By Jim Thomas

Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair undoubtedly would like to have the ball back that Adam Archuleta intercepted and returned for a game-changing touchdown Sunday in the Edward Jones Dome.

So would Archuleta.

"I threw it," Archuleta said. "I think somebody in the stands had it ... some lady, actually."

That's exactly what happened after Archuleta reached the end zone following his 85-yard interception return. He threw it into the stands, providing an unexpected souvenir for a lucky spectator, who caught the ball.

"That's my gift to her, I guess," Archuleta said. "I'd like to have it back."

He may never get the football back. But at least he's got his game back following a subpar, injury-plagued 2004 season.

It's now two weeks in a row that Archuleta delivered a game-altering play from his strong safety position. His sack of Kurt Warner two Sundays ago in Arizona, on the last play from scrimmage, preserved a 17-12 Rams victory.

This past Sunday, his 85-yard interception return early in the second quarter, was a huge momentum-changer in a game that was being dominated by the Titans to that point. Who knows what will happen the rest of the 2005 campaign, but Archuleta's play was the kind that can shape and define a season.

"Oh, I think there's always that moment in a season like that where you can go back and point to something that was instrumental in kind of igniting things if you will," coach Mike Martz said. "Archuleta two weeks in a row now, makes the play to basically win the game. So he's been very instrumental in those kinds of things that you do build off."

Playing 5 yards off the line of scrimmage, positioned basically like a linebacker in the dime defense, Archuleta had the job on the play against Tennessee of covering the first "crosser." Titans wide receiver Drew Bennett turned out to be that guy, running a crossing route from the opposite slot.

As soon as Bennett arrived in his area, Archuleta picked him up in coverage. Because of outside pressure from defensive end Leonard Little, McNair had to step up in the pocket before delivering the ball. As a result, the throw was a little late when Archuleta swooped in, pounced on the ball, and started running.

"I sat there and I watched him run," Martz said. "There's just no way anybody's going to catch him. He got in the end zone, and it was just a thrill to watch the enthusiasm, and I guess, the compassion for him that our players demonstrated down in the end zone. They were so excited for him. I was, too.

"And just watching him come off the field, it's like he got this ton of bricks off his back. Adam's back."

A year ago, Archuleta appeared primed for a breakthrough campaign, a season in which he might break into the ranks of the Pro Bowl safeties. Instead, just the opposite happened. He struggled through the worst year of his NFL career.

In part, it was because of an adjustment to the new defensive schemes by new coordinator Larry Marmie. But to a larger extent, it was because of a season-long back injury, eventually diagnosed as a herniated disc, that made it difficult some days for Archuleta to bend over and tie his shoes.

It might have been easier to sit out for a month. But Archuleta didn't miss a game, even though his play suffered and - as a result - his reputation as a player did, too. Not to mention his potential earning power as an unrestricted free agent following the 2005 season.

All of which made Sunday's dramatic interception all the more meaningful for Archuleta.

"It meant a lot to me," Archuleta said. "There were a couple times I can remember last year, where a similar play came up and I didn't make it. I took that as kind of a hit to my pride. I want to be the guy to make those plays, not miss them. So to me, that's huge for my confidence, knowing that I'm going to make those plays."

Three games into the season, Archuleta ranks third on the team in tackles (22), but more important, he's not missing tackles the way he did last season. So what's different about Archuleta this season?

"I think there's a real confidence of understanding, and knowledge of his position in this defense," Martz said. "It was a dramatic change for him. You have to understand, in college, he was a linebacker his whole career.

"So when he came into the NFL, he was a strong safety for us in Lovie (Smith)'s system. That's all he knew. That was his security blanket and his comfort zone, if you will. Now Larry (Marmie) comes in and things are dramatically different. This is all he knows, and he doesn't want to let go of that. You know what I mean? It's hard for him. ... He's a very competitive guy, and those guys are generally pretty stubborn."

The addition of secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer to the staff this past offseason has helped. But Martz said Archuleta is now buying into the defensive system as well.

"I think his knowledge of what we do is exceptional at this point," Martz said. "Which allows him to let his natural ability kind of take over instead of being always back on his heels trying to see things and think about things. He's at the point now where he just reacts."

Having a healthy back undoubtedly helps, too.

"I think with the collisions he's had now and the tackling, I think in his mind, those things aren't an issue any more," Martz said.

2 players visit

Street free agents Mike Goolsby and Darius Williams worked out Tuesday at Rams Park. Goolsby, a linebacker from Notre Dame, was in Dallas' camp this summer as a rookie free agent. Williams, a tight end from Georgia Tech, spent the preseason with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent.

No signing appears imminent in either case. Like many clubs throughout the NFL, the Rams routinely bring in players during the regular season for workouts, just to get a book on them for future reference.

* * *


Longest interception returns for a TD by a "St. Louis" Ram:

93 yards - Dre Bly vs. Detroit, Oct. 8, 2001

92 yards - Anthony Parker vs. Jacksonville, Oct. 20, 1996

91 yards - Grant Wistrom vs. Atlanta, Oct. 17, 1999

85 yards - Adam Archuleta vs. Tennessee, Sept. 25, 2005