Rams' mission: protect Bulger
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Sunday, Sep. 21 2008
HITS KEEP COMING • Quarterback is on pace for 80 sacks.
BIG TEST • Sunday's foes, Seattle, leads league in sacks.
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SEATTLE — The stated goal was 30 sacks or fewer for quarterback Marc Bulger
this season. Two games into 2008, Bulger is on pace to be sacked 80 times,
which would be a league record.
Ooops! Bulger has been dropped 10 times already, and after a couple of them,
you wondered if he would get up.
"Yeah, it's a lot of hits," Bulger said flatly last week. "We don't want to
If it continues, Bulger won't make it to the first frost, much less through the
"The offensive line has to continue to take more pride in what they're doing to
keep the quarterback clean," wide receiver Torry Holt said. "I can stand here
and say what needs to be done, who needs to do what. But that's not going to
"It's going to come down to the guys up front that are protecting Marc, and
giving Steven (Jackson) running lanes, and giving us time to get open in the
secondary to make some things happen. Those guys are going to have to continue
to take a stronger initiative, more of a sense of urgency to keep No. 10 off
"Because if he continues to get smacked around like that, hell, we won't be
seeing No. 10 long."
Against the New York Giants, two of the six sacks were "coverage" sacks. In
other words, Bulger should have gotten rid of the ball earlier, even if it
meant throwing it away.
But the other four sacks came against the Rams' interior line — the two guards
and starting center Nick Leckey. Leckey was beaten by defensive tackle Fred
Robbins for one; right guard Richie Incognito was beaten by defensive tackle
Jay Alford for another.
Justin Tuck got by left guard Adam Goldberg for a sack, but Tuck drew a 15-yard
penalty on the play for bringing Bulger down by his facemask. Tuck subsequently
was fined $5,000 for unnecessary roughness. (Small consolation to Bulger's
The other interior sack came on a blitz up the middle by linebacker Antonio
Pierce. On the play, Leckey turned to his left to take on a defender; Incognito
turned to his right to take on another. That opened a huge gap for Pierce, who
was in Bulger's face before the Rams' QB had even completed his pass drop.
In the opener against Philadelphia, the pass blocking by the offensive line was
better than generally given credit for. Only one of the four sacks allowed came
at the expense of the offensive line. Two came on a botched blitz pickup by
running backs (one apiece by Jackson and Antonio Pittman). Another came on a
well-designed blindside blitz that Bulger simply didn't see.
But for an offensive lineman, there's no worse feeling than seeing your
quarterback on the ground. Particularly if he was clobbered by the guy you were
supposed to be blocking.
"Absolutely," Leckey said. "You better go back there and you better pick him up
and let him know it's going to be OK, and let him know you're not going to do
that again. Sometimes you can say all you want. Other times you've just got to
So far, the Rams haven't been struck by nearly as many offensive line injuries
as last season. But against the Giants, all three interior line spots were
manned by players who were backups at the start of training camp.
Goldberg started in place of the injured Jacob Bell (hamstring). At center,
Leckey moved ahead of Brett Romberg in the preseason after Romberg suffered a
broken hand. And Mark Setterstrom, out for the season following a preseason
knee injury, began camp ahead of Incognito at right guard.
And in fairness to the interior blockers, offensive coordinator Al Saunders
designed the blocking schemes against Philadelphia and the Giants to some
degree to help tackles Orlando Pace and Alex Barron. Against the Giants, for
instance, the Rams employed two tight ends on 14 of their first 20 offensive
Strategically, it was felt Pace might need extra help early in the season
because of uncertainty over how he would come back from shoulder surgery.
Perhaps in part because of the help, Pace has been the team's most consistent
blocker so far this season.
"It's getting there," Pace said. "I'm happy with the way I've come out the past
couple games, and just want to build on that every week."
Sunday's opponent, Seattle, presents another huge challenge in terms of pass
protection. Since the start of the 2005 season, only San Diego has more sacks
in the NFL. So it should come as no surprise that Seattle leads the league in
sacks entering Sunday's game at the always loud Qwest Field, including eight
last week against San Francisco.
"They're good up front, as usual," Bulger said. "(Patrick) Kerney's one of the
best. They've got a good linebacking corps, and the corners are good, so
sometimes there's coverage sacks. ... They're good and they've played together
a long time."
Kerney, at defensive end, is the headliner of the group. But linebacker Julian
Peterson has had 9½ sacks in his last 12 games against the Rams. Defensive end
Darryl Tapp, now a backup, had four sacks against the Rams last year in
Seattle, a game in which Bulger was sacked seven times.
On the interior, defensive tackle Rocky Bernard is tied for the most sacks by
an interior lineman (16½) in the NFL since 2005. Another defensive tackle,
Brandon Mebane, doesn't get much publicity but has developed into a beast. Like
Bernard, he's very quick off the ball.
"As a defense, they're high-motor guys," Leckey said. "They have excellent
talent, and they have excellent work ethic. So I really think that you're going
to have to just stay on your guys until the very bitter end."
Or else, that Bulger sack total will continue to mount.