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This Job Was One-Year Wonder

NFC: Smith quickly rebuilt Ram defense, which has quietly turned from a problem area into league's No. 2 unit.


ST. LOUIS — Quarterback Kurt Warner, he of the bruised vocal cords, barely uttered a sound for most of the week.

Welcome to the club.

The St. Louis defense has been operating with near-silent efficiency all season, tiptoeing its way to a No. 2 ranking in the NFL. Then again, it's hard to hear anything over the jet-engine scream of the Ram offense.

"It's something that we've been dealing with since I've been here," said defensive end Grant Wistrom, whose team will play host to Green Bay today for the right to play in the conference championship. "We have a fantastic offense and they deserve all the credit that they get. They are without a doubt the best offense in the NFL. So, yeah, we're going to get overshadowed. But we don't care. We go out there and do our thing every week."

Wistrom & Co. are mercenaries with no mercy. They pulled off a defensive U-turn this season that was every bit as impressive as the franchise-wide resurrection of the Chicago Bears or New England Patriots. Shaky last season, the revamped defense gave up 1,203 fewer yards and 198 fewer points this season, paring its points allowed from 29.4 a game to 17.

All of a sudden, the Trans World Dome was a no-fly zone for visiting teams.

These things don't happen by accident, nor do they come without a reshuffling of coaches, players and philosophies. After last season, Coach Mike Martz fired defensive coordinator Peter Giunta and replaced him with Lovie Smith, who spent the previous five seasons coaching linebackers for Tampa Bay.

A change at the top led to changes throughout the defense. The Rams have 16 new players on the defense's roster of 25, with seven new starters and eight first-year NFL players. Smith brought in respected veterans such as cornerback Aeneas Williams from Arizona, safety Kim Herring from Baltimore, linebacker Mark Fields from New Orleans and defensive end Chidi Ahanotu from Tampa Bay. The Rams also used their first five draft picks on players for their defense--three in the first round.

"We already had a great offense in place here," Smith said. "We couldn't really say, 'Hey, guys, give us three years to get it right.'"

In general, it's easier to turn a defense around quickly. For instance, a defensive lineman can have a great game if he makes three plays; an offensive lineman can lose his job if he blows three plays.

Still, doing what Smith did--pulling off a one-year makeover of a defense that gave up 471 points last season, seventh-most in league history--is remarkable. He imported Tampa Bay's defense, which puts a premium on speed and athletic ability rather than sheer size.

"The whole basis of our defense is to let them get off the ball and just react on the run," he said. "We want them to have an aggressive mentality. If you do that, you can get away with smaller players."

The premier talent on the Ram defense is Williams, who made his seventh Pro Bowl team this season and returned two interceptions for touchdowns. He's also a leader in the locker room, even though he has played in only two postseason games.

"We ask him, 'Now, how far did you go with the Cardinals?' to remind him that it's all new to him," cornerback Dexter McCleon said. "He's excited. This is what he came here for. It's something he's been waiting for since he walked through that door for the first minicamp. He can't wait, we all can't wait. We all want to get there for him."

Challenge No. 1: Put the clamps on Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre, a three-time most valuable player.

"He is so confident that he's not afraid to attempt to get balls in situations that maybe somebody else wouldn't try," Williams said. "He has had so much success doing that, and his guys have come up with some big plays."

The Ram defenders will be looking to make a few big plays of their own, and there's a good chance they will. A guy named Lovie believes in them.

Incidentally, Smith got his first name because his mother was anticipating a girl. "Lovie" stuck.

"A lot of people ask me if I had any trouble with it growing up; I really didn't," said Smith, a three-time all-Missouri Conference defensive back at Tulsa. "To be truthful, you remember it. If I was Joe, I'd be just another Joe."

Not likely.



Ram Tough

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