Saturday, November 19, 2005
By Nick Wagoner
1. Warner’s Return
With all of the drama surrounding the Rams this season, this year’s biggest storyline entering the season has gone almost forgotten. Forgotten, that is, until this week.
Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner’s return has been circled on the calendar of many fans in St. Louis since the schedule was released before the season. Warner’s season has been up and down, with some injuries mixed in and it appeared that he might not be the starter when this game came around, but he will be under center Sunday after throwing for 693 yards in his past two games.
Warner has struggled to get the Cardinals in the end zone this year, though, throwing for just three touchdowns, but he appears to be playing his best in time for this emotional rematch.
After the amazing three-year run Warner put together in St. Louis, he will likely be roundly cheered by the fans at the Edward Jones Dome.
“I’m sure the reaction will be favorable for him and it should be, he did a lot in the community and for this team,” quarterback Marc Bulger said. “There’s no reason to boo him. I think he’ll have a good reception.”
That reception will be easy to justify considering Warner led the Rams to a pair of Super Bowl appearances, including one championship and two MVP awards. Warner spent last season in New York with the Giants, so he didn’t get a chance to return to the place where he made his name.
Now, he is making his first appearance in the Gateway City since his departure before last year. Warner still has the tendency to hold the ball too long and will cough it up if he is hit.
Still, Warner had a good outing against the Rams in the first meeting, throwing for 327 yards, but he couldn’t get his team in the end zone in that game and he still strikes fear into the heart of the Rams defense.
“He played really, really well, and I looked at a guy who, if we don’t get something done, he’s going to beat us,” defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson said. “That’s what I saw. I saw a guy slinging the ball around and trying to go for your heart. That’s what we’re going to get when he comes here. I’m sure there are going to be a lot of fans in the stands that are fired up for him, but we can’t let him have a party in our stadium. He plays for the enemy now. He’s not a teammate anymore.”
2. Running Rams
Heading in to last week’s game against Seattle, the Rams fully expected to run the ball early and often. But a variety of circumstances dictated that running back Steven Jackson would get 17 carries for 70 yards only three weeks after putting together a pair of big games to help the Rams win.
Jackson said later that he wasn’t surprised that he didn’t get the ball more, but the funny thing was Jackson was the only one that wasn’t surprised by the lack of carries.
“Yeah, I was surprised,” receiver Isaac Bruce said. “I don’t mind (running). If it helps the team, yes. I’m here to do my part and my part is when we run it to get a block and when we throw it to catch it and get in the end zone.”
In the first meeting with the Cardinals, Jackson ran well, finishing with 93 yards on 18 carries with a touchdown. Arizona hasn’t been good against the run this season, either, ranking 25th in the league by allowing 125.7 yards per attempt.
Of course, the Rams won’t turn into an all running team anytime soon with the likes of Bulger, Bruce and Torry Holt available in the passing game, but St. Louis is still searching for balance in the offense and that starts with Jackson.
“I think coaches will make it a point to run Steven this week and run him often,” Holt said. “We know if he runs the ball well that gives us a better chance to win the ball game. We need to win this ball game so I would assume they will give him the ball a lot in order to give us an opportunity to win this game.”
3. Holding the Line
The Rams offensive line has had a significantly different look to it in past weeks after going most of the year with an eerily similar group up front. But not it appears the Rams will be without the veterans that have been the staple of the line for the better part of the past six years.
Earlier this week, left guard Tom Nütten was placed on injured reserve because of a neck injury. Now, it appears that right guard Adam Timmerman will miss his first start in 89 tries.
That means St. Louis will send out rookie Claude Terrell at left guard again with utility man Blaine Saipaia as the right guard. Saipaia knows he has big shoes to fill in taking the place of a grizzled veteran leader such as Timmerman.
“The level of expectation has been set by the guys here before me like Tommy and Adam and Andy (McCollum) and Big O(rlando Pace),” Saipaia said. “There is a level of intensity you have to bring because they have set the bar so high. You have to be ready to keep it up, match it or improve on it.”
Fortunately for the Rams, Arizona’s defensive line isn’t in much better shape. Star defensive end Bertrand Berry is out for the season because of injury. That leaves Antonio Smith to play the role of Pace’s personal ragdoll and veteran Chike Okeafor to line up on the other side against rookie Alex Barron.
Inside, the Cardinals employ Darnell Dockett and Ross Kolodziej to go up against McCollum, Saipaia and Terrell.
Even with the youth the Rams have on the offensive line, Nütten is confident that the pair of rookies and Saipaia can get the job done.
“I’m very happy with Claude’s progress,” Nütten said. “I think he’s been phenomenal. I hope he was able to take a thing or two from me here. When I was a rookie I wasn’t anywhere near his level he is at right now. I think he’s done great. I think Alex has progressed phenomenally from camp. I think both of them have bright future ahead of them.”
Barron and Terrell have had some growing pains in recent weeks, though. Barron has struggled with penalties and Terrell with conditioning issues. This is a game that the duo should be able to establish itself and gain the confidence to carry it through the rest of the season.
4. Secondary First
The Rams secondary has been brutal in recent weeks, giving up big plays over the top time and again. Part of the reason for those problems was because of the struggles of injured cornerback Travis Fisher. Fisher gave his best effort, but wasn’t able to keep up and is out this week because of the nagging injury. It appears that Ron Bartell will start in his place alongside DeJuan Groce.
Groce got off to an excellent start this season, including an acrobatic interception in the first game against the Cardinals, but hasn’t been as stout in coverage in recent weeks.
Groce, Bartell, Corey Ivy and Chris Johnson will need to be at their best this week with the talented duo of Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald lining up at receiver for the Cardinals.
“Boldin’s an all-round guy,” Groce said. “You wouldn’t think he’s fast, but at the same time on the field he’s real fast. He’s one of the guys that competes. He competes no matter what’s going to happen, through his routes, making blocks and different things like that. He takes the extra effort to go out and make a block. Fitzgerald is more of finesse guy. He’s more of finesse guy that they’re going to get the ball to and he’s going to make something happen.”
Fitzgerald had four catches for 70 yards in the first meeting with the Rams and has come on strong of late with Boldin sidelined by an injury. Fitzgerald had nine catches for 141 yards last week and is coming into his own.
Boldin is the more established of the duo and has been a thorn in the side of St. Louis since his arrival in the league. Boldin had eight grabs for 119 yards in the first meeting and had a lot of success on simple wheel routes against the Rams’ zone coverage packages.
The Rams would like to be aggressive in pursuing Warner because of his penchant for fumbling, but to be as aggressive as they want, they will need the corners to be ready to hold up in man coverage.
Bartell provides the Rams with a big, physical cover man that could match up better with the larger Boldin. He is still somewhat raw and has to find the right formula for success, but this could be his best chance to prove he belongs.
It is that combination of size and speed possessed by Boldin and Fitzgerald that could make for another long day for the Rams’ No. 27 pass defense.
“When you see them, they are big and athletic,” coach Joe Vitt said. “Usually in this league, small, quick, good feet, great hands and now when you get a big guy with great feet, great balance, quickness, maybe doesn’t have the long speed but can make the catch in the crowd, they really do a great job of locating the ball in the air and I think they are doing a great job of getting in sync with Kurt now.”
5. Seeing Red
The Cardinals and Rams have struggled mightily in the red zone this season, both with numerous failures putting the ball in the end zone after getting inside the opponent’s 20.
St. Louis was one for five in such opportunities against the Seahawks, a big reason that the Rams were unable to hang with Seattle. Most of those failures were traced to negative rushing plays or penalties that began to accumulate early and often.
With that in mind, the Rams spent extra time in Friday’s practice working on the issues and the coaching staff spent most of Thursday night studying all of the team’s possessions in the red zone this season.
“I think structurally we’re fine,” Vitt said. “We went back and did some studies last night of the 32 chances we had in the red zone, the 16 scores and 14 field goals that we had. Those 14 field goals were attributed by penalties, offsides, interceptions, tackles for losses. So, we’ve kind of identified that, and now we’ll go to work.”
The Rams did go to work in Friday’s practice, focusing on converting those chances in the red zone. One way to improve is to eliminate the silly penalties like the false starts that have been coming in bunches.
It would also help to start getting positive yards on first down so that the defense can be kept guessing on what the Rams will run rather than having them in a position where it’s obvious that a pass is on the way.
“We understand the importance; we understand the sense on urgency this week,” Holt said. “If we want to win this ballgame, we have to score in the redzone. So hopefully we’ll get in there this week and capitalize.”