Any time the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans meet, memories of Super Bowl XXXIV are sure to come to the fore. In one of the greatest Super Bowl finishes of all time, the Rams emerged with their lone championship during their time in St. Louis.
A lot has changed since, but neither team has managed to get back to the promised land and it seems like a long shot either will this season. This week, the Rams and Titans renew acquaintances at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky discuss some things worth watching, including an interesting role reversal for one of the key figures in that Super Bowl.
Wagoner: Well, it's pretty obvious what the big story is going to be this week. Jeff Fisher is facing his former team for the first time since taking over as the coach in St. Louis. As is to be expected, Fisher is downplaying that whole angle, but you were around him a lot in his years in Nashville. Do you expect Fisher to have a little something extra for his old team this week?
Kuharsky: It would be so much better if it were in Nashville. Then we’d have the crowd reaction as a part of it, too. Still, it’s intriguing. He will definitely have something (or some things) drawn up that he feels will uniquely exploit the schemes and styles of his former underlings Mike Munchak, Jerry Gray and Gregg Williams. If those things work, I’d expect Fisher will then talk about how one of his assistants who was once in Tennessee -- Chuck Cecil, Dave McGinnis or even Ray Sherman -- was instrumental in the design. Fisher didn’t leave with hard feelings, and I believe he wishes the organization well. Still, any proud former employee in this sort of circumstance wants to outperform the former employer. He’s talked about it meaning more for the guys on the roster who were once Titans.
Wagoner: Cook has really struggled dealing with teams giving him more attention and, more specifically, being physical with him at the line of scrimmage and downfield. He stopped on a route last week against Seattle, and it resulted in an interception. The Rams have gone back to more of a power running scheme that has also limited his snaps because he doesn’t bring much to the table as a blocker. Finnegan won’t say it, but I believe he was banged up at the beginning of the season; his first four games were downright brutal. He returned last week against Seattle, and for now he’s working exclusively in the nickel as the team’s third corner rather than just bumping inside in those situations. Given that he’s only a little more than a year into a monster contract, it’s hard to categorize him as anything but a disappointment for the price.
A lot will be made of the Fisher-Tennessee connection, but I’m more intrigued by the Gregg Williams situation. The way things went down with him and the Rams, and between Williams’ son Blake and the Rams, had to have created some tension on all sides. What has Williams’ impact been down there in Tennessee, and what exactly is his role?
Kuharsky: By title, he’s senior assistant/defense. In practice, he’s not-quite defensive coordinator. Gray is still calling the plays, but Williams’ influence is undeniable. This defense had no personality or attitude last season. Now it’s the backbone of the team. It mixes it up and disguises its looks up front, it blitzes more often and it plays far more man-to-man. Bernard Pollard has been a great fit who has talked with swagger and backed it up. Some guys most people have never heard of -- defensive end Ropati Pitoitua and middle linebacker Moise Fokou -- have been very good additions. Williams certainly had a say in bringing those guys in. He has stayed in the background and seems comfortable there. I would imagine he and Gray are excited to put together a plan to make Kellen Clemens uncomfortable.
How do you think Clemens will respond in his second start since Sam Bradford went down?
Wagoner: To paraphrase one of the great philosophers of our time, Mr. Dennis Green, Clemens proved last week against Seattle that he is what we thought he was. He’s a tough, gritty, consummate professional who can occasionally extend plays with his legs and make something happen. He’s also consistently inaccurate, a bit indecisive and has a knack for costly turnovers (though his two interceptions Monday night weren’t completely his fault). Another week to work with the starters should help, but he was a bit sore after Monday night’s game against Seattle. The Rams don’t need him to throw for 300 yards and five touchdowns, but they do need him to convert in the red zone and not turn the ball over.
There are something like 16 players from the Fisher era remaining in Tennessee, one of whom is running back Chris Johnson. The Rams have been better defending the run the past two weeks, but they need to prove they can keep doing it. It appears Johnson has struggled after the team made efforts to help him in the offseason. What’s going on with Johnson, and is he (and the Titans' offensive line) capable of taking advantage of the Rams’ run defense?
Kuharsky: The Titans are built on a philosophy of throwing it when they want to, not when they have to. That’s a mistake because the revamped line and Johnson are not equipped to run it they way they think they can. Jets fans get a kick out of this, but to a large degree the Titans' hope things will get better comes from Shonn Greene. The bigger back was brought in as a compliment to CJ, but he got hurt in the opener and made it back only the week before the bye; he has hardly played. They need him to emerge and contribute. Based on current numbers, the Rams are the third-softest run defense the Titans will have seen this season. If they can’t run Sunday, it will really speak to their issues.
Wagoner: Quinn certainly has. Through the first half of the season, he’s really starting to realize his immense potential. I believe he’s the Rams’ best player right now, and have felt that way since the beginning of the season. He’s an athletic freak who gives slower tackles problems. He feasts on inferior players, but he can get it done against good tackles as well. Long was banged up earlier in the season but has battled through it and is starting to find his stride. Given the situation on offense right now, the Rams need this duo to take over games on a regular basis and set the tone for a defense that, before last week, had largely disappointed this season.