Warner welcomes Eagles challenge

Talented Rams QB is eager to face Philly's blitzing defense

January 27, 2002|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS -- St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, despite bruised ribs and having watched the Chicago Bears' Jim Miller leave early last week with a separated shoulder against the Philadelphia Eagles, enters today's NFC championship game unfazed.

Warner, the NFL's Most Valuable Player who led the league with 4,830 passing yards and 36 touchdown passes, said he is approaching his showdown with the Eagles' ravenous defense "probably more excited than anything else."

Warner will get attacked by a blitzing defense -- one that sends more players from different places on the field than just about any other team -- early, often and relentlessly. Yet he is excited, and, in fact, is inviting such a strategy.

"They're a good football team, and they have good schemes," said Warner, who is looking to take his team to its second Super Bowl appearance in three years. "When you've got good talent based around good schemes, it makes it more difficult. We've been very good against the blitz, and with the guys that we've got, we always welcome the opportunity to try to attack it and try to get big plays off of it."

Thus, the most interesting subplot of today's game is whether the Eagles' vast array of blitzes can get to Warner in time to force a sack, or at least an off-target throw.

If any defense can contain Warner, running back Marshall Faulk and the rest of the Rams' top-ranked offense, Philadelphia's unit has a chance.

The Eagles have allowed just one touchdown in the playoffs the past two seasons and none in two games this year. Philadelphia (13-5) finished seventh overall defensively during the regular season and second against the pass. A key player, Pro Bowl cornerback Troy Vincent, strained his groin in last week's 33-19 win at Chicago, but he is expected to play.

That would be a huge benefit for a team that will need outstanding showings from its defensive backs against Warner, who led the Rams (15-2) to a 45-17 win over the Green Bay Packers in last week's divisional round.

The Rams attack the field. The Eagles, under the direction of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, attack the quarterback."[Johnson] can do things out of a regular scheme that you have just never seen before," said Faulk, who had an NFC-best 2,147 yards from scrimmage this season and a league-best 21 touchdowns. "He gets as creative on defense as Mike [Martz, Rams coach] does on offense. So we have seen a lot of things, but I am sure we haven't seen it all yet."

This is a rematch of a Week 1 meeting in which the Rams squeezed out a 20-17 overtime win in Philadelphia. That game was the debut of a revamped Rams defense that has blossomed into one of the most opportunistic in the league.

Packers quarterback Brett Favre threw six interceptions, including three returned for touchdowns, against the Rams last week.

After giving up 343 yards a game and 471 points a year ago, the Rams brought in eight new starters and surrendered 279 yards a game and 273 points this season. It was the fifth-best turnaround since 1970 and part of the reason oddsmakers have listed the Rams as 11-point favorites over the Eagles.

"I think we have come a long way since that time with our defense," Martz said. "We have improved dramatically in a lot of areas. I think our players really understand this defense so much better, the integrity, the structure and how to be disciplined in playing that defense."

Those attributes Martz bestowed on his defense will never be needed like they will be needed against Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

In leading Philadelphia to playoff wins over Tampa Bay and Chicago, McNabb was nearly flawless.

"It's not about staying in the pocket," McNabb said. "It's not about getting out of the pocket. It's not about getting the ball to a particular receiver. It's about playing football. I think any time you have your minds set on one thing you want to do, it takes away from the other things you can do. What you see me doing out there is having fun, playing football and trying to make plays."

That seems to be the same goal for the Rams' offense.

"I think we'll just have to go in and play the way we've been playing," Rams receiver Isaac Bruce said. "We don't want to adjust to anybody. We usually come out and try to make people adjust to us."

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