Defense is hidden bash behind Rams' dash

Lost in quick-strike attack is fact the other unit has had big season, too

January 29, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- They're the warm-up act for the St. Louis Rams.

The Rams' defense knows its role is to mainly give St. Louis' high-powered offense a chance to rest at times.

It's hard for the defense to get much attention when the offense is scoring 526 points -- third highest in league history -- and Kurt Warner is throwing for 41 touchdowns.

"They're going to get the headlines because they created so many highlights," said cornerback Todd Lyght. "We were just trying to help them win a championship. With the talent we have on offense, it's easy to get lost in the mix."

Defensive end Kevin Carter is quick to note, "Defense still wins championships and we've got a good one, even if nobody knows it."

The other end, Grant Wistrom, said, "Nobody gives us any credit and we really take that personally. We've got to keep proving ourselves until we get some respect around the NFL."

It's hard to judge just how good the defense is because the Rams are usually playing with the lead. They're ranked sixth in total yardage allowed and No. 1 against the run, but that's a misleading statistic because teams fall behind and abandon the run.

Even its 20th ranking against the pass probably is misleading because teams are throwing so much against the Rams.

They held Tampa Bay to two field goals in an 11-6 victory last week, but even that feat was obscured because Tampa Bay has a rookie quarterback.

But Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy was impressed. "They're playing the most consistently of anyone in the NFL. This is a well-rounded team," he said.

"I don't know what else we have to prove, but we have to go out and do it again to show ourselves we can do it," Carter said.

The Rams only have to do it one more time. If they shut down Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV tomorrow, they'll have Super Bowl rings and all the attention they need.

Like most good defenses, it starts up front. Carter and Wistrom are the bookend ends while D'Marco Farr and Ray Agnew are solid on the inside.

Carter has a league-leading 17 sacks this year and has 31 in 34 games the last two years.

"Pressure on the quarterback is the key to the game," Carter said.

Wistrom leads the linemen in tackles and said, "I can wear a player down. I'm a better player in the fourth quarter."

Their middle linebacker, London Fletcher, is one of coach Dick Vermeil's overachievers at just 5 feet 10.

"London Fletcher to us, to me personally, is Kurt Warner to the defense," Vermeil said. "He is a great tackler and he can run as fast as any running back I have, believe it or not."

Fletcher said: "With an offense like ours, it's understandable if people forget about us. We've had games where we've held people to three points and we haven't gotten much attention because the offense has scored 40-something. But we know what we're capable of."

Even the Rams' defensive coaches don't get much notice.

While Mike Martz is the heralded offensive guru who is the next head coach in waiting, Peter Giunta and John Bunting, who share the defensive coordinator duties, have worked in obscurity.

But this defense does have a good pedigree. It was installed by Bud Carson, whose ill-fated tenure as the Cleveland head coach overshadowed the fact he is noted as one of the great defensive minds of this era. He ran the Pittsburgh Steelers' Steel Curtain defense on their first two Super Bowls teams in the 1970s.

Carson, who also worked for the Rams when they were in Los Angeles and went to Super Bowl XIV, put the Rams' defense in place when Vermeil took over in 1997, but retired a year ago because of health problems.

Giunta, who worked under Carson in Philadelphia, said, "What I learned from him is if you can get pressure out of the front four, you don't need anything else. If that's not working, you've got to send a fifth guy or keep increasing the guys until you get the pressure you want."

He also puts a lot of emphasis on coverage in the secondary. "You've got to make [the quarterback] hold the football," he said.

The Rams have a Pro Bowl cornerback in Lyght and a pair of solid safeties in Billy Jenkins and Devin Bush. The other corner, Dexter McCleon, is a young player who's progressed this year.

Giunta said it takes the players time to learn the system.

"Once they get it, they enjoy it and like it. It's not the same thing down after down," he said.

Lyght added: "I grew up watching the Steelers and loving the Steel Curtain. To be able to play professionally and play that same defense is a dream come true."

Now Lyght and the rest of the Rams' defensive players are within one game of having another thing in common with Carson's Pittsburgh defense.

A Super Bowl ring.

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