John Madden
John Madden
Rams, Bucs seek to answer questions
By John Madden
ALLMADDEN.com

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams face off Monday night (ABC, 8 p.m. ET) -- the past two NFC champions and two of the past four Super Bowl champions.

Unfortunately, it isn't a regular-season game and it's only Week 2 of the preseason (Week 3 is when you get your best look at the starters). This means that we'll probably only see first team vs. first team for a couple of series, and some of the stars won't even see that much action. So the question is, "What are we looking for here?"

Breaking down the Rams
This will be a good test of how the Rams' offense and QB Kurt Warner are doing. The Bucs will be able to see if they have another running back if they have to play without Michael Pittman, who is having off-field problems. Is the offensive line better than it was last year? These questions will begin to be answered.

Marshall Faulk
The Rams need a healthy Marshall Faulk,who is perhaps the best all-purpose back in NFL history.
The Rams are an interesting team. They went into last season off a Super Bowl loss and lost the first five games of the season. The slow start is something they need to address. The Rams need to figure out what to do differently to avoid digging themselves the same hole.

Warner is still a question mark. Coach Mike Martz continues to say he's the starter. With the way he played last season -- before and after he was hurt -- he doesn't look like the same QB. That could have been because of injuries. The Rams need to find out which Warner is wearing the uniform. If he isn't the same QB, then Marc Bulger, who stepped in and won five games last season, has to show he can do it. It's not a quarterback controversy, but we'll get an indicator during the preseason of where the Rams need to go.

Marshall Faulk remains one of the best running backs in football -- and maybe the best ever in terms of doing it all as a running back, blocker and receiver. He hasn't played yet in the preseason. I went to see the Rams play the Oakland Raiders, and Faulk didn't even suit up. I don't think he will be in uniform Monday night, and I heard a rumor that he might not suit up at all this preseason. It makes you wonder why.

If it's because the Rams don't want him to get banged up in the preseason and want to save him for the regular season, that's one thing. But if there's a question about him physically, that could be a serious thing, because the Rams' offense needs an efficient quarterback and a healthy Marshall Faulk.

The Rams still have great receivers in Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. But two years ago, when the Rams' offense was most efficient, they had four talented wide receivers, so you couldn't double up on Bruce and Holt. Az-Zahir Hakim offered speed at the third receiver and Ricky Proehl was a quality fourth receiver. Over the past two years, the Rams have lost those inside receivers (including Ernie Conwell, who they lost to the New Orleans Saints). It will be important for them to develop a third and fourth wide receiver.

The offensive line will be good only if Orlando Pace is starting. The Rams put the franchise tag on him, and he's holding out for more money. Pace is one of the best offensive tackles in the game. The Rams were able to get Kyle Turley from the Saints, who will play the other tackle. So the tackles are strong. Andy McCollum moves from center to guard, and Adam Timmerman is at the other guard. If Pace plays, that's a quality O-line. In the game that I saw in Oakland, John St. Clair started in place of Pace, which makes the line weaker.

On defense, the Rams drafted another defensive tackle, Penn State's Jimmy Kennedy, with their first-round pick. I guess their philosophy is to keep picking defensive tackles No. 1 until they get it right! Just two years ago they drafted Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett. If those guys were getting the job done, you figure that another first-round choice wouldn't have been used on the defensive line. Defensive coordinator Lovie Smith is trying to get a Tampa Bay defense, and he's looking for his Warren Sapp.

Defensive ends Leonard Little and Grant Wistrom are good and fast. But the linebackers have to improve. Players in the secondary have changed roles. Aeneas Williams has moved from corner to safety; Kim Herring has been the free safety but the Rams haven't been happy with him.

As a result, Jason Sehorn was brought in to play safety, and when he hurt his foot, Williams had to move to that spot. But can the Rams afford to move Williams to safety? Since Dre' Bly is now with the Lions and Dexter McCleon with the Chiefs, do the Rams have enough other cornerbacks?

Breaking down the Bucs
The Bucs did such a great job last year at the end of the season. Coach Jon Gruden did an excellent job, taking his new team to the Super Bowl in his first year -- and winning it. He was smart to keep the defense intact. He kept the players, he kept the scheme and he kept the coaches.

To prevent defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin from going to another team as a head coach, the Bucs paid him more money than some head coaches are making. I think he has earned that. The defense is what the Bucs have been based on.

The defense is strong at all three levels: defensive line, linebacker and defensive back. In any sport, you want to be strong up the middle, and Tampa Bay is strong with DT Warren Sapp, MLB Derrick Brooks and safety John Lynch. From the middle it branches out to the sides; DE Simeon Rice had a great year, while Greg Spires and Anthony "Booger" McFarland played well. Ronde Barber also had a heckuva year.

When you think Tampa Bay, you think defense. The Bucs have a great scheme that the players know, and they've been playing it for a long time. After you win a Super Bowl, other teams try to copy what you did. The problem with that is not every team has a Sapp or Brooks or Lynch, and it's rare to have more than one of those pieces.

The Bucs' offense started improving at the end of the season. Big receivers Keenan McCardell and Keyshawn Johnson are ideal for the West Coast offense. No. 3 receiver Joe Jurevicius is also a big target.

In Gruden's offense, it's important to be a bigger receiver in order to run those slants, crossing patterns and inside short routes where you'll take a good whack. Along with those short routes, you've got to be able to block. I've watched the Bucs practice, and Gruden gets on the receivers to block as much as running their routes and catching the ball.

The offensive line wasn't dominant unit last year but played much better down the stretch. And in the Super Bowl the O-line played extremely well.

QB Brad Johnson in his second year in this system, so he should be better. The Bucs need some big plays out of the offense, which is somewhat dependent on the running game. In the Super Bowl, Michael Pittman was able to be a running threat, but with his off-field problems he might not be available. They still have Aaron Stecker and acquired Thomas Jones from Arizona. Plus, one big advantage they still have is Mike Alstott, who is half fullback and half tailback.


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