|McCollum's tirade had it all right
By Len Pasquarelli
ST. LOUIS -- St. Louis Rams center Andy McCollum typically goes about his work with great passion and few words. He changed Sunday in the NFC championship game. In the first half, McCollum stomped and snorted and vented his mounting frustrations in a manner which shocked his teammates. After the team with the most explosive offense in the NFL was forced to settle for a field goal rather than a touchdown on a drive, McCollum went to the sideline and told his coaches to run the ball. The eight-year veteran cussed and screamed, and at one juncture slammed his helmet to the turf as he sat on the bench reviewing Polaroid photos sent from the coaching box of the Philadelphia Eagles' defensive fronts. "I don't know that I have ever seen him so worked up as he was today," Rams right guard Adam Timmerman said. "He just kept chirping, 'Run the damn ball, man, we can run it any time we want to.' He was pretty outspoken about it. He wasn't holding back." But for two quarters, St. Louis coach Mike Martz turned a deaf ear. The Rams devoted two-thirds of their 30 first-half snaps to the passing game, and trailed 17-13 at the half. During the break, though, Martz and the offensive staff had an epiphany and realized McCollum was right. Out of splash and shy of flash at that point, the typically potent Rams offense turned to good, old-fashioned mash-ball, and the result was a dramatic third-quarter turnaround that lifted St. Louis to a 29-24 victory and a berth in Super Bowl XXXVI next Sunday against New England. The title game appearance will be the second in three seasons for the Rams, who won Super Bowl XXXIV against Tennessee in 1999, and they can credit an often unheralded power game for launching them into position to add another Vince Lombardi Trophy to their booty. On the opening possession of the second half, tailback Marshall Faulk carried seven consecutives times and on eight of 11 plays, for 23 yards. And while the series came up short, culminating in a 41-yard field goal by Jeff Wilkins that reduced the Philadelphia lead to one point, a message was delivered via blunt object to the Eagles. "It was like they were saying, 'We can play physical when we have to,' and they really came off the ball hard," Eagles defensive tackle Corey Simon said. "You could see the fire in their eyes. It really turned the game around. The momentum swung their way in the third quarter and that was definitely the turning point." Indeed, the Rams took control of the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball in the quarter, a period in which St. Louis posted a time of possession advantage of more than 10 minutes (12:37-2:23) and held the ball for 21 snaps compared to Philadelphia's five. The Rams had eight first downs, 115 yards and scored twice, on Wilkins' field goal and a 1-yard run by Faulk. Their defense limited Philadelphia and quarterback Donovan McNabb to no first downs, 14 yards and zero points. St. Louis normally spreads the field on offense, but in the third quarter the Rams utilized two tight ends and tight formations on eight of their 15 snaps, as Faulk carried 13 times and quarterback Kurt Warner hit six of eight passes for 81 yards. McNabb, meanwhile, completed one pass in the quarter and Duce Staley managed just six yards on two carries. After playing in a cocoon in the first half, McNabb began to look harried as the Rams got pressure with a four-man rush. In the season opener, which St. Louis won at Philadelphia 20-17 in overtime, the Rams defense used a soft pass rush against McNabb and kept him contained until the third quarter. Early in the NFC championship game, McNabb had success out of the pocket, and completed four big passes when flushed out of his sanctuary. But Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, while scaling back on his blitz calls in the second half, ordered his front four to come harder at McNabb and the adjustment paid huge dividends. McNabb completed just nine of 18 passes for 75 yards in the second half, only once connecting on consecutive attempts, and tossed a critical interception to St. Louis corner Aeneas Williams that sealed the Rams' victory. An offensive line that protected well in the first half couldn't get a handle on St. Louis ends Leonard Little and Grant Wistrom, who combined for three sacks and five tackles. "(McNabb) is too good an athlete to show him the same thing twice in a season, even if it is four months apart, so we changed some things for this time around," Smith said. "We didn't think they had seen ends as tenacious as our guys and we didn't feel like they could handle them. Our guys got that look in their eyes, you know, and that's not a good thing for any quarterback to see. He's a great player but, at the end of the day, sometimes effort overcomes athleticism." The Eagles, who usually come off the bus blitzing, didn't bring as many bodies at Warner as most observers had anticipated. Warner took a painkiller injection before the game "just to try to keep the edge off," but wasn't harassed as much as in the opener, when he was sacked four times. He was not as sharp as usual, and his sore ribs certainly contributed to that, but he made enough big plays in the passing game to keep the Eagles honest. When cornerback Troy Vincent left the game in the third quarter, having aggravated his strained groin, Eagles coordinator Jim Johnson all but abandoned the blitz and dropped seven and eight in coverage to protect an undermanned secondary. But that created a mismatch upfront, because he could not bring safeties Brian Dawkins and Damon Moore down "into the box" against the run. Playing with a jerry-rigged line, with backup tackle Rod Jones switching back and forth between the right and left side after Orlando Pace went out for a while with a sprained medial collateral ligament, the unit took advantage of the advantage to open creases for Faulk. The game's premier offensive performer, who hasn't always played up to his standards in the postseason, had 159 yards on 31 rushes and caught four passes for 13 yards. Faulk had runs of 15, 21, 25 and 35 yards and, when the line wasn't gashing open wounds in the Philadelphia front seven, the star tailback made yards on his own. His 21- and 35-yard runs came on plays where he made superb cuts against the grain and outran the Eagles' pursuit. One of the most overlooked qualities Faulk possesses is his deceptive power and incredible body lean, traits that permit him to always be traveling in a positive direction. Despite weighing in at a modest 205 pounds, he can erode the strength of a defense. In the second half Sunday, with the Philadelphia defensive unit on the field for a draining 50 snaps (compared to just 23 plays for the Eagles offense), Faulk just kept pounding away. Call him the 'Battering Ram' now, and take notice of the fact that Faulk and his teammates can go the slow-and-steady pace when required, although they would prefer to play the role of hares. "We knew going in that we'd have to do things a little differently," tight end Ernie Conwell said. "We had to protect (Warner) because of his ribs and so we shortened our routes. We didn't go for the deep ball very much at all, but we still moved the ball effectively, just by taking chunks and chunks of yardage. Yeah, it's out of character for us, but the name of the game is to win and keep on going. And now we're going back to the big one. "It doesn't matter how you get there, as long as you get there, and it's kind of satisfying that we were able to change it up some today and still be effective." Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.