Rams Preview

The St. Louis Rams come to the Metrodome with their third-string quarterback, losers of three of their last four games and with their only road wins coming vs. Arizona and Houston. The team leads the league in points allowed and will be a team the Vikings absolutely must knock out to keep their own playoff dreams alive.

The Vikings enter Sunday's game as one of the NFL's hottest teams and, while some teams are wilting and fading, the Vikings are making the run that many projected they would make earlier in the season. Sunday they look to make it six straight wins when they meet the St. Louis Rams. At one time this had all the looks of a battle for each team to stay in the fight to win its division. That hasn't happened for the Rams, whose loss last week clinched the NFC West title for Seattle and put the Rams on the brink of playoff elimination.

Injuries have played a big part in the Rams' collapse, starting at quarterback. While Marc Bulger is an excellent game manager – his 94.4 passer rating is among the best in the league – he's fragile and misses time with injuries. He's already been out three weeks and won't be playing Sunday. Backup Jamie Martin got his chance in relief, but he was knocked out with a concussion – throwing the job to rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick. In less than two games of work, he's thrown for 473 yards with three TD passes and a touchdown run to his credit. But his inexperience will cause problems for the Rams like it did last week when they lost to the Redskins. Expect the Vikings to blitz Fitz and try to show him looks he hasn't seen on film. If he's confused, the entire offense will struggle.

To keep the pressure off of Fitzpatrick, the Rams will try to give the Vikings a steady dose of running back Steven Jackson. Jackson needs 131 rushing yards for his first 1,000-yard season, but, in his first year as a full-time starter, he has shown the signs of wearing down as the season has progressed. In the last four games, he has rushed 65 times for 210 yards – barely over three yards a carry – and has dropped his rushing average from 4.8 at midseason to 4.3 now. But he has become the only show in the backfield. In that same four-game span, future Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk has rushed the ball just three times. For the Rams to win, Jackson will need to touch the ball 20 times or more. If the Vikings can bottle him up early, the Rams will be forced into becoming one-dimensional.

One of the biggest challenges the Vikings defense will face is in the passing game. Torry Holt is a Pro Bowler who is on pace for 100 receptions and 1,400 yards this season. In the last four games, he has caught 31 passes for 379 yards and three touchdowns. While he's the main threat, he's not the only one. Veteran Isaac Bruce has been battling injuries since early in the season, but he's back and healthy and is always a Vikings killer. Joining in the mix are third-year pro Kevin Curtis, who has quietly posted 56-747-6 numbers and Shaun McDonald, who has 35 receptions this season. Tight end has been pretty a much an afterthought this season – Brandon Manumaleuna and Cameron Cleeland have combined to catch just 15 passes and two touchdowns. They may try to use them against the Vikings suspect linebacker corps, but they've been little more than glorified blockers most of the year.

The battle up front will be critical, because the Rams will look to control the clock and will need a strong performance from the O-line to get that accomplished. The Rams are anchored by perennial All-Pro Orlando Pace at left tackle. He's joined by a pair of rookies – first-rounder Alex Barron at right tackle and fourth-rounder Claude Terrell at left guard – and veterans Andy McCollum at center and Adam Timmerman at right guard. While the three veterans are all very sound technically, like the Vikings, the rookies will be the ones that will be targeted for blitzes and stunts. Trying to get around Pace is futile, so attacking the other parts of the line becomes critical.

The offense has survived injuries throughout the season, but the defense has been what has dropped St. Louis out of postseason contention. Teams have been able to pick their poison – opponents have 24 passing TDs and a combined passer rating of 98.0. To complicate matters, teams are also averaging 140 yards a games rushing and 4.7 yards a carry – scoring 15 TDs on the ground. Depending on what your offensive strength is, it's a weakness of the Rams.

Up front, the Rams have talent, headed by Vikings sackster Leonard Little. He's an accomplished pass rusher and will be going up against rookie Marcus Johnson. Don't be shocked if Mike Rosenthal sees action at right tackle to keep them both fresh, as well as Jim Kleinsasser being assigned to chip block Little when he gets in the backfield. Little is joined by DE Brandon Green and tackles Ryan Pickett and Damione Lewis. The lack of production of Jimmy Kennedy, who many thought the Vikings would take over Kevin Williams, keeps him an expensive enigma who plays only on running downs and rarely at that.

The Rams linebackers have been non-existent much of the year. Of the three, only OLB Pisa Tinoisamoa was projected as a starter when training camp began. Brandon Chillar stepped in place of injured Dexter Coakley and Trev Faulk, a second-year man with two starts coming into this season, is in the middle and replaces Chris Claiborne. This group is inexperienced – all in their second or third season – and can be exploited. This is a bad position to have injuries, and the Rams are ripe to be plucked by Brad Johnson at this spot.

The secondary is also in disarray. An injury to Terry Fair has pushed pedestrian backup DeJuan Groce, who played himself out of a starting job in 2004, with Travis Fisher, who replaced Jeremitrius Butler. At safety, it doesn't look much better. Adam Archuleta has been a huge disappointment in a contract year and is likely going to be allowed to leave when free agency begins. He's at strong safety, joined by Mike Furrey – a converted wide receiver! If that's not a sign of desperation, what is?

The Rams are a team that many people thought would be competing for a division title and this game could serve as a post-season preview matchup. Instead, the Rams have allowed eight of 12 opponents to score 27 points or more. There's little reason to think the Vikings won't approach those numbers and, if they do, all odds point to adding win No. 6 to their current streak.

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