09/25/2004

Defending Brooks

The good news is the Rams don't have to face Michael Vick this week. The bad news is they're facing his second cousin, underrated New Orleans QB Aaron Brooks. Although he doesn't lack for mobility, Brooks isn't the running threat that Vick is.

"Vick likes to get rushing yards down the field," Rams defensive tackle Tyoka Jackson said. "Aaron is looking to slide around and use his evasiveness in the pocket, or to just buy more time. But he's trying to get the ball downfield with his arm. ... Aaron can run. He's a great athlete. But he wants to be a pocket passer."

According to Rams coach Mike Martz, with the exception of Green Bay's Brett Favre, Brooks may be the best in the league at making the big play downfield with the deep ball. That may be a bit of a stretch, but there's no doubt Brooks has gotten much better throwing the deep ball, which was a weakness for him when he entered the league. Brooks also excels at seam routes, and passes down the middle, perhaps a by-product of his height (6 feet 4) and his ability to see downfield over linemen.


On the receiving end

The Saints like to go vertical in the passing game with three-time Pro Bowler Joe Horn and the emerging Donte Stallworth at wide receiver. Horn talks a good game and backs it up on the field. Horn is very competitive, and is explosive in and out of cuts. He's not a burner, but plays strong and physical, and will make the tough catch.

"Horn likes to go up for the ball," Rams CB Jerametrius Butler said. "When the ball's in the air, he's going to try to get it from you."

Stallworth, the No. 13 overall pick in the 2002 draft, appears to be coming into his own after two disappointing seasons marred by hamstring, ankle and leg injuries.

"I think Stallworth's really getting a feel for the league right now," Butler said. "He's their deep-threat guy. Not taking anything away from Horn - Horn's (also) a deep threat. But I think Stallworth shows more speed on the field."

No. 3 wide receiver Jerome Pathon isn't real strong and sometimes gets knocked around, but he nonetheless can be effective over the middle on underneath routes.


Life without Deuce

With two-time Pro Bowler Deuce McAllister out with a high ankle sprain, the Saints are counting on Aaron Stecker and Ki-Jana Carter to generate a ground game against the Rams' 29th-ranked rushing defense. In four seasons with Tampa Bay, Stecker's primary duty was returning kicks. He never had more than 37 carries, or 174 yards rushing, in any one season there.

"Stecker runs between the tackles very hard," Rams defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. "He's not very elusive, but more of a power runner."

In large part because of injuries, Carter has been one of the biggest draft busts in recent NFL history. The No. 1 overall pick in 1995 by Cincinnati, Carter has only 1,127 career rushing yards. At age 31, he's clearly lost a step from his days at Penn State. Or even from 1996, when in his only appearance in St. Louis he carried 14 times for 14 yards for the Bengals in the season opener.


Old reliables

Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt have been the two constants in the Rams' offense this season. Bruce ranks first in the NFC in catches (17), with Holt second (16); Holt is first in the NFC in reception yards (217), with Bruce a close second (214). New Orleans counters with one of the league's most experienced secondaries: cornerbacks Ashley Ambrose and Fred Thomas, plus safeties Jay Bellamy and Tebucky Jones, have 529 NFL games among them.

Bruce and Holt faced Ambrose six times between 1999-01, when Ambrose was with New Orleans and Atlanta.

"He's a smart guy," Bruce said. "Kind of like Aeneas (Williams). He's going to be real patient with you, make sure he takes the right angles to try to cut you off at the top of your routes. He's going to make sure everybody's lined up. You can pick that up on film. ... He's kind of a leader back there, making sure everybody's where they're supposed to be."

The Saints have played a lot of press coverage so far this season, but Bruce cautions, "Things seem to change when we play teams. It may be something totally different."


In the trenches

The Saints' defensive line is getting healthy just in time for a Rams offensive line that followed a stellar opener against Arizona with a clunker against Atlanta. LT Orlando Pace yielded two sacks against the Falcons, one of which resulted in a critical Atlanta touchdown. LG Chris Dishman yielded a sack as well.

After missing the Saints' first two games with a neck injury, DE Darren Howard returned to practice this week and is expected to start. Steady but not dominant, Howard is the Saints' best all-around lineman. His return gives New Orleans a good three-man rotation with Charles Grant and 2004 first-round pick Will Smith at the end positions.

Former Ram Brian Young is expected to start at DT after sitting out last week because of hip and groin injuries. The Saints' front seven needs all the help it can get, ranking 31st in run defense after two games.

-Jim Thomas