By: Bob George/BosSports.net
November 07, 2004

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ST. LOUIS -- How do you beat the Greatest Show On Turf with two rookie cornerbacks, one of whom just arrived from the practice squad? Here's how.

Resurrect a daffy preseason experiment and put your slot receiver in at cornerback. Throw a touchdown pass to a linebacker. On an obvious field goal attempt, direct snap to the kicker and tell him to throw a touchdown pass. Depend on the opposing coach to mismanage the clock at game's end by running clock when time should be conserved.

Did it work? Patriots 40, Rams 22.

The Patriots brought a ton of intensity to the table on Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome, with its root in last week's pasting at Pittsburgh. What was expected to be an offensive explosion by the Rams against the depleted Patriot secondary instead turned into a mistake-fest by the Rams, coupled with a tremendous showing by the Patriot front seven. That combined with a decent job by corners Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland helped keep the explosive Ram offense in check most of the afternoon.

Intensity was only part of the story. Bill Belichick, Charlie Weis and even special teams coach Brad Seely pulled every trick out their hats in throwing the Rams off balance. The Patriots befuddled Ram coach Mike Martz and his troops in literally every way possible, though Martz has proven over the years to be easily befuddled. The Patriot defense forced the Rams into three turnovers. All these elements added up to a fairly comfortable win by the Patriots on the road when a tough offensive battle was expected.

All cute stuff aside, the central element of the Patriot win was the play of the front seven and their ability to get pressure on Marc Bulger all game long. This was a group that had to play well for the Patriots to win, and play well they did. Any means to take pressure off the secondary was badly needed.

Compounding the secondary problems was the early loss of starting cornerback Asante Samuel. On the second offensive play of the game for the Rams, Brandon Manumaleuna caught a pass in the right flat and was driven out of bounds by Samuel. The play went for only a three-yard gain, and the Rams would go three and out. But Samuel slammed Manumaleuna with his right shoulder, and in turn hurt his own shoulder. He came out of the game immediately, and would up walking off the field with his jersey and pads off. He would return late in the game and the exact nature of his injury was never disclosed, but it looked like a possible dislocation which might have been corrected in the locker room.

Moreland, signed recently off the practice squad, had to come in and play. To provide further help, Troy Brown, who tinkered in the secondary during the preseason, put that little experiment to work by getting lots of playing time on defense. For most of the game, Gay, Moreland and Brown formed a cornerback trio.

Bulger wound up with pretty good numbers, 23 of 33 for 285 yards and two touchdowns. Manumaleuna torched the Patriots for a 48-yard completion in the second quarter thanks to Rodney Harrison getting caught out of position. Torry Holt burned the Patriots for a 36-yard fourth quarter catch when Moreland let him go in zone coverage and Eugene Wilson did not get over in time to make a play.

This was almost it as far as material damage against the Patriots. Bulger did manage touchdown strikes to Holt (16 yards) and Bruce (11 yards). The other Ram touchdown was scored by the defense as Leonard Little recovered a Tom Brady fumble in the end zone. That's only 14 points given up by the Patriot defense. In a sport which lives on the bottom line, the bottom line here is that the Patriots won the game thanks to the defense making plays when it needed to, and never letting the Rams get into a rhythm on offense.

Bulger was sacked five times and was hurried most of the evening. Many of the passes Bulger managed to complete were dumps underneath which generally did not result in big gains or first downs. Marshall Faulk had 66 yards on 12 carries and an average per carry over five yards, but as in Super Bowl XXXVI, it's the 12 which raises eyebrows. Actually, in a game where the Patriots were this depleted at the corner, Martz would have been praised if he had gone pass happy and thrown at the corners all game long. But the pass rush would not allow that to happen, and Faulk could not get the ball with his team trailing much of the time.

Perhaps the strangest play of the season occurred in the third quarter, during the first Patriot scoring drive. The Patriots drove to the Ram four-yard line, and faced fourth and goal. The Patriots lined up for a 22-yard field goal attempt by Adam Vinatieri. The blockers set themselves, but the defenders did not see Brown walk away from the blockers and line up at left end. Holder Josh Miller walked past Vinatieri to get into a position to hold, but then Lonie Paxton snapped the ball to Vinatieri. He took the ball and lobbed it perfectly to Brown, and nobody noticed until he caught the ball and stepped into the end zone. The play was legal because Brown did not enter the field directly from the sideline but rather from the huddle like everyone else.

Brady himself was under pressure all game long and was sacked twice. But he did manage to outdo Vinatieri and throw two scoring passes. He hit Bethel Johnson with a three-yard touchdown pass to complete the scoring, and he also found Mike Vrabel from two yards out in the second quarter for his first pass reception since Super Bowl XXXVIII. Vrabel was forced to make a diving grab, unlike the easy catch he made in the Super Bowl.

Martz continues to confound Ram fans with his clock mismanagement. Late in the game, despite trailing 40-22, Martz opted for running plays instead of a score-quick, hurry-up approach. Three scores would be hard for anyone to make up, but as the Seattle Seahawks well know, if any team can ring up a quick salvo of points late in the game, the Rams can. The drive stalled on downs at the Patriot four, when Brown stopped Bruce for 12 yards when he needed 16 on fourth and goal.

This was a terrific bounce-back game for the Patriots, who had to be smarting from last week's loss at Pittsburgh. In addition to his scoring toss, Vinatieri was four-for-four on field goals. Corey Dillon was welcomed back from his one-game hiatus with 112 yards rushing and one touchdown. David Givens had 100 yards on five catches, one of them going for 50 yards.

Best of all, the Patriots invoked great memories of 2003 by being able to win when depleted with injuries. Ty Law and Tyrone Poole aren't expected back any time soon, so this arrangement may continue for a while. Being able to stop receivers like Holt and Bruce can only do wonders for their confidence.

Ram tough? The Patriots certainly were on Sunday.


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