What We Learned
Three things we learned after the Vikings-Rams game
Updated: Monday December 11, 2000 9:43 AM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
ST. LOUIS -- In some ways, it was a carbon copy of St. Louis' 49-37 NFC Divisional playoff round victory against Minnesota last January. But while the Rams' 40-29 conquest of the Vikings on Sunday wasn't quite as meaningful, it served to infuse St. Louis with confidence and cut the vaunted Vikings down to size.
1. The Vikings headed back to the Twin Cities with a little more baggage than they brought to town, namely the stronger-than-ever perception that Minnesota's porous pass defense could be its Achilles' heel in the playoffs.
Though the Vikings had never really persuaded anyone to think completely otherwise, there had been hopeful signs this season that despite ranking 25th in the league against the pass, Minnesota couldn't be picked apart quite like it was last season. But that can no longer be said with the same conviction.
Rams quarterback Kurt Warner was next to perfect against the Vikings secondary, finishing 27 of 32 for 346 yards with no interceptions and no touchdowns. He completed his first 11 passes of the game, finishing the first quarter without a miss and 152 yards. The Rams led 14-0 at that point, and made it 17-0 moments later on a 26-yard Jeff Wilkins field goal.
Minnesota cornerbacks Robert Tate and Kenny Wright were repeatedly victimized by Rams receivers Torry Holt (9 catches for 172 yards) and Isaac Bruce (7 for 74), with Wright turning in an especially ineffective showing. Defensive backs Wassawa Serwanga and Keith Thibodeaux were equally lost in nickel and dime coverage, as was rookie free safety Tyrone Carter. Even veteran strong safety Robert Griffith, bidding for his first Pro Bowl berth, was repeatedly caught out of position. He managed eight tackles, but Minnesota had nary a pass defended in the game.
The Vikings' youth in the defensive backfield will be a concern come playoff time. Tate and Wright had very limited starting experience coming into this season, and Carter is taking over for veteran Orlando Thomas, who is scheduled to return from a broken shoulder blade next week against Green Bay. Even if Thomas comes back strong, the Vikings' schedule the next two weeks could contribute to the further erosion of the team's confidence level in the secondary.
In the next two games, Minnesota's defense will square off against Green Bay's Brett Favre and Indianapolis' Peyton Manning. Both games are indoors and on fast tracks, like the one that Warner and his St. Louis receivers used so effectively to abuse the Vikings secondary on Sunday.
2. Defensive play-calling may be overrated in some senses, but the Rams are clearly responding to the direction of defensive consultant Bud Carson from the coach's box.
Since taking over the duty of calling defensive plays from embattled defensive coordinator Peter Giunta last week at Carolina, the Rams defense has played arguably its best two games of the season.
True, St. Louis gave up 29 points against Minnesota, a figure that is right at its league-worst points per game average. But that total was somewhat deceptive, in that St. Louis built a 33-14 lead late in the third quarter, effectively settling the contest before two late Vikings scores improved the final margin.
The Rams secondary has been scorched on numerous occasions this season, but for the most part, St. Louis contained the Vikings' dynamic receiving duo of Randy Moss and Cris Carter, limiting them to a combined 11 catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns. Moss was particularly low-profile, grabbing just two passes for 20 yards in the first three quarters.
The Rams' most impressive accomplishment on defense was limiting the NFL's leading rusher, Robert Smith, to just 67 yards on 15 carries, all but 28 yards in the first half. Smith entered the game with 1,391 yards, and a career-best streak of five consecutive 100-yard games.
St. Louis also limited the effectiveness of Vikings second-year quarterback Daunte Culpepper, sacking him four times and allowing just 221 yards through the air. Culpepper did rush four times for 37 yards, including an eight-yard scoring draw in the third quarter. But the Rams defensive schemes put steady pressure on him in the second half and caused him to grow tentative with his passes.
3. It may have seemed like a no-brainer, but getting running back Marshall Faulk more involved in the Rams offense turned out to be the right move at the right time for St. Louis head coach Mike Martz.
In the course of their three-game losing streak, the Rams had gotten Faulk an average of just 16 touches per game. In those three games, Faulk's first since returning from early November arthroscopic knee surgery, he rushed just an average of 10 times per game. Martz vowed last week that those trends would change, and they wisely did.
Faulk had the ball in his hands 31 times against the Vikings and wound up producing 135 yards on 25 rushes, and 43 additional yards on six receptions. He scored a Rams team-record four rushing touchdowns -- from distances of 1, 1, 5 and 1 yard -- and went in virtually untouched all four times.
Minnesota, missing injured strongside linebacker Dwayne Rudd, who would have covered Faulk out of the backfield, had no defensive answer for the Rams' multi-purpose weapon. Serwanga drew the majority of coverage duties against Faulk, without much success.
Minnesota entered the game having allowed only 12 rushing touchdowns in 13 games, but gave up five to the Rams, including running back Justin Watson's 6-yard score in the fourth quarter.
Faulk, who may still make a run at the NFL's MVP award this season, despite missing two games, is the game's most productive offensive threat. You can bet that whatever the Rams do from here on out, he will be at the center of every game plan.