In Packers vs. Rams, key could be defense

In turnover department, St. Louis gives, and G.B. must take advantage

Pro Football

January 20, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Mike Martz might be the exception, but the architect of the St. Louis Rams' prolific offense is thinking defense.

That's what could make the difference when the Rams entertain the Green Bay Packers in today's NFC semifinal in St. Louis.

"Who knows what this game is going to be?" the Rams' coach said last week. "I think anytime you have two quarterbacks like that, it can take any kind of path. [But] I don't think it will be a shootout. I think it will be a relatively low-scoring game.

"I think both defenses are very substantial. I am very impressed with their defense."

Any chance the fourth-seeded Packers (13-4) have of knocking off top-seeded St. Louis (14-2) will start with their defense. Green Bay collected a team-record 52 sacks and tied for second in the NFL with 39 take-aways this season. That combination might be able to keep the Packers close enough to let quarterback Brett Favre work his magic.

"No one knows how the game is going to unfold," Favre said. "Everyone assumes they're going to score a lot of points because they have all year, that we have to go in scoring a lot of points. ... I seriously doubt that it'll be a defensive struggle. But you never know."

Turnovers figure to be the key. The Rams gave the ball away an NFL-high 44 times this season - and still lost only two games. It's what happens if and when the Rams play giveaway that will shape today's matchup.

"It's been well-documented they don't care how many turnovers they make; they come back and make big plays," Favre said. "From our standpoint, if we get turnovers, we have to capitalize on them. That's easier said than done."

The Packers dumped their dime defense (six defensive backs) in last week's wild-card win over San Francisco and inserted linebacker Rob Holmberg in a 4-2 alignment against three-wide-receiver sets. They'll have to bring back the dime today, though, with either Keith Thibodeaux or Allen Rossum as the sixth back.

"They know that we're going to come out with our four-wide-receiver set," said Rams wide-out Torry Holt. "That's us; that's the Rams. They have to make the adjustment to find somebody to cover all of us.

"Do they have to bring somebody in? I don't know, that's up to them. If we can create some mismatches in that four-wide-receiver set, you better believe Coach Martz will find it and dial up whatever number that is and get them the football."

The Packers also have to deal with the noise level at the dome and the fast track that favors St. Louis' speed receivers. But Packers coach Mike Sherman discounts the dome factor, pointing out that Green Bay is 2-0 in domes in the postseason (compared with 3-8 in the regular season the past five years).

"The fact that the Rams play in a dome is insignificant," Sherman said. "We are playing the Rams, not the stadium and not the crowd, though the crowd is a factor. ... If we can't handle crowd noise, we don't deserve to be here."

On the Rams' side, there is some concern about the strength of quarterback Kurt Warner's vocal cords, injured with a forearm to the throat on Jan. 6 in the team's final regular-season game. He only began to call plays in the huddle and the cadence at the line of scrimmage on Thursday, albeit softly.

Martz seemed unfazed last week and at one point made a rather extraordinary statement. "If there is something where he [Warner] can't call the play in the huddle, then we will just go to the other quarterback," he said.

The other quarterback, Jamie Martin, who has thrown three passes this season, would then be replacing the league's Most Valuable Player. Not likely to happen, although the Rams have a problem if Warner can't talk in the huddle. The league has informed the team that the radio receiver must be in the quarterback's helmet, not in that of someone like running back Marshall Faulk's.

Warner could use a silent count on the field if his voice isn't strong enough to be heard.

"He should be back to normal on Sunday," Martz said.

Although these two teams haven't played since the 1997 regular season - a 17-7 Packers win - the Rams are familiar with Green Bay's offensive tendencies. That's because their defensive coordinator, Lovie Smith, served as linebackers coach the previous five years with Tampa Bay in the NFC Central Division.

"I think that's real important," Martz said. "He has faced them so many times over the years and has a pretty good feel for their approach offensively and how they adjust to things, and I think that will help us."

He was thinking defense, again.

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