When fans got their first glimpse of the 2006 schedule, the Vikings' matchup Dec. 31 with the St. Louis Rams had all the makings of a playoff game – two teams coming into the season with high hopes of dethroning their division rivals atop their respective divisions and returning the NFC playoffs.
But as the season comes to a close Sunday, the Vikings are out of playoff contention and the Rams' slim hopes are predicated on a lot of things going their way Sunday, and even Saturday night. Because of that, the Vikings would like nothing better than to eliminate the Rams themselves from the playoff chase. But to do that, the Vikings are going to have to slow down a Rams offense that will be more than willing to follow the recent trend of throwing 50 or more times against the Vikings defense.
Marc Bulger has led a Rams offense that has scored 20 or more points in 10 of its last 12 games. He had a four-touchdown performance last week to keep their playoff hopes alive and has picked up his team the last two weeks when all hope seemed lost. Bulger is at his best throwing timing passes on rhythm, so for the Vikings to shut him down, they will have to get consistent pressure. If not, he will pick them apart all day.
The one aspect the Rams bring to the table that few other recent opponents have tried to establish is a dominant rushing attack. Steven Jackson finally got his opportunity with Scott Linehan to be a full-time back and he has carried the Rams the second half of the season. A bull of a rusher who is also adept at catching passes, Jackson brings the rare combination of size and speed that few running backs possess. The Vikings have gone almost two years without allowing a 100-yard rusher and are on the verge of setting the modern-era record for least rushing yards allowed. But keeping Jackson under wraps won't come easy and he will be critical to the St. Louis' success Sunday.
If the Rams are forced to pass, they have the weapons to do significant damage to the Vikings' injury-depleted secondary. Torry Holt is arguably the most consistent big-play threat in the NFL, having the ability to be a 10-catch-a-game player who is as adept at catching a 5-yard drag route as he is a 65-yard bomb for a touchdown. Veteran Isaac Bruce is nearing the end of the line, but he still has the ability to put up big games – just ask the Redskins if he's too old. The wild card is Kevin Curtis, a speed burner who can take short slant routes and take them the distance. The Rams won't be shy about coming out in three- and four-receiver sets to attack the perceived weakness of the Vikings defense. A new element to the passing game is rookie Joe Klopfenstein at tight end. Under Mike Martz, tight ends were glorified blockers, but Linehan has made it a point to make sure the tight end is part of the game plan. While not a huge component of the offense, Klopfenstein has to be accounted for over the deep middle.
With all the weapons the Rams have, one would think their record would be better. But their offensive line has been dismal much of the season. They lost Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace at midseason and have been forced to work with a patchwork line that includes former Viking Todd Steussie at left tackle, rookie Mark Setterstrom at left guard and underachieving Alex Barron at right tackle. This is a group that can be overwhelmed at times, so don't be surprised if the Vikings try to bring well-timed blitz packages to the table to keep Bulger from finding a comfort zone.
While the Rams offense has been consistently putting up points, the defense has been just as likely to give up more. They have given up 30 or more points in six games and have lost five of them. Part of the problem has been up front, where the team has invested tens of millions of dollars in the defensive line but haven't found a consistent cohesion within the group. Leonard Little is a star at defensive end. Although undersized, he is fierce pass rusher who never gives up on plays. La'Roi Glover was a big free agent signee, but has battled injuries much of the season at defensive tackle. Former first-rounder Jimmy Kennedy has also been inconsistent, not providing the run-stuffing the Rams had hoped he would when they took him in the same draft that the Vikings tabbed Kevin Williams. At the other end spot, fourth-round rookie Victor Adeyanju has stepped into duty and proved to be an adequate run-stopper. While individually this group has plenty of talent, it hasn't manifested itself from the team perspective with any amount of consistency.
The linebacker corps is headed by free agent signee Will Witherspoon, who chases down plays anywhere on the field. But beyond him, there are huge questions. Pino Tinoisamoa is on injured reserve, and neither veteran Dexter Coakley nor Brandon Chillar are exceptional outside linebackers. They get knocked around at the second level on sweeps and teams that can run the ball can get huge gains against this group. Look for the Vikings to pull their guards and use double tight ends to try to get to the second level of the rushing game.
In the secondary, the Rams have inserted rookie Tye Hill into the starting lineup. Although viewed as a bit undersized, his speed and leaping ability have made a solid cover corner – even as a rookie. He is joined by seven-year veteran Fakhir Brown, another 2006 free-agent signee. While a decent defender, he is the corner most teams have chosen to pick on in the deep passing game. At safety, former Viking Corey Chavous has become a team leader and second-year O.J. Atogwe is in his first full season as a starter. This is a group that can get exploited when a quarterback is given good protection, so look for Tarvaris Jackson to try to take at least a couple of deep shots over the top at this group.
As Denny Green is wont to say, in respect to the Rams, "they are who we thought they were." They're a team that can put a lot of points on the board and give up a lot as well. For the Vikings to beat St. Louis, they will have dictate the pace and keep the Rams offense off the field as much as possible. While no longer the Greatest Show on Turf, the Rams remain a potent offense that must outscore its defense to win. If the Vikings can keep the Rams offense off the field, they could end their 2006 season on a high note.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Rams wide receivers vs. Charles Gordon and Ronyell Whitaker— Any time a team with a potent offense comes in against a battered and bruised secondary, offensive coordinators salivate like Pavlov's dog at the opportunity. But when you combine the firepower the Rams bring to the table and the Vikings depleted cornerbacks, it makes the head spin, making this the Matchup to Watch Sunday.
Even if the Vikings were at full strength, this would be a tough matchup. Torry Holt is as dominating a receiver as there is in the league, Kevin Curtis is a speed merchant who can make big plays, and Isaac Bruce is a crafty veteran who can still catch a dozen passes in a game and put up 1,000-yard seasons. But considering their current state, the Vikings face a huge battle in trying to keep the Rams receivers in check.
The Vikings got a double-dose of trouble in the past week, opting to shut rookie Cedric Griffin down and losing Fred Smoot to a pre-Christmas car accident. Both of them are out, moving untested Charles Gordon into a starting spot and Ronyell Whitaker into nickel back duty. While both have the skills to be decent NFL defenders, both are raw and will more than have their hands full with the Rams veteran receivers.
If Scott Linehan uses the blueprint other teams have employed – effectively giving up on the run and attacking the Vikings through the air – the Rams could feast on a Vikings secondary that has been depleted beyond all recognition at the corner positions. Antoine Winfield may be asked to shadow Holt, but you can bet Bulger and the coaching staff will look for Whitaker and Gordon and go after them early and often.
If the two youngsters can hold up, the Vikings could end the Rams' last playoff glimmer of hope. If they can't, the Rams might roll over the Vikings defense and ignore the run if the passing comes too easy – making this the Matchup To Watch in the season finale.
Preview: Offense Gateway to Rams' Success
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