Rams Face Big Test Against Pats
Rams Face Big Test Against Pats
By Barry Waller
The Rams face a tough task Sunday, hoping to add to Mike Martz’ 4-0 post-bye-week record as they meet the New England Patriots. Unlike the last time the two teams met, the Rams will have the advantage of a full house of friendly fans, hungry for revenge and at a fever pitch. The game is nationally televised and the later than usual start will give the faithful plenty of time to get “in the mood” with a few hours of tailgating.
Much of the media focus this week concerns the Pats loss last week after a record 20 straight wins. The Steelers dominated the Patriots last week, knocking out both of their starting cornerbacks. They are also enduring a rash of injuries to receivers, and were missing halfback Corey Dillon in Pittsburgh. So instead of taking on Bill Belichick’s favored club with a shot at ending “the streak”, the Rams now are billed as hosting a crippled squad.
In one way, Rams fans might prefer beating the Patriots with everything going the visitor’s way, just so New England’s pain would approach that suffered by the highly favored Rams and their fans when Adam Vinatieri’s game winner split the upright in Super Bowl XXXVI. Rams faithful know the trap of facing “beat up” teams missing crucial players has not been kind to the Rams (Remember Aaron Stecker?)
No doubt the Rams players remember the Saint’s halfback and others who have come off the bench for career days against them. All Martz need do to prevent overconfidence is show his squad a tape of the last meeting with New England, and all that wrong colored confetti raining down from the New Orleans Superdome roof when the game ended. Many of the Rams players have never watched a replay, and in reality, most of the starting Rams players from three seasons ago are no longer on the roster.
Only ten present Rams starters, one being their kicker, remain from the 2001 NFC champions. There are 24 players who were Rams in 2001, but Marc Bulger did nothing but hold a clipboard as the third quarterback that year, and six present Rams, only two of them starters in 2001, were just rookies. Because only ten Rams really were a part of that 2001 team’s effort, the revenge factor for players has gone cold, though probably not for Martz and certainly not for Rams fans.
Attempts by the media to elicit quotes from players about a revenge motive as the week of practice went on were fruitless. In the NFL, three years is a relative eternity, which is why only fans see this game as a grudge match. For the players, the Patriots represent an obstacle to maintaining the NFC West division lead, a very difficult one.
The Rams have practiced as if the Patriots backup cornerbacks, rookie free agent Randall Gay, and second year man Asante Samuel, are going to perform like Ronnie Lott and Deion Sanders in their prime. If being without their two Ty’s, Law and Poole seriously hurts the Patriots, the Rams won’t be anticipating it.
The Rams should have the same expectations of overachievement from the Pats receivers, or from halfbacks Kevin Faulk and ex-Bear Rabih Abdullah, should Dillon miss another game with his injured thigh. The top healthy wide-out is David Patten, who caught a late touchdown pass in the regular season win over the Patriots in 2001, when the visiting Rams won a hard fought 24-17 win over Belichick’s club. After that game, Martz, showing a bit of psychic ability, made it a point to tell his team they had beaten what he felt was a Super Bowl squad.
Patten and Bethel Johnson, plus whichever of the remaining receivers listed as questionable this week, Troy Brown or David Givens, need to be treated like Jerry Rice and John Taylor. The Rams greatest fear should be Pats tight end Daniel Graham, a former first round pick, who has five touchdowns in 2004 already, on just 18 catches.
Without a rushing attack, the Patriots play action offense doesn’t function, putting more pressure on their defense. If Dillon is out, the Patriots will probably simply try to come out on top by winning the turnover edge by a big margin, and by dominating on special teams. Belichick got lots of credit for shutting the Rams down in the Super Bowl, possibly by some questionable rule bending, but forgotten is that the Rams rolled up 482 yards of offense in the 2001 regular season win, breaking 400 in passing yardage, in one of Kurt Warner’s best road games.
Is it any wonder Martz went into that Super Bowl thinking he could pass all day long? One wonders what his thinking will be going into this chess match with his friend Belichick, acknowledged as the best defensive mind in the game, just as Martz is considered the most innovative offensive mind.
A challenge like this one is something guys like Martz and Belichick enjoy the most about coaching, knowing if their specialty prevails, they have outsmarted the best. In 2001, they each took home a win, though the Patriots victory was certainly the bigger prize, giving Belichick the label of genius, and Martz an undeserved black mark after a last second loss. Those who have been on Martz case ever since should read what Belichick says about the Rams mastermind.
“Mike has as sophisticated and tough an offensive system as anybody we ever played,” Belichick told the media in Foxboro this week. “When I go into the team meeting today, I can’t stand there and say, ‘Here’s two things we got to take care of’. There’s going to be 82, and they might do 10 things that you didn’t even talk about that you have to deal with,” he continued.
The Patriots head coach even tries to steal a bit of “Mad Mike’s” scheme. “Every year in the off-season, I watch them, study them, try to learn more about the passing game from them so I can implement certain aspects of it into our team. We spend time in the off-season watching them throw because in all honesty, nobody throws it better,” he said. Too bad Martz can’t bring some of what Belichick does on defense to his own squad that has had trouble stopping anyone.
Martz refuses to use offensive success against Belichick in 2001 as any prognostication for Sunday. “We don’t have the same capabilities as we did then,” he said this week. Actually, Martz may have more weapons now, especially in the running game, with Steven Jackson providing the power they lacked in 2001. Whether Martz throws a change up and go into a running mode, to counteract the dizzying variety of Belichick’s formations and blitzes, remains to be seen. After the Super Bowl loss, that’s what the media and fans say he should have done, to which Martz responded that he “Actually I wish we had thrown more.”
Some Rams defensive players are returning to full health, such as defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy and cornerback Travis Fisher, which may help shut down the Patriots attack. However, they must avoid turnovers, and create some of their own, to secure a huge win that will at least ease some fans’ 2 1/2 year old pain, and take the Rams to a 5-3 mark at the halfway point of the season.