Run defense also a concern

Friday, November 06, 2004 By CHRIS KENNEDY

The Patriots defense has more to worry about tomorrow than simply their depleted secondary.

While injuries that will sideline starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole will encourage St. Louis coach Mike Martz to call pass plays to his wide receivers early and often, the Patriots were not exactly stalwarts against the run in last week's 34-20 loss at Pittsburgh.

The Steelers gained 221 yards on the ground, the second team in seven games to crack the 200-yard rushing mark against the Patriots. Edgerrin James and the Colts piled up 202 in the season-opener. With Kansas City's Priest Holmes and Baltimore's Jamal Lewis on the horizon, the Patriots need to solidify that area of their game in a hurry.

As for this week, New England has to hope any added emphasis they put on shoring up their secondary does not come at the expense of their run defense. The Rams will never be run-oriented, but they certainly have what it takes to mix in an effective ground game that might make them seem unstoppable.

Marshall Faulk, still one of the most feared combination backs in the league, is averaging 4.2 yards per carry over 111 rushes and is the team's third-leading receiver with 28 catches. Oregon State rookie Steven Jackson, the 24th overall pick in last April's draft, is averaging 5.7 yards over 46 carries.

One of the two is in most of the time, but there have been occasions when both are on the field. Faulk is a better receiver than most wide receivers, so having both on the field certainly can work. The bigger Jackson is obviously a more powerful back, the smaller but still hard-nosed Faulk is one of the most dynamic players in league history.

Martz said the carries might now be split right down the middle over the coming weeks because the Rams are confident the 6-foot-1, 231-pound Jackson can handle his responsibilities.

"To be honest, if something were to happen to Marshall, with Steven we wouldn't miss a beat in terms of what we are doing," Martz said. "It doesn't diminish our offensive package at all, which I could never say about a rookie before and never thought I would say about a rookie back.

"I can't tell you how pleased I am with his maturity, his ability to absorb and be a student of the game."

Jackson's progress allows the Rams to give the 5-11, 211-pound Faulk the kind of breaks that will leave him fresh late in games and perhaps late in the season as well. Faulk, in his 11th year, has been hampered by hand and knee injuries in recent seasons.

"He is playing very well," Martz said of Faulk. "His weight is down. His knee feels good. He has the speed back. I just think it is a very healthy situation, and that is what is encouraging as we go down the stretch here, to have those guys healthy."

Jackson was viewed as a top 20 or so pick in last April's draft, but the couple of teams that might have picked a running back - Dallas and Denver, most notably - did not, so Jackson fell to the Rams.

The Patriots had traded for Corey Dillon to replace Antowain Smith before the draft, so they did not need a running back. The Dolphins selected 19th, five spots in front of the Rams, but they assumed Ricky Williams would be playing for them in 2004 as did everyone else. Miami offensive lineman Vernon Carey was their pick.

"We weren't really thinking about a running back," Martz said.

"It was a remarkable situation for us, and we were just fortunate he was there."

EXTRA POINTS: The Patriots did not change their injury report. Receivers Troy Brown (shoulder), Deion Branch (knee) and David Givens (knee), running backs Corey Dillon (thigh) and Patrick Pass (thigh), right tackle Tom Ashworth (back) and linebacker Larry Izzo (knee) all missed at least a portion of practice yesterday, according to the team. All are questionable with the exception of Branch, who is doubtful. ... Starting right tackle Grant Williams, receiver Dane Looker (12 catches) and tight end Cam Cleeland (2 catches) are former Patriots now with the Rams. Looker is doubtful with an ankle injury. "You're talking about a man who prepares more than any one you have ever seen," Cleeland said of New England coach Bill Belichick, "Film study, situations, those kinds of things beyond belief. He doesn't want you to make any mistakes at all." Added Williams about Belichick, "He talks a lot about getting each game into the fourth quarter with a chance to win."