By: Bob George/BosSports.net
November 06, 2004

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ST. LOUIS -- The echoes of Red Sox Nation can still be heard around this fair city.

Patriots/Rams
Close-Up
Where: Edward Jones Dome
St. Louis, Mo.
When: Sunday 11/7/04
4:15 PM EST
TV National:
TV Local:
CBS
WBZ-TV 4
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 713, 930
2004 Team
Records:
Patriots 6-1
Rams 4-3
Latest Line: Pick 'em
New England returns to the hallowed place where the Red Sox realized the greatest of all dreams, winning their first World Series in 86 years about ten days ago. Patriot fans who also swear allegiance to the Sox might be looking forward to their home team being in St. Louis once again, if only for sentimental reasons. Meet me in St. Louis, everyone, the fair this time being the Edward Jones Dome and not Busch Stadium.

Sentimental. Ugh. That's a word which doesn't exist in Bill Belichick's dictionary.

And it likely doesn't exist in Mike Martz's vocabulary either. The Rams meet the Patriots for the first time since Super Bowl XXXVI, and you might think that the Rams would be out for blood. Playing on their home turf, with the home crowd screaming their lungs out in one of the loudest NFL venues, this was supposed to be the game which broke the long Patriot win streak.

But that will not be the case. Martz's squad sits at 4-3 with a defense which misses Lovie Smith like crazy. And the Patriots had their long streak broken last week at Heinz Field, as the Steelers finally decided to play well against a team which had won four of the last five meetings against them. You have a banged up Patriot team hungry to start another streak going, and you have a high powered offense which is good at scoring points but unfortunately cannot do a thing to prevent points from being scored.

The Rams have two major new faces in their offensive scheme of things, and a few prominent faces who no longer are there. Gone are quarterback Kurt Warner, and receivers Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl. Marc Bulger is the new helmsman, while rookie Steven Jackson takes some of the rushing load off Marshall Faulk. Despite the lesser depth in the wideout position (unless you fear former Patriot Dane Looker), the Rams can still light up the scoreboard, especially at home.

What the Patriots fear the most is the fact that both starting corners are on the shelf. Ty Law and Tyrone Poole are sidelined with injuries and will miss the game, Law's injury taking place last week early on in the loss to the Steelers. The Patriots now must take a completely different approach to this game versus three Februaries ago, where they played the Ram receivers tight at the line, chipping their routes and physically punishing them when the ball arrived.

Asante Samuel will get the start at one of the cornerback positions. The other starter figures to be Randall Gay, who was burned for a 47-yard touchdown by Plaxico Burress last week. Another option that has been discussed is moving free safety Eugene Wilson to corner, his college position. That would probably mean that Je'Rod Cherry would take Wilson's place in centerfield.

In addition to the chipping and the hitting which characterized Super Bowl XXXVI, another option which may not be there for the Patriots is the use of 6-7 defensive back sets, with a de-emphasis on blitzing the quarterback. In the 2001 regular season meeting against the Rams, Belichick blitzed Warner like crazy and wound up losing 24-17. By keying on the receivers instead of the quarterback, the Patriots were able to keep the Rams in check just well enough to win by three. The Patriots are awfully thin at defensive back right now, and putting the entire company out there in a game which isn't the last one of the season is risky to say the least.

And the Patriots running up a ton of points against the Rams also is not a given. Not as long as Corey Dillon remains questionable while nursing his thigh injury sustained in practice last week. Dillon, whose value to the team goes up every week, was the great equalizer which Tom Brady could count on to help neutralize the loss of Deion Branch (who will not play Sunday) in his receiving corps. Kevin Faulk had a miserable week last week (five carries, four yards, one lost fumble), but he should not be as stifled as he was last week against the Steelers.

That said, what are the poor Patriots to do?

Brady should be able to make good hay in the passing game nonetheless. Another player whose value goes up every week is David Givens. His specialty is to make first down catches, as well as being the go-to guy in Branch's absence. As long as Branch remains on the sideline, a key Patriot offensive cog has to be Daniel Graham. Brady should be able to find receivers with or without much or any running attack.

It is no secret that this game will come down to the Patriots' ability to handle the Rams' offense. Jackson has bolstered the Ram running game, bringing a different style to compliment the cutting and slashing style of Faulk. Bulger has matched Warner's ability to win most every game he plays. Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt are perhaps the best receiving tandem in the league. The question may not be what strategy will work, but rather if the Patriots have the material to even have a chance.

Material is what the 2002 Patriots lacked. In 2003, the Patriots were racked with injuries but still had enough depth to win 15 straight games and a Super Bowl. The 2004 squad has shown that they are thin at the cornerback position, and Law's value has perhaps skyrocketed faster than Dillon's or Givens'. Whatever the front seven can do may not matter if the cornerbacks cannot stop the Ram receivers in a venue where they scuttle defenses on a regular basis.

What you will likely see is the Patriots playing a relatively soft zone, trying to keep the Ram receivers in front of them. You might see the Patriots try and keep the receivers to no more than 15-yard completions, and to try and hold them to field goals when they get into the red zone. In a cover-two defensive scheme, Rodney Harrison and whoever plays free safety will back up the corners on separate halves of the field, and should be keyed on preventing the deep throw. Taking Harrison away from stopping the run is risky; Belichick may try and use Tedy Bruschi as a shadow for Faulk like three years ago. If Martz tries to establish the run with Jackson and not Faulk, it behooves Vince Wilfork and Ted Johnson to have big games in the middle.

If there is one area which greatly favors the Patriots, it is Belichick versus Martz. Belichick will manage the game properly. Martz tends to screw up games, especially end games. Martz is an offensive genius, but a suspect game manager, and sometimes makes wrong decisions with the game on the line. If the game comes down to head coaching decisions, the Patriots have the clear advantage.

It should be an entertaining game, probably high scores for both sides. The Patriots have never won in this building, losing 32-18 in 1998 with Drew Bledsoe sidelined with an injured finger. It is a tough venue to win in, although Carolina did a great job here in the divisional round last year.

But make no mistake: Neither side will care about three years ago. They just care about today and the win right now.


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