Monday, October 11, 2004

By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

With so many stars emerging for the Rams’ offense against Seattle on Sunday, it would be easy to overlook what was perhaps the most important part of St. Louis’ comeback win.

In any good comeback, a team must have a high-scoring, quick-strike offense capable of taking large chunks of yards and scoring points rapidly. The Rams certainly had that, as they scored 23 points in a dizzying span of eight minutes and 32 seconds.

Of course, a comeback isn’t possible if the team you are chasing continues to score and with that comes the necessary defensive performance. Trailing by 17 with about eight minutes to play means there is no room for error. A touchdown would kill, a field goal would hurt and a first down would sting. Any little thing could dash comeback dreams in a hurry.

Knowing this, the Rams’ defense played an inspired fourth quarter and, overall, a superb second half. After getting shredded by a Seahawks’ offense fresh from a bye week for 306 first half yards, St. Louis made all of the necessary adjustments at halftime and held Seattle to 85 second-half yards.

As hard as it might be to believe, the defense was actually better than the 85 yards. Almost half of that yardage came on running back Shaun Alexander’s 41-yard run with 9:13 left in the third quarter. That means the defense allowed just 44 yards during the remaining 24 minutes.

Rams’ coach Mike Martz said the defense was nothing short of excellent in the second half.

“We talk about such a great comeback on offense in the second half, but none of this is possible, I mean none of it is possible without the terrific effort by our defense in the second half,” Martz said.

More importantly, the Rams held the Seahawks to a meager 3 points in the second half, allowing the offense an opportunity to forge its comeback. It would have been easy for the defense to relax after watching St. Louis’ offense sputter in the third quarter, but instead, it kept fighting and allowed Bulger and company a chance.

In a second half that featured a number of big plays on offense, the defense provided some fireworks of its own.
Safety Rich Coady was having a rough day, getting beat by a pump from Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who hit receiver Darrell Jackson for a 56-yard touchdown to end the first half and put the Rams down 24-7. It took a little while for Coady to get his redemption, but he was in on one of the most unheralded stops of the day.

After the Rams trimmed the deficit to 27-17 with 5:34 remaining, the defense took the field needing nothing less than a three-and-out. Alexander gained 9 yards on the first two plays and it looked as though Seattle was going to be able to run the ball and clock. Alexander finished with 150 yards and is one of the league’s best running backs; a 1-yard gain was a sure thing, right? Not if Coady and defensive tackle Ryan Pickett had anything to say about it. They did and stuffed Alexander for no gain.

“The three and outs (were important),” Martz said. “That third and one at the end of the game and they don’t get it. The intensity really picked up in the second half. The fight that’s in this group is incredible.”

The Seahawks promptly punted and receiver Shaun McDonald returned it 39 yards to set up Kevin Curtis’ 41-yard touchdown catch.

Within about 10 seconds, the defense was back on the field, needing another stop. The score was 27-24 and there was 3:30 to go. Surprisingly, Seattle came out throwing as Hasselbeck hit receiver Koren Robinson for 10 yards and a first down. The Rams clamped down, though, holding the Seahawks to 5 yards on the next two plays and setting up a third-and-5 going into the two-minute warning.

Facing the biggest play of the game, St. Louis got its biggest defensive play from one of its best defensive players. Defensive end Leonard Little exploded off the snap, flying into the backfield and hitting Hasselbeck for a sack and a loss of 9. Little’s hit jarred the ball loose, but guard Robbie Tobeck recovered for Seattle. The Seahawks punted, giving the Rams the ball back and setting the stage for the comeback to be completed.

Little said he was confident in himself and his teammates to bounce back from the struggles of the first half.

“This team never gave up,” Little said. “Coach Martz has talked about resolve all year and we showed that today. We knew if we made plays on defense and get the offense the ball that we could score points and get back into the game. That’s just what we did.”

Seattle’s defense entered the game the No. 1 unit in the NFL. St. Louis was toward the bottom of those same rankings, allowing 359.3 yards per game. But for one day, one half, anyway, it was the Rams’ defense that looked like the best in the business.