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Thursday, September 5
Game Plans: Rams and Broncos

By Ron Jaworski and Sean Salisbury
Special to

The Denver Broncos host the defending NFC champion St. Louis Rams on Sunday (FOX, 4:15 p.m. ET).

ESPN analysts Ron Jaworski and Sean Salisbury break down the game plans of each team.

Jaworski on the Rams

The St. Louis Rams enter Week 1 of the 2002 as the team to beat once again. From an overall personnel standpoint, there is no question they are the best team in football. Offensively, their weapons are unstoppable. In fact, they may be even more explosive and deeper than last year. They lost Az-Zahir Hakim, but added Terrence Wilkins and Troy Edwards, two receivers who fit the Rams' mold with their speed, quickness and ability to separate.

Defensively, they will be improved because the players are just as talented and will have another year in defensive coordinator Lovie Smith's system. The longer that players play and work together, the better they get. The one change is middle linebacker, adding Jamie Duncan to replace London Fletcher, who moved on to Buffalo. Duncan, though, is a prototypical 4-3, double-zone middle linebacker. While he is not physical, he is fast and has the ability to cover either a back, tight end or a receiver down the hole in the vulnerable area of the double zone. They won't lose much with Duncan, and the Rams won't lose much all season.

Five keys for the Rams:
1. Start fast: I believe the Broncos are a team searching for an identity. The Rams don't want the Broncos to do anything early in the game to gain confidence. It's typical of the Rams to come out aggressively from the start of the game, but they need to take some enthusiasm away from Denver right away.

2. Help St. Clair: Right tackle John St. Clair has been the Rams' one offensive question mark. He struggled early in the preseason. Early in the game, it's critical that the Rams help St. Clair, either keeping a tight end on his side or a running back in to chip. They need to give him -- and Kurt Warner -- confidence that he will be fine at that position.

3. Single out safeties: The Broncos are weak at the safety position. Strong safety Kenoy Kennedy is a good run defender, but he lacks the speed and cover skills. The Rams will try to take advantage of him with their three- and four-wideout sets early in the game.

4. Gang up on Griese: The weight of the world seems to be on Denver quarterback Brian Griese. The Rams will try to take an aggressive approach and create forced errors. They can't let Griese get comfortable in the pocket and allow him to step and throw. If Griese has any separation between him and the offensive line, he is an accurate thrower who could pick the Rams apart. The pressure must come early to take him out of his game and make him think about pressure.

5. Pit Bruce against O'Neal: Another good matchup for the Rams would be to get Isaac Bruce involved. Broncos cornerback Deltha O'Neal intercepted nine passes last season, but at times he guesses. Bruce has the ability to run every route against O'Neal and have success -- the skinny post, the comeback, the hitches. If the Rams work Bruce against O'Neal, who has a tendency to gamble, it could lead to big plays.

Salisbury on the Broncos
After a disappointing 2001 season, the Denver Broncos should be a different team this season. Mike Shanahan wouldn't take to back-to-back bad seasons too well. If they stay healthy and quarterback Brian Griese plays well, the Broncos believe they'll be the best team in the AFC West. They have skilled, gifted players everywhere.

Offensively, the Broncos have added more weapons, with two rookies -- running back Clinton Portis and receiver Ashley Lelie -- the return of tight end Shannon Sharpe. They also get Ed McCaffrey back from a broken leg. They have upgraded their defense with the addition of defensive tackle Lional Dalton, allowing the Broncos to move Trevor Pryce outside to defensive end. The Broncos are ready for a comeback season, beginning Sunday against St. Louis.

Five keys for the Broncos:
1. Contain Marshall Faulk: The Broncos absolutely, positively cannot allow Faulk to annihilate them. With the Rams, it's pick your poison: die a slow death or a fast death. They cannot let Faulk dominate them. They may not be able to stop him, but they must at least contain him.

2. Eliminate Big Plays: Force the Rams to be patient. Make them grind it out and go no more than five yards at a time. Don't allow Kurt Warner to hit Isaac Bruce on a 75-yard touchdown. The Rams offense is built for big plays that can be devastating to any team, in terms of momentum and points. They can break the Broncos back if, on third down, they suddenly strike for a 75-yard home run.

3. Patience: The Broncos can't beat the Rams playing fast-break football. The Rams' defense is built on speed, so the Broncos need to find a way to slow them down. The Broncos don't need to be in a hurry. They need to keep the game away from the perimeter and make the field smaller by running the ball, taking six- or seven-yard gains and chipping away at the clock. The Broncos must be patient and limit the number of Rams' plays.

4. Win on first down: In the opener, the Broncos may use all of their running backs. Eventually, I believe Clinton Portis will be a star. Regardless of who runs the ball, the Broncos have to win on first down. They cannot face third-and-long situations all game and feel good about their chances to win. If the Broncos fail to run the ball well, Grant Wistrom and the extremely fast Rams defense will tee off on Griese. In the past, Griese has been prone to getting knocked around.

5. Good Griese: Two seasons ago, Griese had a great, MVP-caliber year. Last season, he played average ball. Griese is under fire; he can't play poorly and have the home fans boo him. The backup QB is always popular, and Steve Beuerlein is a good player. If Griese struggles, the fans will be calling for Beuerlein. In the meantime, along with having a strong running game, the Broncos' best offense is throwing the ball to Rod Smith and moving the ball around. If Griese turns the ball over against the Rams, the Broncos may be regrouping for the season within a month. Griese is a good quarterback, and needs to play like one.

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