NEW ORLEANS – The Patriots have made tremendous strides along the offensive line this season, running the ball with more success than they've demonstrated in years. They'll need to do so again on Sunday if only to keep the clock moving and not allow the Rams powerful offense many chances to get on the field.
But another factor about New England's play up front that will be key to monitor will be the performance of young tackles Matt Light and Greg Robinson-Randall, who will go against the Rams two best pass rushers.
St. Louis doesn't like to expose itself with sophisticated blitzes and schemes on defense. Instead, it relies on the front four – particularly ends Grant Wistrom and Leonard Little – to create pressure on the quarterback and disrupt the opponent's passing game.
Light, the rookie out of Purdue who will likely start at left tackle, will have Wistrom across from him throughout the day. Light is listed as probable with an ankle injury he says isn't serious. He will be seeing Wistrom, the former Nebraska star, for the first time because Light sat out the first meeting between the teams back on Nov. 18 with an undisclosed illness.
"[Not playing has] given me the opportunity to watch more film and stuff," Light said of missing the first meeting with the Rams. "Obviously it would have been better to have played in that game to give me a lot better feel for what I'm going to get this Sunday. But you can learn a lot from watching the films and that's how I'm preparing."
What Light will see is perhaps the highest motor in the NFL. Wistrom is one of those non-stop, high-energy players that can be very tough to go against. He possesses the combination of power and speed and likes to use both to his advantage, which also makes him difficult to prepare for.
Light's backup, Grant Williams, had some success starting in place of Light in Week 10. In that game, Wistrom failed to register a sack and according to Williams only had a couple of pressures in the game. Williams realizes how difficult Wistrom can be, however, and is doing all he can to help his young teammate.
"All three of us talked this whole year about going against all of the pass rushers," said Williams, who with six years of experience can offer some guidance to the youngsters. "We talk openly about each guy and a lot of the guys we've gone against this year I've played against whereas they haven't seen them. I try to give them tips and pointers and I ask them questions about what they think in certain situations.
"[Wistrom's] strong and he has good speed. He doesn't have edge speed like (New York Jets defensive end) John Abraham but he gets off fast with the ball. Initially he can get on your edge and just press your edge with his strength."
Light had some trouble early this season with speed rushers like Abraham and Miami's Jason Taylor while handling his job much better against power-type rushers such as Indianapolis' Chad Bratzke. He considers Wistrom to be a tough matchup because he doesn't necessarily fall into either category.
"He's a very athletic player and plays with some speed and he's physical," Light said. "He likes to get his hands on you and I think he has good strength, too. He's going play tough all day against you.
"He's kind of a middle man in that he doesn't always use his speed like some guys do, although it's in his package so you have to watch out for it. I don't think he's always going to be one of those anchor down guys that's going to try to get at your body quick and bull rush you every play. He's somewhere in the middle and that's almost worse in some ways because with those other guys at least you know what you're going to get."
On the other side at right tackle Robinson-Randall's play this season has been much like the second-year man from Michigan State's demeanor – quietly effective. His task on Sunday may be even more complicated than Light's in that he'll need to be ready for two players. Chidi Ahanotu starts for the Rams but designated pass rusher Little comes in on passing downs.
In the first meeting, the Rams had two sacks and one was by Ahanotu on a play Robinson-Randall says he simply "messed up on and got beat." The other sack came when the guard Joe Andruzzi was pulling on the play and the protection changed as a result, making his block tougher and leaving an unblocked Ram to easily get to Tom Brady.
The difference between Little and Ahanotu are what Robinson-Randall is trying to decipher as he watches game film from the first meeting.
"[Little's] a real quick pass rusher who likes to follow the tackle right back to the quarterback," Robinson-Randall said. "He's very strong and aggressive so you have to try to keep him contained and away from the quarterback. I think it helps a lot that we played them earlier in the season because I got see some of his tendencies and they're easier to see when I watch other film on him. Ahanotu is not as quick and maybe not as powerful, but he'll use a move on you every now and then."
Williams, who is preparing to play in the event that Light is further banged up during the course of the game, said he call upon his experience if he's needed.
"I played against Ahanotu two or three times but not Little," Williams said. "Ahanotu is actually a good pass rusher but Little just has the edge speed that it's hard not to put out there. I'm sure they could get by with Ahanotu. He's the more active guy. He'll get off fast and do a lot of spins. He has almost every move so you have to be conservative and adjust a little.
"With Little he'll try to beat you to the edge and maybe try to get underneath you two or three times. Wistrom can get a sack but he's not going to make you look stupid. Little has the speed to make a guy whiff and embarrass you."
So while the talk down here mostly centers on the quarterbacks and receivers, it could be the play of a pair of young tackles that could go a long way toward determining the outcome of the season's biggest game.