Rams-Jaguars: 5 Things To Watch
Rams-Jaguars: 5 Things To Watch
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Jags QB Byron Leftwich's passing yards are down from a year ago at this point in the season.
Double trouble at DT
Pro Bowl defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson are the cornerstones of the Jacksonville defense. Stroud was drafted No. 13 overall in 2001, or one spot behind DT Damione Lewis of the Rams that year. Henderson was taken No. 9 overall in 2002.
"They're nightmares," Rams interim head coach Joe Vitt said. "They're big. They're strong. ... They're violent. They're really the heart and soul of that defense."
Both are tall and have long wingspans, with Henderson at 6 feet 7, 328 pounds and Stroud at 6-6, 312.
"They play with good leverage and good technique," Rams offensive line coach John Matsko said. "They're big, physical, strong, scrapping guys. They're hard to move, and they push the pocket."
It usually takes two blockers to handle Henderson. But because of their height, Henderson and Stroud can be susceptible to cut blocks.
Complicating the challenge for the Rams' interior line is the injury situation. Rookie left guard Claude Terrell isn't expected to play because of a neck injury. Right guard Adam Timmerman missed Friday's practice because of a sore back but is expected to play. If Timmerman can't go, look for some combination of Tom Nutten, Blaine Saipaia and Rex Tucker at the guard spots. Tucker hasn't played since the season opener because of a calf injury.
A stout secondary
Even if the Rams had Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce in the lineup, it might be tough to the throw the football on Jacksonville, which ranks second in the league in pass defense.
Third-year cornerback Rashean Mathis is playing at a Pro Bowl level and is establishing a reputation for big plays. He returned an interception for the game-winning touchdown in overtime against Pittsburgh. On special teams, he has blocked a field goal and has deflected a punt.
The other starting corner, Kenny Wright, has been a pleasant surprise after signing as a free agent from Houston. Terry Cousin, another free-agent pickup in the offseason, has provided solid play at nickel back.
Deon Grant is developing into one of the better free safeties in the league. But the Jaguars do miss strong safety Donovin Darius, who's out for the season with a knee injury, on run support.
Jaguars RB Fred Taylor has topped 1,000 yards rushing in five of his seven NFL seasons. He is a master of the cutback run, which could spell trouble for the Rams if they fall into their overpursuing ways.
"He's legit," Rams LB Chris Claiborne said. "We've played against some really good backs this year, and at times, we haven't responded. This is another challenge for us, and I'm taking it as a challenge personally."
Taylor was downgraded to questionable Friday because of an ankle injury, and his availability against the Rams may come down to a game-day decision. If he doesn't play, second-year FB Greg Jones will move to the running back spot. He's more of a fullback-running back hybrid anyway, along the lines of a Mike Alstott.
Jones, who's 6 feet, 1 inch and 250 pounds, rushed for a career-high 77 yards and scored a touchdown with Taylor sidelined against Pittsburgh two weeks ago. Even if Taylor plays, the Jaguars still go with rookie Alvin Pearman - who's small but fast and an excellent receiver - in passing situations.
The hope in Jacksonville was that QB Byron Leftwich would blossom into a star in this, his third season. It hasn't happened yet. For all his toughness and competitiveness, Leftwich remains an average NFL signal-caller. His passing yards and passer rating are down from a year ago at this point in the season.
He throws a great deep ball but lacks touch on shorter stuff. A slow release and big windup cause him to take more hits than he should.
"I have never seen anyone get knocked down as much as he has and get up and dust himself off and complete throws," Vitt said.
"He's a huge quarterback," Rams DT Ryan Pickett said. "He's like a lineman. ... You see guys hit him and just melt off him."
Against New Orleans, the Rams blitzed more than they have all season, and with generally good results. Strong safety Adam Archuleta, for example, matched his career high with two sacks. Defensive players dropped hints all week at Rams Park that they'd like to see more of the same.
"Oh yeah," Claiborne said. "I think early on in the preseason, we blitzed quite a bit and got after people. And you dictate the tempo by doing that. You don't allow the quarterback to sit back and throw the ball."