Ramshackle to ram tough, upgrade on `D'

NFL: With a new staff, scheme and personnel, the St. Louis Rams' defense has become a force.

October 26, 2001|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The most explosive offense in the NFL finally has a capable partner in its pursuit of the Super Bowl. In St. Louis, the Rams' defense is no longer along for the ride.

Second-year coach Mike Martz saw to that by orchestrating a massive makeover in the off-season, firing defensive coaches and players. New defensive coordinator Lovie Smith sees to it now, manipulating his cover-two scheme with the deftness of a concert pianist.

The result is readily apparent in the Rams' 6-0 run to open the season. Now, they not only overwhelm opponents with that fast-break offense, but are capable of winning games with defense, too.

They have allowed fewer than 20 points in four consecutive games for the first time since 1986. They have given up 13.5 points a game, third lowest in the league. And, going into Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints, they have not allowed a point in the third quarter.

This is not exactly the 2000 Ravens defense, of course. Still, St. Louis' defense has made huge strides from a year ago, when the Rams were ravaged for 471 points and 343 yards a game.

"The difference is night and day from last year," said Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom. "Compared to the [1999] Super Bowl team, I think this is a better defense. The scary thing is, I think we still have a long way to go and we can get a lot better."

Martz's defense of the Super Bowl title won under Dick Vermeil flashed danger signs almost immediately a year ago. Although the Rams got off to a 6-0 start, they gave up 94 points in the first three games. It was the start of a season-long siege.

The Rams won games by scores of 57-31 and 41-36, and lost them by scores of 54-34 and 38-35. It didn't help that the Rams also lost quarterback Kurt Warner for five games to a broken finger.

When a 10-6 season ended with a wild-card playoff loss in New Orleans, Martz made sweeping changes. Defensive coordinator Peter Giunta and most of the defensive staff were fired. Smith was hired from Tampa Bay, where he coached linebackers for five years under Tony Dungy.

Smith brought the Buccaneers' cover-two scheme with him. It is conservative in design, with two deep safeties splitting the field to protect against big plays, but the Rams are not afraid to blitz. The emphasis is on speed and aggressiveness.

"This is less complicated and gives us the opportunity to go out and make plays," said cornerback Dexter McCleon, one of only three starters left from last year's defense, with Wistrom and middle linebacker London Fletcher.

Said Wistrom: "It allows us to be aggressive and play football. ... Our playbook is one-third as thick as last year."

Having a system is one thing. Having the right players to perform in it is another. Together, Martz and Smith performed major surgery on the defense, weeding out malcontents and underachievers.

Recalcitrant defensive end Kevin Carter, who led the NFL in sacks in 1999, was traded after a messy contract situation. Defensive tackles D'Marco Farr and Ray Agnew were waived. Cornerback Todd Lyght and linebacker Mike Jones - who made the saving tackle in Super Bowl XXXIV - were allowed to go to free agency.

Signed as free agents were free safety Kim Herring of the Ravens, linebacker Mark Fields of the Saints and linebacker Don Davis and defensive end Chidi Ahanotu from the Bucs. The upgrade was significant.

Character, Wistrom said, had become an issue.

"Last year, we had guys where you questioned their motives," he said. "This year, we don't have that problem. I know the other 10 guys out there will play as hard as I do."

In the draft, the Rams had five picks in the first two rounds - and spent them all on defense. They got defensive tackles Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett and safety Adam Archuleta in the first round, and linebackers Tommy Polley (of Dunbar) and Brian Allen in the second.

But the biggest draft-day acquisition wasn't a rookie. It was 11-year veteran cornerback Aeneas Williams, obtained in a trade with the Arizona Cardinals. Two weeks before the draft, in a visit to the Rams, Williams learned of their plans for him.

"Coach Martz and Lovie Smith met me at the airport and said, `We want you to do for the defense what Marshall Faulk did for the offense two years ago,' " Williams said. "It was a great compliment."

Faulk's arrival in St. Louis in 1999 helped pave the way to the team's Super Bowl championship.

"We have a bunch of unselfish guys," said Williams, 33. "You have to give the Rams' organization credit. When they were making personnel changes, they didn't just make changes, but they made wise decisions."

The Rams still need work on their run defense, and they are giving up a higher pass-completion percentage than a year ago. But, overall, the numbers are down. They have trimmed 53 yards off their per-game net defense, 16 points off the scoreboard and 42 yards off their pass defense.

"The biggest thing is just trying to play the discipline of the defense and not allow the big play, and rally around the ball and try to knock it out," Martz said. "That's everybody's philosophy when they play defense, to be honest. The big play is something we gave up quite a bit last year. More than anything else is the fact we're trying to get 11 hats on the ball."

Wistrom sees a strong upside.

"I think it's still an ongoing process," he said. "We've played pretty good, but not as well as we can play."

Back on defense

The Rams' defense is closing in on its Super Bowl pace of 1999, after a dismal season a year ago.

...................1999...2000...2001

3rd-down %...33.8...38.5...31.6

Net yards...293.6...343.4...290.5

Yds. per play...4.7...5.7...4.9

Completion %...53.5...60.5...64.9

Touchdowns...26...56...27*

Avg. points...15.1...29.4...13.5*

-Projection over 16 games

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