BY JEFF GORDON
Post-Dispatch Online Sports Columnist
Wednesday, Jan. 05 2005

With the fourth quarter winding down Sunday afternoon, New York Jets
quarterback Chad Pennington threw the ball directly to Rams safety Adam
Archuleta -- who was standing in the right place at the right time at the goal
line.

This interception would have sealed the Rams’ victory. But somehow, some way,
Archuleta simply dropped the gift.

Glory was right in his hands . . . and then it was gone.

The Jets kicked a game-tying field goal and forced the game into overtime. The
Rams ultimately prevailed, but the blown interception lingers as another symbol
of Archuleta’s season-long struggle.

“I’ve had plenty of time to beat myself up over it,” Archuleta said. “I don’t
need to see the tape. I know what happened. I’ve replayed it over and over
again in my mind. I have to make that play.”

Archuleta, 27, used to be one of the NFL’s rising stars. This season, though,
he has been a shell of his former hard-hitting self -– largely because of a
back injury that traces back to training camp.

“It happened in training camp,” Archuleta said. “I had a little back twinge and
you know it’s kind of my fault. These little injuries throughout my career have
just kind of gone away, taken care of themselves. I didn’t think much about it.

“It just kept getting worse. After the Arizona game, I went to Jim (Anderson,
the team's trainer) and said my back is really tightened up. We took an MRI and
saw there was some disk issues. It kind of snowballed from there. It’s a little
bit of my fault for not taking care of it when it first started acting up. I
kind of let it get out of control.”

Due to this injury, Archuleta hasn’t been able to fly around the field with
reckless abandon. He hasn’t been a disruptive force. His blitzing and
run-stopping abilities have declined.

He hasn’t been able to do much weightlifting, either, so his famous
conditioning has deteriorated along with his game.

“It is what it is,” Archuleta told reporters Wednesday at Rams Park. “The back
is a situation where I’m trying to grind out and battle it out until the end of
the year.”

Overall, the Rams defense has made some strides. Now healthy, cornerbacks
Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler have been outstanding. Antuan Edwards
arrived in midseason to finally shore up the other safety position.

The front seven is playing better, too. Defensive end Bryce Fisher just won NFC
Defensive Player of the Month honors. Coach Mike Martz has praised Ryan Pickett’
s recent work at nose tackle.

Linebacker Tommy Polley made a late push to salvage his season. Linebacker Pisa
Tinoisamoa has become one of the team’s leaders.

Martz believes Archuleta has improved as well, but clearly Adam is nothing like
he was. He seldom delivers a crunching blow -– and he often fails to make the
timely, routine plays as well.

Archuleta’s struggles, combined with the demise of fellow safety Aeneas
Williams, sucked energy away from this unit.

“I haven’t been as physical,” Archuleta admitted. “You know I’m not a guy who
makes excuses. I have a responsibility to my teammates and this organization to
go out there and do my job.

“It’s frustrating. When I don’t bring that style of play, when I don’t bring
that intimidating presence to the defense, to me I feel like I let everybody
down. It’s hard. When I have an opportunity to make a play, I have to make the
play. It’s hard as a football player.”

No, Archuleta insists, he isn’t finished.

“I know I haven’t forgotten how to play football and how to be physical, run
around, fly around,” he said. “It just doesn’t happen overnight.”

Unfortunately, that intimidating presence won’t come back overnight, either.