By Bill Coats
Of the Post-Dispatch
Since signing free-agent safety Antuan Edwards on Nov. 11, Rams coach Mike Martz had been eager to get the six-year NFL veteran on the field. Now, the trick is keeping him there.

Edwards made a strong showing Monday in his Rams debut, collecting eight tackles and forcing a fumble in a 45-17 loss at Green Bay.

"He played very well ... exceptionally well for the amount of time and preparation he's had," Martz said. "He filled fast, he made some real nice open-field plays. He has terrific range. He can get to the ball."

Said Edwards: "It felt good playing football again. For being new to the system, I thought I did pretty good."

His stout play, combined with a lingering stinger that has affected Aeneas Williams' neck and shoulder, earned Edwards a start: He'll be in the lineup at free safety Sunday when the Rams (5-6) take on NFC West rival San Francisco (1-10) at the Edward Jones Dome.

"I'm excited to go out there and do whatever I can to help this team win and play the best ball I can play," said Edwards, 27. "I started in Miami, started in Green Bay, so I consider myself as a starter in this league."

The overriding challenge for Edwards has been staying healthy. A litany of injuries, ranging from torn knee ligaments in 2001 to the severe groin pull that he had when he arrived here, have conspired to keep him on the sideline for 29 games. He played in all 16 games his rookie season, after the Packers made him their first-round pick (No. 25 overall) in the 1999 draft, then was out for 27 of the next 64 games. Edwards cites "bad luck and being in the wrong place at the wrong time" as reasons for most of his nicks.

"In this league, it's hard to prevent injuries. It's a contact sport, so you're going to have injuries every week," he said. "Unfortunately it's happened to me more than most. It's very frustrating. But I have to keep pressing on, keep showing I can play, until they kick me out."

The Dolphins stunned Edwards by giving him the boot Nov. 10 after he'd started eight games. He was released the day after coach Dave Wannstedt resigned amid the Dolphins' 1-8 start.

"I was really surprised. I thought they were really joking with me, to tell you the truth," Edwards recalled.

The Rams grabbed the 6-foot-1, 210-pound native of Starkville, Miss., signing him to a deal for the rest of the season.

"He's big and physical," Martz said. "We thought there was terrific value in him."

He was inactive for two games with the groin injury. Now, Edwards said, he has healed and is ready to prove that he's deserving of a spot in the league.

"Every day you have to prove yourself in this league, because there's always some young talent out there that's waiting in line," he said. "I got cut, so I've got to ... play every down like it's my last."

Edwards spent five seasons in Green Bay, where he started 18 of the 53 games in which he played. He spent most of his time at free safety in a defensive scheme much like the one the Rams employ. He signed with the Dolphins in the offseason as a free agent and had to learn a new approach.

"In Miami, we played with a seven-man front about 90 percent of the time," he explained. "Here, we bring a safety down in the box, so it's a lot different."

Still, he's played all four spots in the secondary in the NFL, so he's done plenty of adapting.

"It was the same thing in college," said Edwards, a Clemson product. "That's helped me in my knowledge of the game. And it's improving every year."

As for a preference in positions ... well, he's not real picky.

"I've played free safety the most. I feel really comfortable with that," he said. "But wherever I can get in and be a starter, that's what I prefer."

The future of the 36-year-old Williams with the Rams is clouded; his contract is up after this season. So in a sense, Edwards also could be auditioning for a job in 2005 and perhaps beyond.

"Every time I step on the field, I think it's an opportunity for the future," he said. "I'm a free agent next year; I'm playing for a contract. But San Fran's at hand right now. That's as far as it goes."