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Look Who's No. 1 : With Injuries, Without Big-Name Stars, Ram Defense Is on Top

November 14, 1986|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

Ram training camp, 1986, was often a painful one for Fritz Shurmur, defensive coordinator.

Morning roll call became a real drag.

Jim Collins!

"He's out, sir. Maybe until October. Maybe the whole season. That's the thanks he gets for finally getting to the Pro Bowl. One lousy hit on Marcus Allen in Hawaii messed up the nerve in his left shoulder. He still can't put a shirt on by himself."

Gary Green!

"Out, sir. This one's a career job. You don't play cornerback in this league with a bad disk in your neck. Green's playing for Lloyd's of London now. Any more great, All-Pro cornerbacks floating around?"

Eric Harris!

"See Gary Green, sir. It's the same sort of disk injury, only lower."

Johnnie Johnson!

"Ah, sir, he's on his way to Centinela for arthroscopic knee surgery. Great news, though. Johnson will be back before Christmas."

If you would have sat down with Shurmur in August and told him that his defense, without all of the above, would be ranked No. 1 in the NFL come the 11th game of the season, he might have tossed you out of his office.

But look who's No. 1. Look who's better than the Chicago Bears and New York Giants and the Raiders.

Who ever would have believed it?

"You just wouldn't think that we could be the best in the NFL," Johnson said. "We don't have a lot of big names like New York or the Raiders."

The Rams, in fact, might be the most unassuming defense in the league. And it's by design.

Their defense is as quiet as the Chicago Bears' 46 defense was loud.

Let's face it, the Rams just aren't very hip.

They don't blitz very much. They don't play much man-to-man defense. They don't take many chances.

They don't have any Refrigerators or Assassins in their lineup.

They've been criticized around the league for being a passive, safety-first defense that won't get with it and conform to the latest NFL trends.

"I've argued with guys all night long that there's another way to do it," said Shurmur, who came to the Rams with John Robinson in 1983. "They all say that you can't win unless you put unlimited pressure on the quarterback, and blitz the quarterback 20 to 25 times a game."

Well, Shurmur can look anyone in the eye today and say that it just isn't so.

His defense is designed with efficiency in mind. It's a game plan in a tweed jacket. The Rams don't make mistakes. They sort of lull an offense into submission.

In 10 games this season, the Rams have allowed their opponent only four first downs by penalty.

"Part of our game is patience," Shurmur said. "We play as hard as we can and hope they screw it up sometimes."

Sure, it sounds simplistic. But this is a no-star system that the players accept, even though it means giving up the publicity that comes with those gold-chain defenses.

It's not always easy playing for the Rams.

"To everyone else, we're just a bunch of guys," cornerback LeRoy Irvin, said. "I'm sick of hearing that stuff. It hurts us off the field and with contract stuff. We do all play together, but we have individual players who are great players."

The Rams, for instance, ranked fifth in the NFL in 1985 but got only one defensive player, Irvin, into the Pro Bowl. Collins was named as an alternate by his coach, Robinson.

There is frustration that comes with sacrifice. And, on the Rams, you must sacrifice.

Shurmur insists that his defense be thought of in terms of we and us.

If you want to be a star, the thinking is, go play for the Bears.

"We're blessed with guys that are players with a strong commitment to winning," Shurmur said. "That's what I am in awe of. These guys believe in the (we ) term. That's part of the make - up. It's dangerous to be isolated from the group. That's counter - productive."

Irvin, who's received his share of publicity, has become somewhat of the spokesman for the rest of the Ram unknowns.

Irvin wonders what's so wrong about being a team player and a celebrity too.

"I don't think people respect us," Irvin said. "Guys like Lester ( Hayes, of the Raiders ) say we play a soft zone. We're criticized for our simplicity. Critics don't respect us . . . . We want to get it ( the publicity ) , but there's something about the Rams. We're in the media capital of the world, but we're not the Raiders. If we were the Raiders, we would be great."

Unfortunately, it's just the by - product of the Rams' worker-bee philosophy.

"Part of it is that we fight to lose our identity," Shurmur said.

Still, no one could have ever imagined the Rams being better this year after losing Collins and Green, two key members of the defense.

Here are several reasons for their success:

--Mark Jerue. In his fourth year from Washington, he's had the unenviable task of replacing Collins at inside linebacker and has responded by leading the team in tackles with 56. He's had an interception return for a touchdown. Before this season, he never started an NFL game.

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