BY Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Sunday, Apr. 05 2009
Take it from Tye Hill. The key to improved play in the St. Louis secondary this
season is staring back at him in the mirror.

"I do believe that I'm the key component for us to be real good," Hill said.
"O.J. (Atogwe) and (Ron) Bartell have proven themselves over these past few
years, and (James) Butler did in New York.

"I am behind them; I have to catch up to their level. I have to, to be able to
actually put this secondary over the top. And I believe I can be that guy."

The Rams would like nothing better than for Hill to do just that. They've
invested millions in new contracts for Butler at strong safety and Bartell at
cornerback, not to mention Atgowe's $6.34 million tender as the team's
franchise player.

As for Hill, he worked with the Rams' starting unit at the cornerback spot
opposite Bartell during the three-day minicamp that concluded Saturday. Hill
said his surgically repaired knee still isn't quite 100 percent. Surprising,
because the surgery took place four games into the 2008 season at the end of
September.

"My rehab has been real good over the past few months, and I've been getting a
lot of strength in it," Hill said.

Hill was one of the fastest players in the '06 draft pool when the Rams
selected him No. 5 overall. And at the start of his first training camp, he
proclaimed: "I'm trying to be a Pro Bowler in two years. That's the truth."

Hill obviously is behind that schedule as he prepares for his fourth NFL
season. He had a decent rookie year, opening the season at nickel back but
eventually starting 10 games following injuries to veterans Fakhir Brown and
Travis Fisher. Hill shared the team lead in interceptions (three) on a Rams
pass defense that ranked eighth in the NFL.

But in the two seasons that followed, injuries prevented Hill from enjoying the
breakout season that he — and the Rams' coaching staff — had anticipated.

"It was just one thing after another," Hill said. "It was just boom, boom,
boom. Get injured. Get injured. Get injured. I've got to stay away from these
injuries."

In 2007, he suffered a fractured bone in his lower back during a Sept. 13
practice collision with Atogwe. He missed the next four games. He was playing
well after returning to the lineup, but then suffered a season-ending
dislocated wrist in Game 12 against Atlanta. Ironically, Hill suffered the
injury making a victory-preserving pass breakup on fourth down late in the game.

Despite missing half the season, Hill had 10 pass breakups and opposing
quarterbacks completed only 50.8 percent of the passes thrown his way — the
best performance by any Rams corner in '07.

But '08 was a total nightmare. Burned for two long passes in the season opener
in Philadelphia, Hill was removed from the base defense during the game. His
struggles continued until he suffered a knee injury in the first quarter of
Game 4 against Buffalo.

Hill underwent arthroscopic surgery and was expected to return in four weeks or
so. The "or so" turned out to be the rest of the season. As the season wound
down, Hill kept trying to return, but kept experiencing problems with the knee.
He was finally placed on the injured reserve list Dec. 9.

When he was on the field last season, opposing QBs completed 86.4 percent of
the passes thrown his way (19 of 22), a league-worst for corners thrown at a
minimum of 20 times. During the weekend minicamp, Hill denied that his
confidence suffered last season.

"I never say it was a confidence thing, because I never lost my confidence," he
said.

Maybe not, but he was down in the dumps just before going on IR last season.

"Two years like this ... what can you say?" Hill said at the time. "At least I
can say I made it to the league."

So how can Hill get his "mojo" back?

"Being healthy for one," he said. "Being able to be out there, and being able
to continue to gain that experience that I acquired over my rookie year."

This offseason, Hill has worked on increasing his size and strength. His normal
playing weight in the NFL has been between 185 and 190 pounds. But when the
injury woes started after his rookie year, Hill said his weight had dipped into
the 170s.

"One way for me to stay away from these injuries, I feel like, is gain more
weight, gain more muscle mass," Hill said. "And that just means me working
harder when the lights are not on. You know what I'm saying? When I'm in the
weight room. When I'm in the classroom. When I'm back home."

And when he's at minicamp.