By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Wednesday, Sep. 17 2008
It's a veteran Rams defense, but one that also includes three recent
first-round draft picks. Eight of the 11 starters against the New York Giants
were handpicked by the current coaching staff, either through free agency or
the draft.

For many of the core players, this is their third year in coordinator Jim
Haslett's system. For all of those reasons and more, this figured to be the
best Rams defense since the days of Lovie Smith. A juggernaut? No. But
certainly a unit capable of finishing in the top half of the NFL in total
defense.

The preseason seemed to foreshadow such a performance. The starting unit
yielded only one touchdown, played the run fairly well, and did a decent job of
rushing the passer.

But once the real games started in September, things have gone wrong. Terribly
wrong.

"I think we've got really good players on defense; I really do," coach Scott
Linehan said. "I think we have the ability. I know we do. I've seen these guys
play here the past two years. I've seen some of them play on other teams until
they got here.

"And I've seen young players that we've drafted — high picks — play at a high
level on film at college, and then come to this level and play pretty good at
times. But as a group, we've got to play to our ability and I believe we will
do that."

Nothing close to that has happened so far. Two games into the season, the
numbers are horrific. The Rams rank last in total defense and last in passing
defense. Only Detroit has allowed more points.

The Rams are the only team in the NFL without a takeaway this season. Only
Cincinnati has fewer sacks. And only five teams are allowing more yards per
carry on the ground.

"The way we've been losing has really been embarrassing to everybody,"
defensive end Leonard Little said. "To the city, to the whole organization. And
we're better players than that. ... Because to have teams averaging almost 40
points a game (against the Rams) — it's embarrassing football."

The defense did show some improvement against the Giants, but then collapsed in
the fourth quarter. With the game on the line and the Rams trailing by just a
touchdown after Torry Holt's dazzling TD catch, the Giants took over on their
18 with 10 minutes 42 seconds remaining. They promptly marched 82 yards in just
six plays (plus a Rams penalty) for a backbreaking touchdown.

"That was disappointing," Haslett said. "That was probably the big one of the
game."

Big plays have killed the St. Louis defense against Philadelphia and the
Giants. In a league where the windows are narrow to complete passes, opposing
receivers have been left wide open — shockingly so — time after time.

Against the Giants, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa said he strayed from his
assignment trying to help a teammate, leaving Ahmad Bradshaw wide open for an
18-yard TD in the fourth quarter.

On the Giants' first score of the game, Plaxico Burress was wide open for a
33-yard TD after faking safety Oshiomogho Atogwe with an out move and then
breaking back inside. Why is a safety isolated on a Pro Bowl wide receiver in
coverage anyway? Well, cornerback Tye Hill was supposed to provide help, but
with a play fake headed his way, he bit on the run fake, leaving Atogwe on an
island.

"Was it a good call? No," Haslett said, blaming himself. "Was it properly
played? No. So it was a combination of I didn't do a good job of putting
(Atogwe) in position, and he didn't do a very good job of getting the job done."

Atogwe was supposed to maintain inside leverage; in other words, keep Burress
from getting inside.

Overall, the defensive line play has been disappointing, even factoring in
Little's absence with a hamstring injury. Middle linebacker Will Witherspoon,
the Rams' team MVP a year ago, has had little impact and appears to be slowed
by a groin injury suffered late in the preseason.

At cornerback, Hill's confidence is drooping. After he'd been burned in Philly
for a couple of big plays, the Giants went right at him Sunday. It seemed like
whenever they needed first-down yardage, the Giants went to Amani Toomer
against Hill. Toomer beat Hill for a 10-yard TD pass in the third quarter.

"I told those guys, we're all in this together," Haslett said.

He also told them about an old saying by former NFL head coach Dennis Green:

"Schemes don't win in this league," Haslett told them. "It's attention to
detail and great effort — that's what wins in this game. The effort was there,
but the attention to detail hasn't been there in two weeks. So I'll take the
blame on that, and we're going to clean that up the next couple weeks and get
it right."