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Defense stands between Rams and a '99-like return to glory
By Bernie Miklasz
Of the Post-Dispatch
If the big bodies on the offensive line hold up, "The Greatest Show on Turf" should make a resounding comeback in St. Louis this season.
Not that the high-flying, head-turning, occasionally head-scratching three-ring circus of a Rams offense ever closed down. But in recent seasons, the scoring rate and number of thrills has dropped from the Glory Days of 1999-2001. No worries; coach Mike Martz has his offense amped for frequent invasions of the end zone.
For the 2005 Rams to cash in on those points, post a winning season, earn a legitimate invitation to the playoffs and give themselves a shot at the NFC title - and keep the wolves off Martz's throat - they'll have to supply a real defense.
The players on defense know this. They can't deny the grisly details of 2004. They haven't washed out all of the bloodstains remaining from those regrettable stompings. The Rams ranked 29th among 32 teams against the run, 25th in average yards allowed per run, 25th in points surrendered, 22nd in sack percentage and last in takeaways.
If this happens again, opposing offenses gladly will wipe their cleats on the jerseys of Rams defenders. And this flaw, if exposed again, will prevent the 2005 Rams from realizing their dreams, their goals.
"We don't want to be the downfall of our team," defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said.
The special teams also must clean up, but that's another column. The most dramatic makeover at Rams Park was applied to the defense. The Rams invested about $25 million in free-agent contracts for linebackers Dexter Coakley and Chris Claiborne. They signed other, less expensive free agents and also drafted a cornerback and two safeties during the first four rounds.
Of the 25 defensive players on the roster who will open the regular season Sunday in San Francisco, 11 weren't on the team at the beginning of last season. (A twelfth, safety Mike Furrey, was a wide receiver a year ago). There also will be five new starters, compared to last year's starting lineup, on opening day. Make it six if you want to count nickel back Corey Ivy.
Of the 25 defensive players, 13 have only two seasons or fewer of NFL experience. That's not a bad thing. "And it's not an excuse," Coakley said.
Martz actually likes the inexperience.
"Young players are dangerous," he said. "And I mean that in a positive way. They'll fly around. They're hungry. They'll get after it. We want that energy."
Rams linebackers were wimps in 2004, which explains the dumping of Robert Thomas and Tommy Polley. Claiborne and Coakley will toughen up this group. "And they're really taking to the leadership role," Martz said.
There are other changes. Martz believes he made a mistake last season by gradually phasing in a new defense after Lovie Smith left and Larry Marmie took over as defensive coordinator. The shift in philosophy - Marmie prefers multiple defensive schemes compared to Smith's reliance on the "Cover 2" - confused the players.
This year, Martz said, the coaches installed the entire defense in the spring, and the players have fully absorbed it. The Rams apparently have junked their overshifting defensive front, which left them vulnerable to cutback runs. Questions remain, however, about Marmie's ability to fire up this defense.
We'll have to wait to see if all of this busy work will lead to improved results. The front seven is beefed up, but will it be physical enough? Can anyone other than Leonard Little rush the quarterback? Can a young secondary make plays and avoid getting burned? And just who will make the big plays on this defense? The Rams forced only 15 turnovers last season, and that must change.
But you get the feeling that this defense will fight back. And the mission is this: Stop the run, and steal the football to keep that magnificent Rams offense on the field and in better position to strike.
Re: Defense stands between Rams and a '99-like return to glory
My defense is solid. They are going to make a bunch of the prognosticators look even more stupid than they already are. And that's tough to do.