Friday, July 28, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

While it is nearly impossible to take too much from the Rams’ first pair of practices and spin them into something that will hold up for the course of an entire season, there was one thing that was abundantly clear during the first couple days of the team’s training camp: the defense wants to get better and it wants to get better in a hurry.

At various times during the first pair of practices defensive coordinator Jim Haslett could be seen barking out orders and laying into players who were out of position.

On other parts of the field, the respective position coaches showed no fear of getting after their players as the likes of defensive line coach Brian Baker, who maybe isn’t as loud as predecessor Bill Kollar, gave the business to his group during pass rush drills.

It will be a long time before anyone can know the results the revamped defense will provide on the field, but at least it’s a start.

“I think people are really going to see a different Rams’ defense than they have in years past,” linebacker Will Witherspoon said. “We are not going to be those guys where everyone will say hey, the offense scored 50 so as long as we hold them to 48, we’re good. That’s not our mentality. I think we will show people we have to prove a point and go out early in the preseason and make a statement and an identity for this defense. I think Coach Haslett, myself, all the guys on defense will be striving for that.”

That goal was set early in the offseason. Soon after bringing Haslett aboard as the defensive coordinator, he set out to add some veteran coaches to help him bring the current talent to its potential and add some talented veterans to the mix.

Experienced position coaches such as Baker, secondary coach Willy Robinson and linebackers coach Rick Venturi all bring a certain level of intensity to a defense that didn’t have much last season when it tumbled to near the bottom of the league in every important category.

There was no lack of intensity during the first pair of practices though, at least not for the defense. In the morning session, the defense dominated for most of the practice with the exception of a few big plays allowed late.

Even though the team wasn’t in full pads, the unit had no trouble being physical, either. At one point, running back Steven Jackson had his helmet removed from his head by a violent collision. During the night practice, Jackson and free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe had another hard clash that left both slightly dazed for a moment.

Knowing that he won’t have to worry about facing the defense aside from practice, even Jackson hopes to see the Rams shift from an offense-oriented team to a balanced squad that can be physical on both sides of the ball.

“I think the swagger is still there,” Jackson said. “But I think with coach Haslett on the defensive side, he has made it a point that this team will not just be viewed as an offensive team that the defense will be part of it and that’s why we will win games because we’ll be tough on both sides of the ball.”

Free-agent additions La’Roi Glover, Witherspoon, Fakhir Brown and Corey Chavous will be expected to help Haslett instill that toughness and intensity in some of the younger defenders such as Jimmy Kennedy, Tye Hill, Anthony Hargrove and Atogwe. Add to that mix returning veterans Leonard Little and Pisa Tinoisamoa and a cadre of depth in the secondary and on the line and the Rams believe they can go from the outhouse to the penthouse defensively.

“Competition is great,” Glover said. “You need it. Everybody tries to find ways to motivate themselves. To be a starter or a backup is one of the best ways of motivation. I think it brings the best out of most of our players and it’s a positive thing.”

Of course, questions will continue to linger about the defense until it can actually prove itself on the field. While the additions of Glover, Witherspoon, Hill and Chavous will almost certainly improve the team’s 23rd ranked pass defense, that group must find a way to beef up the unit’s 28th ranked run defense.

It will get progressively easier to see the strides the defense has made in the coming days as the team held its first full pads practice during this afternoon’s workout.

Coach Scott Linehan is aware of the criticism of his defense’s size, but believes it can be made up for with the speed, toughness and intensity that have been hallmarks of Haslett defenses of the past.

“We know we're very fast, we know we can run sideline to sideline, but we've got to be a team that if someone decides they're going to bully us and go at us because of our perceived size we've got to be able to say we've got the ability to do it,” Linehan said. “We're going to continue to preach that. The trick is to be able to have success on both sides while both sides are getting better and having confidence.”