Kickoff coverage improves for Rams
By Bill Coats
Of the Post-Dispatch
Thursday, Dec. 02 2004

If there was a positive to be gleaned from the Rams' 45-17 shellacking Monday
night in Green Bay, it was a marked improvement in kick coverage. After a
shake-up in personnel, the Rams yielded an average of 18 yards on four kickoffs
- their best showing of the season.

"Field position is a real important part of the game, and that's what special
teams is all about," said linebacker Drew Wahlroos, who had two tackles on
kickoffs. "It was good to be able to make some stops. But there's always room
for improvement."

Only twice in the previous 10 games had Rams opponents averaged fewer than 20
yards per kickoff return: 19.2 by San Francisco on Oct. 3 and 18.8 by Seattle a
week later. In the five games since then, the Rams had surrendered an average
of 28.1 yards per kickoff.

In addition, the Packers had zero yards on punt returns. That's because
newcomer Kevin Stemke, though he averaged only 30 yards on two punts, had good
hang time and both boots resulted in fair catches inside Green Bay's 20-yard
line. "That's very important, and that's why he's here," coach Mike Martz said.

The week before, the Rams were shredded by Buffalo's returns. The Bills took
one punt 86 yards to the end zone and returned another 53 yards, setting up a
touchdown in a 37-17 victory.

"I really felt terrible personally about the Buffalo game and the way that we
performed on special teams," said linebacker Trev Faulk, who also had two
special-teams tackles vs. the Packers. "We definitely are the unit that brings
the offense and defense together, so we've got to hold up our end of the
bargain."

Still, the Rams lag badly in league special-teams statistics. Defensively, they
rank 31st in kickoff coverage (24.1 yards) and are tied for 31st in punt
coverage (15.5). Offensively, they're No. 31 in both kickoff returns (18.6
yards) and punt returns (4.0).

Faulk, Bruce get a break from practice

Martz has eliminated - for now, anyway - the midweek live tackling sessions he
instituted last month in an effort to add a physical edge to his team's
attitude. On Thursday, in fact, the Rams practiced without full pads after an
off-day for the first time in four weeks.

"I think they're focused," Martz said. "I don't see the physical aspect of it
being an issue right now. Now, we're kind of getting back to the regular-season
routine."

Martz kept running back Marshall Faulk and wide receiver Isaac Bruce on the
sideline. Faulk has a bruised knee, and Martz wants Bruce, an 11-year veteran
who is leading the league in receiving yards (1,026) and is No. 4 in receptions
(67), to remain as fresh as possible. Martz said it's not easy to keep Bruce,
who also is nursing a sore wrist, off the practice field.

"I didn't ask him, because I didn't want to get in that conversation with him,"
Martz said. "I just said, 'You're not practicing. Just put a blanket on and
stay warm. Sorry kid.' He's very, very competitive."

Rams tinker with defensive line

The look of the defensive line, which changed Monday when rookie Brian Howard
started in place of four-year veteran Damione Lewis at tackle, could be in for
further alteration.

Although Howard received strong reviews, Jimmy Kennedy spent the bulk of the
time with the first unit Thursday alongside Ryan Pickett. Martz said no
decision had been made on Sunday's starters.

On the offensive line, rookie Larry Turner shared first-team reps with Tom
Nutten at left guard, and Blaine Saipaia and Grant Williams worked out at right
tackle.

M. Faulk, A. Williams listed as questionable

Faulk was downgraded to questionable on Thursday's injury report. Guard Chris
Dishman (knee) was listed as out, cornerback DeJuan Groce (knee) as doubtful,
safety Aeneas Williams (neck) as questionable, and safety Adam Archuleta
(back), Bruce and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna (knee) as probable. . . . Rams
wives will join U.S. Marine Corps personnel for the annual "Toys for Tots"
collection Sunday. They will accept cash donations and new, unwrapped toys at
all Edward Jones Dome entrances before the game.