Foxborough, Mass. - If you haven't had a chance to buy tickets to the "Greatest Show on Turf," then perhaps you've at least heard of the act. What's new for the St. Louis Rams high-powered offense - dubbed in recent seasons with said nickname - is that it brings a new dynamic this season with the potent rushing combination of veteran Marshall Faulk and rookie Steven Jackson.
A week after they surrendered 221 yards rushing to Pittsburgh - their second 200-yard game allowed this season - the Patriots will be aware of the problems St. Louis can create in the running game. While the Rams rank sixth in the NFL in total offense (374.5 yards per game) and fifth in passing offense (264.1), it could be easy to overlook a ground game that produces just over 111 yards rushing per contest. But the Rams are formidable when they do run - averaging 4.6 yards per carry, good for fourth-best in the NFC.
Faulk, who has seven 1,000-yard rushing seasons to his credit, has two 100-yard games this season to help the Rams improve to 26-0 since 1999 when he tops the century mark. Although he's currently lifting a lighter load, Faulk is still seventh in the NFC in rushing yards (465) and ninth in total yards from scrimmage (681). Jackson, the dynamic rookie from Oregon State, has rushed for 260 yards and one touchdown on 46 carries, good for a gaudy 5.7-yard average.
"It is another headache for the defense," head coach Bill Belichick said. "Most of the time they are not on the field together, so you have two very good players who have a contrasting style, which is difficult. And they are both good in the passing game, so it is not like one guy runs and the other guy in for the pass. They are both in there for everything. But, they also have a number of sets where both of them are on the field together, and that creates another problem that you do not normally face."
On an offense already featuring Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Faulk, the addition of Jackson seems like an embarrassment of riches of sorts. With the 26th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft and a seven-time Pro Bowl player in Faulk, the Rams admittedly weren't in search of a running back. But Jackson slipped, and the Rams traded up two spots to acquire his services.
"No, we weren't really thinking about a running back," St. Louis head coach Mike Martz said. "That was not a priority when we drafted him. It was a surprise to us. We felt like, I think, he would have gone off in the top ten picks, maybe even the top seven, but he didn't and when he got down there, it was a remarkable situation for us and we are just very fortunate that he was there."
The first seven games of Jackson's career are probably enough to make teams sour for passing him over. He's not as a polished receiver as Faulk - perhaps the top multi-dimensional back in NFL history - but at 6-foot-2 and 231 pounds, has shown a unique blend of speed and power that are reminiscent of Baltimore's Jamal Lewis. Whether pitted with Faulk in the backfield or just his replacement, Jackson has proven early to be more than Martz expected.
"To be honest with you, if something were to happen to Marshall, [with] Steven [Jackson] we wouldn't skip a beat in terms of what we are doing," Martz said. "It doesn't diminish our package offensively whatsoever, which I could never say about a rookie and I never thought I would say about a rookie back. I can't tell you how pleased I am with his maturity, his ability to absorb and be a student of the game. All the things I didn't think he had, or questioned early, he has proven that he has and I couldn't be more happy about that."
What's scary is that the addition of Jackson may have made Faulk more dangerous. Hampered by injuries that caused him to miss seven games and parts of six others over the last two seasons, Faulk has been able to stay healthier by splitting time with Jackson.
"Marshall told me right here last week that the last three games, where they split the number of carries right down the middle basically, is the best he has felt, it is as good as he has played in the last three or four years," Martz said. "He is playing very well. His weight is down. His knee feels good. He has the speed back. I think it is just a real healthy situation, and that is what is encouraging as we go down the stretch here, is to have those guys where they are."
There were no changes to the Patriots injury report on Thursday. Cornerbacks Ty Law (foot) and Tyrone Poole (knee) are out, while wide receiver Deion Branch remained doubtful with a knee injury. Offensive tackle Tom Ashworth (back), wide receiver Troy Brown (shoulder), running back Corey Dillon (thigh), receiver David Givens (knee), linebacker Larry Izzo (knee) and running back Patrick Pass (thigh) are all listed as questionable. The team reported that all of the above players missed a portion of team practice.
Quarterbacks Tom Brady (shoulder) and Jim Miller (shoulder) are again listed as probable.
Belichick noted the Patriots would practice in shoulder pads Thursday, saying it's a "day-to-day" decision based on how much contact there will be in practice. "There are times when we go out in pads and there are times we don't go out in pads. It is really just based on what you feel like your team needs and what you are trying to get accomplished." ... Belichick highlighted the team speed on defense of St. Louis. " They are fast. Their linemen can run. Their linebackers can run. Pisa [Tinoisamoa],*he covers a lot of ground.[Brandon] Chillar,[Trev] Faulk, [Tommy] Polley-those guys have a lot of speed and athleticism and a lot of range. They are building on speed and you can see that." ... Since 2001, the Rams are 10-3 against the AFC. Over the same span, the Patriots are 13-3 against the NFC. The Rams are 12-0 at home against AFC teams since 1998. ... Belichick pointed to good vision, accuracy and a quick release as elements that make Rams quarterbackMarc Bulger* successful. "One thing about the Rams passing game, you can't play quarterback there if you can't throw the ball down the field, have a good arm, be accurate and get the ball down the field."