Rams' defense goes on offensive, picks off Packers

Feeling slighted, unit gets 6 interceptions, returns 3 for TDs in 45-17 victory

Nfl Playoffs Extra

January 21, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS - Stung by season-long commentary on the state of their defense, the St. Louis Rams delivered a resounding answer to their critics - as well as Brett Favre - last night.

Their maligned defense intercepted Green Bay's Pro Bowl quarterback six times, returning three for touchdowns, to throttle the Packers, 45-17, in an NFC divisional playoff game in the Dome at America's Center.

That show of might on a team more heralded for its prolific offense made the 15-2 Rams a heavy favorite in Sunday's NFC championship game against the 13-5 Philadelphia Eagles.

A brief but pointed criticism of the Rams' defense last week by ESPN analyst Merril Hoge proved to be the touchstone for yesterday's rout. The Rams heard Hoge say their defense was soft and that it wouldn't be able to contain Packers running back Ahman Green.

As if they needed any motivation, the Rams found it insulting along with other defensive slights.

"It was a total slap in the face," defensive end Grant Wistrom said. "Especially Friday or Saturday on ESPN. They were just bagging on our defense, [saying] that the game was going to be a track meet out there. And we took it very personally."

Favre and the Packers (13-5) paid a heavy price. Altogether, the Rams forced eight turnovers and cashed in a grand total of 35 points. Their three interception returns for touchdowns- two by cornerback Aeneas Williams and the third by linebacker Tommy Polley - alone outscored the Packers.

Williams' two touchdown returns, covering 29 and 32 yards, broke an NFL postseason record shared by many.

After watching film of Favre, he knew the Rams' secondary could have a big game.

"We spent a lot of time looking at film," Williams said. "Brett makes good plays, but sometimes his receivers miss those torpedoes he throws, so I know the key coming into today was that we needed to catch the ball well as a defense."

Four of Favre's passes deflected off his receivers or off defensive linemen, but none was dropped by a defensive back. The Rams had a good read on his tendencies.

"He was trying to look us deep, then throw to his checkdowns [underneath receivers]," said Polley, the former Dunbar and Florida State standout. "We were locking in on his checkdowns more."

Polley had a pair of interceptions, both off caroms. He turned the first one, deflected by Wistrom at the line of scrimmage, into a 34-yard touchdown that extended the lead to 38-10 halfway through the third quarter.

Polley's second pick came on a pass that bounced off Green's hands. "The defensive line did a great job of getting pressure on [Favre] and the guys in the back were playing good defense," he said.

Favre kept throwing, though. He completed 26 of 44 passes for 281 yards and two touchdowns. The Packers actually out-gained the Rams in total yards, 383-292, but were never in a position to threaten because of the turnovers.

"Nothing's inconceivable to me," Favre said of the six picks. "I could have thrown eight had we gotten the ball back, you know. But I'm going to keep chucking it."

The onslaught started six minutes into the game when Favre threw an out pattern to wide receiver Bill Schroeder and Schroeder ran a streak. Williams made an easy catch and sprinted down the sideline for his 29-yard score.

Williams' second touchdown return gave him five postseason interceptions in three playoff games.

Free safety Kim Herring, who played with the Ravens' intimidating defense a year ago, forced a fumble later in the quarter and then returned an interception of his own 45 yards to set up another touchdown. He was knocked out at the 4-yard line by tackle Mark Tauscher.

The Rams' defense came up big on a night when the offense produced its season low in yards. St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner, who missed one day of practice with a stomach virus and was unable to talk much the past two weeks because of bruised vocal chords, was a modest 18-for-30 for 216 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw an interception.

Warner did make one signature pass, a 50-yard bomb to wide receiver Torry Holt in the third quarter. Holt had a step on cornerback Tyrone Williams, and Warner placed the ball in an extremely tight spot with safety Darren Sharper closing fast.

That play led to a 7-yard touchdown run by Marshall Faulk.

The last team to appear in postseason play this year, the Rams made the loudest statement. Next week's opponent, the Eagles, would be advised not to critique the Rams' defense.

"Keep counting us out, keep saying we're not a good defense," Wistrom said. "Keep thinking it's the same defense that was here last year. But it's not. We're a good defense. We've shown it just about every week. People underestimate us."

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