NEW ORLEANS - There will be no Pace-ing on the sidelines for St. Louis this Sunday at Super Bowl XXXVI. No, left tackle Orlando Pace will be on the field, leading the often-overlooked Rams offensive line.
For the last five seasons Pace has been a rock on the line, starting 74 consecutive games, including six playoff games. Then, in last weekend's NFC Championship victory over Philadelphia, the Rams were given quite the scare. In the second quarter Pace went down with a knee injury and had to leave the game.
It could have been a huge blow, losing the only guy who has protected Kurt Warner's blindside from the outside spot. While all the skill position players get the attention for St. Louis, Pace and the rest of the line make it possible for the offense to click.
As bad as it looked when Pace went down, he showed tremendous toughness when he returned to the game after missing just one series. He played the entire second half on the injured MCL in his right knee, earning the game ball from Head Coach Mike Martz. Pace won't practice this week until at least Friday, if at all, but he removed any questions as to whether he'd be on the field Sunday.
"I'll be ready to go, that won't be a problem for me," Pace said. "It's been sore and will be for a couple days, but without a doubt I'll be out there on Sunday.
Pace, who is wearing a bulky knee brace all week, never suffered an injury before the Philly game.
"When I did it, being that I've never had an injury before, I didn't know what was happening," Pace said. "The doctors said I was fortunate that it was an MCL and not an ACL injury. It looked a lot worse than it actually was."
The St. Louis line is a bit banged up. Besides Pace, Rod Jones has a groin strain, but he worked out Wednesday. Jones started the Rams two playoff games at right tackle in place of Ryan Tucker, who had a srained ankle. Tucker is expected to start Sunday.
Still, Pace was the scary injury. The first overall pick in the 1997 draft, he is the leader of the group, and he showed why against the Eagles.
"We gave him the game ball for his efforts last week," Martz said. "He was the offensive player of the game. It was a testament to his courage for him to go back out there in the second half. We told him to go ahead and sit out, but he just said, 'I'm playing.'"
Pace decided to gut it out, ignoring the pain in order to get his job done.
"It was a big game, the NFC Championship," Pace said. "That was the game that would get us to the Super Bowl, and I didn't want to miss it. I wanted to be in there trying to contribute to us getting to New Orleans."
New England fans know full well what a solid left tackle does for a quarterback. Listening to Warner speak about Pace sounded an awful lot like Drew Bledsoe many quotes on having Bruce Armstrong on the line.
"There is just a confidence there when Orlando is in the game," Warner said. "It's a comfortable feeling knowing his has your back side. When he went down, it looked like a big blow. Then he came back in, and it was a big confidence boost."
Besides his physical skills, Warner said St. Louis needs Pace's ability to read defensive fronts. With the Patriots penchant for throwing a wide variety of schemes and looks on the field, the Rams need to be on their game.
"With New England, we assume we'll see a number of defensive fronts and blitz packages that we need to pick up, and Orlando is a big part of that," Warner said. "The five guys up front have worked together for the last three years, which makes those things easier.
"I don't know if our line is really an overpowering line, but they are tremendous when it comes to scheming and picking up guys. With our offense doing so much in both the running and passing game, we call upon them to make a lot of adjustments and make sure they are getting the right guys."