The Misunderstood Rams

The St. Louis Rams had to rely on Tampa Bay fumbles to win a 28-21 decision Monday night from a 1-5 team they would have creamed if Ram Coach Mike Martz's play-calling matched his brilliance as the pass-play designer for the NFL's most exciting pass offense.

Known as a passing team — often derided, in fact, for throwing too many passes — the Rams struggled again because they didn't throw often enough and because Martz kept trying to make them run the ball on running downs against run defenses stacked with closely-bunched tacklers.

A running down is any down when an opponent expects you to run or defenses you to run. First and 10 is a running down. Third and short is a running down. Any down on either goal line is a running down.

And that's where Martz, as the leader of the league's most misunderstood team, has been running the ball all season — usually against 8-3 defenses with eight defensive players on or near the line of scrimmage and only three defensive players in the secondary. This was Tampa's defensive configuration most of Monday night when, on first-down runs, two good Ram running backs, Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson, kept bumping their heads on Buccaneers. Meanwhile, two good Ram wide receivers, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, only saw the ball on passing downs when double-covered. It's often better, though, to be lucky than good.

Archuleta Sees a Fumble, Runs It, Wins

IN TERMS OF TALENT, the Rams overwhelmed the Buccaneers at all the key offensive positions. The Tampa Bay coach, Jon Gruden, had lost most of his wide receivers, as well as his fastest running backs, among others. And his team was directed by its third-string quarterback, the well-traveled Brian Griese, whom Gruden, as recently as a few weeks ago, never contemplated as a Buccaneer. Yet Griese outplayed St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger, who repeatedly found it difficult to extricate himself from the tough passing situations in which he was placed.

The individual brilliance of double-covered wide receiver Holt on two passing downs got the Rams two big touchdowns, but they only won by prevailing in the decisive freak circumstances of the game. First, after the Buccaneers fumbled on their own five-yard line, the Rams mounted a five-yard touchdown drive on only four plays — all four of them running plays averaging a little over a yard apiece.

Next, the Buccaneers fumbled at the Ram goal line, where — after Ram safety Adam Archuleta tackled running back Michael Pittman, who had caught Griese's good pass — the confusion was such that only Archuleta saw the fumble. He picked it up at the seven-yard line and ran it all the way back.

The Ram offense routinely played catch-up on second and third down after the Tampa defense stuffed their runners on first down, and, hence, only produced two touchdowns. Aside, that is, from that stirring five-yard drive.

Big Ben NFL Rookie of the Year

THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS, 5-1, continue to lead the AFC North with their undefeated (4-0) rookie-of-the-year quarterback, Big Ben Roethlisberger, who, in a dodge where luck often plays a major role, got his first taste of good fortune Sunday when Dallas fumbled the Pittsburgh game away, 24-20.

Roethlisberger, who gets the next shot at New England following his Sunday off this week, still had to drive the ball home after Cowboy quarterback Vinny Testaverde, when sacked, dropped it, understandably but inexcusably. After taking over at the Dallas 24, the kid quarterback, performing with uncanny agility for his size (6-5, 242), moved the Steelers along smoothly and confidently, playing all the while more like a featherweight than a super-heavyweight.

As the most interesting new player of the NFL season, Roethlisberger appears to be doing everything any other starting pro quarterback can do this year — and, besides, he can move, which some of the good passers can't. On one memorable play Sunday, rushed from the pocket, he stepped nimbly out of harm's way and put a touchdown pass on target.

Roethlisberger gave the Mid-American Conference three NFL winners Sunday. The sophomore quarterback from Marshall, Byron Leftwich of Jacksonville, left them crying in Kansas City, 22-16. And Chad Pennington, a fifth-year pro from Marshall who is sound physically again this year, brought the New York Jets back from 14-3 down at the half to a 22-14 over San Francisco in a victory that shouldn't, in all honesty, have come that hard.

Bethel's Big Catch Play of the Year

THIS WEEK'S QUESTION is whether Bill Belichick, the meticulous coach of the unbeaten New England Patriots, can keep his two winning streaks going next Sunday against the AFC's only other surprise team, the unbeaten New York Jets.

No Patriots or Jets could have expected five weeks ago to be 5-0 now — particularly since the Patriots, with Tom Brady at quarterback, are actually 20-0. Belichick set down Seattle last Sunday, 30-20, by putting all his trust in two chaps, Brady and Belichick.

First he relied on Brady's passing to open a halftime lead of 20-3.

Then, permitting Brady to throw only twice in the third quarter, Belichick put the Patriots in running-play mode and obviously told himself, "My defense can hold 'em."

Finally, after the Seahawks had closed to 23-20 in the game's final three minutes, Belichick, worried, turned to Brady again. "Go get those guys," he said. So Brady did, throwing the day's only bomb to sophomore wide receiver Bethel Johnson. The all-out diving Johnson catch, which set up the last touchdown, is sure to remain the poster play of the Patriots' two winning streaks — one streak recording most consecutive games won, the other counting postseason as well as regular-season games. Now sharing the regular-season record (at 18) with the old Chicago Bears, they can stand alone if they beat the Jets Sunday at Foxboro. One Patriot doubter is Jet quarterback Pennington, who says, "We're going for 6-0." Not likely.

Big Plays Keep Pats Percolating

THE PATRIOTS win or save more games with big plays in the fourth-quarter than any of their opponents. On a Belichick team, a big play at the end isn't happenstance. Patriot strategy, similarly, is obviously thought out in depth. For instance, after Brady's passes had taken New England to 17-0 in last Sunday's first l7 minutes, he was grounded in the third quarter, when his only two passes were unimportant and unproductive.

It had been Brady's first-half passing that set up Corey Dillon's runs for the Patriots, and in the third quarter Dillon took over. That wasn't happenstance either. It is effective pro football strategy for a good passing team to dominate the first half with aggressive pass plays before, in the second half, running to hold the lead.

Belichick allowed Seattle to chip away at his 20-3 advantage in the second half with field goals and, eventually, a touchdown. But when the Seahawks got too close, he asked the NFL's steadiest quarterback to throw them back over the cliff, and Brady obliged.

In a league otherwise infamous for parity, what's in doubt is whether Belichick can successfully continue this strategy against teams like Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Baltimore in the remainder of his October-November schedule. They all fished their players out of the same draft pool where in 2000 Belichick found Brady in the sixth round.

Decisive Long Pass Play Carefully Plotted

ANATOMY OF A BOMB: Here's how a football man like Belichick wins 20 in a row, ending his most recent battle with Brady's sudden 30-yard pass that concluded Seattle's last hope for a different result. With three minutes left:

• It was third and eight at the Patriot 39 — where most of Belichick's conservative peers would have opted for another run and then told their defense to hang onto the three-point lead. The Patriots instead called time and carefully reviewed a play they had been thinking about for such a crisis but hadn't used all day.

• It had to be a bomb because of the down and distance. When an eight-yard pass is anticipated, it can be defensed. The Seattle cornerbacks would simply level out at eight yards to prevent a completion for bare first-down yardage — the NFL's preferred offensive take in that situation.

• Waiting to unload a bomb at such an hour, Brady couldn't spend a lot of time standing around in the pocket. For the Patriots, the requirement was therefore to roll him out a few yards and re-set him away from the pass rush — which they did — while the play developed far downfield.

• Most of all, the Patriots had to have a quarterback with the head to feign a shorter throw and the arm to hit a big one. That's Brady.

• They also needed a receiver who could go get it. That's Bethel Johnson, a second-round draft choice last year from Texas A&M, not the likeliest place to look for a guy with the swift and the hands to do what Johnson can do.

A 5-feet-1l sprinter, Johnson, as he sailed through the air, didn't at first look close enough to the ball to reach it. While airborne, I swear, he added six inches to his length, just enough to put his fingers on Brady's speeding bullet. The hardest part of the catch was hanging on to the ball as he hit the ground with his stable left arm clearly under it, the way he had held it as he rolled through the air. To win 20, you need players who make plays, but more than that you need coaches who can set up their players to make plays.

Is Seattle Psychologically Unwound?

THE SEATTLE QUESTION NOW is whether Coach Mike Holmgren will be able to regroup his very good team at Arizona Sunday, and against others later, after two psychologically unsettling defeats in a row. On Oct. 10, playing at home, the undefeated Seahawks had St. Louis on the run when, in the final few minutes, Ram Coach Martz suddenly pulled it out with, for a change, the same brand of air-force football that had in years past carried him to the top. A week later, on the road in New England, the Seahawks seemed to be getting the upper hand on the defending NFL champions when, in the final few minutes, the Patriots suddenly turned them back with a surprise long pass.

Those experiences would leave any team shell-shocked, for a while at least. The most unenviable coaching job in pro football now belongs to Holmgren, who has the offense and defense to be 5-0 this week. What's more, he could (and should) be looking confidently ahead, now that he has the right quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, and the right defensive coach, Ray Rhodes.

As for the Patriots, their immediate future is in the hands of two players, Brady, the New England quarterback who can't be rattled, and Pennington, the Jet quarterback. Make that three players, actually. Do include Curtis Martin, the Jet running back who with a rigorous offseason physical training program has made of himself a strong new man.

At quarterback, Pennington has everything but the arm power to chuck the ball through Belichick's defense. Against that team, that's a real deficiency. And the challenge to Herman Edwards — who is 31-25 as the Jet coach since 2001 — is to do something salient about that.

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