In case you're wondering about the Rams' defensive priorities this season, let outside linebacker Kevin Greene present a brief outline.
"I want us to be known as the type that is a totally dominating, aggressive, monster defense. That's what I'd like to see this defense become. Just a monster defense, like a jailbreak! I want us screaming, hollering, yelling. That's the way I want it to be remembered.
"When the offensive team breaks out of the huddle and they're coming up to the line of scrimmage, I want them to look at the defensive line and say, 'Wow, we've got to try to block these animals?' "
Greene, as you might suspect, said all of this with a curious, mad glow on his face. He considers defense, especially the art of pass rushing, an acquired passion. His favorite quarterback position is supine, followed closely by prone.
This is fine with the Rams, who could use a little oomph when it comes to pestering passers.
Assemble a Ram wish list. The No. 1 request most likely would feature a defensive lineman, preferably the sort of sub-species Greene mentioned earlier. Ever since Jack Youngblood left the premises in 1984, the Rams have needed sackers and general mayhem-raisers.
Not that the present collection is dumpster material. To the contrary. Doug Reed quietly goes about his business, picking up sacks by the ones and twos on occasion. Greg Meisner and Shawn Miller do what they can. Gary Jeter, the best of the bunch, provides the Rams with consistent pressure. The linebackers, Greene, Mike Wilcher, Carl Ekern, Jim Collins and Mel Owens, make their presence felt.
But the Rams want more. Sacks aren't vital, though preferred. What defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur really would like is someone who disrupts, intimidates, forces mistakes.
"I think obviously the objective is to sack the quarterback, but I think more realistically, the team objective is to get the other team's offense off the field after third down and put your offense back on," Shurmur says. "Although we're trying to improve, and want to improve and will improve the pass rush, the sack isn't the ultimate achievement for us. . . . I think sometimes the sack can get out of perspective."
Maybe so, but the Rams thought enough of a thinning defensive line to choose Donald Evans, a raw, untested end from tiny Winston-Salem State, as their first selection in the 1987 draft. And they've spent considerable time tutoring Evans, all in an effort to prepare him by the start of the season.
The reasons are simple enough. The Rams sacked opposing quarterbacks about 20 fewer times in 1986 than in 1985. Last year, despite finishing fifth in total defense in the league, the Rams collected only 39 sacks. Of those 39 sacks, 26 of them came in just five games. Not surprisingly, the Rams ranked 11th in passing yardage allowed.
More numbers: In nine of 17 games last season, the Rams defense had zero or one sack. Their record during those nine games was 4-5.
All decisions and expectations center around Evans. At times, he seems on the verge of understanding his position, making the switch from the left to right side of the line. On other occasions, he plays as if the rules had been explained to him only moments earlier.
"Initially, when we came out of the draft, we said we hopefully were going to end up with an outside pass rusher in Donald Evans," Shurmur said. "We are still committed in trying to make that work. There are a lot of factors involved in that and time is one of them. We hope that we don't run out of time.
"I think we've got to make a judgment about the time we hit our first game: Is he ready? Because we certainly won't jeopardize our ability as a team if we don't think he's ready to play. It's not fair to him. We'll try to make that judgment based on what's best, not only for our team, its success, but what's fair for him. It depends on how he comes along."
At last look, Evans was coming along just fine. Of course, the report card is courtesy of Evans, who says he's gradually adjusting to the Rams.
Evans found himself at a disadvantage because of a two-week contract holdout. His first practice with the team was in London Aug. 3. He is just now beginning to grasp the intricacies of his position which, by the way, number more than simply striking quarterbacks.
"Basically, I'm thinking through my moves rather than reacting," Evans said. "Playing right end, after playing on the left side for so long, well, that's like trying to learn how to write left-handed. I have to retrace my thoughts.
"To be a real good pass rusher . . . it might take years. I think I'll be able to help the team. No way in the world I can be ready in three weeks and those guys have been doing it for years. No way in the world."
Without fail, Evans spends part of every workout watching Jeter. During training camp, Jeter tutored Evans three or four times a week. Jeter would quiz and lecture him about technique, tendencies, assorted moves. The lessons stuck.