By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
10/23/2004
Strength against strength

You've got to love this matchup: One of the NFL's top cornerback tandems in Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain of Miami against arguably the NFL's top receiving tandem in Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt of the Rams.

Bruce and Holt have 17 years of experience and seven Pro Bowls between them; Surtain and Madison have 15 years of NFL experience and six Pro Bowls between them.

"They're good cover guys," Bruce said. "They stick and stay. And they can run with receivers down the field, which is important in this league. They have really good change of direction. So it's going to be a challenge."

Especially since Madison and Surtain play press coverage on almost every snap, trying to jam the receiver at the line of scrimmage. "They'll be up in our face," Bruce said.

Surtain and Madison started at cornerback three years ago for Miami when the teams met in St. Louis. Bruce had a modest three catches for 36 yards. But Holt had four grabs for 111 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown.

Surtain usually moves inside to cover the slot receiver in the nickel, so he won't be on Holt or Bruce the entire game. Some observers will tell you that Surtain and Madison have both lost a step. We'll see Sunday.


Miami's QB quandary

The Dolphins just may be the worst downfield passing team in the league. With starter Jay Fiedler, it's more a lack of accuracy than lack of arm strength. Fiedler has been playing with a cracked rib, and not playing well. He will be on a short leash Sunday, and if he struggles against the Rams, look for A.J. Feeley out of the bullpen. They've basically been splitting time in practice the past couple of weeks.

Both QBs have been turnover machines. Fiedler has thrown six interceptions and lost three fumbles. Two of those INTs have been returned for touchdowns in the Dolphins' last three games. (Aeneas Williams, that's your cue.) Feeley has committed six turnovers in just 10 quarters of football.

Fiedler does have some mobility, however, and as Rams DT Ryan Pickett points out: "We've had trouble playing mobile quarterbacks this year. He's not a real runner, but he gets away from a lot of sacks."


Beware the receivers

As inept as the Dolphins have been offensively, there are worse wide receiver tandems than Marty Booker and Chris Chambers. The Rams can't go to sleep on these guys, or they'll get burned if Fiedler - or Feeley - can get anything going. Booker had two 1,000-yard seasons as a Chicago Bear. Chambers is more of a speed threat and had 11 TD catches a year ago.

The Rams have had trouble covering tight ends, and the Dolphins have one the league's best young players at that position in Randy McMichael. He leads the Dolphins in receptions (31) and reception yards (370), and has caught at least three passes in every game this season.


Running on empty

No Ricky Williams equals no running game. It's as simple as that for the Dolphins, who are averaging a measly 3.0 yards per carry on the ground.

The starter by default is Sammy Morris, a converted fullback who has played with a nagging ankle sprain since the Dolphins' season opener. He has some size (220 pounds), runs with toughness, and is most effective between the tackles. He rushed for 91 yards last week against Buffalo, but we're not talking Ricky Williams here.

Opening-day starter Travis Minor, who has more of an outside burst, could return to the running back rotation after missing the last five games with an ankle injury. Otherwise, the Rams could see Leonard Henry or Brock Forsey. In short, this is the most nondescript running-back corps in the NFL.

One of the problems with the lack of a running game has been the lack of an offensive line. Or at least a good one. One of the team's big free-agent acquisitions, left guard Jeno James, is struggling. Former Ram John St. Clair returns after missing the past two games with knee and ankle injuries. This may come as a shock to Rams fans who watched him struggle as a starter in 2002, but St. Clair has been the Dolphins' best offensive lineman when healthy. He'll be matched up against Rams DE Leonard Little on Sunday.


Special concerns

It's all but a certainty that Jeff Chandler will handle place-kicking chores for the Rams in place of the injured Jeff Wilkins. Chandler hasn't kicked in a regular-season game since September 2003, so he's hardly a sure thing. He's 10 of 10 in his brief NFL career on field goals of less than 40 yards, but only four of nine from 40 yards and beyond. So the Rams may be less likely to try longer field goals Sunday.

Coach Mike Martz is none too pleased that Wilkins injured his ankle making a touchdown-saving tackle on Tampa Bay's first kickoff return of the night Monday. Wilkins later saved another TD, bum ankle and all.

"The bad news about that is your kicker is the leading tackler on the kickoff team," Martz said. "That's not very good. That obviously is a big issue this week. . . . We're going to get the right people out there, who want to get down there and blow somebody up and get the ballcarrier."

Dwight Anderson, Trev Faulk, Erik Flowers and Anthony Hargrove have been the Rams' most consistent performers on kickoff coverage. But Faulk is expected to miss his second successive game - and fourth overall this season - because of hamstring problems.