Thursday, September 14, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

When Jim Haslett took over as defensive coordinator for the Rams, he knew there was going to be a drastic makeover of the personnel. But if there was one player he knew he could count on among the holdovers it was defensive end Leonard Little.

After all, Haslett had tried to find ways to scheme and protect against Little when he was the head coach in New Orleans and knew what Little was capable of. When the preseason began this year, though, Haslett began to wonder where the Little he knew had gone.

“I thought he was hiding in preseason at times, but he’s one of those guys when it is time to go, he really turns it on,” Haslett said.

Turn it on he did against the Broncos in the season opener. It didn’t take long at all for Little to make his presence felt. On Denver’s sixth play from scrimmage, Little burst around tackle George Foster and pulled down Jake Plummer for his first sack of the season and a 9-yard loss.

On Denver’s next possession, Little blew into the back field again, this time rag-dolling running back Tatum Bell and crushing Plummer again. Little jarred the ball loose this time and it was eventually recovered by linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa at Denver’s 3. For the rest of the day, Little wreaked havoc in Denver’s backfield and it wasn’t just limited to the pass rush.

It was the type of performance Haslett expected from his star defensive end when he came to St. Louis.

“He was outstanding,” Haslett said. “He did a great job rushing the quarterback and an even better job in the running game.”

Last season was difficult for Little. Plagued by injuries, including an ankle and heel issue that slowed him, and forced to deal with the death of his brother, Little struggled to find the bounce in his step that has made him one of the league’s most feared pass rushers.

Despite the extraneous factors working against him, he still led the Rams with 9.5 sacks. But, after a hot start, Little hit a lull in the middle of the season and didn’t hit his stride again until the end.

Little posted a pair of sacks in last year’s opener against San Francisco and dominated against Dallas in the finale with two and a half sacks, eight tackles and a forced fumble.

Although Little led the team in sacks, it was a performance below his lofty standards and one that has him motivated to return to the form that made him a Pro Bowler in 2004.

“I just wanted to come out here and have a great start,” Little said. “Last year, I had nine and a half sacks or whatever and I know I am better than that. I just wanted to have a great start and hopefully it will continue the rest of the year.”

It seems more likely that Little’s success will continue this year, more so than in the past, if for no other reason than the attention some of his new defensive teammates will almost certainly draw.

That help was evident against the Broncos as the likes of defensive tackle La’Roi Glover and bookend Anthony Hargrove drew of attention away from Little. It also helped that Denver’s zone blocking scheme doesn’t allow for much in the way of double teams.

While it’s clear that teams are going to have to account for Little, who is fourth in the NFL in sacks since 2000 with 63, there’s no doubt that he should get more one-on-one opportunities than he has in recent seasons.

Regardless of how many blockers teams decide to throw at him, Little isn’t worried about any extra attention.

“If they double team me, they do,” Little said. “If they don’t then I just have to make the best of it. This is the NFL so any guy is capable of blocking me. I just do my best to do my deal and get there as quick as possible.”

One way to help Little continue to roam free is the ability to flip the side from which he rushes. Haslett has installed the ability for Little to be flexible and switch the ends that he rushes from. That will keep offensive lines guessing and gives Little the advantage of the element of surprise.

“We can move Leonard around,” Haslett said. “These guys need a little flexibility. Part of it is the scheme because of the guys you have. If you can move people around and take advantage of their athleticism, you can do those types of things.”

With the Rams heading to San Francisco this week, it seems like another excellent opportunity for Little to have a big game. He has always succeeded against San Francisco with a pair of multiple sack games and a 2002 effort in which he forced three fumbles.

Further complicating matters for the ***** is the loss of the left side of their offensive line. Guard Larry Allen is out with a knee injury and tackle Jonas Jennings is doubtful with a foot injury.

That could open things up for Little and his running mates to take aim at quarterback Alex Smith.

Soon after the Denver game was over, Little was in the locker room fuming over the fact that few gave the Rams a chance to win the game and even fewer had much confidence in the defense.

Now that the defense has proved itself capable of big things, Little is excited about the offense coming around and putting it all together.

“It’s great because those guys on offense, we know they are capable of busting one at any time,” Little said. “We are not worried about this being a great defensive team because we have a great offense over there because we have the weapons over there to score points at any time. We are not worried about people saying the Rams are a great defensive team now because we have one of the great offenses in the league.”

If Little continues the way he started and the offense finds its rhythm, they might be saying both.