Thursday, December 28, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

As Washington running back Ladell Betts burst into the secondary late in Sunday’s game, the Rams’ playoff dreams seemed to be saddled on his back as Betts’ No. 46 jersey began to vanish further and further down the field.

The only thing standing between Betts and a likely game-winning touchdown was free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, who came from the side as Betts made an effort to secure the ball in his right arm.

Atogwe grabbed Betts from the left side and swung his right arm around Betts’ back. In a fluid, punching motion, Atogwe jarred the ball loose. Corey Chavous fell on the ball and the Rams went on to win. It was a huge play in a game full of huge plays, but should the Rams make the playoffs this weekend, it might be the play that saved the season.

“He practices that, and we practice that with our secondary; punching the ball out and getting it out,” coach Scott Linehan said. “O.J., he has a knack, has a feel for where the ball is. The fumble on Sunday, the guy actually…if you watch the tape, he had the ball locked away pretty good. He just had a perfect punch on it from behind, which is something we teach. But you’ve got to go execute it. He’s got a knack for that and hopefully we get many, many more.”

The thought of Atogwe making such an important play in such a significant game would have seemed almost silly a year ago. After the Rams took Atogwe in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft, he spent most of last season on the bench.

Because of NFL rules that don’t allow rookies to join their teams until their final semester of school ends, Atogwe found himself behind the curve because of Stanford’s late graduation.

Atogwe’s rookie season essentially amounted to nothing more than a redshirt year. He played in 13 games, but most were on special teams. He had an important sack in a comeback win against Houston.

It wasn’t until the final week of the season against Dallas that Atogwe got his chance to shine. He took full advantage of the opportunity, coming up with a fumble recovery and an interception in the season finale.

That game turned out to be just a glimpse into Atogwe’s propensity for being around the ball.

“You come to realize you can get the ball out in the secondary because people don’t secure it as much as you think they would or should,” Atogwe said. “I didn’t have too much game experience. Practice helps tremendously but there is nothing like playing in the game. Every game I went into I see something new or something I hadn’t seen. I was constantly learning. It was sort of midway, the second half of the season where things start to get more repetitive.”

Things have started to settle in this season for Atogwe, who was basically handed the starting job at free safety in the offseason. He spent all of the preseason, training camp and minicamps working to catch up on what he had missed.

“Getting those first nine or 10 games under my belt really allows you to get a feel for this league and get the preparation and consistency day by day as far as playing at a high level,” Atogwe said. “Right now I am pretty comfortable. I try to continue to improve every day, but I definitely have more confidence.”

Atogwe has had his ups and downs this season, but it seems there have been more ups than downs in recent weeks. After struggling a bit in coverage toward the beginning of the season, he has been in position to make plays more often of late.

Of course, it’s Atogwe’s natural instinct to be around the ball that has provided most of the highlights this season. He leads the team with six forced fumbles and has added 84 tackles (third on the team), a sack, three interceptions, eight quarterback pressures, five passes defended and a fumble recovery.

Atogwe said he works on knocking the ball loose as much as possible, but has learned to pick his spots.

“If the opportunity presents itself, I try it every time,” Atogwe said. “But sometimes you are in a lot of space so you have to make sure you secure the tackle and making sure you get him down. If I am in a crowded area and my teammates are around me, I try to go for the ball.”

Or, if maybe the other team is about to snatch your postseason hopes, you go ahead and try to make a play in the open field.

Soon after Sunday’s game, a number of Rams coaches and players told Atogwe he saved the game – and the season – for the team for at least another week. Atogwe refuses to take credit for saving the game and the season, but if nothing else he is proving that he belongs and could have a bright future in the league.

“I think the expectation for him now rises every week because we just see an improving player,” Linehan said. “He’s one of our emerging young players that is starting to really handle the role that he has. He was basically a rookie going into this season as far as playing, and had his ups and downs for the first half or two thirds of the season, but he’s one of a number of players who’s started to really come on here at the end of the year. He’s played very consistent. Now all of a sudden we’re being ultra hard on him like he’s played for 10 or 15 years, but I notice that he’s playing with so much more confidence. Two weeks in a row he’s come up with a real critical forced turnover when the other team’s penetrated. This one was certainly a game saver. The guys that play in the backend on defense are playmakers too, and that was a big-time play.”