Ounce of `prevent' by elastic defense is cure

With oft-ripped tactic, Rams bend, don't break

January 31, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- It's often said the prevent defense prevents victory.

For the St. Louis Rams last night, the oft-criticized prevent defense won the most exciting Super Bowl in game's 34-year history.

After Kurt Warner threw the final strike of his storybook season -- a 73-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce with 1: 54 left for a 23-16 lead -- the Rams played back in the prevent defense, which often drives fans batty. The Titans took over on their 12, needing 88 yards against the Rams' defense to tie the game. They went 87.

Except for one blitz, the Rams played back to take away the deep pass and gave Tennessee room underneath. The Titans moved slowly down the field. Their two longest plays were 16 and 12 yards. But the prevent defense with a three-man rush is designed to force the offense to run out of time before it reaches the end zone.

It worked by a yard. The longest yard in Super Bowl history.

"We came up short by one yard," Titans running back Eddie George said.

With the help of three penalties, the Titans got four first downs and got down to the Rams' 10 with five seconds left. They were out of timeouts because they had used two before the final drive.

With the Rams flooding the end zone, Steve McNair had one last pass to throw.

"He's a warrior," Rams end Kevin Carter said of McNair.

McNair had nothing to apologize for in defeat. He threw a slant pass to Kevin Dyson, who tried to break a tackle and get into the end zone. He was tackled a yard short by an obscure linebacker named Mike Jones.

Jones may be the unlikeliest Super Bowl hero. He spent his first six years with the Raiders before signing with the Rams as a free agent in 1997.

In a way, though, there wasn't really a loser in this game. Both teams played like champions, and maybe the league should think seriously about eliminating the two-week delay between the conference title games and Super Bowl.

With only one week, players don't have much time to get caught up in the hype. Even with the distraction of cold weather, the teams could focus on football.

Also, Rams coach Dick Vermeil has to be given credit for learning from his mistakes. Nineteen years ago, when he brought the Philadelphia Eagles to Super Bowl XV, he let his team get uptight; it was routed by the Raiders. This time, Vermeil kept his players on an even keel and had them ready to play.

Titans coach Jeff Fisher also didn't panic when his team fell behind 16-0. He stuck to his game plan of running Eddie George, who ran 28 times for 95 yards.

The Titans' man defense, though, tends to play into St. Louis' strength.

When the Rams take the field next year, their games should come with the following warning:

Playing man-to-man defense against the Rams is hazardous to your won-lost record.

Especially if you fail to get to Warner.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed the blueprint for how to stop the Rams last week with their two-deep zone, forcing the Rams to throw underneath and taking away their big-play game.

The Bucs led that game 6-5 in the fourth quarter before an interception set up Warner's game-winning 30-yard touchdown pass.

Unfortunately for the Titans, the zone isn't their game, so the matchup works against them. They play a high-risk, high-reward blitzing defense that Fisher learned from his mentor, Buddy Ryan.

It's a defense designed to put heat on the quarterback and cause turnovers.

The problem is that when the opposing team protects the quarterback, the secondary is vulnerable, especially against an Air Coryell-type offense that the Rams run. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz runs an offense similar to the one that Don Coryell ran with Dan Fouts in the late 1970s and early 1980s when they scored by the bushel.

It helps that Warner is such an accurate passer and can burn a secondary when he has time to throw. Not only did the Rams protect Warner, but they also weren't guilty of a turnover. In fact, there wasn't a turnover in this well-played game.

In the end, it was a game of 1 yard and one second. On the game-winning pass play, Jevon Kearse was lined up one-on-one on offensive tackle Fred Miller. He crashed into Warner a second after the ball left Warner's hand. Bruce was one-on-one on Denard Walker and made the play. The Titans' man defense can give up plays like that when it doesn't get to the quarterback.

Kearse did tip a pass from Warner on the first offensive play of the game.

But Kearse wasn't heard from again until the final minute of the first half when he ran Warner down from behind but gave the Rams a first down by dragging him down by the face mask.

The inability of Kearse and the rest of the Titans to get to Warner -- he was sacked once -- hurt the Titans' attempt to pull an upset.

While Orlando Pace handled Kenny Holmes one-on-one on the left side, the Rams frustrated Kearse by double-teaming him. They moved tight end Roland Williams, fullback Robert Holcombe and even Marshall Faulk into Kearse's face to help out Miller, though Miller was one-on-one against him on the game-winning touchdown pass.

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