Thursday, October 23, 2008

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

When he entered the NFL as a second round draft choice out of tiny Howard University in 2005, the ceiling for Ron Bartell seemed to be well above where he was as a player.

Many scouting reports insisted that Bartell had all of the measurables and plenty of potential but it would take some time before he would become an impact player.

Flash forward to 2008 and it appears that some time has finally transformed into now. Six games into the season, it’s become clear that Bartell has finally found his groove and is perhaps the team’s best cover cornerback.

While some have expressed surprise and Bartell’s breakthrough effort, he says it was only a matter of time.

“It’s just getting older,” Bartell said. “You are either getting better or you are getting worse and I am one who thinks I am getting better every year I am in the league. I am going to continue do so. Everything is coming together right now. I guess you could call it a perfect storm.”

That storm coming together has been a long time in the making for Bartell who had the 40 time, the size and the athleticism to be a second-round pick but needed an opportunity to settle in and find his niche.

When the Rams spent the 50th choice of that draft on Bartell, it was widely regarded as a high risk, high reward type of pick because Bartell did not face much of the nation’s top talent in college.

Bartell was labeled with terms like ‘raw’ and ‘unpolished’ but with the right seasoning; the Rams thought he could become one of the best corners to emerge from his draft.

Of course, for Bartell to do that he would need an opportunity to land at a position and stay there.

Bartell played cornerback and safety in college and the Rams were unsure where his best fit would be in the NFL, especially considering their need for a free safety.

So it was that Bartell bounced between cornerback and safety before landing in the slot as the team’s designated nickel back near the end of 2006.

Bartell flourished in that role as he finished with a career-high three interceptions including a pair on Dec. 31 against Minnesota, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

Last season, a spate of injuries pushed Bartell into the lineup though he continued to work plenty in the nickel.
But it was this year that something seemed to click.

“I’m glad for Ron, he’s a guy that was kind of lost and wasn’t really sure what position he would play,” coach Jim Haslett said. “We were playing him at safety and corner, moved him around and then we actually gave him the nickel spot and he did that well.”

When Fakhir Brown and Tye Hill suffered injuries early in training camp, Bartell moved back to the outside and became one of the starting cornerbacks.

After Brown’s release and Hill’s knee injury early in the season, the Rams signed Jason Craft, a nickel specialist who works best in the slot. Bartell finally seemed to find a home on the outside.

“When we got Jason we said let’s just put him outside, let him play out there,” Haslett said. “He’s a long-leverage guy, he doesn’t panic on the ball, he can go up and make plays and he’s done a great job and he’ll tackle, bring people down, but it’s hard to throw over guys that size and he’s been doing a nice job, he has to keep it up.”

Finding a position where Bartell can settle in and focus on doing it well was probably the key ingredient to getting Bartell to perform at a high level.

In week 4 against Buffalo, Bartell began to show just how far he’d come. The Bills tested him again and again. And again and again, Bartell proved to be up to the task. He had four passes defended in that game, a career high.

Bartell has had only two of those in the past two games and didn’t get one against Dallas, but the biggest reason for that is teams haven’t thrown much his way in recent weeks.

Bartell says the wisdom he’s gained with experience has been the key to his development.

“I would say the speed of the game, the game has definitely slowed down for me a lot,” Bartell said. “The older you get, the more you can anticipate certain things happening to you and knowing what the offense is trying to do to you. >From that aspect it has changed. Being able to concentrate on what’s going on outside at corner, has been a big help. But I just think we are playing a lot better football right now which makes my job easier.”

Bartell’s work habits have never been in question. He says he hasn’t changed the way he reviews film and he continues to work hard on the practice field and in the weight room.

It hasn’t hurt his cause, though, that the rest of his defensive teammates have begun to enjoy more success. For instance, having Leonard Little back at defensive end has allowed Bartell to take more chances in coverage and has made it so the rest of the secondary doesn’t have to cover for as long.

“I have been comfortable since last year,” Bartell said. “It’s no different. I am playing the same football I played last year, it’s just when you win a couple of games, things get noticed a little bit more. When you lose, some mistakes get magnified so it’s no big deal for me.

“I just know we are playing good team defense right now.”

Bartell along with Brown and Craft helped limit superstar Dallas receiver Terrell Owens to two catches for 31 yards last week and Washington’s Santana Moss had just two grabs for 22 yards the week before.

This week, another tough challenge comes calling in the form of New England star wide out Randy Moss.

At 6’4, 210 pounds with sprinter’s speed, Moss makes for a tough cover for any corner in the league. At 6’1, 209 pounds, Bartell makes the most logical sense to match up with Moss though it remains to be seen how the Rams will choose to match up.

Either way, Bartell is eager to get his chance to go up against another of the league’s best receivers.

“I am looking forward to it. I have never been able to play against him,” Bartell said. “In 2006 when he was in Oakland he was hurt. It’s going to be challenging but me and Fakhir welcome it and we’ll be ready. He’s definitely one of the best.”

If Bartell can keep Moss quiet like Owens and Moss before him, people might start to say the same about him