NEW ORLEANS – The banged up St. Louis offensive line will not see Ryan Tucker return to the starting right tackle spot for the Super Bowl.
After saying Wednesday he expected Tucker, who has missed both playoff games with an ankle injury, to be set to go this weekend, Head Coach Mike Martz announced Thursday that Rod Jones would stay in place, despite suffering from a nagging groin problem himself. Jones has started on the right side in both playoff games after playing in just six games with one start in the regular season.
"Ryan Tucker still has a bit of an issue with his ankle," Martz said. "Rod played so well last week and deserves this opportunity. We were really pleased with his performance against Philadelphia."
Martz also said that left tackle Orlando Pace would be able to do some light work Thursday, but nothing with full team work. Pace is expected to practice on Friday. Wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim returned to practice Thursday after skipping Wednesday with an ankle injury. All players are expected to be available for Sunday.
No advantage here
Don't talk to Martz about the Rams being any kind of heavy advantage over New England. While odds-makers and most of the media aren't giving the Patriots much hope, Martz understands you don't get to the Super Bowl without being a strong team.
Even in beating the Patriots 24-17 in Week 10 to drop New England to 5-5 at the time, Martz told his team after the game they had just played a Super Bowl-caliber team. While he didn't want to brag Thursday, he admitted predicting seeing the Patriots in the postseason, a claim his players have backed up several times this week.
"I don't have to convince our players that this is not a mismatch," Martz said. "They understand that already. I'm sorry, I just don't believe this is a mismatch. These are two evenly matched teams. Our players lined up and went against these guys. They know how good these guys are.
"They got after us pretty good, and that was the most physical game I think we've played to date. It was pretty impressive. We played those guys as good as we could and won 24-17. It's not like that was not a good performance for us. We played as hard as we could and we were fortunate to get out of there with a win."
No shock in QB decision
Martz and defensive coordinator Lovie Smith both said the decision by Bill Belichick to start Tom Brady instead of Drew Bledsoe was no surprise, nor would it change anything the Rams have in store.
"We assumed Brady would be the guy," Smith said. "He's been their starter, and I'll assume the guy will remain the starter as long as he is healthy."
Asked about Brady being a first-year starter possibly being a bit awestruck at the whole experience of the Super Bowl, Smith didn't buy into it. In fact, in his first season running the St. Louis defense, he didn't see much difference between the two.
"He's out there on the field and he's done a great job," Smith said. "The only thing I have against him, being an Ohio State Buckeye, is that he is from Michigan. Besides that, he's done a great job. He's not really a guy who has come out of nowhere, and he is the main reason right now that his team is in the Super Bowl. He's like Tommy Polley in that, having played close to 20 games, he's not really a rookie anymore.
Don't overlook him
With all the weapons on the St. Louis offense, it hardly seems fair for the Rams to have a top-notch tight end, but that's exactly what Ernie Conwell gives them.
In his sixth season out of Washington, Conwell gives Kurt Warner both protection as a sixth lineman and a safety valve over the middle as a dependable target. The fact he plays at all is impressive, given that he needed two seasons to fully recover from a knee injury earlier in his career that had doctors believing he wouldn't play the game again.
"It took him two years to overcome this, but when you watch Ernie, I don't know if there is a more complete tight end in the league," Martz said. "I love him to death. I haven't seen another tight end who can block a defensive end by himself and still have the speed and agility to get up the field, hit his routes and catch the ball as well as he can. He's the complete package."
On the season Conwell 38 catches for 431 and four touchdowns. With his speed he causes coverage problems for linebackers, but at 6-2 and 265 pounds, he is also a load for any defensive back to handle.
One to another
As a wide receiver and punt returner, Hakim can appreciate the tools of New England's Troy Brown.
For the season Hakim averaged 9.2 yards on punt returns and he didn't have as strong a special teams year as he has in the past. Fumble problems have hurt him as well, but he is still extremely dangerous in the kicking game. He'd like to establish himself as a similar consistent threat as Brown, who has returned three punts for a touchdown this season, including one last weekend in Pittsburgh.
"Troy Brown is the type of guy with all the skills to take over a game," Hakim said. "He has been a great sparkplug for the Patriots, and we are going to have to defend him on defense and special teams if we want to win this ballgame."
Slow down guys
As impressive as the St. Louis defense improvement was this season, it is made even more impressive when you consider how often the Rams offense strikes quickly with a long play. He big plays mean the defense has to go back on the field right away, often without much break between series.
"I wish they would hold the ball for some longer drives, but then again last week in Philadelphia the Eagles had the ball for about two minutes in the third quarter," defensive end Grant Winstrom said. "They can control the ball and clock when they want to, and as long as they keep scoring I'll never complain about it."
So, how about switching to offense, Grant? Not a chance.
"That thing changes every week," he said as he laughed. "I'm not smart enough to play offense for Mike Martz."