Update: Bill Parcells announced this afternoon that LB Kevin Burnett tore an ACL and will be placed on injured reserve. This makes the 4-2-5 a lot more likely against the Rams, as Burnett's loss puts Dallas down to five linebackers, with no reserves at the OLB spots.
Mike Martz is gone from the sideline. QB Marc Bulger is on injured reserve. Marshall Faulk may suit up for the final time in his storied career Sunday. The Rams are starting two rookies on their offensive line, one at left guard and the other at right tackle. They've given up 44 sacks, 6th worst in the NFL and only one fewer than the Cowboys maligned line. Their defense is so much worse than their offense. So why should they concern us?
Because they can still throw the ball. St. Louis is tied with the Colts for the third-best passing average in the NFL at just over 259 yards a game. After playing three QBs and losing its pass-mad coach, the former Greatest Show on Turf has shown it can still operate on collective muscle memory. That and a receiving quartet of Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald.
They present real matchup problems for the Cowboys, who have seen the injury bug bite the secondary. Corner Anthony Henry returns, but there's no telling how healthy he will be. Terence Newman, Aaron Glenn and Jacques Reeves have played well in his absence, but now Dallas has a hobbled Roy Williams to worry about.
I don't expect a lot of blitzing this week. Steven Jackson sports a 4.1 yards-per-carry average, but the Rams rushing game has slumped this past month. The Rams like to play wide open football, so bringing five and six men would give them the one-on-one secondary duels they crave.
Look for heavy use of the 4-2-5 formation, to keep four rushers on the field. The Cowboys are also thin at linebacker, so a more conservative, conventional attack seems likely. The front four alone will have to pressure QB Jamie Martin. Look for Demarcus Ware, Chris Canty, LaRoi Glover and Greg Ellis to get lots of work as a unit. The matchups to watch will be Canty and Glover against rookie left guard Claude Terrell and Ellis versus rookie right tackle Alex Barron, the Rams top selection last April.
When Dallas has the ball, we should see more of the 2005 standard game plan, because this week it looks like the Cowboys' best option. Expect a lot of the Julius and Marion show. The Rams are next to last in rush defense, allowing only seven inches less per game than last place Buffalo, so hammering the ball with both backs makes sense.
The Cowboys line comes off its best run blocking effort of the season. Forget the J.J. vs. MB III debate for a moment; if the Cowboys run effectively again and qualify for the playoffs, we're facing a full-blown right guard controversy -- Andre Gurode or Marco Rivera? Rivera was signed to take Gurode's place but Gurode showed more explosion last week than Rivera has all year, helping his mates open large and regular holes for Julius Jones.
If Jones and Barber open strongly, play action will look equally as inviting, as the Rams also rank 22nd in pass defense. Injuries have wiped out their secondary, forcing them to play a lot of rookies. The lack of continuity has affected the team's tackling so much that Vitt ripped his players publicly. Even the St. Louis press has gotten into the act, advising GM Charlie Armey to draft the "best tackler available" next spring.
When Dallas does throw, it will have to locate and neutralize DE Leonard Little. The undersized but turbocharged edge rusher leads the Rams with seven sacks. No other teammate has more than three. St. Louis, like all Cowboys foes, will likely try to get Little lined up across from RT Rob Petitti. Expect a lot of two TE sets, with Dan Campbell aiding Petitti, whether he faces Little or not.
Ball control. Long, methodical drives. Keep your backs happy and keep the Rams offense off the field. The Rams have let a lot of no-name backs rip them for big games this year. Last week, it was San Francisco's Maurice Hicks, who gained 109 yards in only 10 carries. The Cowboys offer better talent and more experience across the skill position board. They should be able to move the ball and if they can prevent sacks and subsequent turnovers, the Cowboys should score.
Mike Martz was always fearless against pressure and interim coach Joe Vitt has maintained Martz' philosophy. The Rams love to spread the field with three and four receiver sets. Dallas' line will get chances against minimal protection schemes.
For this reason, I see Dallas getting turnovers. The Cowboys are a middling -1 for the season. St. Louis is second to last with a -14 margin. Mostly, I see one team with a lot to play for versus another with an eye on next year. The Rams have won five games this year. Four were against Houston, New Orleans, Tennessee and Arizona. Their only quality win came against Jacksonville. They've won just once since Halloween, that a last-second comeback against the Texans.
St. Louis has the worst scoring defense in the league. The Cowboys don't deserve post-season consideration if they can't tally big points against them.
Dallas 28, St. Louis 17