Thursday, December 11, 2008

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

Almost from the day he took over as interim coach of the Rams, Jim Haslett has wanted to get safety Todd Johnson more involved in the defense.

A special teams captain, Johnson has made a difference in that phase but has been one of the few Rams not to get a chance to prove himself on offense or defense.

That will change on Sunday when Johnson replaces Corey Chavous as the starter at strong safety.

“We made the change for a couple of reasons, but the main reason I’d like to see Todd Johnson I think he deserves, the one guy on our team that really hasn’t had the chance to go out there and show himself,” Haslett said.

While Chavous has long been considered one of the Rams’ top leaders in the locker room and is perhaps the most respected player amongst other players and the coaching staff, he doesn’t have the bounce to his step that he once had.

But that hasn’t made replacing him in the lineup any easier for Haslett or the man replacing him.

“He’s your team captain, voted by the players,” Haslett said. “This is a move we talked about a couple weeks ago and we thought it wasn’t the right time. He is well respected in the locker room and well respected by the coaches. I love the guy…He’s a great guy and if something happens he will be ready to step in and play and we won’t miss a beat.”

Johnson admires Chavous and said while he’s excited for the opportunity, he’s not happy about replacing someone so well liked.

“I don’t think it’s really indicative of the way he’s been playing,” Johnson said. “I think it’s more of the situation we’re in. obviously when you make a bad play as a safety, everybody sees it. We realize that as safeties so it’s something we have to live with.”

Johnson is no stranger to starting and it won’t be much of a difficult transition for him to step in this week. In the past few weeks, Johnson has been working in a rotation with Chavous and has taken advantage of that opportunity.

Johnson had five tackles against Arizona last week and two the week before against Miami. For the season, he’s also added 12 special teams tackles.

The always willing Johnson says not much changes in his preparation as a starter because he has started 19 games in his career.

As a Ram, Johnson has started one game, an Oct. 14 game against Baltimore last season when Chavous was dealing with a pectoral injury. The Rams defense performed well in that game and Johnson had nine tackles.

“When he gets in there he plays pretty well,” Haslett said. “Last year, he played in the Baltimore game. We held Baltimore to 46-yards or something rushing, whatever it was, we did a nice job in the run game with O.J. down in the box and Todd in space. I think with those two you have the ability to play left and right, play strong open, weak tight because they both a pretty good handle on what you want.”

That ability doesn’t necessarily present itself with Chavous in the lineup. Johnson and Atogwe can be used more interchangeably and that makes it more difficult for opposing offenses to pick up on what the defense is trying to do.

“We do know both strong and free safety and we both feel comfortable at both,” Johnson said.

As for his special teams duties, Johnson will be more limited this week in that area than usual and Chavous has volunteered to pick up the slack in coverage units.

It appears Johnson will start the rest of the season but it remains to be seen until the coaching staff can get another look at him in game action.

“We’re going to find out,” Haslett said. “That’s why we’re going to give him the opportunity. Todd’s a really smart guy, he’s a good football player, he can tackle, he started a number of games in this league in Chicago and did a good job. I think he’ll bring calmness to the defense and he’ll be effective in his own way, he’s not going to be flashy, he’s not a flashy type of guy. He’s the kind of guy that gets out there and gets the job done.”

STILLS HOPES TO PLAY: Linebacker and special teams ace Gary Stills suffered a knee injury last week against Arizona and had an MRI on Tuesday that revealed bone chips in the knee.

Stills says the injury won’t require immediate surgery but it will likely need clean up in the offseason.

“No surgery,” Stills said. “I’m fine. I’ll be all right. I just need a little rest. I am always willing to get out there but you know how it is. I’ll be out there Sunday.”

That last part remains to be seen as Stills did not practice again Thursday and Haslett is calling him a game time decision.

NO TELEVISION: For the first time this season, the Rams will not be televised live on local television after failing to sell out a game.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Rams had a little less than 4,000 tickets left as the deadline passed.

With both the Rams and Seattle sitting at 2-11, Haslett says he understands why fans aren’t in a hurry to buy tickets to see the game.

“It bothers you,” Haslett said. “Obviously it’s because of the record and it’s disappointing from that fact but when you have the record we have then that’s usually what happens: people don’t really want to come out and watch you. It’s our job to get that thing turned around, try to win these next couple and see what happens.”

The local blackout will be the fifth since the team moved to St. Louis in 1995. Three games were blacked out last season and the first blackout here occurred on Dec. 24, 2006.

The blackout means the game won’t be shown on any television locally, even on satellite.

Rams running back Steven Jackson says the lack of a crowd won’t have much impact on how the team prepares or plays Sunday.

“Not having the game sold out is a disappointment but you still have to go out there and play,” Jackson said. “Everyone is still being evaluated from their assignments, execution to how they are playing. I think everyone that will suit up on Sunday has something to prove. We hate that it’s not sold out but I don’t think it will make guys play any harder.”

INJURY REPORT: Guard Richie Incognito (ankle), cornerback Fakhir Brown (ankle) and receiver Torry Holt (rest) returned to practice on Thursday afternoon.

Cornerback Jason Craft’s back locked up in the middle of the workout but Haslett said he should be fine. Stills did not practice.