Overview: Rams head coach Mike Martz isn't considered "Mad Mike" for nothing. Since he took over as head coach in February of 2000 the Rams have had the best and most dangerous offense in the NFL.
The offense has been known as "The Greatest Show on Turf" since the 1999 season (the franchise's first and only Super Bowl title), but the offense began to show signs of slowing down toward the end of 2003 and many think Martz and his offensive coaches will look more to a ground game that features a sure Hall-of-Famer in Marshall Faulk and first-round selection RB Stephen Jackson.
Gone is former defensive coordinator Lovie Smith left St. Louis to coach the Chicago Bears and in his place Larry Marmie, a long-time friend of Martz, who will stick with basically the same defense with only a couple of variations.
Martz still focuses on the offense and he has plenty of talent at his disposal. However, some key parts have left and those that remain are getting older and aren't the players they once were.
Offense: The Ram offense will still be high-flying and very explosive, but look for Martz and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild to use more of a power-running game to help out new starter QB Marc Bulger.
Saying Bulger is a "new" starter is sort of a misnomer. Bulger has started 22 games over the last two seasons due to injuries and ineffective play by former starter Kurt Warner. Warner was an icon in the Gateway City and Bulger will have lots of pressure on him to perform at a high level.
In 2003 Bulger completed 63.2% of his passes for 3,845 yards, 22 TDs and 22 INTs. Bulger isn't very mobile, but he has enough pocket-awareness and savvy to move around enough to allow things to happen down field. Bulger's two biggest faults are his decision-making and is youth. He still does not see the field as well as Warner and sometimes that gets him into trouble.
Bulger's strength lies in his live arm, accuracy and his calmness under pressure. If he can cut down on the untimely interceptions (see last season's Divisional Playoff loss to Carolina) he could be a special QB. As it stands the jury is still out on whether he will be an elite QB or just an average signal-caller.
Behind Bulger is grey-beard Chris Chandler. Chandler thows a great deep ball, understands defenses, and is a good leader. Chandler has the ability to help the team get through two or three weeks in case Bulger is hurt. Rookie Jeff Smoker will be brought along slowly as his talents and firey attitude make him a perfect Martz protégé.
Behind Bulger will be an excellent backfield. Surefire Hall-of-Famer Marshall Faulk still has some gas left in the tank but injuries have limited him the past few seasons. He is still one of the best at catching passes out of the backfield and if he gets the ball in the open field, he still has the jets to take it the distance.
Last season Faulk rushed for 818 yards and 10 TDs. He was injured in week three against the Seahawks and missed five weeks while recovering from a broken hand. When he came back he was a workhorse running for over 100 yards five times in the final nine weeks and helping lead the team to the playoffs.
With Faulk struggling to stay healthy the last four seasons and the lack of a game-breaker to take his place, the Rams were giddy with excitement when Oregon State RB Stephen Jackson was available when their selection came up in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft.
Jackson is much bigger than Faulk (6'2", 235 lbs) and he is already adept at picking up blitzes in pass protection. Jackson is a bruiser who has decent speed. He is only an average pass-catcher and he must improve in this area if he expects to start for Martz. Fans can look for Faulk and Jackson to get lots of time together in some offensive sets.
At WR, the Rams have two elite wideouts, one sure handed receiver and two players who have talent but have yet to show it.
Veterans Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce are two of the most dangerous wideouts in the league and Bulger has the luxury of throwing to both of them. Holt is the go-to guy, catching 117 passes for 1,696 yards (14.5 yard average) and 12 TDs. He has enough speed to get deep, but he excels at the intermediate routes. His open field running is also very good and he catches almost everything thrown in his direction.
Bruce is now 32 and while he is getting a little long-in-the-tooth he still ranks in the top 10 of elite wideouts. Last year Bruce caught 69 passes for 981 yards and five TDs. Bruce still gets better separation than most receivers in the NFL and he is an underrated blocker. Bruce has some problems getting off jams at the line of scrimmage, but he is great with the ball in his hands.
Behind the two starters are sure-handed Dane Looker and unproven second-year players Shaun McDonald and Kevin Curtis. Looker caught 47 passes for 495 yards and three TDs, while McDonald and Curtis struggled through injuries. Curtis is the most intriguing player, as he has the ability to stretch defenses with his speed, but it remains to be seen whether or not he can be the player that the coaches think he can be.
TE Brandon Manumaleuna is a great blocker but he lacks good pass-receiving skills. He only caught 29 passes for 238 yards and three TDs. In the offseason the Rams went out and got a solid pass-catching TE in Cam Cleeland to help stretch the middle seem of the defense.
Along the offensive line there are questions about how effective they will be. At LT Pace is one of the best in the entire league, but his protracted contract holdout (he was named the Rams' franchise player for the second year in a row) could cause continuity problems at the beginning of the season.
RT Kyle Turley is very good and he plays with a nasty attitude that makes him a throwback. His status is in question as a back condition may force him to miss most of training camp or possibly even retire. When healthy he is one of the better RT's in the league.
The interior trio of LG Andy McCollum, C Dave Wohlabaugh and RG Adam Timmerman seems set. Each of these three are entering their 10th season in the league and all three pass-block better than they run-block.
If all of their line components are in place the Rams have a solid front-wall. However with Turley possibly being shelved for a while and Pace holding out, youngsters like Andy King and Grant Williams will have to step up big-time.
This offense will still finish in the top ten of the league but look for them to grind out more wins and for Martz to continue to be a little more conservative with the young QB.
Defense: As stated before, Marmie will have few changes from Smith's zone-based cover 2 scheme. He will blitz a little more and from different angles, but Marmie prefers to let the players make plays and to keep the changes to a minimum.
Like the offensive line, the defensive line has question marks all over it. DE Grant Wistrom and DT Brian Young left via free agency and 2003 first-round selection DT Jimmy Kennedy was lost for the season during the second week of camp with a broken foot. To compound concerns standout DE Leonard Little may miss time due to a suspension by the league.
In April, Little was arrested for drunken-driving and if he is found guilty the NFL may suspend him for most if not all of the season. When healthy and with no outside concerns Little is one of the best ends in the league. Only Michael Strahan and Simeon Rice have more sacks than Little's 39 over the last three seasons. He plays the run well and his backside pursuit doesn't allow opposing running backs to cut back and make big plays.
Wistrom's spot will see five players vying for time. Veterans Tyoka Jackson, Bryce Fisher, Sean Moran, and Erik Flowers will battle it out with 2004 third-round selection Tony Hargrove for playing time.
Jackson has the size (6'2", 280 lbs) and the experience to have the inside track on the starting position but it remains to be seen if he can produce consistently over a 16 game season. Hargrove has the most athleticism, but he is young (just turned 21) and he did not play football for Georgia Tech in 2003 because of poor grades.
At DT the Rams were counting on Kennedy being the disruptor they thought they drafted with the tenth overall selection in 2003. At the very least Kennedy would have seen time in the rotation with former first-rounders Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett. Lewis has all the ability to be a good one but he has been slowed by ankle and foot injuries in his first three seasons. This is a make-or-break season for the former Miami Hurricane.
Pickett is probably the best of the group but he must keep his weight in check and the hope is he is totally recovered from the high ankle sprain that slowed him down in 2003. He has a quick first step and his big body allows him to clog running-lanes. He has been a solid starter, but the Rams need Pickett to take the next step in order to be great.
The linebackers for the Rams are athletic and fast and at their best they fly to ball and cause turnovers. However, because they are young, inconsistency has plagued this unit the last two seasons.
Strongside OLB Tommy Polley is a great cover linebacker and he finished tied for the team lead with four interceptions and led the team with 12 passes defensed. If Polley can continue to improve against the run, something he has worked diligently on in his three seasons, he could be a Pro Bowl player.
MLB Robert Thomas improved greatly in his second season after a forgettable rookie season, when he played out of position on the outside, and his run support and strength at the point of attack make him ideal for the middle. He is still learning his position and sometimes he guesses the wrong gap and big runs occur, but his 70 tackles and two sacks show he may come on big in his third season.
On the weakside Pisa Tinoisamoa was all over the field registering 78 tackles, two sacks, and three interceptions. He finished second on the team with six tackles for loss and he plays at full speed all the time. His second season should see more big plays and the Rams expect him to contend for Pro Bowl recognition sooner rather than later.
The secondary has a lot of players but it remains to be seen whether they can get it done year in and year out.
SS Adam Archuleta and FS Aeneas Williams are the leaders of the defense and they both are playmakers.
Archuleta has the size of a linebacker and the speed of a defensive back. He tied for the lead in tackles with 78, had five sacks and one interception. Archuleta is great in run-support but is not great in pass-coverage, although he has improved.
Williams just keeps moving along, making a seamless transition from cornerback to free safety. He is an underrated hitter and he still has a nose for the ball getting four INTs and one touchdown. When teams go to three-receiver sets he moved up to play corner in the slot and if he continues to do that rookie S Jason Shivers could see an increased role.
The corners are a bit undersized and thus the cover 2 zone is well utilized in the Rams defense. Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler are the two starters and both had solid seasons on the outside.
Fisher has above average closing speed and his 11 passes defensed, four INTs and two TDs showed he can make plays when given the chance. Bulter got out of Smith's doghouse, winning the starting job during camp and holding on to it for the entire season. Butler is good in run support, finishing with 71 tackles, but his four INTs and 10 passes defensed also show that he has good cover skills as well.
The Rams must improve against the run or this could be a long season. In 2003 they surrendered over 128 yards per game and teams exploited their young linebackers. If Little gets suspended the DBs will struggle to hold their coverage long enough and it is imperative that Pickett and Lewis live up to their overall potential.
Special Teams: K Jeff Wilkins had one of the most prolific seasons ever for a kicker in 2003. He made an NFL record-tying 39 field goals (in 42 attempts) and won the scoring title with an incredible 163 points. Wilkins has a great leg and at the age of 32, he should have plenty left. Old man Sean Landeta, 42 and entering his 20th NFL season, started the season slow but finished strong averaging almost 43 yards a punt and registering only five touchbacks. He is a great directional punter and his ability to pin teams deep will help the defense.
The last time the Seahawks and Rams played: It was week 15 of the 2003 and the Rams were looking to avenge a controversial week three loss in Seattle. A rollercoaster game at the Edward Jones Dome saw the "Controversy Monster" rear its ugly head as the Seahawks lost a heartbreaker 27-22.
The Hawks drew first blood when Seahawks middle linebacker Orlando Huff came on a delayed blitz and sacked QB Marc Bulger in the endzone for a safety, allowing the Seahawks to take a 2-0 lead.
The Hawks' offense struggled early on and was ineffective, but that was not the case for the Rams. Bulger went to work late in the quarter and hit wide receivers Dane Looker and Isaac Bruce with long gains and rookie CB Marcus Trufant was called for defensive holding on 3rd and 15 allowing the Rams an extra set of downs.
Bulger then hit WR Mike Furrey with a 13 yard pass on 3rd and 12 and soon there after RB Marshall Faulk took it into the endzone from 5 yards out…Rams 7, Seahawks 2.
After Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck was intercepted by CB Travis Fisher, Bulger immediately went to work hitting WR Isaac Bruce with an 18-yard TD pass to extend their league…Rams 14, Seahawks 2.
Hasselbeck then went to work with his own set of receivers, hitting TE Itula Mili with two 15 yards passes and then WR Darrell Jackson with a 9 yard TD pass 7:07 into the second quarter. The drive was 7 plays and 72 yards and the Seahawks had life…Rams 14, Seahawks 9.
Bulger had the answer, hitting Holt on a 40 yard touchdown pass even though Trufant was right next to Holt and ready to make a play. A big play on the drive was CB Shawn Springs getting called for pass interference on 3rd and 3.
Before the half the Seahawks added a Josh Brown field goal and entered halftime trailing the Rams 21 to 12.
Brown had the only points of the third quarter, nailing a 38-yarder and soon after the fourth quarter had started Rams K Jeff Wilkins added a 33-yarder…Rams 24, Seahawks 15.
Alexander had a good series leading the Hawks on a 7 play 56 yard drive and went over from 2 yards out and the Seahawks, who had been horrible on the road, thought they had a good chance to come out with a big win against the division rival.
Wilkins added a 46-yard field goal late in the quarter and the Rams thought they had it sewed up with only 2:37 left.
Hasselbeck drove the team to midfield and with little time left, Hasselbeck lofted a 50-yard pass to WR Bobby Engram who had gotten behind the Rams defenders. Engram began to reach for the pass and just as he was lunging for the ball, he collided with the Back Judge and the play was ruled an incomplete pass. Hasselbeck, Engram and the entire Seahawks sideline protested but to no avail.
With no time remaining, Hasselbeck lofted a "Hail Mary" type pass to WR Koren Robinson and it was knocked down by CB Dejuan Groce.
The Hawks felt snake-bitten in that they had lost three weeks earlier under questionable calls by game officials.
Hasselbeck had a solid game passing for 246 yards, one TD, and one INT. Alexander was excellent running for 125 yards a touchdown and Jackson had a big day catching six passes for 99 yards and a touchdown.
Bulger was solid as well, throwing 2 touchdowns and completing 20 of 32 for 236. Faulk got 85 yards on the ground and one touchdown and Holt caught six passes for 100 yards and one touchdown.
The Rams lead this series 8-3 and have won three of the last four.
2004 Projection: With questions along both lines this team needs some players to step up and take over. Faulk is still solid and the selection of Jackson gives them a nice big-back to throw at teams to give them a different look.
Bulger is now "the man" and the pressure is squarely on his shoulders to replace the popular Warner behind center. If Bulger can cut down on his interceptions and make better decisions the offense should continue to be potent even with the questions along the offensive line.
On defense, the linebackers must continue to be active and the line must gel and perform to expectations.
Look for the Rams to battle the Seahawks for the division title and to, at the very least, be a viable wild-card playoff contender. Don't look for them to go deep into the playoffs as the questions might not get answered this season.
.NET Reporter Scott Eklund writes for Seahawks.NET every week. Feel free to contact him at email@example.com.
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