Work in Sports
The 2nd Time Around
A potent passing game -- the Rams' strong suit and the Titans' weak spot -- gives St. Louis the edge in their rematch
Posted: Wednesday January 26, 2000 04:09 PM
By Paul Zimmerman
An about-face? Change the scheme? Why, for goodness' sake, get away from something that produced a win? Simply because the crowd noise attached an asterisk to that game. "It was loud that day, too loud," Rams offensive line coach Jim Hanifan said on Sunday.
The biggest beneficiary of all that noise was Tennessee's speed-rushing rookie defensive end, Jevon Kearse, who starts the game on the left side but can pop up anywhere along the line. He also drops into coverage in some zone-blitz schemes. Against the Rams in October he didn't leave his original position very often because he had found what he wanteda pigeon. Poor Fred Miller. St. Louis's right tackle was flagged for six false starts that afternoon. Kearse had two sacks, a forced fumble and numerous pressures on Warner.
"I guarantee you that Kearse won't do that again," Hanifan said. "We won't leave just one blocker on him."
The Jacksonville Jaguars, six turnovers and all, still nullified Kearse in the AFC Championship Game. Right tackle Leon Searcy jolted Kearse on his initial rush, and when Kearse veered outside, a tight end or a back took a shot at him. When Kearse came inside, Searcy turned him over to guard Zach Wiegert. It was a long day for the rookie, who finished with two tackles and no sacks, and the strategy was not lost on the Rams' coaches.
"Oh, we'll be ready for him," Hanifan said. "We're not going to lock up number 28 [Faulk] on him and take him out of our offense; that would be ridiculous. But we'll pick and choose."
The Bucs gave Faulk the spy treatment, with a defensive lineman (right end Steve
White or nosetackle Brad Culpepper) or sometimes a linebacker picking him up
right away in coverage. It was White who gave the Trans World Dome crowd an
early glimpse of what was in store for the
"Downfield, the key on defense is team speed," Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "All week I stressed to our guys, 'Play your zone, keep everything in front, but if they catch the ball, make sure you tackle them right away.'"
It's the Bucs' trademark, and it's a textbook double zone with the corners up close, passing the receivers off to the safeties backing them up. Blitzing is held to a minimum, so the defensive backs and linebackers can fill the lanes and disrupt crossing patterns. All you need is a terrific front four, able to exert constant pressure, and Tampa Bay's foursome did it with an exotic array of stunts and loops.
But how about the Titans? In October they beat St. Louis with the blitz, backed up by man-to-man coverage, which can be scary when all those high-powered receivers start running their crossing routes. Two fumbles set up 14 of the Titans' 21 first-quarter points, but then Tennessee hung on while the Rams made a run, finally blowing a 38-yard field goal at the end. Can the Titans pull a switch, with only one week to prepare, and go to the stuff that Tampa Bay used? "We fully intend to incorporate anything that was effective against them, and we're not beyond copying the best things," Tennessee defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said on Sunday. "But our style is to let it all hang out and come after the quarterback, and I imagine we'll be in that mode."
The guess here is that it'll be a mix-and-match defense with a little of everything. What a surprise. The Titans used eight defensive backs at times against the Rams, but after starting free safety Marcus Robertson broke his left ankle on Sunday, Tennessee is a little thin in the secondary. Robertson's replacement is fourth-year veteran Anthony Dorsett, who will make his second NFL start on Sunday. The son of Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, Anthony can fly. He does a terrific job racing under Craig Hentrich's punts and downing them short of the end zone, but now he's in the varsity lineup. "We lose experience," Williams said. "We gain great speed."
The Titans' offense against the Rams' defense? Well, Tennessee has won three games in the postseason with a pass-catch game that looks like an afterthought. Steve McNair has thrown for a total of 300 yards in the three games, a number that Warner has topped on 10 occasions this season. McNair has completed 40 passes in the playoffs, 31 of them for 10 yards or less, and he has only one completion for more than 15 yards. You can get away with that if you've got a hammer like Eddie George to carry the load.
The Rams, with a remarkable fireball of a middle linebacker in London Fletcher, were No. 1 in the league against the run during the regular season, but the figure is misleading. No team had fewer running plays aimed at it, which is what happens when the enemy is always playing catch-up.
The prediction: The Titans, with a sturdy and dedicated defense, keep it close, but the lack of a third-and-long offense does them in. St. Louis 20, Tennessee 17.
Issue date: January 31, 2000