The 2nd Time Around A potent passing game--the Rams' strong suit and the Titans' weak spot--gives St. Louis the edge in their rematch

January 31, 2000

Sure, the Tennessee Titans can beat the mighty offensive machine
of the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV, just as the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers almost did on Sunday. If the Titans were paying close
attention to that 11-6 game, they'll know that this is all they
have to do:

--Shut down Marshall Faulk, the NFL's top yardage producer during
the regular season. He was good for a measly 49 yards, rushing
and receiving, against the Bucs.

--Shut down Pro Bowl wideout Isaac Bruce, Kurt Warner's favorite
target. Bruce caught only three passes for 22 yards on Sunday.

--Hold the Rams to roughly 100 yards fewer than their
regular-season average and one third of their points per game,
as Tampa Bay did.

--Clamp down on the receivers and allow them no yards after the
catch. In other words, no missed tackles.

--Force Warner, either by scheme or pressure (or a combination
of the two), into errant throws, a rarity for him. The Bucs
harassed him into three interceptions, the most the NFL MVP has
thrown in a game this season.

--Do an about-face and change the scheme that forced two Warner
fumbles and gave the Titans a 24-21 victory on Oct. 31, when the
teams met in Nashville.

An about-face? Change the scheme? Why, for goodness' sake, get
away from something that produced a win? Simply because the crowd
noise attached an asterisk to that game. "It was loud that day,
too loud," Rams offensive line coach Jim Hanifan said on Sunday.

The biggest beneficiary of all that noise was Tennessee's
speed-rushing rookie defensive end, Jevon Kearse, who starts the
game on the left side but can pop up anywhere along the line. He
also drops into coverage in some zone-blitz schemes. Against the
Rams in October he didn't leave his original position very often
because he had found what he wanted--a pigeon. Poor Fred Miller.
St. Louis's right tackle was flagged for six false starts that
afternoon. Kearse had two sacks, a forced fumble and numerous
pressures on Warner.

"I guarantee you that Kearse won't do that again," Hanifan said.
"We won't leave just one blocker on him."

The Jacksonville Jaguars, six turnovers and all, still nullified
Kearse in the AFC Championship Game. Right tackle Leon Searcy
jolted Kearse on his initial rush, and when Kearse veered
outside, a tight end or a back took a shot at him. When Kearse
came inside, Searcy turned him over to guard Zach Wiegert. It was
a long day for the rookie, who finished with two tackles and no
sacks, and the strategy was not lost on the Rams' coaches.

"Oh, we'll be ready for him," Hanifan said. "We're not going to
lock up number 28 [Faulk] on him and take him out of our
offense; that would be ridiculous. But we'll pick and choose."

The Bucs gave Faulk the spy treatment, with a defensive lineman
(right end Steve White or nosetackle Brad Culpepper) or
sometimes a linebacker picking him up right away in coverage. It
was White who gave the Trans World Dome crowd an early glimpse
of what was in store for the St. Louis offense when he picked
off a screen pass intended for Faulk on the Rams' first play
from scrimmage, setting up Tampa Bay's first field goal. "The
whole idea with Faulk," Culpepper said, "was to seek him out
before he got into his route. He's very effective at squeaking
through into open territory, but we tried to pop him before he
hit the funnel."

"Downfield, the key on defense is team speed," Bucs defensive
coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "All week I stressed to our guys,
'Play your zone, keep everything in front, but if they catch the
ball, make sure you tackle them right away.'"

It's the Bucs' trademark, and it's a textbook double zone with
the corners up close, passing the receivers off to the safeties
backing them up. Blitzing is held to a minimum, so the defensive
backs and linebackers can fill the lanes and disrupt crossing
patterns. All you need is a terrific front four, able to exert
constant pressure, and Tampa Bay's foursome did it with an
exotic array of stunts and loops.

But how about the Titans? In October they beat St. Louis with
the blitz, backed up by man-to-man coverage, which can be scary
when all those high-powered receivers start running their
crossing routes. Two fumbles set up 14 of the Titans' 21
first-quarter points, but then Tennessee hung on while the Rams
made a run, finally blowing a 38-yard field goal at the end. Can
the Titans pull a switch, with only one week to prepare, and go
to the stuff that Tampa Bay used? "We fully intend to
incorporate anything that was effective against them, and we're
not beyond copying the best things," Tennessee defensive
coordinator Gregg Williams said on Sunday. "But our style is to
let it all hang out and come after the quarterback, and I
imagine we'll be in that mode."

The guess here is that it'll be a mix-and-match defense with a
little of everything. What a surprise. The Titans used eight
defensive backs at times against the Rams, but after starting
free safety Marcus Robertson broke his left ankle on Sunday,
Tennessee is a little thin in the secondary. Robertson's
replacement is fourth-year veteran Anthony Dorsett, who will
make his second NFL start on Sunday. The son of Dallas Cowboys
Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, Anthony can fly. He does a terrific
job racing under Craig Hentrich's punts and downing them short
of the end zone, but now he's in the varsity lineup. "We lose
experience," Williams said. "We gain great speed."

The Titans' offense against the Rams' defense? Well, Tennessee
has won three games in the postseason with a pass-catch game
that looks like an afterthought. Steve McNair has thrown for a
total of 300 yards in the three games, a number that Warner has
topped on 10 occasions this season. McNair has completed 40
passes in the playoffs, 31 of them for 10 yards or less, and he
has only one completion for more than 15 yards. You can get away
with that if you've got a hammer like Eddie George to carry the
load.

The Rams, with a remarkable fireball of a middle linebacker in
London Fletcher, were No. 1 in the league against the run during
the regular season, but the figure is misleading. No team had
fewer running plays aimed at it, which is what happens when the
enemy is always playing catch-up.

The prediction: The Titans, with a sturdy and dedicated defense,
keep it close, but the lack of a third-and-long offense does
them in. St. Louis 20, Tennessee 17.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG FOSTER COVER Rams vs. Titans SUPER BOWL PREVIEW Freak Show! That's what the game will be if Jevon Kearse gets his mitts on Kurt Warner COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHOIn Marshall Faulk (left) and Eddie George, both teams have blue-chip backs, but a potent passing game gives the Rams a slight edge in their rematch with the Titans, in Super Bowl XXXIV [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER [See caption above--T of C] COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES KEY MATCHUP The Rams have to do a better job of protecting Warner, who was harassed by Kearse in the teams' first meeting.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)