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Ram Defense Makes Its Case

A Year After Being One of League's Worst, the St. Louis Unit Is a Major Part of Success

January 30, 2002|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW ORLEANS — The cries of no respect don't work anymore. They ring hollow. After the St. Louis Ram defense put together two fabulous performances--a rout of the Green Bay Packers and a stifling of the Philadelphia Eagles--its players are afforded rock-star status.

Reporters crowded around defensive end Grant Wistrom's interview kiosk Tuesday, whispered about the chances of first-year defensive coordinator Lovie Smith getting a head-coaching job, and didn't even mispronounce the last name of defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina (ska-NEE-na, if you've gone without football the past two Sundays).

So what was middle linebacker London Fletcher griping about? Cornerback Aeneas Williams was the team's only defensive player to make the Pro Bowl.

"We took that as a slap in the face for our defense," said Fletcher, who led the Rams in tackles the past three seasons. "It was an insult."

Maybe so, but the Rams are running short on inspirational kindling. The football world now understands they are very deserving of their third-place ranking, especially after forcing eight turnovers--including three interceptions returned for touchdowns--in a 45-17 victory over the Packers.

The New England Patriots certainly took note.

"We know they've got a lot of team speed," said Patriot quarterback Tom Brady, who will find out today [at least publicly] if he's starting Sunday. "Now we're playing them on AstroTurf, and they're going to be even faster."

Only a year ago, the Ram defense was as gushy as the Superdome turf. St. Louis gave up 471 points, the seventh-most in NFL history, and sank to 23rd in the rankings. The unit looked thoroughly apathetic in a 31-28 playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints, who scored a field goal and four consecutive touchdowns before Kurt Warner & Co. scored three to make the final score respectable.

For some Rams, it was downright nauseating.

"I remember looking up at the Jumbotron and actually feeling sick to my stomach," Zgonina said. "We had a chance, and we blew it again. To watch the effort--not running to the ball, not making plays, just shutting it down--it makes you sick."

That was before Coach Mike Martz hired Smith from Tampa Bay, promoting him from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator, and Smith brought the Buccaneer scheme with him. Among the changes, he appointed eight new starters and built the defense around lighter, quicker players.

In Smith's system, the Rams do very little "two-gapping," which requires defensive linemen and linebackers to control offensive linemen and come off either side of the block to make a tackle. That's better suited for bigger players. Instead, he asks his front seven to push upfield right away. That requires more instinct than intellect.

Defensive tackle D'Marco Farr, who spent seven seasons with the Rams and was at media day as a Fox reporter, said quick players love that philosophy.

"See ball. Get ball," Farr said. "It's that simple."

Simple, maybe. But not many opponents have figured it out. The Rams gave up 273 points during the regular season--198 fewer than a year before. They also had nine more takeaways and forced 15 more three-and-outs.

Whether the Patriots start Brady or Drew Bledsoe, the quarterback is sure to feel the intense pressure Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb felt in the first two playoff games.

"It won't make much of a difference with either one [Brady or Bledsoe] starting," Fletcher said. "We've gone into games before when we didn't know who the starting quarterback was going to be. We played Atlanta earlier in the season and didn't know if Chris Chandler or Michael Vick would be starting."

The much-quicker Vick started that game and the Rams sacked him seven times on their way to a 31-13 victory.

Improving the defense was the No. 1 priority. Not only did St. Louis use its first five draft picks on defensive players--three chosen in the first round--it brought in respected veterans such as Williams from Arizona, safety Kim Herring from Baltimore, linebacker Mark Fields from New Orleans and defensive end Chidi Ahanotu from Tampa Bay.

One of the things that Smith does to keep his players on their toes is count "loafs," the number of times they give less-than-maximum effort. He can spot those by studying game video and searching for players who change speeds depending on close they are to the ball. If they can shift gears like that, they aren't going full speed all the time.

"We just think that's something you can control," Smith said. "We may get there at a different pace, but we can all do it 100%. Yes, that's the first thing we look at. Sometimes, we don't look at technique but we always grade pursuit. We just won't put up with anything but that."

Smith would love a loaf-free game, of course, but he has yet to witness one. He said one per player is an acceptable per-game average. Still, each loaf requires offenders to practice longer.

Then again, there are no more practices after the Super Bowl. Players on both teams know well that loafing now could cost them a ring.

Wistrom's inspiration is simple. He needs only to think back a year to the plane ride after the playoff loss to the Saints. He stared out the window the whole way home and thought about what might have been.

"Last year, the only reason we weren't in the Super Bowl was because of our defense," he said. "This year, we wanted to be part of the solution and not the cause of the problem."

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