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PERFECT TO A FAULK <br> RAMS' RUNNING BACK HELPS KEEP OFFENSE ROLLING

Marshall Faulk is a play-caller's best friend.

No matter how many things go wrong -- if it's third-and-impossible, if linemen miss their blocks, if half the offense doesn't hear the audible -- the St. Louis Rams running back has the talent to make it all go right.

"Marshall bails us out," says Rams fullback Amp Lee. "There was a play early in the season (against Atlanta) where we had it blocked all wrong. The play was messed up, and Marshall bounced it outside, made two people miss, got in the secondary, changed direction and took it about 55 yards. That was amazing."

Amazing sums up Faulk's entire season.

The 26-year-old back set the NFL's single-season record for combined yards by gaining 2,429 -- 1,381 rushing and 1,048 receiving.

He became only the second player ever to gain 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving in the same year (Roger Craig did it in 1985), and he accounted for 38 percent of the Rams' total yards.

So it's no secret what the top priority will be for the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV Sunday: Stop Marshall.

"He's my biggest concern," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher. "He's the guy you have to stop. I'm not lessening the importance of other players in their offense, but to have a chance you have to minimize his big plays."

As great as Rams quarterback Kurt Warner played this year -- he won the NFL Most Valuable Player award -- a strong case can be made for Faulk being the most indispensable cog in the fifth-highest scoring offense in NFL history.

"As far as I'm concerned, Marshall is the MVP," Warner admits.

"Marshall makes us all look smart every week," said Rams coach Dick Vermeil.

Faulk made things easy for Warner and Vermeil by averaging a league-best 5.8 yards a carry on first-down rushes.

He also had 40 rushes of 10 yards or more, the second-best total in the NFL.

Faulk's 87 pass receptions -- most on dumpoffs and screens -- helped Warner complete a league-best 65.1 percent of his throws.

"Marshall makes life so much easier for an offensive coordinator because he's a threat to run or catch on every down and he's so dangerous doing it," said Rams running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery. "So many teams don't have that threat on first down with their main back.

"That's something Ted Marchibroda recognized," said Montgomery, referring to Faulk's first coach in Indianapolis. "Ted always sought a versatile back. In Baltimore way back he had Joe Washington. In Philadelphia he had me. In Buffalo he had Thurman Thomas. In Indy he got Marshall. That's exactly what we needed for our offense."

The Rams were desperate for a back after going 4-12 last year. The week before the draft they were vying with Baltimore to acquire Faulk from the Colts.

Faulk, a 5-foot-10, 210-pounder with 4.45 speed, had rushed for 5,320 yards in five years with the Colts. But Indy General Manager Bill Polian feared Faulk would hold out for more money. Polian also was looking for more of a power back to run between the tackles. Faulk is better running off tackle.

So Polian sent Faulk to the Rams for what seems like a bargain price -- second- and fifth-round draft choices. Faulk, who later confirmed he would have held out, was signed to a new deal by the Rams.

"We expected him to be a really effective receiver, but not this effective," said Rams offensive coordinator Mike Martz. "The knock on him was that he couldn't run inside. . . . He really fits this system. We can move him around. He'll run routes with the same speed and crispness as a wide receiver."

The Rams' playoff win over Minnesota was a vintage Faulk game. He took a 2-yard screen pass 41 yards for a touchdown to break open the 49-31 victory. In last week's NFC Championship Game he was held to just 49 total yards by Tampa Bay, which often used a defensive lineman or linebacker to "spy" on him out of the backfield.

"Nothing surprised me about that game, they just had a good game plan," said Faulk, who is guarded about what he says to the media. "We can win tight games. We don't have to score 30 points to win a ballgame."

The Rams are hoping for Faulk to have as big a day Sunday as he did in the game against the Titans in October. He had 90 yards rushing and 94 receiving in the Titans' 24-21 win.

"They don't get too fancy," Faulk said of the Titans. "They come after the ball. We're not going to change many things. We're going with what got us here."

In that case, he was speaking about himself.

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