YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Strong Safeties : Rams: Stewart and Terrell battle for the starting spot in the secondary, and the spoils that come with it.


FULLERTON — If it's Tuesday, then Michael Stewart must be the Rams' starting strong safety.

That makes Pat Terrell the starter on Wednesday, and when the every-other-day swap comes to its conclusion on opening day, the Rams' starting strong safety will be . . . a very rich man in 1994.

Terrell and Stewart are beginning the final year of their contracts. Terrell will draw a base salary of $250,000 this season and earn an additional $50,000 for making the final roster. Stewart will be paid $575,000.

Based on this year's free agency payoffs, the player who emerges with the best credentials in 1993 can expect to become a millionaire next season.

"This isn't like the old days where it was all for one and one for all," said Joe Vitt, Ram assistant head coach. "These guys are a bunch of independent contractors, and the only way to get the money and maximize their earning power is if they are on the field, starting and making the plays.

"There's only going to be one starter here, but then the only thing I care about is the number of wins we have. I've told them that. They know I'm unbiased, they know all I care about is putting the best safeties out there, so it's on them."

Stewart started ahead of Terrell in the Rams' exhibition opener against the Cardinals because "S" comes before "T" in the alphabet. Terrell will open against the Chargers in Anaheim Stadium Saturday night.

Stewart brings six years of experience to the contest, an ability to shackle tight ends and a barroom bouncer's mentality to anyone who attempts to take him on.

Terrell offers man-on-man cover ability in a body designed to put a halt to running backs. Terrell was the team's starting free safety a year ago, but was asked by the coaching staff this season to move to strong safety.

"We needed to have a strong safety who can cover a third wide-out," Vitt said. "Take a look at our packages in Seattle when we were there; the strong safety was always the star of the team: Kenny Easley, Robert Blackmon, Nesby Glasgow.

"Pat Terrell, of all the people we've got on defense, has got the ability to cover a wide-out, force the football on the run, cover the back and be physical up there. He's the guy.

"We proposed the position change to Pat and he called Blackmon in Seattle. Blackmon talked him into it, and I think Pat also saw that Blackmon had an offer on the table from Philadelphia for $1.2 million before Seattle re-signed him. Pat sees what can happen."

Stewart, meanwhile, is not about to surrender his turf. Stewart might lack Terrell-like finesse, but he knows how to cause chaos.

"Michael does a better job of getting a jam at the line of scrimmage and tying a receiver up than Pat," Vitt said. "He really disrupts the pattern, so when the quarterback takes a five-step drop, the receiver hasn't even come out of his break yet and the ball has to be thrown."

One guy (Terrell) covers, the other one (Stewart) roughs them up.

"Whoever is the most successful at the end of training camp . . . you see how many balls were caught on them, how they (stopped the run) and you make an evaluation," Vitt said. "I know this, I think it's the best group of safeties (free and strong) I've ever been around.

"I think it's one of the better group of safeties in the National Football League."

Anthony Newman starts at free safety for the Rams, and both Stewart and Terrell will be on the field in long-range passing situations when the Rams employ their nickel defense. In addition, if successful on first down, the Rams will go to a "Hawk" defense on second down, which also will feature both strong safeties.

At issue is first down, and who will be the starting strong safety in the Rams' basic 4-3 defensive alignment?

"Just because you start on the first play of the game doesn't mean you're going to be in there for most of the snaps," Stewart said. "I'm not sure if starting really matters, unless of course, it has something to do with your contract negotiations."

Ask an athlete if it matters whether he starts or not. There is money at stake, prestige and individual pride. Someone has to start and someone must sit on the bench. It matters.

"I'm a strong safety," Stewart said. "My job has always been to force the run and make tackles. In the years I haven't been hurt I've always been in the top three in tackles, so I feel I've been doing the job I've been called on."

Stewart or Terrell? Terrell or Stewart? Let the competition continue, and as Vitt said, either way, the Rams win.

"It's exciting and it's a challenge," Terrell said. "I don't think I've had a disappointing career, but I don't think I've reached the goals I've set for myself. I've definitely turned it up a notch this season; I've got my chance to step to the forefront."

Los Angeles Times Articles