Rams Must Avoid Letdown At 0-6 Miami
Rams Must Avoid Letdown At 0-6 Miami
By Barry Waller
October 23, 2004
The Rams travel to Miami hoping to beat the 0-6 Dolphins and take a 5-2 record and a division lead into their bye week. Knowing that some key defensive players will probably be 100% by the time the New England Patriots come calling November 7th gives rise to even more optimism in the Rams locker room.
All the Rams have to do, other than win, is get through Sunday’s game without any major injuries a victory looking to be a less difficult task than it now appears to be, “post-Rickey.” That’s exactly why Rams Nation should be as apprehensive about the outcome of this game than any all season.
Even the attention of St. Louis Rams fans will be diverted from this game that should be a slam-dunk for a team that has beaten Seattle on the road and a desperate Tampa Bay team on Monday night. The Cardinals play Saturday night in game one of the World Series in Boston, so some fans may still be hung over by the time the Rams begin their game at noon local time. When they do awaken, St. Louis fans will be thinking more about game two Sunday night than Dave Wannstedt’s offense challenged club.
Hopefully the Rams players will recall the beating they put on the Raiders when they came in as the undefeated darlings of the NFL in 2002, leading the league in both offense and defense. The Rams had a third string quarterback named Marc Bulger that no one had heard of starting his first game that day, and all the money was no doubt on the favored Raiders, one of the only times since 1999 that the Rams were a home underdog.
It always seems like the NFL games that everyone in the world thinks will end one way go in exactly the opposite direction, and this shapes up to be one that carries that “sure win” label. In the NFL, unlike NCAA football, there are no “blood donors” on the schedule, and although Wannstedt seems to have a pathological hatred of offensive football, the Dolphins present a defensive challenge unlike any the Rams will face.
Wannstedt has a long history of building good defenses while ignoring the need for an explosive offense, and if there is an “”Anti-Martz” in coaching makeup, it is the Dolphins head coach, who is the odds on favorite to be the first to lose his job in 2004. In Chicago, where he coached for six seasons before replacing Jimmy Johnson in Miami in 2000, Wannstedt traded a very high first round pick to acquire awful Rick Mirer, and his ability to judge passers has been a constant in the last ten 10 years.
Wannstedt was a vocal non-suitor when Trent Green was available in 2001, preferring Jay Fiedler, who starts for the Dolphins Sunday, in yet another chance to finally cement the job that Wannstedt gave the Ivy Leaguer in 2000, after acquiring the unrestricted free agent. Fiedler had been a journeyman third stringer for his first four seasons, the first two with the Eagles, followed by one in Minnesota, and another in Jacksonville.
At age 32, Fielder is no up and comer, and although his record the past four seasons is an excellent 35-17, Wannstedt didn’t exactly give him a vote of confidence when he traded a 2005 second round pick to bring in 27 year old A.J. Feeley from the Eagles. Wannstedt’s “eye” for passers was apparently it’s usual 20-200, as the youngster who started exactly five games in his career before this year has been a bust in 2004.
Since that second rounder might be the very first in that round, the way the Dolphins are losing, Wannstedt may have, “Done it again”, as the Mr. Magoo of quarterback judges. After all, wouldn’t Kurt Warner have looked pretty good in the Dolphins colors right now? Wannstedt could have had a two time MVP, and one of the best passers in history over three seasons, and not had to trade that draft choice.
To repair the draft possibilities, Wannstedt dealt away his best pass rusher, Adewale Ogunleye, to add receiver Marty Booker and draft picks from the Bears. Booker is a good receiver, but the Dolphins have had plenty of good receivers the past few years. What they desperately needed was a great receive, a difference maker, and the passer that can get him the ball. Instead, the Dolphins ignored offensive weapons in free agency, and used their only first day pick on a guard, Vernon Carey.
They could have had running back Steven Jackson, or one of the top wide outs available in 2004, or even a quarterback for the future, but they put all their offensive hopes in one shaky bottle, Rickey Williams. The deal to acquire the talented but flaky former Saint is yet another Wannstedt move that is proof positive that he should not be given power over personnel.
The Dolphins made many changes in coaches and management in 2004, but the situation was so scary that newly hired President Dan Marino immediately ran away from the pressure, as he never did as a Hall of Fame quarterback. The new offensive coordinator, Chris Foerster, came over after two season with the Colts, but once Williams went South…actually Far East, on the Dolphins at the last minute, Foerster had his hands tied.
Wannstedt “solved” the loss of Williams by dealing a third rounder to the Rams for oft-injured Lamar Gordon, and he almost immediately got hurt.
The Dolphins have played a tough, but not impossible schedule this far, but have scored just 55 points in six games, an unbelievably bad 9.2 points per game average. They haven’t scored a rushing touchdown, and have just four touchdown passes so far.
They play the Rams without their Pro-Bowl kicker Olindo Mare, who has been one of the best ever thus far in his career, so scoring may be even more difficult for the Dolphins. Their offensive situation mirrors the weather this fall in Florida, a complete disaster. With no running game, the two big but relatively slow starting Dolphins receivers, Booker and Chris Chambers, aren’t able to be very effective in the red zone when the Dolphins do get there. Their best weapon Sunday may be tight end Randy McMichael, who caught 49 passes for 598 yards in 2003, his second NFL season.
The Rams have had problems with tight ends in the past, so with McMichael already on pace for an even better season this year, with 22 receptions for 179 yards and a score thus far, that should be a focus for Mike Martz. Carey looks like a good pick, though maybe not the best fit for a team with no backs, as he is starting at right tackle. Damion McIntosh, a bust in San Diego, was signed as the starting left tackle this off season.
Seth McKinney starts at center after being a backup his first two seasons. The guards are 2003 3rd round pick Taylor Whitney and veteran Jeno James, also signed this off-season to bolster the offensive line for a supposed solid running attack with Williams featured. Instead Travis Minor, averaging 3.1 yards a carry in 2004, will be the starter Sunday. The dolphins normally have one of the league’s best fullbacks, but Rob Konrad, who the Rams wanted badly as an unrestricted free agent in 2003, is injured and out for the season.
As bad as that Miami Dolphin offense is in 2004, their defense is just that good, and to win, that unit must be the one to do it, along with special teams. The Rams will possibly be without their “money” kicker, Jeff Wilkins, who is nursing a bad ankle this week, and that will help the Dolphins cause a bit. The Rams have signed ex-Niner kicker Jeff Chandler just in case Wilkins can’t go.
The Dolphins defense is 3rd in yards allowed per game, second in passing yards allowed, mainly due to the best cornerback duo in football. Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain can match up against any wide receiver group in the league and can play a physical style or cover with the best speed receivers out there. The Dolphins strong safety, Sammy Knight, is very familiar to Rams fans, who remember all too many big plays he made against them during his time with New Orleans, and he proved to be a very good pickup for Miami last season, with 111 total tackles and three picks.
The Dolphins signed free safety Antuan Edwards, the Packers top draft pick in 1999, this off-season to replace long time starter Brock Marion. Edwards was a big disappointment in Green Bay, but he has better players around him with Miami.
The Miami linebackers are also very good, and very experienced, beginning with Junior Seau, a future Hall of Famer on the weak side. In the Middle is nine-year veteran Zach Thomas, still one of the best when he is healthy. Morlon Greenwood, who has been a starter since being drafted in 2001, is the strong side linebacker, coming off a career year in 2003, when he totaled 85 tackles. All three linebackers are physical and smart, and capable of making big plays, though they seldom rush the passer.
The Dolphins tend to use their line to generate the pass rush, while occasionally bringing a safety or linebacker on sure passing downs. They depend on their great cover corners to give the line time to get at the passer, much like Tampa Bay does. They have Jason Taylor, once one of the better pass rushers in the NFL at right end, but at age 30 he is no longer the player he once was when he totaled 54.5 sacks from 2000-2003. He has the unenviable task of trying to beat Orlando Pace Sunday, and chances are he won’t.
With Ogunleye gone, the Dolphins start journeyman David Bowens at left end. The 6-3, 260 pounder out of Western Illinois lacks the pass rush of Ogunleye, but he has two sacks thus far to lead the team. Rams right tackle Grant Williams has had his hands full in recent weeks with some of the better left ends, and he needs to keep Bowens at bay so the Rams receivers can get open.
The Miami tackles are long time veteran Tim Bowens, who returned for a back injury last week, and former Bear Bryan Robinson, who like top backup Jeff Zgonina, are ex-Rams.
Mike Martz knows that only mistakes on offense or lack of effort on defense could cost him a much needed win Sunday, so he may play it a bit closer to the vest as the game goes on, relying quite a bit on the duo of Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson to control the ball and the Dolphin’s pass rush. Martz will also attack Seau and the other linebackers in the passing game, a tactic Martz employed when Junior was a Charger.
With Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt probably drawing coverage from those two Pro-Bowl corners all day, look for the contributions from Kevin Curtis, Shaun McDonald and Dane Looker to continue, especially on some shots to the first two downfield and down the middle of the Dolphins defense. To get that done, the line must come up big for the Rams.
On defense, look for the Rams to make sure the elusive Fiedler stays in the pocket, and they must not allow any Michael Stecker moments from Minor by taking him or the big Miami line too lightly. The defense must come out hot, and come out physical, and the same goes for the Rams special teams. Martz promised to fix the kickoff coverage that was the reason he may have to do without his kicker, so vital in games against the toughest defenses.
The kickoff return unit has also been horrible, with Arlen Harris recording a longest return of only 27 yards in 2004. One has to wonder why others have not been auditioning for that chore recently, with Harris being so pedestrian.
Even Mike Furrey, now a little used receiver because of the emergence of McDonald and Curtis, appears to be a better option than Harris.
The Dolphins return specialists are mediocre, but so were the Bucs going into Monday night, and the Rams made them look like among the best. Miami’s coverage teams are merely average as well.
It all adds up to a Rams win if they take this game seriously enough and avoid any Monday Night hangover. Hopefully when the weekend is over, the Rams will be 5-2, and the Cardinals will be coming home from Boston 2-0. The Rams have the best chance of meeting those expectations, but as Martz said Thursday, there are no easy games in the NFL, and this one is against a team just as desperate as his 2002 Rams team when those big bad Raiders coming to town.