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'Greatest Show' now stars a tenacious 'D'
By Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Pick a corner, any corner. From any vantage point in the cluttered Rams locker room in the lower reaches of the surprisingly festive Edward Jones Dome, you could see the media swarming and flitting about in tight formations around the players' locker stalls.
Over there, it was Leonard Little. ... Over there, it was Will Witherspoon. ... Over there, quick! ... there's Corey Chavous!
This was beyond strange. It was like the world had tumbled on its head. It was as if we all wandered into some bizarre alternate football universe. The Rams were celebrating a stunning season-opening 18-10 upset over the Denver Broncos on Sunday afternoon, and inside this happy locker room, a traffic jam of TV cameras and scruffy reporters massed on the defensive side of the room. If you looked down to the far side of the room where all those ... uh ... "skill position" guys reside -- you know, the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers -- it almost was a ghost town: No lights, no cameras, very little action.
"Yeah, how 'bout that?" said defensive end Anthony Hargrove as he strutted through the scene. "Now get used to it."
OK, it might be possible for me to get my arms around the notion that a team that once created a football mythology in this town with a tour de force of glitzy offensive stars could abruptly change into one full of mean-as-nails defensive headliners whose idea of a "Greatest Show on Turf" would be rag-dolling opponents across the playing field.
It's difficult to comprehend how things looked in Sunday's victory compared to last year's defensive nightmares. How about the sight of former rookie-in-exile turned-second-year-starting free safety Oshimogho Atogwe doing something that I wasn't sure was part of a Ram safety's job description: making tackles in the open field when he was the only thing between a running back and the end zone.
Did you see that play when defensive end Leonard Little rag-dolled running back Mike Bell on his way to knocking Jake Plummer senseless? Did you see linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa doing that human projectile thing he loves to do when he makes those teeth-rattling tackles? Did you see Hargrove go airborne for his sack? Did you see Chavous race across half the field before the ball got to a wide open Todd Devoe, then out-jump him for a touchdown-saving interception?
When was the last time you watched a Rams game when the offense was in a funk and you actually felt semi-comfortable? Yet even as the Broncos were trying to put together a game-tying drive in the fourth quarter, the Rams defense was playing with so much opportunistic grit that in the back of your mind you were almost expecting a big play.
But there are weapons on the other side of the ball now, and a defensive coordinator, Jim Haslett, with the savvy, the X's and O's and a veteran staff -- coaches and players -- to make some noise around here. And one of the biggest weapons is Witherspoon, the free-agent middle linebacker from the Carolina Panthers, who made the biggest defensive play of the game. It was his lunging swat that deflected a pass to Denver receiver Rod Smith into the hands of Rams cornerback Fakhir Brown to end the Broncos' last chance at victory.
"It's just one of those things you just see (coming), just one of those things you just sense," Witherspoon said.
It was so much more than that. It was one of those instinctive moments that separate extraordinary athletes from ordinary ones.
"I remember thinking, 'Uh-oh, (Smith's) already at full speed,'" Witherspoon said. "Then I said, 'OK, Brandon (Chillar) is gonna see him.' But Brandon's head was turned and he never saw (Smith), so then it was like, 'Awright, just go get him.'"
It was linebacker on former Pro Bowl wide receiver. It was one of those so-called mismatches offensive geniuses create in their playbooks and laugh diabolically about. Yet it was no mismatch after all. There was an airborne Witherspoon, his left arm reaching out and swatting the ball out of Smith's hands and high into the air, just one of the many impressive sights of defensive athleticism we saw Sunday.
This is not what I expected out of Scott Linehan's NFL head-coaching debut. What I came to see was Martz Lite. What I got was the rebirth of old-school defensive football. I did not expect to see a Rams defense force five turnovers, limit the Broncos to 10 points and create a Denver offensive drive chart that would look like this on the final five possessions: punt, punt, field goal, interception, interception.
Isn't this St. Louis, the place where defenses go to die? Isn't this the place where the old attitude used to be "If you put up 50 points, we'll hold 'em to 48?"
"Yeah, that's how it used to be around here," Hargrove said. "Now, if (the Rams' offense) can only score three, then we'll just have to hold (the other side) to zero."