By Bill Coats
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
10/01/2008

LINK

The ink on his new contract had barely dried when Rams coach Jim Haslett got in tight end Joe Klopfenstein's face.

"Here's a kid that started 16 games his rookie year, then he kind of falls off the face of the Earth," Haslett said Tuesday after conducting his first practice as Scott Linehan's successor. "I told Joe he needs to get back out there and start playing like the guy we drafted in the second round: be productive, block, run the right routes.

"I'm expecting Joe to step up to the plate."

First-team tight end Randy McMichael broke a bone in his lower right leg Sunday against Buffalo and will be out at least eight weeks. McMichael had 11 catches for 139 yards, and the Rams are counting on Klopfenstein to maintain a similar pace after the bye-week break.

"When somebody goes down, they expect you to fill that role and not take a step back at that position at all," he said. "You've got to be able to do what the starter was able to do."

The 6-foot-5, 262-pound Klopfenstein, the 46th overall pick in the 2006 draft, started every game that year. He caught 20 passes for 226 yards and a touchdown, but struggled with his blocking chores.

McMichael arrived as a free agent the following March, knocking Klopfenstein from the lineup. McMichael, who averaged 56 catches and 619 yards in five seasons with the Miami Dolphins, fell off to 39 receptions for 429 yards last year, when injuries on the offensive line required that he be used more as a blocker.

New offensive coordinator Al Saunders was determined to get McMichael more involved in the offense this year. Now, that role belongs to Klopfenstein.

"We can't scale down our offense and take our tight end out of it, because that's what we worked on all spring and all camp," quarterback Marc Bulger said. "Joe doesn't have a choice; he's going to be our guy."

Klopfenstein is just happy to get another chance after catching just two balls last year.

"It seems like it's been forever since I've been a starter," he said. "It was kind of like I was in the shadow a little bit. I've always been ready, waiting, to do whatever they asked me to do."

INJURY REPORT

Tackle Orlando Pace and linebacker Will Witherspoon won't practice until next week, Haslett said. Both are experiencing shoulder soreness. Wide receiver Dane Looker (concussion) also will be out until then. Cornerback Tye Hill had knee surgery to repair torn cartilage and is expected to miss three or four games. Jason Craft worked with the first-team defense Tuesday in Hill's spot.

BROWN'S DEAL

The Rams want to bring back cornerback Fakhir Brown, who was released in a surprise move last week. It might cost them, though. Because Brown is a vested veteran and was cut after the regular season started, his $1.95 million salary for 2007 is guaranteed, even if he doesn't play another down. Brown, who has started 27 games for the Rams since 2006, wants a pay hike to return. Talks are continuing.

RAM-BLINGS

Running back Lance Ball, an undrafted rookie, was released from the practice squad Tuesday. … After today's practice, the players and coaches will be off until Monday.