Rams vs. Titans: the inside scoop

by Jack Gallagher

ATLANTA — With the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans going through their final full practices Friday at the Georgia Dome as the city braces for a huge snowstorm, the buildup to Super Bowl XXXIV has reached its crescendo.

Now it’s time to size it all up. Last year, Rams coach Dick Vermeil gave The Japan Times an exclusive interview with his insights on Super Bowl XXXIII, but this year, since he will be coaching in the game, we’ve asked another veteran professional coach to give us his thoughts on how the contest may turn out.

Larry Kennan, currently director of the NFL Coaches Association, has been the offensive coordinator for three NFL teams (New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts) during a nearly 30-year coaching career.

Kennan was the 1991 Coach of the Year in the World League of American Football when he led the London Monarchs to victory in the inaugural World Bowl. He also owns a Super Bowl ring, which he earned as quarterbacks coach for the Los Angeles Raiders when they won Super Bowl XVIII in 1984.

With the high-powered St. Louis offense that averaged 400 yards per game going against an aggressive Tennessee defense that forced 40 turnovers, the game promises to be filled with many big plays. Here’s how our expert evaluates the teams.St. Louis Rams — offense

“The St. Louis offense was spectacular all year. They really went out and got some speed in the offseason. They got Marshall Faulk (86 yards per game rushing, 65 ypg receiving). They got Torry Holt (15.2 yards per reception, 6 TDs) in the draft and that made them a really fast team.

“With quarterback Kurt Warner (41 touchdowns, NFL MVP) having an unbelievable year, partly as a result of having great guys to throw it to, they were a tremendous offense. They’re scary because they can score at any point in time.

“They have it all. They have receivers (Isaac Bruce — 12 TDs; Az-Zahir Hakim — 8 TDs), they have runners, they have the quarterback. The quarterback is a product of those around him, but he (Warner) has made them good too.”

When asked about the fact that Faulk didn’t factor much in the Rams’ 11-6 victory over Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game last week, Kennan said, “Occasionally in big games, your key players don’t end up being featured because of the way the game goes. You would think their chances are a lot better if he gets a lot of touches and runs the ball well.”Tennessee Titans — defense

Kennan says the Rams are going to have to protect Warner from NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Jevon Kearse (AFC-leading 14 1/2 sacks), who caused big problems for St. Louis in Tennessee’s 24-21 victory over the Rams in Week 9 at Nashville.

“You need to do something to help your tackles. Against a great pass rusher like that, all offensive tackles get killed. Kearse is too good and too fast. You have to help with a back and/or maybe put a tight end on his side.

“The Titans are an attacking defense (recovered 24 fumbles, had 16 INTs) and they set a franchise record for most sacks (54). They are plus-18 in turnover margin for the year on defense. They get a ton of turnovers on defense and if they don’t get turnovers, they could be in real trouble. They pressure you and if they don’t get turnovers and sack the quarterback a lot, they’ve got some problems.

“That’s a key. They’ve got to get some turnovers. Their offense isn’t strong enough to have long marches.”

Kennan says the weakness that Tennessee has on defense is precisely what the Rams do well on offense.

“They gave up a lot of yards passing during the course of the year. Because of the style they play they’re going to do that, so St. Louis has a chance to just light them up. If they don’t get pressure and some turnovers, St. Louis is liable to hit them like they did in the second part of that game early this season. Get a bunch of yards and a bunch of points in a hurry.”Tennessee Titans — offense

Kennan thinks production from the backfield tandem of quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George is crucial for Tennessee.

“The Titans have been very good all year, except when McNair (eight rushing TDs, 4.7 yards per carry) was hurt and, coincidentally, (wide receiver) Yancey Thigpen was also hurt. Their offense was good most of the year and when they weren’t, it was because those guys were hurt at the same time.

“Thigpen is hurt now (hairline fracture of the foot), but having the quarterback back healthy gives them a chance because he’s a great weapon. They have a runner (George) and McNair needs to be able to make enough plays by throwing to keep the Rams honest, so he and George (81 ypg rushing) can both run the ball.

“They can’t afford to turn it over much, because they aren’t good enough to turn it over and not get turnovers and win. They want a situation where they get a lead on St. Louis. If St. Louis gets a lead on them, it will be much harder for them to come back.

“George is a fabulous runner, a fabulous back. He does everything. He’s one of the best runners in the game and a fine receiver. He protects well also. As the game goes on, he just wears you out. He’s a gigantic back. So is McNair. They are big people. Eddie is in tremendous condition. He just wears people out. At the end of the game he is still fresh.”St. Louis Rams — defense

Kennan believes the Rams’ defense has been the unsung hero of their incredible season.

“They’ve retooled their defense over the last couple of years. They were a good defense a year ago. They were solid. They added a couple more players. You don’t hear about them much because the offense has gotten all the publicity. This is one of the best defenses in football (57 sacks, turnover ratio of plus-19).

“They rank right up there with Tampa Bay as one of the defenses that can just stone you, and they’ve done that to a lot of people.

“They’re a team defense. Kevin Carter (NFL-best 17 sacks) is a great rusher. (Linebacker) Mike Jones (four INTs) is a good leader and a pull-together guy. He’ll keep everybody playing and everybody going. I think he added a lot of leadership to that group.”St. Louis Rams — special teams

“It’s that old saying ‘speed kills.’ That has helped them all year in their return game (Tony Horne — NFL best 29.7 yards per kickoff return; Hakim — 10 1/2 yards per punt return), in particular, and also in their coverage, because they have guys who can run.

“The downside is who knows what their kicker (Jeff Wilkins) is going to do?”

Wilkins (20-28 FGA) has been struggling with an injury to the knee of his non-kicking leg, making it difficult to plant his foot before kicking.

“This game very likely could come down to missing or making a 42-yard field goal to win it or lose it. That’s the wild card.

“My feeling would have been to give him (Wilkins) every chance like they have. Late in the year it’s hard to find a guy. Nobody has been out there kicking. To bring in a guy who hasn’t kicked in 16 weeks, or in the case of a guy like Nick Lowery, who hasn’t kicked in three years, that’s a little frightening. You are usually better off with a known quality than with an unknown one.”Tennessee Titans — special teams

“They’ll do anything as a return team, just like they did to beat Buffalo. That’s one of their qualities. (Head coach) Jeff Fisher will allow them to do trick plays on offense and the special teams, and that helps you, because you feel loose and you can do things.

“(Kicker) Al Del Greco (21-25 FGA) is good. If it comes down to winning it or losing it, you have to bet on him winning it big time. He’s done that for years. He’s one of those guys you know who is going to kick it and make it.”Prediction

“I’m going to take Tennessee to win by three or seven. Maybe 27-20 or 24-21. Something like the first game, but it will be totally different than the first game. But I think Tennessee will win.”