After the St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl, their plan for the future was set. Dick Vermeil would retire so they would hand the reigns over to Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz. Martz served as a QB coach/offensive assistant to the Redskins the year before and helped turn them into one of the league’s most explosive offenses. When he took over the Rams offense, it quickly became known as “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
But, as everybody knows, in life there are no guarantees when you use the drive-thru and there are no guarantees in the NFL. The supposedly perfect marriage between Martz and St. Louis was never consummated. They reached the Super Bowl two seasons later and, despite being 17 point favorites, they wound up losing. Many fans never forgave Martz for that. And the team started to regress due to flaws in Martz’s coaching philosophies and by 2005 the relationship had deteriorated worse than Hulk and Linda Hogan’s, brother. Thus, out went Double M and in came former Vikings and Dolphins OC Scott Linehan.
Linehan isn’t as innovative or wide-open as Martz, but he’s definitely one of the better offensive minds in football. The Rams hoped to keep their explosive offense but couple that with a stout defense, often neglected under Martz. To that end, they hired former Steelers Defensive Coordinator, free from the hell that is being the head coach of the New Orleans Saints, Jim Haslett. This was supposed to be a big year for St. Louis. Unfortunately, a combination of aging stars, coaching errors, and tons of key injuries have made this a year to forget.
While the Rams go back to the drawing board this off-season, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin must go back to the drawing board IMMEDIATELY. Myself, amongst others, have been noticing some serious fundamental flaws in this team for awhile now but those flaws were ignored when the team kept winning (against mostly inferior opposition). However, the past two weeks, both convincing losses to quality, PLAYOFF-BOUND, teams shows these flaws need to be addressed if we have any hope of doing anything come January.
Steelers Defense vs. Rams Offense
Unbelievably, the Rams had a hard time scoring points for most of this season. Of course, they haven’t had their full compliment of healthy offensive starters most of this season, either. Those starters are pretty much all back now which means don’t let the record fool you, this team can do some damage.
The offense is led by Central Catholic product, Marc Bulger. The Rams like to throw the ball deep and Bulger, when he’s on, has the arm strength and accuracy of a top-flight NFL quarterback. In the last two seasons, he’s completed 66% of his passes while averaging 8.12 yards per attempt, which is outstanding. His main problem is that he’s fragile and doesn’t like to be hit. If we can get in his face and knock him around, he will get rattled.
WRs Issac Bruce, Tory Holt, and Drew Bennett are all known for their deep play capabilities. Bruce isn’t the deep threat he once was and drops more passes now, but has shown he can still be a playmaker. Holt has some decent intermediate pass route skills, although you don’t see him go over the middle very often. Bennett has superb deep speed and either splits time with Bruce or serves as the slot in three and four wideout sets.
The big threat on offense will be RB Stephen Jackson. He’s a big load who’s had some shoulder and knee issues this year. When healthy, Jackson is one of the best tailbacks in the game. Last week, he rushed for 143 yards against a very tough Green Bay defense. And this week he faces a Steeler team that has suddenly become unable to stop the run.
Of course, “suddenly” should be translated as “Since DE Aaron Smith was lost for the season.” This is Item #1 on Tomlin’s drawing board: find a way to fix the run defense. I can’t believe one player makes THAT much difference but look at the rushing yards allowed with Smith vs. without him and even a blind man, or Bryant Gumbel, can see the difference. The law firm of Kirschke, Eason, and Hoke just can’t get the job done. They were getting blown off the line left and right against Jacksonville. It got so bad, they were bringing S Troy Polamalu up to support the run but if you depend on your safety to tackle the running back, that’s not good.
The Three Amigos of Bryant McFadden, Ike Taylor, and Deshea Townshend have the speed and coverage skills to deal with the St. Louis receivers. And James Harrison and our other linebackers should be able to get pressure on Bulger as their o-line is nowhere near as big and physical as Jacksonville or New England’s. Granted, this won’t mean much if Jackson is ripping off 8 yards per carry…
Steelers Offense vs. Rams Defense
Jim Haslett utilized the standard issue 3-4 Blitzburgh scheme while here but has since converted to the more widely accepted 4-3. Anthony Hargrove is probably too small to be a 4-3 DE and not agile enough to be a 3-4 OLB. He’s not a bad player by any means, just not a big threat in either position. Leonard Little is getting up there in years and pretty much running on fumes now. Jimmy Kennedy is slow and lazy and doesn’t really seem to do much. La’Roi Glover is another veteran that probably has only a couple season left and tends to tire because he just can handle that much of a load anymore. Because of these factors, the Rams have been fairly susceptible to the run this year.
This should be music to the ears of RB Willie Parker, who once again rushed for 100 yards last week in a losing effort. Time was, a 100 yard rushing day by a Pittsburgh back meant ball control and time of possession and a win for the Steelers. For some reason, we’re still running the ball effectively, at least on paper, but this hasn’t been translating to wins.
Item #2 on Tomlin’s drawing board will definitely be the play of the offensive line. Last week, it was painfully apparent that LT Marvel Smith is still in tremendous pain from the back injury that caused him to miss a couple games earlier this year. Two weeks ago, Mike Vrabel blew by him like he was standing still and last week Paul Spicer abused him. The Steelers have no choice but to start Max Starks and hope he can anchor the line like he did in back to back games where they only gave up 4 sacks total. C Sean Mahan was also whipped like a rented mule last week but I don’t think we have any other options at center. I can understand we have high expectations given we used to have names like Dawson, Hartings, and Webster at the position but I’d take AVERAGE at this point.
If we can keep QB Ben Roethlisberger upright, a pretty big “if,” he should be able to find some open receivers as the St. Louis secondary is nothing to write home about. The Steelers shouldn’t have any problems putting up points this week. The key will be, and I can’t believe I’m typing these words, if our defense can hold up their end of the bargain.