Thursday, December 27, 2007

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

When last we saw Leonard Little, he was but a shell of the dominant pass rusher he was only a season ago.

Dealing with a debilitating toe injury that would require surgery, Little attempted to play through the pain. When the throbbing in his left big toe became too much, Little was forced to have surgery to repair a torn ligament.

With his season over, the Rams went searching for a way to create a pass rush. They found an answer in linebacker Will Witherspoon, who henceforth had never specialized much in that area.

Witherspoon now leads the team with seven sacks, including a stretch in which he went five consecutive games with at least one.

“I guess I will be looking for a job,” Little said, laughing.

Little was joking about looking for work, but the way the defense has changed since he last played Oct. 21 against Seattle is no laughing matter.

With Little officially placed on injured reserve and out for the season, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett went searching for new and creative ways to get after the quarterback.

The solution? Haslett realized that Witherspoon was capable of coming tight around the edges and sacking the quarterback. Many times, the Rams would send Witherspoon off the edge of a three man front or stand linebacker Brandon Chillar at the line of scrimmage as well.

Combining 3-4 looks with nickel packages and the base 4-3 defense, Haslett has created so much confusion that even legendary quarterback Brett Favre said the defense had “no rhyme or reason.”

Even someone who has been in St. Louis as long as Little can see that what he will be coming back to is much different than what he left.

“Basically the whole defense has changed and it’s hard for me to figure out what they are doing sometimes,” Little said. “I know the defense, but he changed it in a way where he is disguising a lot of things and it’s hard for quarterbacks to figure out what we’re doing.”

The possibility of a permanent switch to more of a 3-4 look has been kicked around on multiple occasions though Haslett remains non-committal to such a move. Should the Rams opt to head that direction, it’s entirely possible that Little would have to stand up as an outside linebacker/edge rusher much like Baltimore uses Terrell Suggs.

Regardless of which direction the Rams choose to take the defense in 2008, Little says he will be fine as long as it continues to produce positive results.

“I can adjust,” Little said. “I can adjust to anything. I told him that next year they shouldn’t take away from the game plan they are running now, continue with this and I have got to fit in somehow the best way I can.”

The first and best way for Little to fit in is to simply return to the fold. After posting a team leading 13 sacks in 2006, Little had just a single sack this season. That play doubled as the one in which Little suffered the aggravation of the toe injury.

Little attempted to play against the Seahawks, but was limited and soon realized that surgery would be his best option.

Little had that surgery on Nov. 12 near his home in Charlotte with leading foot specialist Dr. Robert Anderson performing the operation. By the time Dr. Anderson got his scalpel on the toe, Little had two torn ligaments.

“They reconstructed the ligament in my foot,” Little said. “I had some ligaments torn so he reconstructed them and got them back where they need to be. Now I’m fine I guess.”

Little might be feeling fine, but he still has a ways to go to get back to full strength. Little’s arrival in St. Louis before the game against Pittsburgh was his first time back in town since suffering the injury.

Prior to that, Little had been advised to stay near Charlotte so he could have weekly meetings with his doctors to get a grip on his progress in rehabilitation.

Little said the surgery went well and he felt no pain and had no medicine prescribed so the toe is essentially healing on its own.

Still, Little said he won’t be able to jog until the end of January of beginning of February at the earliest.

“I am just letting it heal up right now,” Little said. “I am doing range of motion, stuff like that with my foot and I will be running in a couple of weeks and go from there. By the time we get back from the offseason workouts, I should be fine.”

Little is unsure if he will be full go in time for the offseason conditioning program in March or even the two minicamps.

“I think they want to let it heal up more,” Little said. “I might participate in it, I don’t know yet. We haven’t got that far yet, but I am pretty sure they will want me to do some things, but not all things.”

Another piece of offseason business for Little could be a restructuring of the large contract he signed in the middle of the 2006 season.

In a search for additional cap space, Little’s contract is one of the likeliest and easiest to be re-worked. Little is due a $7.17 million roster bonus in the offseason and would count over $9 million against the cap next season. The Rams have options in re-working the deal, including possible conversion of that bonus into a signing bonus and spreading it out over the length of the contract.

In the meantime, Little has been spending time meeting with Haslett and defensive line coach Brian Baker about his and the defense’s future.

Little told Baker he enjoys the type of defense the Rams are running now and would love to stay in a similar, aggressive type of scheme in 2008.

“Has is creative with his defense,” Little said. “There’s no telling, when I come back and we get the rest of the guys back here – there’s no telling what we could be doing next year because he can change stuff at the drop of a dime.”