NEW ORLEANS – As explosive and dominant as the St. Louis offense is, the Rams defense may not be far off, thanks in large part to a pair of rookies who have made an immediate impact.
Safety Adam Archuleta and Tommy Polley have stepped right in to the starting defense, helping push a dramatic turnaround on that side of the ball. Polley, a second-round pick out of Florida State, finished the regular season second on the team with 78 tackles. Archuleta, the team's third first-round pick, had 56 tackles and three sacks despite missing three games with a concussion.
Obviously the duo has made a huge impact in helping the Rams go from allowing 471 points in 2000 to 273 this year. They have earned the respect of their veteran teammates with their performances, but there was some questions at the start.
"Any time you have a rookie that is drafted and on the first day they come to mini camp they are penciled in as a starter, as an older guy you have a bit of apprehension," defensive end Grant Winstrom said. "But the system we run here now is very simple. There is not a whole lot to learn. You are allowed to go out and be a football player."
Archuleta sees a much improved player in himself since he first arrived in St. Louis. He feels he can improve his play recognition skills more, but at least he isn't just running wild over the field.
"When I look at myself on film, I really don't even recognize me," Archuleta said. "I look at a lot of things I was doing early in the season, and I am like, 'Man, that is terrible. That is just garbage.' I've grown a lot.
Like Archuleta, who made the transition from linebacker in college to safety for the Rams, Polley has had to move around. He has started at both outside linebacker positions and has been a key special teams contributor.
"We knew coming in there were a lot of new people on the defense, and I didn't want to be looked at as the guy hurting the defense," Polley said. "Neither Adam or I wanted people to think we were playing like rookies and not doing the job. We came in and worked hard, and now it's paying off for the team."
Meet me at the corner
Among the many key areas for Sunday's game is the match-up of the St. Louis receivers against the New England secondary. Both sides have as much depth at the respective positions as any teams in the league, and the possible one-on-one match-ups are endless.
""They are an elite group of secondary guys, and they are going to challenge us," Torry Holt said of the Patriots contingent of corners that consists of Ty Law, Otis Smith, Terrell Buckley and Terrance Shaw. "It's going to be a detailed game, and I'm looking forward to it.
"These guys have all been in the league almost 10 years now, so the word quit isn't even in their vocabulary. We know it's going to be a challenge for a full four quarters."
Holt and Isaac Bruce both topped the 1,000-yard receiving mark. Behind them on the depth chart are Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl, dangerous targets in their own right. The quartet combined for 21 touchdowns and more than 3,000 yards in the air.
Add to those targets the presence of Marshall Faulk, and it's no wonder the Rams have such a high-flying act on offense. On hand, it's impossible to focus heavily on any one aspect, but it's also not a good plan to leave any corner on an island with any of the receivers.
"I'm a big believer that I can not be covered one-on-one," Bruce said. "Torry believes the same, and so do Az and Ricky. If you are going to play us one-on-one, we have to do whatever it takes to get downfield to make big plays.
Catching the Jackrabbit
Lawyer Milloy has said many times he was spoiled going to the Super Bowl as a rookie. Just imagine if he'd been blessed with Adam Timmerman's success reaching the championship game.
Now in his seventh season, Timmerman is prepping for his fourth Super Bowl appearance. He went twice with Green Bay (1996-97)and then with St. Louis in 1999. His first trip with the Packers resulted in a win over New England.
Among the Patriots on the other side of the field that year was kicker Adam Vinatieri, then a rookie. Timmerman laughed when thinking about the odds of two South Dakota State products facing each other twice in the Super Bowl.
"It really has to be one-in-a-million odds to have two Jackrabbits playing against each other in the Super Bowl for the second time," Timmerman said. "I think there is only three South Dakota State grads in the league right now. Yeah, we are not really a football farm up there."
Asked what he knows about Vinatieri from their college days that fans in New England may not know, Timmerman said, "He was a bit of a lady's man."