Post-Dispatch Online Sports Columnist

Online Columnist Jeff Gordon

Remember that 31-7 loss at Arizona back on Dec. 19?

That fiasco had some redeeming value, after all. On an otherwise miserable day for the Rams, rookie defensive end Anthony Hargrove arrived as a forceful NFL player.

He made six solo tackles -- plus another tackle for a loss -- and forced a fumble. His seven tackles in that game equaled his total since Oct. 24.

Hargrove’s sudden outburst in Arizona earned him the opportunity to push Bryce Fisher for work at right defensive end. That, in turn, inspired Fisher to play the two best games of his brief NFL career.

With those two guys trying to one-up each other, defensive tackles Ryan Pickett and Jimmy Kennedy have also played their best football of the season. Just as poor play becomes contagious, it seems, so does excellence.

“We have guys that are competing everywhere on our defensive line,” Hargrove told reporters at Rams Park. “I think that is why our defensive line is getting better. We still have that competitive nature coming in and out. You never know who is going to play for us. Somebody might go out this week, and next week somebody different.”

Not only has the defensive line effort improved, so has the comprehension.

“It’s understanding the schemes on defense, and understanding where I need to be,” Hargrove said. “What's made our defense so much better is everybody is now together. We're united, and we're fitting in with each other more than we have all year. We're playing as a real, true defense. We're playing as one whole unit.”

Hargrove credits Torry Holt for helping get him back on track in December. The veteran told the kid to relax, be himself and play his game. That sounds like simple advice, but it was exactly what Hargrove needed to hear.

“I couldn’t get out of this little funk,” Hargrove said. “He was like, ‘chill, sit back and just relax,’” Hargrove said.

The youngster has great athletic ability and vast potential. He is big, fast and strong. He has tremendous hands, too. Coach Mike Martz figures he could be an excellent tight end -– and he’d like to exploit those skills some day in a goal-line situation.

After playing so little at Georgia Tech, though, Hargrove had much to learn about playing defensive end. He spent last year working at Hartsfield International Airport after losing his academic eligibility at Tech.

If not for the NFL, he would still be at Hartsfield, pushing jets and operating the ramps. But come Friday, he’ll touch down in Atlanta as a key component of the current and future Rams defensive front.

“It feels real good to go home, especially in these kinds of circumstances,” Hargrove said. “I'm not going home to go back to work or push planes or anything. I'm going back home to play football, so it's always a good thing.”

This is quite a story. What if somebody had predicted all this for him last year, when he was still on the runway?

“I would have laughed,” he said, “I probably would have said, ‘I wish, I hope so, and I wish I could get that lucky.’ To go back to last year, to where I was at, and to see where I'm at now, just shows you that anything is possible.

“The sky is the limit.”

Which is NOT what Rams fans were thinking back on Dec. 19.