Derrick Brooks will have to move quickly to keep up with Marshall Faulk
However new they may be to the NFL elite, Buccaneers and Rams in the NFC Championship Game makes consummate sense. The two teams performed parallel feats this season well beyond their one-two finish in the NFC standings.
Each team landed a conference-high six players in February's Pro Bowl, though the Bucs lead the pack with five starters. Each team also had a league-best four players appear on AP's prestigious first-team All Pro list. Fittingly, the Bucs had three defensive players and the Rams had three on the offensive side. Tampa Bay features the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, DT Warren Sapp, while St. Louis counters with the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year, RB Marshall Faulk.
On Sunday, all of those awards will be on a forgotten shelf, irrelevant. The match-ups between the players who won them, on the other hand, will be of paramount importance. Perhaps most central will be Faulk against All Pro LB Derrick Brooks, another Buc who received Defensive Player of the Year votes. Brooks may or may not be as solely focused on Faulk as the media would suggest, but they still provide a crucial battle for each other. Faulk gained more combined rushing and receiving yards in one season than any player in league history; Brooks is most likely the fastest and quickest linebacker Faulk will face this season.
The Buccaneers understand the importance of containing Faulk. "First thing first is to stop the running game," said Sapp. "The easiest thing to do is to turn around and hand it off to Marshall Faulk and let him do his thing, but if we get the running game under control, then it becomes a matter of can we rush him, and we feel very confident in that aspect."
Of course, the Bucs are also quite aware that Faulk is involved in much more than just the running game. The speedy former Colt got to his NFL-record 2,429 combined yards by supplementing his 1,381 rushing yards with 1,048 yards on a team-leading 87 receptions. His most dangerous facet is his ability to turn a short pass into a long touchdown, as he did on a 41-yard screen pass touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings in last Sunday's NFC Divisional Playoff Game.
That's where Brooks could come in. Though Brooks is one of the keys to the team's run defense, with at least 180 tackles in each of the past three seasons, he also possesses the type of speed that makes him an outstanding coverage 'backer. The 1995 first-round draft pick out of Florida State has a total of 49 passes defensed in his five NFL seasons, including an amazing 18 this year.
Brooks, however, sees tackling, not coverage as the key to Sunday's Marshall Plan. "You've got to tackle him," said Brooks. "Marshall's very good in the open field and he makes a lot of guys miss, so when you're in a position to make a tackle, you make a tackle and you force the ball to where your help is. We've got to have a relentless pursuit to the football, so that when they do catch it, we keep those small receptions to a minimal gain."
Still, there will be a lot of eyes focusing on Brooks on Sunday to see whether he can keep up the Rams' speedy waterbug. "If the opportunity presents itself, I think I'll step up," said Brooks. "If it does, so be it…we'll see what happens on Sunday."
It's a tall task for Brooks and his mates. The Rams offense improved from 27th in the league last season to first, by a healthy margin, in 1999, averaging over 400 yards per contest. While QB Kurt Warner, the NFL's Most Valuable Player with 41 touchdown passes, and a deep receiving corps led by a healthy Isaac Bruce obviously were major factors in that improvement, the addition of Faulk gave the team a weapon that is very hard to contain.
Faulk was held to less than 20 rushing yards four times this season, including last week against Minnesota, and had less than 40 receiving yards in five contests. However, he rarely was held in check in both areas, racking up over 100 combined yards in all but three contests.
Brooks, however, has the rare ability to affect both halves of that attack in a single contest. Five times this season, Brooks posted double digits in tackles and at least two passes defensed in the same game. When Tampa Bay won a crucial battle for first place in the NFC Central with Detroit on December 12, Brooks was virtually unstoppable, notching 16 stops and four passes defensed. Against Chicago on October 24, the Bucs' defensive whirlwind combined 13 tackles with two interceptions and four passes defensed.
That doesn't mean Brooks will be out on an island against Faulk. Tampa Bay has gained its immense defensive reputation by playing as a unit, and there is typically a different player who shines for that unit each week. It could be Brooks on Sunday in St. Louis, but he thinks the Bucs will need an 11-man effort to keep Faulk in check. "I think we'll all be involved," he said. "We've just got to tackle the guy when he's in the open field."