By Jim Thomas
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Blocking the 3-4
The 3-4 alignment, using only three defensive linemen and four linebackers, is experiencing a renaissance around the NFL. Count San Francisco among its new proponents under new coach Mike Nolan.

"We've seen it before, but obviously we're more accustomed to seeing a 4-3, which has been more prevalent around the league the last few years," Rams C Andy McCollum said. "Now it seems a lot of teams are going back to that three-man front. We have everything installed to deal with it, it's just a matter of getting it down and making sure we know it just as well as we know the other stuff."

In the 3-4, the outside linebackers are really end-linebacker hybrids. Sometimes they rush the passer and play run defense; sometimes they drop in coverage.

"That's part of the 3-4 scheme," Rams QB Marc Bulger said. "They try to confuse you. We're going to have to be mentally sharp this game."

At least the Rams got a dry run against the 3-4 in their second exhibition game, against San Diego, using blocking schemes designed for the *****.

Peterson & Co.
Whether it's a 4-3 or a 3-4, the linebacker corps has been the strength of the San Francisco defense in recent years.

"There's no question about it," Rams coach Mike Martz says. "I still say that that middle 'backer, 50, he's pretty terrific."

No. 50 on the *****' roster would be Derek Smith, an intense, aggressive, underrated performer. Smith has topped 100 tackles in each of the past eight seasons, tied for the second-longest such streak in the NFL. He's a key to the *****' run defense.

But the headliner of the starting unit, which includes Jeff Ulbrich and Jamie Winborn, is left outside linebacker Julian Peterson. He can do it all - rush the passer, play run defense, and drop into coverage. He will have more pass-rush duties in the 3-4. Although Peterson's not quite 100 percent coming off an Achilles' tendon injury in 2004, he will prevent a formidable opening-day challenge for Rams right tackle Rex Tucker, who's playing the position for the first time in his NFL career.

Barlow left, Barlow right
Nolan wants to establish the running game this season, which could mean plenty of work for enigmatic ***** RB Kevan Barlow. After rushing for 1,024 yards and 5.1 yards a carry in 2003, Barlow slipped to 822 yards and 3.4 yards a carry last season.

In eight career games against the Rams, he has never rushed for more than 87 yards. Despite their struggles defending the run last season, the Rams limited Barlow to 90 yards in 34 carries in two games. Nonetheless, the Rams aren't taking him lightly, which is a good thing because Barlow packs 238 pounds on his 6-1 frame.

Steven & Marshall
The Steven Jackson era begins in the Rams backfield Sunday, with Marshall Faulk in a supporting role. Martz has indicated that he wants to run the ball more this season. While not exactly man-bites-dog news, seeing will be believing for fans - and some Rams players - accustomed to the Air Martz offense.

"He loves to throw the football," Rams WR Torry Holt said. "I'm sure a lot of people are saying, 'You have to show me that you're going to commit to the running game.' And I hope he does. ... There's a lot of things that can come off when you've got a good running game. I know Steven will definitely welcome that challenge, the big bruiser that he is. And the offensive line as well will embrace that."

Special teams debut
There are new coaches in Bob Ligashesky and Charles Bankins, several new players on the coverage units, and what appears to be a new attitude and emphasis. Will that lead to better special teams play by the Rams on Sunday?

"I think it's pretty evident our special teams have improved," Bulger said. "... There's just a different attitude, I think, that hasn't been here in at least the last five years since I've been here."

The Rams will go with Shaun McDonald returning punts, and either Aveion Cason or Arlen Harris returning kickoffs. The ***** are expected to counter with return men Maurice Hicks on kickoffs and Arnaz Battle on punts.