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NFL Preview - Denver at St. Louis
NFL Preview - Denver (0-0) at St. Louis (0-0)
Scott Linehan will officially enter the NFL head coaching fraternity this Sunday, when his St. Louis Rams host the Denver Broncos in the opening game of the season for both teams.
Linehan takes over for the much-maligned Mike Martz, who reached the postseason in four of his six seasons with the Rams, but was ultimately fired after leading the club to a 6-10 record in 2005. However, Martz did reach the Super Bowl in 2001, so Linehan does have relatively large expectations to fulfill.
Just like Martz, Linehan's background in the NFL is as an offensive coordinator, and he is inheriting a high-powered offense in St. Louis. Also, former Saints coach Jim Haslett is on board as the new defensive coordinator and has the tough task of rehabilitating a defense that was subpar through most of Martz's tenure.
For his first test in the NFL, Linehan will butt heads with longtime Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, who has been at the helm in Denver since 1995. Shanahan teams have always been marked for their relentless rushing attack, and that style of play helped the coach and the Broncos win consecutive Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998.
Last year, Shanahan's Broncos had their best season since 1998, as the team finished 13-3 and picked up its first postseason win since winning Super Bowl XXXIII. However, Denver lost in the AFC Championship to the eventual world champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
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The all-time series between the Broncos and Rams is knotted, 6-6, with Denver evening the series by virtue of a 23-16 home win in the last meeting, in 2002. The Rams were 41-36 victors in the only contest between the clubs in the Gateway City, in 2000. Denver's most recent road victory in the series was a 27-24 win in Anaheim (against the-then L.A. Rams) during the 1982 campaign.
Denver head coach Mike Shanahan has a career mark of 2-2 against the Rams, including a loss for his Raiders against their then-crosstown rival in 1988. Linehan will be meeting both Shanahan and the Broncos for the first time as a head coach.
BRONCOS OFFENSE VS. RAMS DEFENSE
Once again, Shanahan's boys were among the tops in the league at running the ball, pounding out 158.7 yards per game (2nd in the NFL). Mike Anderson led the team with 1,014 rushing yards last year, and was rewarded by being released by the Broncos. Yet, if history repeats itself, that won't matter much, because Shanahan has made a career at replacing seemingly irreplaceable running backs such as Clinton Portis and Reuben Droughns. This year's foundling and potential breakout star is Mike Bell, an undrafted rookie free agent out of the University of Arizona. Bell had a beat on the starting job after rushing for 187 yards on 35 carries in the preseason, but expect Tatum Bell (921 rushing yards, 8 TD, 18 receptions) to have a big role in the running game on Sunday no matter who opens the contest.
The Rams defense struggled across the board last season, but were especially bad in stopping the run. The club finished 28th in the NFL in that category after allowing an average of 136.1 rushing yards per game. The club addressed that problem this offseason by signing six-time Pro Bowl tackle La'Roi Glover (28 tackles, 3 sacks with Dallas). The addition of Glover should take some pressure off fellow tackle and former first-round pick Jimmy Kennedy (33 tackles, 3 sacks), who hasn't quite lived up to expectations in his first three NFL seasons. St. Louis also improved at the middle linebacker position through free agency by signing Will Witherspoon (81 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 INT with Carolina).
The Broncos did not possess a high-powered aerial attack last season, but they did finish a respectable 18th in the passing game in 2005. Jake Plummer (3366 passing yards, 18 TD, 7 INT) had his most efficient full season in his ninth year as a pro, finishing with a 90.2 passer rating. Javon Walker was acquired from the Green Bay Packers in a draft-day deal and is expected to be the No. 1 receiver. However, Walker, who had 89 receptions, 1,382 yards, 12 TDs in 2004, played in just one game last year before tearing his ACL. Not to be overlooked is veteran wideout Rod Smith (85 receptions, 6 TD), who is entering his 12th season with the Broncos. Stephen Alexander (21 receptions, 1 TD) is returning at tight end.
St. Louis' strong suit on defense was stopping the pass, but it still finished 23rd in the NFL in that aspect. Travis Fisher is back as a starting cornerback after posting 37 tackles and no interceptions in eight games last year. Haslett reached back to New Orleans to fill the other starting corner spot as the team signed Fakhir Brown (33 tackles, 0 INT with the Saints). Rookie corner Tye Hill (Clemson), the 15th overall pick in this year's draft, will also see some action. Starting at the safety positions will be free agent signee Corey Chavous (71 tackles, 2 INT with Minnesota) and O.J. Atogwe (11 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT).
RAMS OFFENSE VS. BRONCOS DEFENSE
Martz's teams were always among the league's best at throwing the ball, and that was no different last season. Quarterback Marc Bulger (2297 passing yards, 14 TD, 9 INT) was on his way to a Pro Bowl-caliber season, before shoulder problems caused him to miss eight games in the second half of 2005. Torry Holt is one of the most consistent wide receivers in the NFL and turned in an excellent season last year with 102 receptions, 1,331 yards and nine touchdowns. The other wideout will be Isaac Bruce (36 receptions, 3 TD), who is entering his 13th NFL season. The 33-year-old Bruce did show signs of wear last year, as he missed five games due to a toe injury. Third-year running back Steven Jackson (43 receptions, 320 yards, 2 TD) excelled as a receiver and the Rams also expect big things from tight end Joe Klopfenstein, a second- round pick in this year's draft.
The weak link in Denver's game last season was its inability to defend areial attacks, and the team finished 29th in that category. The problem mainly lay in the Broncos inability to create any type of pass rush. That could be complicated by the fact that defensive end Trevor Pryce, who led the club with just four sacks last year, has departed for Baltimore. The ends this year will be Courtney Brown (24 tackles, 2 sacks) and Ebenezer Ekuban (27 tackles, 4 sacks). Also, rookie Elvis Dumervil, a sack machine last year at Louisville could also help in this area. The secondary possesses some big names in cornerback Champ Bailey (64 tackles, 8 INT) and free safety John Lynch (61 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT).
The Rams were 22nd in rushing offense last season, but that was more a result of Martz's obsession with the passing game than anything else. Jackson was in his first season as St. Louis' No. 1 back and posted 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground despite carrying the ball 20 or more times in a game just three times in 15 contests. Linehan has repeatedly stressed that Jackson will be a bigger part of the offense this year.
Denver did an excellent job at stopping the run last season, finishing second in the NFL in rushing defense with just 85.2 yards allowed per game. Brown and Ekuban may have struggled in rushing the quarterback, but combined with tackles Gerard Warren (19 tackles, 3 sacks) and Michael Myers (31 tackles, 1 sack) to deliver a consistent effort in the trenches. Al Wilson (72 tackles, 3 sacks) once again fills the middle spot in a solid linebacking corps that also includes Ian Gold (88 tackles, 3 sacks) and D.J. Williams (55 tackles).
The road has not been kind to the Broncos in recent years, as they are a sub- par 19-21 away from Mile High since 2001, but they should buck that trend this weekend in St. Louis. Denver will use its fierce rushing attack to dictate the pace of the game against an unproven Rams defense. Bulger should have enough protection to put up big numbers, but won't have the ball enough to do the amount of damage he needs in order to win.
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