Due for a makeover

By Bill Coats
Of the Post-Dispatch


The searing memory of Atlanta's Warrick Dunn, Michael Vick and T.J. Duckett running virtually unhindered through the flailing Rams defense in the NFC semifinals last January has faded a bit. But it certainly hasn't been expunged.

The Falcons' stampede totaled 327 yards, within range of the NFL postseason rushing record of 382 yards by the 1940 Chicago Bears. But the defensive unit that went belly-up vs. Atlanta has been restocked, and coach Mike Martz is downright giddy about its potential.

"I'm really excited about where they are," Martz said. "Who knows what's going to transpire from here, but this is as excited as I've been about a defense here."

Those are bold words, considering that the 2004 Rams gave up more points than all but seven teams, an average of 25.5 points a game, and, at minus 24, had the worst turnover differential in the league. That occurred during defensive coordinator Larry Marmie's first season as Lovie Smith's successor. The changeover was far from smooth.

"Last year, it was more of a transition from getting out of what Lovie wanted," tackle Jimmy Kennedy said. "You had guys questioning certain calls, just because we knew what Lovie probably would've called in that situation. . . . We don't second-guess anything now. (Marmie) calls it, let's play it and let's play it all out."

Said safety Adam Archuleta: "We weren't attacking last year, and we weren't aggressive. I think that was indicated in our turnover margin. Now, it doesn't seem like we're playing on our heels anymore. We feel good about ourselves, we're more confident and we're flying around. Guys are looking to make plays."

The original plan was to move Archuleta, a fifth-year pro, to free safety from strong safety, replacing Aeneas Williams, whose contract wasn't renewed. But Martz decided after the second preseason game to leave Archuleta at strong safety. Still, going back to the 2004 opening day lineup, six other spots on the unit are likely to have new starters when the Rams square off against the ***** on Sept. 11 in San Francisco:

Middle linebacker Chris Claiborne, in place of Robert Thomas.

Weakside linebacker Dexter Coakley, in place of Tommy Polley.

End Anthony Hargrove, in place of Bryce Fisher.

Kennedy, in place of Damione Lewis.

Cornerback DeJuan Groce, in place of Jerametrius Butler, who is out for the season after knee surgery.

An undetermined newcomer in Williams' spot at free safety.

Veterans Claiborne and Coakley were free-agent pickups in the offseason. Hargrove, in his second season, steps in for Fisher, who went to Seattle as a free agent. Kennedy supplanted Lewis late last season, and rookie safety Jerome Carter has been in the secondary mix since the start of training camp.

"Sometimes somebody comes in as a new player and there's something that they do on the practice field, a way that they go about playing the game, that just tells you, 'This guy is a football player,'" Marmie said. "That's the feeling all of us had about Jerome. Learning a new defense, he picked things up very quickly; he was always around the ball. There was something there that after being around him a short period of time, you're saying, 'This guy gets it.'"

The group improved overall during the second half of the '04 season, rising to 17th in total defense after lagging near the bottom much of the first half. But the Rams remained near the end of the list vs. the run, ranking 29th. Thus, overturning those numbers became the leading priority.

"That's the main focus," Claiborne said. "And stopping the run with just seven in the box is very important. If you can leave your safeties back and are able to play over the top with the corners, you'll have a good chance of being very successful."

At 6 feet 3 and 255 pounds, Claiborne adds badly needed beef in the middle. "That's what you need from a middle linebacker," Archuleta said. "You want a guy who's going to be imposing, who's going to punish ballcarriers and kind of set the tone in the front seven."

Kennedy and Hargrove, who join veterans Ryan Pickett and Leonard Little up front, both displayed impressive speed and strength during training camp. Kennedy, who missed much of last season with a broken foot, has rehaped his 6-4, 320-pound body. He also bulked up his self-assurance.

"I see a more confident guy, in practice and just the way he goes about his daily routine," Marmie said. "I think he realizes what he might be able to do if he really continues to work and develop."

Hargrove, 6-3 and 269, "is just learning to play the position. But he's a physically gifted guy, and he's got a toughness about him," Marmie said. "He likes the contact part of the game, and he can run. ... I think he saw how Leonard played the game, and he's learned from that. He's in the process of developing a lot of the same qualities."

Of course, all is rosy everywhere before they start playing games for real. The Rams' overhaul on defense appears to be well-planned and executed. But how it all works out on the field is far from being determined.

"We think we've improved ourselves," Marmie said. "I think the two things you really have to measure during training camp are the way your guys work and the attitude that they have. Those two qualities have been outstanding. We've got a long way to go; there are a lot of things that we've got to get better at. But I think we're starting to develop as a team and ... can have a representative defense, one that hopefully can carry our share of the load."

In more simple terms, Claiborne added: "I think the talent is definitely there. We've just got to apply it."

Reporter Bill Coats
E-mail: bcoats@post-dispatch.com

Phone: 314-340-8189