, but for now, the Rams can reflect on why they struggled in a winnable game against the Patriots and where they can go from here.

Rams coach Mike Martz said the first step to getting where the team wants to go is correcting the deluge of mistakes that plagued St. Louis on Sunday.

“We have to eliminate errors,” Martz said. “We had a lot of mistakes and we have to do better in a lot of areas. There is just no excuse. There are a lot of things to say that are going to sound like an excuse and that is not where we are. We are still in position to contend for this division and that is all I care about. This was a really good football team that we just played, but you cannot make the mistakes we made and expect to win against a team like this. We are not that far along yet, but we have to get there fast.”

The Patriots are, of course, an excellent football team. There is no shame in losing to a team that is the defending world champions and has won 22 of its past 23 games. There will be few people complaining this week about losing to a team as good as New England, but it was the way the Rams lost, that might linger.

Three turnovers, 10 penalties and countless mental errors that don’t show up in a boxscore resulted in a tough to handle loss to the injury-depleted Patriots. Martz made it a point at his weekly Monday press conference to say that the necessary changes will be made.

“We met today and obviously made some changes,” Martz said. “We understand what our problems are and what we need to address. There may be some personnel changes.”

Martz would not disclose where those changes will be made, but, based on the performance in certain areas, those alterations should be fairly obvious. A shakeup on the offensive line could be in the offing after it allowed five sacks against a defense that was rushing the quarterback with four and sometimes even three defensive linemen.

That unit has allowed 24 sacks this season and quarterback Marc Bulger has taken some brutal shots that have left Martz and the Rams worrying about his health. The most likely new faces will be at left guard and right tackle, where most of the sacks were allowed and where three holding penalties were committed.

Defensively, the Rams allowed 40 points and 376 yards. The struggles have been the same pretty much all season, with a lot of problems against the run and the continuing trend of big pass plays in crucial situations.

Martz said the problems seem to be new ones and not the same ones that plagued the Rams earlier this season. That has been, perhaps, the most disappointing part of the past two games for the Rams; just when it appears the ship has been righted, a new leak has sprung up.

“There are some things we can do,” Martz said. “There’s some things that rose up in this game that I didn’t believe was a problem in the past. We know we have got some weaknesses in certain areas that we have tried to cover up a little bit. There is some areas that we have played very well that did not play well in this game. The consistency is what we need out of this entire team.”

Consistency has been the root of the problem for the Rams. About the only consistent thing seems to be their inconsistency as a whole. Despite whatever problems it has, St. Louis still finds itself in the middle of a heated NFC West Division title race.

Now, with Seattle coming to town, the sense of urgency at Rams Park should intensify this week. The Rams trail the Seahawks by just a game in the division, and the Rams already hold a two-game edge in divisional record. A win against Seattle would put St. Louis back in the playoff race and make it the prohibitive favorite to win the division again.

Bulger said the Rams must move on quickly from the loss if they are to pull off another divisional win.

“You can argue that’s one of the top two teams in the league and we were there with them most of the game,” Bulger said. “A couple of mistakes here or there and we could win. We still have a ways to go, but like Coach Martz told us, we don’t have time to sit here and feel sorry for ourselves. We have Seattle coming in next week and winning the division is our number one goal and it’s still well within our grasp.”

Correcting those mistakes and having players make the plays that must be made would go a long way toward keeping that goal from slipping through the Rams’ fingers.