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Extra attention is holding back Leonard Little
By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
In the third quarter against Seattle last month, Leonard Little got offensive tackle Chris Terry on his heels with a bull rush. Little then turned inside toward Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck but never got there.
That's because Terry grabbed Little with his right arm and held on for dear life. After the play ended, Little raised his arms in protest, but there was no holding call by referee Bill Leavy's crew.
The following week in Buffalo, Little darted inside on a stunt late in the first quarter. But before Little got in the backfield, Bills guard Chris Villarrial yanked on his facemask to slow him down. Again, no flag.
Those are just two snapshots illustrating the kind of attention Little is getting from opposing blockers this season. He gets double-teamed or chip-blocked on the majority of passing downs. For a defensive end in the National Football League, it's the ultimate form of flattery.
"They never leave him alone," Rams coach Mike Martz said. "Very seldom is he left alone on (the edge). If he is, then it's a quick throw. They have great respect for him."
Not that that's much consolation to Little. All the extra attention has at times been exasperating and disconcerting.
After the Rams' 31-14 loss in Miami, a frustrated Little was one of the last Rams to leave the visitors' locker room at Pro Player Stadium. The Dolphins had been particularly attentive - and particularly effective - in slowing Little that day.
While reporters were milling about the locker room in search of postgame quotes, Little was huddled in a corner with teammate Tyoka Jackson.
"He was looking for answers ... and trying to figure out what he can do to overcome what they're doing," Jackson said. "Because he's seeing things that he hasn't seen before.
"The (Miami) guys were telling him after the game was over: 'Coach said we've got to do this all game. We've got to take you out of the game. We decided to do this and do that.' So teams are scheming him, and that's something he's got to deal with."
The extra attention shouldn't be considered surprising, given Little's well-established reputation as a defensive playmaker.
"Over the last three years, with the numbers he's put up, and the intensity and everything with which he plays, teams feel they've got to slow the guy down," Rams defensive line coach Bill Kollar said. "Without a doubt."
The real surprise is that it has taken the league three years to figure this out. From 2001 through 2003, Little averaged 13 sacks a season, the third-highest total in the NFL. Over that period, Little had 39 sacks in just 41 games. (He missed three games in 2001 with a knee injury and four games last season with a torn pectoral muscle.)
He made his first Pro Bowl last season. But the real sign of respect has come this season on game day.
"It's been the first year where they're just constantly chipping me," Little said. "Or if I do get in a one-on-one situation, they'll throw the ball quick.
"This has been the first year they've really, really been doing it on a consistent basis. Last year, they'd do it off and on, here and there. But not like they're doing it this year."
By chip block, Little means a team will leave a running back, fullback or tight end on his side to help the offensive tackle block him. Often, the back or tight end, will bump - or chip block - Little, and then head out on a pass route.
Little is still making his presence felt. He has 79 tackles in 13 games this season, according to coaches' review of game film (the NFL has Little at 39). That's one more than he had in 12 games last season - missing those four games with the pectoral injury.
He had 34 pressures and quarterback hits last season. This season he has 40: 24 hits, where he has actually struck the QB, and 16 pressures, where he hurried but didn't hit the QB. So Little is getting in the backfield as often as ever.
But he has a modest six sacks this season, which probably won't be enough to get him back to the Pro Bowl. Fewer sacks have led to fewer forced fumbles. Little had six forced fumbles last season; he has one this season.
"We've tried different stuff," Kollar said. "We've moved him around some, to try freeing him up. He's playing hard. He's doing everything, really, that he has over the last three years."
But the sacks aren't coming. The Rams haven't had many leads this season, particularly the bigger leads that force teams into predictable passing situations. The team has had trouble developing secondary pass rushers to draw attention from Little. End Bryce Fisher (5 1/2) and tackle Damione Lewis (4) are the only Rams with more than three sacks this season.
Kollar doesn't think the free-agent departure of Grant Wistrom has necessarily hurt Little's production.
"Grant played his (butt) off every game," Kollar said. "But I don't think the protections have really changed that much because Grant's not over on the other side. I think it's more that people just realize that this guy's a force."
A force that must be dealt with, one way or the other.
"This is the way it's going to be, I think, for a while," Little said.
Leonard Little's stats
Tackles: 47 (41 solo)
Fumbles forced: 6
Tackles: 39 (31 solo)
Fumbles forced: 1
Re: Extra attention is holding back Leonard LittleBy chip block, Little means a team will leave a running back, fullback or tight end on his side to help the offensive tackle block him. Often, the back or tight end, will bump - or chip block - Little, and then head out on a pass route.
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