What We Learned
Three things we know after the Rams' 42-10 victory
Updated: Monday October 01, 2001 8:06 AM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
ST. LOUIS -- In the NFL and elsewhere, it was a September that we'll long remember. And as this difficult, emotional month closed out, the St. Louis Rams remained undefeated at 3-0, thanks to their 42-10 shellacking of previously unbeaten Miami at the Dome at America's Center. Here are three observations from the game:
1. The Dolphins decided to play it safe in terms of blitzing Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, and now they're sorry.
Miami rarely blitzed against St. Louis, instead choosing to rely on the superb coverage skills of cornerbacks Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison. The decision backfired. The Dolphins didn't get stupid and try to stick with the Rams' wide receivers man-on-man the majority of the time, but their coverages were soft and built around zone and two-deep looks.
In the first half, when it was a game, Miami blitzed just two times. Why not more? Once, when they sent Surtain around the left corner, he slammed into Warner, forcing a fumble that was recovered by running back Marshall Faulk. It was Miami's only sack of the game (for minus-10 yards) and two plays later, the Rams punted.
Warner has never really been stopped without a strong pass rush being part of the equation. Still, the Dolphins sat back and let Warner pick them apart in the passing game, sending just a four-man rush on the vast majority of snaps. St. Louis' average gain per pass play (24 completions in 31 attempts) was a gaudy 9.9 yards, and the Rams had eight completions of at least 17 yards.
The dubious coverage strategies were never more exposed than late in the second quarter, when Miami asked middle linebacker Zach Thomas to cover Faulk out of the backfield, an impossible task. Faulk gained 34 yards on a deep pattern down the middle, leaving Thomas in his dust.
The lesson is simple. Give Warner and his receivers time to work, and they'll kill you. Almost without fail. Make them hurry their patterns or break them off before that second move, and you have a chance. Warner said he wasn't surprised that Miami stuck with what it does best in pass defense, but other Rams seemed a little more suspect about the Dolphins' coverages.
Then again, Miami almost got to Warner on the game's most important play, and he still found a way to get rid of the ball. His 1-yard touchdown pass to Faulk on the final play of the first half came with Dolphins linebacker Twan Russell draped all over him. Warner fought him off long enough to find Faulk near the back of the end zone for a game-turning, 21-10 halftime lead.
Later, a strong pass rush by defensive lineman Tim Bowens didn't keep Warner from connecting on a fourth-quarter, 45-yard touchdown pass to Torry Holt. Maybe Miami was just choosing what it deemed the lesser of two evils.
2. Until further notice, the fast-break Rams are the team to beat in the NFL. Hands down.
After Sunday, there can be no argument. Denver, Indianapolis and Jacksonville were cut down to size in Week 3, and Green Bay still has yet to play a high-quality opponent. The Rams? They're getting stronger by the minute.
Two road victories -- at Philadelphia and San Francisco -- to start the season were impressive enough. But then St. Louis came home Sunday and ran through one of the league's best defenses like it was papier-mache. A week ago, the Dolphins completely shut down the Raiders' offense, which features two Hall of Fame wide receivers and two quality running backs.
But the Rams made that same staunch unit look like beginners, rolling to six touchdowns in their nine meaningful possessions. St. Louis has now scored 20, 30 and 42 points in successive games. Anyone detect a trend?
Afterward, even St. Louis head coach Mike Martz marveled at his team's efficiency, calling it a "Max Q" performance, whatever that is. And while we knew the Rams could still score with Warner and Faulk on hand, St. Louis' new-look defense adds another dimension to a team that has won 23 games in the past two regular seasons.
Make no mistake, the Rams sent a message to the rest of the NFL with their latest masterpiece. Somebody warn Detroit, St. Louis' next opponent on Oct. 8. Then again, the Lions had their bye Sunday and were probably watching.
3. The first-place Dolphins didn't boost their self-confidence level against St. Louis, but they didn't hurt themselves in the standings, either.
Opening the season with games against three consecutive teams that made the playoffs last season -- Tennessee, Oakland and St. Louis -- the Dolphins would have been thrilled to go 2-1. They have, and they are.
Miami coaches would never admit it, but Sunday's game against St. Louis was the one to lose. The Dolphins are still 2-0 in the AFC, and with New England the opponent next week at Pro Player Stadium, a 3-1 start is well within reach.
Miami got another break Sunday when the Patriots came alive and embarrassed the Colts in Foxboro, Mass.. Indianapolis and the Dolphins should go down to the season's final weeks fighting for the AFC title, and the Colts are now 2-1 and still tied for first, with an AFC East loss, to boot.
Miami found out the hard way it doesn't match up well against St. Louis and its high-flying aerial circus. But the Dolphins desperately hope they see the Rams once more this season. Their only possible rematch would be in Super Bowl XXXVI.