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.
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."