- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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MACOMB, Ill. -- The success of the Rams offense has naturally become its worst enemy. For five years, defenses have schemed to stop "The Show." Each year, more defenders hang back in zones. Cornerbacks developed tricks to slow down Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. First, it was the Cover 2 (zone).
"We started calling it the Cover 2 Hold-em zone," Bruce said. And "hold-em" they did. Cornerbacks waited at the eight-yard area and grabbed Bruce's jersey so many times that he would come back to the huddle with his shoulder pads sticking out. That didn't stop Martz. He'd still send three-to-five receivers into coverages of seven or eight. Passing is the strength of the Rams no matter the strategies against them, and in five years, the Rams have finished no lower than third in the league.
But things change. Offenses evolve. Guys get older. Bruce is now 31 and in his 11th year although he looks no worse for the wear. Holt has established himself as a Pro Bowler at the age of 27. Marshall Faulk is 31 and you're starting to hear speculation about him retiring because of a bad knee. And now, Kurt Warner is gone, and Marc Bulger is at the helm.
The Rams Show may be getting older, but it's reloading to a certain degree. The other day, Martz incorporated some aggressive running drills in which backs hit holes hard and linebackers crashed into bodies to stop them. There is a new emphasis on trying to run the ball. No, this isn't Ground Chuck. The Rams remain a passing team, but Martz wants more physical, aggressive play from his offensive line to bring some changes in the coverages he sees.
The idea is if the Rams can run the ball better, defenses won't keep an extra safety in deep coverage.
"We need to run the football extremely well," Holt said. "I think Coach has a big emphasis on that this year. We need to establish the line of scrimmage. If we can dominate up front, maybe we will see eight in the box and get some one-on-ones for the receivers. I can count on one hand the number of times I see eight in the box against us in a game. If we are running the ball five and six yards a pop, teams might bring that eighth man in the box and make it easier for Marc Bulger."
Despite making a playoff run with Bulger last season, the running offense grounded to a halt. Part of that was the health of Faulk, who fought through another year of knee troubles. Part of that was strategy. Backs ran the ball a little less than 23 times a game. That's a half sometimes for Ricky Williams, which is one of the reasons he's retired watching his NFL career go up in smoke.
What Martz is stressing is more production from the running offense, which averaged only 3.6 yards a carry. That average needs to go up to anywhere from 4.5 to 5 yards a carry. Faulk's back. So is talented and relatively unused Lamar Gordon. Undrafted second-year player Arlen Harris offers some versatility. On top of that, the Rams used their first-round pick on a Ricky Williams-type back in Steven Jackson.
"We have to run the ball better than we did a year ago," Martz said. "There are a lot of logical reasons to do it, but the mindset part of it is the most important. We will try to get that going, as we did in 1999 (the Rams ranked fifth in rushing that year). It's easy for us to throw the ball in some sense. We have guys who have a pretty good concept of what we do. We can always go back into that quickly."
Talent-wise, the Rams can challenge the Vikings as being the deepest running team in football. Faulk and Jackson are first-rounders. Gordon is a third-rounder. And Martz loves Harris. "You watch him out there and I'm just as excited about him as the other guys," Martz said. That might translate into many more rushing attempts a game, but the idea is to be more physical and definitely more efficient.
One concern, however, is Faulk. For the first time in 11 seasons, Faulk is beginning to realize his days as an every-down back are numbered. He's so valuable to this offense that it's not out of the question for him to play three or four more years. He's best route-runner out of the backfield during his era and will remain a force -- as long as his knee doesn't become a liability.
"This is the first year I thought about if the body isn't acting right, what do I do?" Faulk said. "Do I fight through it or do I not play. I have to evaluate it after the season. I love football. It's in me. I was given a gift to play this game, the physical gift and the mental gift to understand."
After last season, doctors found a way to prolong his career. During an arthroscopic procedure, they found arthritis wasn't the main problem. Instead, there was a little flap of cartilage causing some problems. They shaved off a flap of the cartilage, and the knee was fine.
Martz understands he has to be smart in how he uses Faulk in practices and in games. So much of the offense is geared to Faulk breaking runs and making catches in traffic. Last year, he rushed for 818 yards and caught 45 passes for 290 yards despite missing five games. The coach is letting Faulk go day-to-day in practice when the knee feels right. So far, he's put the pads on a couple of times, and tried a few runs.
"I just have to take care of myself and day to day let my body tell me," Faulk said. "I have to listen to it. It doesn't listen to me. I watched what I did the first day of practice and looked pretty good on film."
To help the knee, Faulk came to camp at 214 pounds, more than 10 pounds lighter than last season when he was asked to be a little heavier for the pounding. However, Faulk also understands that because of the team's new philosophy and his health, the other backs might factor into the plans more.
"I have to understand if I have to take a lesser role if that becomes an issue," Faulk said.
It isn't the issue. Faulk's the starter. The Rams just have to be smart how they use him.
One issue behind this team is Warner. This is Bulger's team now. It's really been his team for two years. While Warner was fighting injuries, Bulger compiled an 18-4 record while he was winning over his teammates with his accuracy and humble leadership.
Bulger doesn't have the same bravado as Warner, who had a flair for dramatics by standing in the pocket taking a hit while releasing a big-time pass. Bulger's game is efficiency. He's quiet. His game is more of the Trent Green-style than Warner's. It worked well enough for the Rams to invest a four-year, $19 million contract that included a $9 million signing bonus.
"I feel like it's my team now," Bulger said. "It's not that much different than before, but last year was a learning experience. When you first start playing as the quarterback, you have to earn the players' respect. I'm not a rah-rah guy. I lead by example. Once you have been with these guys, they learn to trust you. They have some confidence in me."
With Faulk, Holt, Bruce, Adam Timmerman and Orlando Pace, Bulger doesn't have to go outside of his comfort zone to be a leader. The Rams have plenty of offensive leaders. They've been in the forefront of NFL offenses for the past five years. The big difference from last summer is that Bulger is working with the first team during training camp. Warner did that last season. Now, Bulger has a whole summer to work on his efficiency running the offense.
"Last year, I knew where guys specifically were supposed to be and I threw to the area they were supposed to be at," Bulger said. "Now, I can be more conscious to get the ball at 18 or 12 yards in specific routes."
Though he isn't the most mobile quarterback and his deep balls are a little in question, Bulger's game is accuracy.
"Chris Miller was the most accurate quarterback I've worked with, but Marc is the next best," Bruce said. "We just need to make the game easier for him. Running the ball is one of the things that will help. They may get us more eight in the box, and if that happens, we can get more plays on the outside in the passing game."
The league's new edict for officials to penalize illegal contact against cornerbacks who mug Bruce and Holt should open things up even more. Warner's gone. Faulk is aging. But "The Show" goes on.
Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
After years of being criticized for not running more, coach Mike Martz wants to increase the Rams' ground production.