Rams Still Showcasing Speed

Torry Holt has become the leading receiving in the NFL, but he isn't the only speed merchant on the Rams.

Few teams have undergone as many changes over the course of one season as the St. Louis Rams, as the they look to return to the postseason dance after losing the Super Bowl following the 2001 season. The changes have occurred on both sides of the ball and have gone a long way to shaping who the Rams are as a team.

The biggest change has been at quarterback. After emerging in 2002 as a viable NFL starter, Marc Bulger was expected to take a back seat to Kurt Warner — the star who led the Rams to both of their Super Bowl appearances. But Warner's problems from last year continued, and Bulger took over in Week 2. He has delivered one of the most potent passing attacks in the NFL and, while Warner is still available, Bulger is now the man at the wheel of the Greatest Show on Turf.

Continuity has been the big change at running back. When the Rams have been successful in recent years, Marshall Faulk has been the big reason. A gifted runner and receiver, Faulk was one of the most dominant players in the league. But injuries have forced him to miss playing time each of the last four years — including five weeks of this season. His backups, Lamar Gordon and Arlen Harris, filled in well, but it wasn't the same. While Faulk doesn't have the same skills he did when the Rams were the power of the NFC, he is still dangerous and could be a game-turner on any play.

Changes abound in the receiver corps, where Torry Holt has become the preeminent go-to guy, replacing veteran Isaac Bruce in that capacity. As great as Randy Moss' numbers have been this year, Holt is leading the NFL in receiving yards and touchdowns. He has become both a deep threat and someone willing to go over the middle. In addition to St. Louis' big-name starters, Dane Looker has become the reincarnation of Ricky Proehl, a third receiver who garners single coverage and scores touchdowns. At tight end, Cam Cleeland was supposed to be the man this year, but youngster Brandon Manumaleuna has become an important red zone target that will have to be watched closely by the linebackers in coverage.

Even the offensive line has experienced change — in a huge way. The Rams traded for troubled Saints OT Kyle Turley, as much out of fear of losing Orlando Pace to free agency as anything. With Pace still on the team, they have bookend tackles to join guards Adam Timmerman and Andy McCollum — nine- and 10-year vets, respectively — and nine-year veteran Dave Wohlabaugh at center. This group is as solid as any offensive line in the league, capable of pass protection as well as pounding the running game. There isn't a weak link in the group, and they will give the Vikings' defensive front all it can handle.

On the defensive line, the Rams remain steady. DE Grant Wistrom has developed into a dominating end, while Leonard Little is a feared pass rusher on the other side. Both are a bit undersized for the ideal measurables, but they get the job done too well to use that criteria. In the middle, fourth-year pro Brian Young and Ryan Pickett share time alongside Damione Lewis and rookie Jimmy Kennedy. Some teams choose to attack this portion of the defense because of the inexperience. Look for the Vikings to try to pound the running game at the interior and not take chances on perimeter plays to try to beat Wistrom and Little.

The linebackers are young and very aggressive for the Rams, but once again inexperienced. The old man of the group is third-year vet Tommy Polley on the weak side. He's joined by second-year pro Robert Thomas in the middle and rookie Pisa Tinoisamoa on the strong side. While these players bring speed to the position, their collective inexperience has been tapped by other offensive coordinators, and the Vikings will likely be no exception — trying to use their aggression and exuberance against them.

The secondary is another story, where a combination of youth and veteran savvy abounds. No better illustration is there than at the safeties, where third-year Ram Adam Archuleta, one of the game's heavy hitters, is joined by veterans Aeneas Williams and Jason Sehorn. At the corners, Travis Fisher is in just his second year, while Jerametrius Butler is in his third year (but first as a starter). Like the rest of the Rams second- and third-tier defense, the group is young at many key spots and vulnerable to getting beat for big plays here and there.

Playing the Rams in St. Louis won't be an easy task. They defend their home field well and, for the first time in a long time, the Vikings will be an underdog heading into a game. It will be interesting to see how they react when people start expecting them to lose.


MATCHUP TO WATCH
LET'S MAKE A DEAL — On the old game show "Let's Make a Deal," Monty Hall would let contestants choose from three doors to try to find the big prize of the day. In this week's key matchup, there are too many good ones to choose from, so we'll throw some out and let you pick which one you want — or trade it in for the box Jay is bringing down.

  • . MIKE TICE vs. MIKE MARTZ — One thing is certain. One (or both) of these coaches will make a questionable challenge to a ruling on the field and one (or both) will burn a time out or two early in a half when it isn't needed. The matchup here is which coach has less to do with the referees than the other.

  • MARSHALL FAULK vs. KENNY MIXON AND KEVIN WILLIAMS — The Rams like getting Faulk outside on the run, a clear weakness of the Vikings defense. With Mixon and Williams manned up with Orlando Pace and Kyle Turley — two of the best offensive tackles in the game — getting a push outside to keep Faulk in the middle will be a must.

  • RANDY MOSS vs. RAMS CORNERS — The real matchup may be Moss vs. Torry Holt. Conventional wisdom is that whichever go-to receiver has the bigger day, that team will win. The Rams likely will double Moss most of the day, but with young corners and aging safeties like Aeneas Williams and Jason Sehorn in pass coverage, the chance for the big play is definitely there — if the Vikings can find the right spots.

    So there you have it, choice No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3. Whichever one you choose, it will be an important part of who wins or loses. No zonk choices here.



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