The Informed Viewer's Guide
Posted: Tuesday January 25, 2000 01:18 PM
Pat Kirwan, who spent 12 years in the NFL as a coach, scout and personnel administrator, is an analyst for CNNSI.com. Kirwan provides the inside scoop on the key matchups to watch in Super Bowl XXXIV.
First off, a few things you should know about the Super Bowl matchup between the Tennessee Titans and the St. Louis Rams:
1. Neither team has much experience in a game of this magnitude, so the lack of experience factor is working on both sides of the ball and is pretty much canceled out.
2. Both quarterbacks, Steve McNair and Kurt Warner , have unblemished records in postseason play.
3. Playing as the wild card (and an in extra playoff game) has taken its toll on the Titans, who have lost starting free safety Marcus Robertson and starting wide receiver Yancey Thigpen to foot and ankle injuries, respectively. The loss of Robertson is particularly tough because of the stress the Rams offense can now put on the Tennessee secondary.
4. These two teams played back on Halloween during the regular season, and Tennessee won 24-21. The Titans had great confidence in the Jacksonville game because they had beaten the Jaguars twice during the regular season. They'll have that confidence going again, knowing that they've already defeated the Rams this year.
5. The single week between the championship game and the Super Bowl favors the Rams for two reasons:
a) Injuries to the two Titans starters last week give their backups precious little time to get ready. And it is very hard during Super Bowl week to concentrate. Denver coach Mike Shanahan installed his Super Bowl package two weeks ahead of the game because of the distractions.
b)The Titans have played three consecutive playoff games, while the Rams had a bye in the first round. Even though the excitement of the moment makes them feel like they can keep going, the Titans are starting to wear down. Twenty-three games in 24 weeks is a long grind.
1. The last time these teams met -- Oct. 31 at Tennessee -- Warner fumbled the ball four times, and the Titans recovered three of those fumbles. If a team typically gets about 12 possessions in a game like the Super Bowl, four turnovers would equate to losing 25-30% of its scoring opportunities.
2. Warner was sacked five times by the Titans -- by five different defenders. If that happens again the Rams are in trouble.
3. The Rams led the NFL in third-down conversions, making good on 47% of their opportunities during the regular season. Against the Titans the first time around, St. Louis converted just two of 12 on third down (17%). The team that wins the third-down battle has a very good chance to win the game.
4. Rams running back Marshall Faulk carried the ball 22 times in the first meeting, rushing for 184 yards and a touchdown. The Titans can't let Faulk average more than eight yards per touch again if they want to win this time.
5. Thigpen caught two passes for a total of 49 yards, and Robertson tied for the team lead with eight tackles. Neither man will play this time.
6. The Rams were penalized 15 times for almost 100 yards last time. It's very unlikely the Titans will get that kind of help from the officials again.
7. Although the unheralded Rams defense held Eddie George to 68 yards rushing the last time, McNair still managed to rush for 36 yards and a touchdown.
8. Backup Titans defensive lineman Josh Evans had 1 1/2 sacks and forced a fumble. Evans was in on a sack against Jacksonville, too. Rams guards Tom Nutten and Adam Timmerman must do a better job of blocking him.
Matchups to watch
1. Titans backup safety Anthony Dorsett will have to play for injured Marcus Robertson. Dorsett, the son of former Dallas running back Tony Dorsett, is an excellent special teams player, but this starting assignment comes at an inopportune time since it means the untested Dorsett must face a Rams offense that throws the ball deep frequently. Look for Warner to get into "twins formations" -- with both wide receivers to the same side -- and call the double-post pattern the Rams used to open the game against the Vikings. This will be a great way to get Isaac Bruce or Az-zahir Hakim on Dorsett.
2. Every team that has played Tennessee realizes that McNair runs the QB draw as well as any player in NFL history. The Rams are going to have to live with some production by McNair -- but not down in the red zone. Look for defensive coordinator Peter Guinta to assign a spy to McNair; either middle linebacker London Fletcher or safety Devin Bush should get the assignment. I like the way Fletcher can get depth in his zone drop and still keep an eye on McNair.
It's very hard to blitz McNair and contain him. If the blitzer gets blocked past the heels of McNair, he is eliminated from the play; that's why McNair looks like he's got no one around him when he's running.
3. Look for St. Louis to spread the Titans out with four wide-receiver sets. It forces the Titans to go to either the nickel or dime defense, something they don't want to do too much with Robertson out. The Rams' best running play is the draw to Faulk. When you see the Rams in four wide-receiver sets, especially on first or second down, look at the alignment of the opposing middle linebacker. If Tennessee's Barron Wortham is directly opposite Faulk (who is usually off-set behind the left tackle), then the Rams will trap the draw inside and get LT Orlando Pace up on Wortham. If the linebacker is over the center, the Rams will check off to the screen.
4. McNair said after the AFC Championship Game that the Jaguars played a lot of two-deep, man-under coverage. I'm not sure the Jaguars played a lot of it, but the Titans won't see much of that coverage, if any, from the Rams. When you are in that coverage and the offense releases five receivers, seven defenders are gone and McNair is unaccounted for; when you release four receivers, six defenders are gone, and so on. Without Thigpen -- and given that the longest completion by McNair against Jacksonville was 15 yards to TE Jackie Harris -- the Rams don't have to play pass coverage. Expect to see more eight-in-the-box calls.
5. Tennessee loves to run the counter to the left. They pull 310-pound guard Benji Olson and get him to kick out 255-pound defensive Grant Wistrom, with H-back Frank Wycheck folding up behind Olson, looking for a linebacker. This was the play call on George's 68-yard touchdown run that finished off the Colts two weeks ago. Jeff Fisher will call this play six to eight times in the Super Bowl. Wistrom played the inside run well last week but when he comes upfield quickly reading pass, this blocking scheme can get him.
6. Over on the other side there is a classic matchup of two Pro Bowl players. Rams defensive end Kevin Carter (17 sacks) meets All-Pro tackle Jon Runyan (6'7", 308). They meet each other again next week in Honolulu, but that's for fun. This one is for the ring.
7. Other key matchups to watch (because the opposing offensive coordinators are training their QBs to look for them):
a. Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce on Titans cornerback Denard Walker. When Warner sees this matchup -- and if Walker is ever in press coverage -- he will go up top to Bruce.
b. Rams backup OLB Charlie Clemons will come in on passing situations. Guinta will move star defensive end Carter down over right guard, and Olson and Clemons will rush over RT Runyan. Clemons has had two sacks in the last two weeks with this call.
c. Receiver Ricky Proehl is usually in during the three- and four-wide receiver packages. Proehl is a smart veteran whom Warner will go to when Tennessee single covers him. Extra defensive back Dainon Sidney, a second-year player, should draw the assignment of covering Proehl -- who caught six passes for 100 yards and the key TD last week.
d. Titans tight ends Harris and Wycheck combined for five receptions for 45 yards, and would have had better numbers if Wycheck didn't let the ball get stripped away on the one-yard-line going in for a score. Expect the Rams, who let these two catch five passes for 82 total yards the last time, to double them once in a while. Linebackers Todd Collins and Mike Jones will play the under routes tightly, with help from safety Billy Jenkins when needed.
8. Games of this magnitude can put special teams under a microscope. Tennessee is here because of a special teams play against the Buffalo Bills. Then last week Jacksonville took the opening drive and scored; Tennessee came right back with a kickoff return past the 50 yard line. Later, Tennessee widened the gap with an 80-yard Derrick Mason kick return after a safety for a touchdown.
I think back to the impact Green Bay return man Desmond Howard had on the Packers' victory over New England in Super Bowl XXXI. This game offers several potential special teams stars. Az Hakim and Tony Horne are both capable of breaking the game open for the Rams. Titans special team players Steve Jackson, Dorsett and Sidney must contain these two. On the other side, the Rams need to keep Mason under wraps; that responsibility falls to Taje Allen and Dre' Bly . I expect a big return or two in this game. Returners on both teams think they can do it -- and that makes them dangerous.
9. If this game comes down to field goals -- and it really could, with the caliber of both defenses -- I like Tennessee's chances more, especially since Rams kicker Jeff Wilkins is still injured. Tennessee's Al Del Greco looks calm and ready to go. I always like the kicker who wins the NFL golf tournament every year; this year it was Del Greco.
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