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JUDGE: Scouting the Rams' downfall

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Clark Judge

 
   
 
The St. Louis are crippled, winless and desperate, and that's no way to be four games into the season. Yet the not only are down, they're out of virtually everything but the NFC West outhouse. And that makes no sense. Yeah, so 's hurt. That's an excuse for losing to Dallas? At home? No, this is a club with some serious issues, including a star quarterback who's out 8-to-10 weeks and who has eight times as many interceptions as touchdown passes. I don't know what's wrong, but I know who does. That's why I approached scouts, coaches and personnel directors this week to dissect what's left of "The Greatest Show on Turf," and they were consistent in their responses. "It's pretty easy," one of them said after watching videotape of the . "The offensive line isn't very good, and if those guys can't protect Warner he can't make the throws he's used to." OK, that's a start. But there's more. Lots more. What follows is a scouting report on the silence of the , as told by those who critique teams for a living, and it starts where you might expect. The envelope, please:

1. The offensive line

The lost their starting and backup right tackles to free agency, but thought they'd be OK with . They're not. Every week's a struggle with the guy. But that's not the surprise. One scout said the other tackle, All-Pro choice , wasn't playing much better. "There was no intensity in the game I watched him," he said. He singled out a play against Denver where defensive lineman blew past Pace so quickly you half-expected to hear an "Ole!" "In a situation like that you've got to do anything to protect the quarterback," our scout said. "Grab the guy. Pull him down. Tackle him. Anything so the quarterback doesn't get hit." Pace didn't. Warner got off the throw but suffered for it: McGlockton hammered him after he finished his delivery, and that scene has been repeated over and over. Now, Warner is out, and so is Pace. "Warner's not taking that many more sacks," said an AFC pro personnel director, "but he's getting hit way too much." The numbers demonstrate the impact it's had: A year ago, Warner threw for an average of 8.6 yards per attempt in his first four games; this year it's down to 7.1. "He's going to his checkdowns much quicker because they can't protect him," said a scout. That usually means dumping the ball to security blanket , with Faulk having as many catches today (31) as he did through the first four games last year. But here's the catch: He's averaging two fewer yards per reception, which means he's either attracting more attention or getting the ball before he can accelerate. "People are hitting him when he comes out," said an NFC player personnel director. "They're not afraid to jam him." More on that later. For the moment, the offensive line is first on the list of problems identified by our panel of resident experts, and they pass the blame inside as well as out. "I always said if you had a good offensive line you can win on the road," said an AFC personnel director. "Well, a year ago the were 8-0 on the road. Now, they can't win anywhere."

2. The loss of

Sure, Hakim was in coach Mike Martz's doghouse for fumbling punt returns, but the guy was an effective third receiver whom opponents had to respect deep because of his speed. When the club lost him it tried to sign and , but failed on both scores. So it re-signed , brought in and added . The result: two touchdown passes in four games, which is one touchdown less than in Carolina. Yes, times have changed, and free-agent losses like Hakim are beginning to crack the . When Hakim was in there, he served as the third receiver and Proehl as the fourth — and that combination, along with starters and , and Faulk out of the backfield, so perplexed opponents that it made San Francisco draft cornerback with its first choice this year. The wanted a cover corner who could stay with the ' wideouts when they spread the field. That shouldn't be a problem now. "When you have as your third receiver and as your fourth, those guys aren't going to scare anybody," said an NFC scout. ? What happened to Wilkins and Edwards? Good question. With one catch between them, they might as well be buried in the Witness Protection Program. Granted, Proehl has as many catches (10) as Hakim had at this time last year, but he can't stretch a defense as Hakim did, and he's not alone. Quick now: Which ' receiver is the most dangerous deep threat? Try tight end , whose average of 15.4 yards per catch is the team's best. That's not good, and it has repercussions for Faulk. Remember what New England did to him in Super Bowl XXXVI? They bumped him, mauled him, hammered him and all but shackled him when he ran a pass route. Now, others are following the same script. The idea is pretty simple: As long as Warner doesn't have time to look deep, you disrupt the timing with his best short weapon by jamming Faulk when you can. "Opponents know that if they can hold for 2-to-3 seconds Warner won't have time to make the downfield throw," said one scout.

3. The failure to run

It wasn't the loss to New England that served as the blueprint for defending St. Louis as much as it was the win over Tampa Bay in the NFC championship game two years earlier. The were the superior team, yet they struggled to an 11-6 victory made possible only when Proehl made a leaping fourth-quarter catch. "Everyone who saw that game saw the effect Tampa had on the with their 'Two-Deep Zone,'" said one defensive coordinator. "So they decided to give it a try." The results weren't overwhelming: St. Louis won 24 of 32 regular-season games the next two seasons, and Warner and Faulk were the league MVPs. Nevertheless, St. Louis didn't win when it had to, and last year's Super Bowl serves as the textbook example. The ran five and six defensive backs on the field, daring the to beat them with the run ... but it didn't happen. And it's still not. "In the Denver game the were in the 'Tampa Two' for about 20 snaps," said the coordinator, looking back to the ' opener this year. "Everywhere you go, you hear guys calling for it." The antidote? Run the ball to take your opponent out of coverage and make him attack the line of scrimmage. St. Louis hasn't done that, averaging 43.8 passing attempts (including sacks) and 17.8 carries a game. "Martz's philosophy is to throw," said one scout. "And that's fine if everything's working. But everything's not. They're just missing, but they're missing enough that it's thrown everything out of sync." Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address, cjudge@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Broncos, Lions, Chiefs, Rams, Vikings, Patriots, 49ers, Panthers, Johnnie Morton, Ernie Conwell, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Orlando Pace, John St. Clair, Kurt Warner, Torry Holt, Ricky Proehl, Troy Edwards

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