R.B. FALLSTROM

Associated Press


ST. LOUIS - It took the St. Louis Rams almost the entire season to learn a new defense. They got the hang of it just in time to make a little playoff run.

The Rams held the Seahawks to 20 points in their wild-card playoff victory on Saturday, a week after limiting the Jets to 324 total yards in a regular-season finale win that allowed them to sneak into the postseason with a .500 record. Once ranked as low as 28th in the NFL in total offense earlier this year while struggling to grasp the scheme of new defensive coordinator Larry Marmie, St. Louis finished a respectable 17th.

"The thing I like about our defense is we're capable of new things every week," coach Mike Martz said Monday. "Once they bought into that whole concept, it's a whole different ballgame."

The Rams held Shaun Alexander to 40 yards on 15 carries, a key to the Rams advancing to the divisional round on Saturday at Atlanta. Alexander gouged them for 326 yards in the first two meetings, but found no holes the third time around.

"We did a real good job of stopping Alexander," defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy said. "He took advantage of our mistakes the first two games."

Kennedy's sack of Matt Hasselbeck late in the fourth quarter helped the Rams hold on. He has become a factor lately after missing the first seven games of the season with a broken foot sustained early in training camp.

"Jimmy has just amazed me," Martz said. "What he did quietly while he was away, the way he redefined himself physically, is pretty remarkable."

This week the Rams will get a stiffer test. Michael Vick is the most dangerous run-pass quarterback threat in the NFL, and he ran for 109 yards on 12 carries and passed for 179 in the Falcons' 34-17 victory in Week 2 in Atlanta.

"He certainly is unique and probably as an athlete is the best in the league, there's no question about that," Martz said. "The first thing you do is you need to account for him."

Vick led the NFL with an average of 7.5 yards per carry and rushed for 902 yards, third-best ever for a quarterback. He'll be well-rested: the Falcons earned a first-round bye and Vick directed two scoring drives in three possessions in the regular-season finale.

"When you keep a guy out like that, obviously they've got a plan for him," Martz said. "I know they'll have something different that involves him to a large extent."

The Rams' defense features five first-round picks, three of them on the line. Martz said one of them, noseguard Ryan Pickett, played his best game in four seasons with the team with four tackles and three assists, a quarterback hit and a quarterback pressure.

"As a noseguard, you just don't get those opportunities to make a lot of plays," Martz said. "When it happens, it's very unusual."

The new defense aims to confuse the offense with multiple fronts. Although Martz said it's not as complicated as the offense, for a long time it confused the Rams, too.

"We just had to go through this," Martz said. "At this point I think they feel very good about the fronts we're running and their responsibilities, and they can rely on their speed and their get-off."

As a result, the Rams are an energized team with their second three-game winning streak of the season. Last year they earned a first-round bye in the playoffs but Martz said this team doesn't need the rest.

"For us right now you just wouldn't want to have a bye," Martz said. "We're starting to really get going."

Notes:@ Martz said there are no injury concerns aside from DL Tyoka Jackson, who was inactive Saturday with a sprained ankle. Not even OG Tom Nutten, who limped off in the fourth quarter after aggravating a knee injury. "Since 1999 his nickname has been Lazarus," Martz said. "He has always raised up." ... Following his pattern after road games or Monday night games, Martz is giving the team extra rest. Players will have Tuesday off, their third straight off-day, giving three days of on-field preparation for the playoff game.