BY JEFF GORDON
Post-Dispatch Online Sports Columnist
10/08/2004


The Rams got better last week. They ran the ball, they stopped the run, the covered kicks, they won a division game on the road . . . all in all, it was a splendid Sunday night in San Francisco.

But now we'll learn so much more about this team. Rams coach Mike Martz insists that the early turbulence was expected and that his team will continue improving as the season unfolds.

The Seahawks will test that theory -- because they have all the tools to deliver the Rams a severe beating in Seattle.

Here is what we'll be looking for over in this corner of cyberspace:


* Can the Rams really stop the run?

The Seahawks will pound running back Shaun Alexander into Larry Marmie's defensive unit, looking to set up play-action passing opportunities.

The Rams got a handle on Kevan Barlow last Sunday in Frisco, but this will be a much greater challenge.

"You need to try to keep their linemen off our linebackers with the defensive front," Martz observed during his Wednesday news conference. "It's like putting your finger in a leak in the dam, it will spring somewhere else."

Like with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who is building on last season's progress.

"All of a sudden he is pulling the ball out of Alexander's belly," Martz said, "and throwing it down the field. That's how they work."


* Can the Rams really establish the run?

The Niners are nothing special on defense and Martz made the point of punishing them with Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson. Will he still favor the run this week if Seattle has early success stopping it?

The Seahawks have the league's third-ranked rush defense, so opening holes will be a chore -- especially with the Rams offensive line so banged up.

We'll all monitor the play-calling closely. If Mad Mike abandons the run, the Seahawks have the personnel to get after quarterback Marc Bulger while making it difficult to connect on deep passing strikes. The Seahawks have an excellent secondary.

So far, former Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom has been everything Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren hoped for. So far, Seattle's defensive line has been very disruptive.

"Our defensive line, I'm not saying I'm surprised, but they put it together nicely," Holmgren told the St. Louis media during a conference call Wednesday. "We're playing a lot of folks in there. We drafted (Marcus) Tubbs in the first round. He's in there and he's a rookie. And Rashard Moore is a young guy, second-year player in there, and I'm pleased with how the defensive line is playing. They set the table for the linebackers and secondary."


* Will Martz get Faulk out in space?

The Seahawks linebackers aren't great. If ever Martz was going to throw lots of passes to Faulk releasing from the backfield, this would be the game.

Faulk looked more like his old self against the Niners last week. Now Martz has an opportunity to get him lots of touches in different ways.


* Finally, will the Rams play a clean game?

Last Sunday they played nearly mistake-free football, avoiding the sorts of penalties, turnovers and kick coverage gaffes that led to their 1-2 start.

If the Rams make lots of mistakes at Seattle, they will get blown out. If they can minimize their mishaps, then they will give their playmakers the opportunity to take their shot.

This matchup provides an excellent test. Just where are the Rams these days? Are they moving back into playoff contention or are they headed south, as so many naysayers believe?

By the end of the weekend, we'll have a much better read on this football team.