In college football and the NFL, there is a term the coaches use to describe the Vikings' situation heading into this weekend – a trap game. After an emotional win over Green Bay Monday night and with back-to-back games with AFC powerhouses Baltimore and Pittsburgh looming on the horizon, the Vikings head into Sunday's game with the St. Louis Rams as a prohibitive favorite.
They should be. The Rams have the 30th-ranked offense and 19th-ranked defense in the NFL. They have scored just 24 points in four games and have lost three of their first four by 18 points or more, including a 35-0 blowout loss to San Francisco last week. This is a team in disarray that is riding a 14-game losing streak and is desperate for a win. The Vikings will look to do what all of their opponents have done – shut them down offensively and create enough chances to put points on the board.
The Rams have had their share of problems at quarterback over the last three years, in which they have posted a record of 5-31. It has been contingent on the health of quarterback Marc Bulger, something that hasn't been consistent over the last three seasons. Bulger is again sidelined with a shoulder injury and, after not playing the last game-and-a-half, he is questionable for Sunday. If Bulger can't go, backup Kyle Boller will get the call. Boller, who washed out as the quarterback of the future in Baltimore, eventually being benched when Steve McNair was signed and released and Joe Flacco was drafted, had the best game of his career against the Vikings – throwing for 289 yards and three touchdowns in 2005. He has a propensity for turnovers when he is pressured, so expect the Vikings to throw multiple blitz packages at him.
The running game is almost the exclusive domain of Steven Jackson. The veteran RB has 83 carries for 367 yards, which represents 92 percent of the rushing attempts by running backs this year. As a team, the Rams are averaging a respectable 4.5 yards a carry but have yet to score their first rushing touchdown. The backups are veteran Samkon Gado and Kenneth Darby, a second-year player plucked off the Falcons practice squad. In front of Jackson is punishing fullback Mike Karney. His role is almost exclusively as a blocker, since he hasn't had a rushing attempt and has two receptions for minus-3 yards. The Vikings' defensive goal is to stop the run first every week. This week that means stopping Jackson, because he represents almost the entire Rams rush offense.
The receivers used to be the strong point of the Greatest Show on Turf, but Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Drew Bennett are all gone. They've been replaced by a slew of diaper dandies, headed up by second-year players Donnie Avery and Keenan Burton. However, both of the youngsters are injured and question marks for Sunday's game with hamstring injuries – Burton listed as doubtful and Avery as questionable. Laurent Robinson, who was a No. 3 receiver at best with Atlanta, was acquired in trade during the preseason and steps into a starting role. He is tied with Avery for the team lead with 13 receptions and provides deep speed. Depth is thin, so the Rams will need all the healthy bodies they can put on the field.
The only veteran in the receiver corps is tight end Randy McMichael, who is likely to be a primary receiving target Sunday. The Rams have depth here with Billy Bahema and Daniel Fells, who has scored two of the Rams three touchdowns. If either Avery or Burton can't go Sunday, which looks likely, the tight ends may have to carry the load in the passing game.
Up front, the Rams are building a foundation for the future. They have two first-rounders at tackle – Alex Barron on the left side and Jason Smith on the right side. But Smith is questionable with a knee injury and will bear watching if he isn't at 100 percent. In the middle, the Rams have some talent. Center Jason Brown was their biggest free-agent signing of the offseason. His move from Baltimore to St. Louis prompted the Ravens to give a bigger offer than the Vikings to Matt Birk. At the guards, Richie Icognito and Jacob Bell are experienced, albeit relatively pedestrian. As a group, they are strong and eventually will see Barron and Smith flip spots to give St. Louis bookend tackles and a rock-solid center for years to come. They will be a solid challenge for the Vikings defensive front, because it's no secret the Rams will want to run.
While the Rams have been anemic offensively, the defense hasn't been that bad – simply pushed too hard because the offense can't consistently stay on the field. Up front, they have some talented players. At the ends, Leonard Little remains the face of the defense on the left side with former first rounder Chris Long on the right side. Little leads the team with three sacks and Long is developing into a star of the future. In the middle, they're not as stout, but not as bad as their record would indicate. Without Adam Carriker, depth is a huge concern. Clifton Ryan had a solid rookie season in 2007, but his play regressed last year, and fellow starter Gary Gibson is a fourth-year journeyman twice plucked off of someone's practice squad. Depth is thin with rookie Darrell Scott and former Viking Leger Douzable providing depth. This is group that could be manhandled by the Vikings O-line, opening up big holes for Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor.
The linebackers are a mixed bag of players from different systems thrown together. On the outside, they have former Panther Will Witherspoon and former Lion Paris Lenon, and in the middle they have rookie James Laurinaitis. All three are athletic and chase the ball, but their inexperience working together has cost them some big plays. In time, this group could be a strength of the team, but for now they are feeling their way and struggling at times. Depth is also nothing to speak of with another rookie, Dominic Douglas, backing up Laurinaitis in the middle and unknowns Larry Grant and Chris Chamberlain providing backup help outside.
The strength of the Rams defense is in the secondary, where they have a couple of underrated stars in cornerback Ron Bartell and free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe. The Rams made re-signing Bartell a front-burner issue and were able to lock him down. An injury to former top pick Tye Hill opened the door for Jonathan Wade, a third-year playing getting his first full-time taste of starting. Joining Otogwe in the middle is James Butler, a free-agent signing in the offseason that gives St. Louis a very strong 1-2 punch in the secondary when he's healthy. Unfortunately for the Rams, he isn't. He will miss Sunday's game with a knee injury. Depth is an issue, especially at safety, where Craig Dahl is trying to return to action from a concussion and, if he does, will be the starter. Primary backup Anthony Smith is doubtful with an Achilles injury. At cornerback, depth is just as big a concern, with second-year man Justin King and rookie Bradley Fletcher slated as the third and fourth corners. If they are forced into action, Brett Favre could have a field day.
On paper, Sunday's game has all the makings of a butt-kicking, with the Rams providing the butt in question. They have several solid players at key positions, but they still appear to have too many holes to compete on a week-to-week basis, which is why the Vikings are favored by double digits. With the Ravens, Steelers and Packers to follow, beating the Rams becomes a must, because the teams won't be getting any easier than this the rest of the month.
Preview: Rams' struggles pronounced
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