It’s the Greatest Show on Turf
Can anyone beat the St. Louis Rams?
The easy answer is yes.
The harder question is how.
Start by playing them on grass to negate some of that relay-team speed. (Kansas City will today, and so will the AFC champion in the Super Bowl if the Rams make it to Tampa.)
Score first. Score often.
Drop seven or eight defenders into pass coverage to try to defend against Isaac Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim and Torry Holt.
Be aggressive, even at the risk of getting burned.
Don’t try a conservative zone. The Rams will burn you anyway.
Run the ball, just to keep it away from Kurt Warner.
Try to defend Marshall Faulk as if he were a receiver and not a running back--but watch out, he can make you pay.
Don’t miss any open-field tackles. The penalty is a touchdown.
Score. Score more.
It’s all easier schemed than done.
Defensive coordinators are scratching their heads every week for a way to counter an offense on pace to produce the most prolific season in NFL history.
“I’m sure they’ll come up with something. They’ll have to,” said Don Coryell, the architect of one of the great scoreboard-taxing offenses of the past, the San Diego Chargers’ Air Coryell, one of the early inspirations for Ram Coach Mike Martz’s system.
“It’s just a tremendous offensive scheme, and along with it they have great speed and a great quarterback,” Coryell said.
Coryell’s teams ultimately never had quite enough defense, an issue for the Rams, as well.
Unbeatable? They beat the now 2-5 Seattle Seahawks, by only three points, 37-34, in the second week of the season.
It certainly seems that way.
“I have not seen a team with speed like that in the history of the league,” said Minnesota Coach Dennis Green, whose Vikings are the only other undefeated team in the NFL.
“You add in Marshall Faulk in the backfield as the tremendous runner he is, you’ve got a team that can really produce. On top of that, Kurt Warner is a phenomenal touch-passer. He makes throws most people don’t even think about making--and most of his throws, guys catch on the run, so you bring in that 4.3 speed on the run.
“They are breaking the mold. You have to play defense, absolutely. In fact, I’m an old-school coach, and I believe the first thing you have to do is stop the run. . . . The second thing I believe you do is you run the ball, even if you’ve got Randy Moss and Cris Carter.”
The test of that strategy--running the ball to keep it away from Warner--will come Dec. 10 in a showdown of potential unbeatens, though it figures one or both will lose by then.
After all, the Rams lost three games last season.
Tennessee, so famously a yard short in the Super Bowl, beat the Rams in the seventh game of the season, 24-21. Detroit beat the Rams, 31-27, the next week. And Philadelphia beat the Rams, 38-31, in the regular-season finale, a meaningless game in which Joe Germaine took over for Warner before the game was decided.
Tennessee’s tactic was aggressive man-to-man defense, with a special emphasis on Faulk, the player many people believe is the key to the Ram offense.
Titan Coach Jeff Fisher and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams watched a lot of film before they faced the Rams, analyzing how other teams had played them.
“All those clubs were cautious, taking the bend-don’t-break approach, playing zone, trying to keep people in front of them,” Fisher said.
“They’d try to take a receiver away and the tight end would beat them down the field. Then they’d go to the tight end and Marshall Faulk, and the receivers would beat them down the field. There are just too many weapons to play conservatively.
“We tried to take a different approach. Challenge them, go after them, put the pressure on our secondary. Put a lot of defensive backs on the field, and try to keep the ball away.
“If you’re going to play zone against them, they’re going to run and make you miss and break your zone.
“We wanted to play man coverage to be in position to tackle.”
With the Rams, there’s always an element of pick-your-poison.
“They frustrate you with a few of those short, run-after-catch plays,” Williams said. “Now you have to overcommit another person underneath, and they run by you. They have a unique ability to make you become impatient and overcommit, so they can set things up and run on by you. And Warner throws the deep ball very well.”
The Titans countered by putting as many as eight defensive backs on the field.
They even put a defensive back on Faulk in both games against the Rams, though this season they probably would opt at times for linebacker Randall Godfrey, signed as a free agent specifically because he can neutralize running backs and tight ends on passing downs.
That raises a key question: How do you defend Faulk, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards and had another 1,000 yards receiving to set an NFL record for yards from scrimmage?
“Is he a wide receiver or is he a running back?” Williams said. “We’ve been pretty strong about defending the run around here. . . . You have to be able to stop the passing game and invite them into the run game. This past week, that kind of backfired [against Atlanta.] Everybody saw the numbers Marshall Faulk put up in the run game [a career-high 208 yards].
“It would make you start to think about your plan. What do you do, defend the rush? Defend the pass?”
One other thing it’s wise to do: Get a big lead.
“The difference in that ballgame was we got up fast,” Fisher said of last year’s midseason victory over the Rams. “We went up 21-0.”
In theory, that’s when you hand the ball to Eddie George and try to control the clock, although the Titans had to sweat out a victory.
Detroit beat the Rams too, although defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello won’t quite proclaim it a triumph of defense.
“Really, the game came down to the fourth quarter and we had to complete a fourth-and-I don’t know how long, just to keep the drive going to win the game,” he said.
It was fourth and 26, and Gus Frerotte completed a 57-yard pass to Germane Crowell.
“I don’t know that there’s any formula to beating the Rams,” Peccatiello said. “They’re just too awesome offensively. I think they do a tremendous job of keeping you off-balance with their play-calling and formations.”
That is an underrated aspect of the Rams’ system.
Watch the offensive shifts and motion before the snap.
Then imagine you’re a defensive player trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do when the formation changes.
The Rams push the envelope on the legality of their shifts and motion--Atlanta complained before the game last week--and the tempo of it all is so fast, including the time between plays.
“If you want to be aggressive, you have to allow for the possibility of adjusting to what they do,” Peccatiello said. “The other alternative is to be in a zone, and hope they have an off-day and don’t run the ball effectively.”
Peccatiello’s philosophy, similar to the Titan thinking, was that you can’t be passive.
“You try not to let them dictate to you,” he said.
The Lions played some man and some zone, but tried to keep the Rams off-balance.
“You have to be aggressive and take your chances,” he said.
“There’s not some secret. I know this, your offense has to score points. There’s no way you’re going to shut them down. When you win, it’s going to be a fairly high-scoring game.”
The team that might have defended the Rams best didn’t beat them--Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers--the only team to hold the Rams under 21 points--lost the NFC title game, 11-6, after Ricky Proehl beat Brian Kelly’s step-for-step coverage to catch a 30-yard pass from Warner in the end zone with less than five minutes left for the only touchdown of the game.
Tampa Bay rushed only four or three linemen at times and dropped seven or eight defenders into pass coverage, playing a fair amount of zone.
Warner had three passes intercepted, Bruce caught only three passes for 22 yards, and Faulk rushed for only 44 yards.
“My hat goes off to Coach Tony Dungy and their entire defensive staff and their personnel,” Bruce said after the game. “They did a tremendous job.”
Tremendous--that’s the word that keeps coming up with the Rams.
What makes them so difficult to defend is that they are a combination of an extraordinary scheme and extraordinary personnel.
Warner, Faulk and Bruce would make any offense look good.
Success breeds imitation, and bits and pieces of the Ram offense already are showing up around the league.
Success also breeds counterattacks.
“What I’m sure those clubs specifically in the NFC West will do is change personnel,” Fisher said. “You need the linebackers with more speed, and you put a priority on having four top-line cornerbacks.
“The Rams have done this with scheme and personnel and a great quarterback.
“It isn’t until you can eliminate one of those things that it will stop.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
At the rate it is piling up yards and points, the Ram offense will set numerous NFL single-season records:
STATISTIC ON PACE FOR... NFL RECORD RECORD-HOLDER Points 699 556 1998 Vikings Points per game 43.7 38.8 1950 Rams Touchdowns 85 70 1984 Dolphins Total yards 8,149 6,936 1984 Dolphins Passing yards 6,067 5,018 1984 Dolphins Yards per game 509.3 450.8 1951 Rams TD passes 48 49 1984 Dolphins
Research by ROY JURGENS
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.