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Martz sensitive about Rams' struggling defensive unit
Martz sensitive about Rams' struggling defensive unit
By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
Saturday, Oct. 02 2004
The many penalties have been puzzling. Special teams have been anything but
special, with the exception of Jeff Wilkins. As for timeouts, replay
challenges, and use - or is it neglect? - of the running game, well, "Mad" Mike
Martz has been particularly maddening this season.
But when all is said and done, the most disappointing element in the Rams' 1-2
start has been the play of the defense. The Rams rank 30th in total defense and
30th in rushing defense. That's third from the bottom.
For the first time since the move to St. Louis in 1995, the Rams have gone
three straight games without a takeaway.
Arizona's Emmitt Smith ran like he was 25 instead of 35 against them in the
season opener. In Week 2, Atlanta's Michael Vick played like Superman; he's
looked like Clark Kent against everybody else. And last week, New Orleans'
Aaron Stecker gashed them for 106 rushing yards. Not only was this a career
high for Stecker - it was practically a career. He had never run for more than
175 yards in a season in his four previous NFL campaigns.
"We've just got to play better," Martz says. "I don't think it has anything to
do with Larry (Marmie)."
This obviously is a sensitive subject for Martz. He replaced one good friend
(Lovie Smith) with another good friend (Marmie) as defensive coordinator after
Smith became head coach in Chicago. In fact, it's such a sensitive subject that
Martz refused to make Marmie available to be interviewed for this article.
Marmie's hiring in St. Louis drew some criticism because of the
less-than-stellar performance by the Arizona Cardinals' defense during his four
seasons there as defensive coordinator.
"Whatever problems we have right now on defense, we certainly ended up last
season with," Martz said. "It's not like we were playing such great defense at
the end of the season last year. When you look at the rushes and the yards per
rush, that's a big concern, whoever the coordinator is.
"We've just got to do a better job of tackling at the point. We've had some
missed tackles that have ended up in big plays. You can't have that. And that
has nothing to do with who's coaching the defense. Or the system. Or anything
else. We've just got to make a play, and make a tackle."
Not stepping up
The Rams haven't been swarming to the ball, one of their trademarks under
Smith. So when somebody misses a tackle, there's no one there to bail him out.
Or no one there to jar the ball loose for a fumble after the initial tackler
Some of the Rams' top defensive playmakers simply haven't been making many
plays. Strong safety Adam Archuleta, slowed by a nagging back problem, hasn't
played up to his standards. Tommy Polley, among the Rams' leading tacklers in
each of the prior three seasons, was benched during the preseason in part
because coaches weren't happy with his practice habits.
Cornerback Travis Fisher, one of four players to share the 2003 team
interception lead (with four), has been sidelined for the past six weeks
because of a fractured forearm.
Over the past three seasons, only two NFL players had more sacks than defensive
end Leonard Little. But Little has drawn extra attention from opposing defenses
this season - both of the legal and extracurricular variety. After several near
misses, Little finally got his first sack of the season against New Orleans.
To their credit, Rams defenders aren't making excuses. This isn't a situation
like the defensive collapse of 2000, where many of the mainstays on that side
of the ball were in denial about their play, almost refusing to concede there
was a problem.
"When you don't play well, people want to know why," defensive captain Tyoka
Jackson said. "And they start asking questions about things that have nothing
to do with it. A play here, a play there, these questions aren't even asked.
"But those plays didn't get made. It's the players who make the plays. Or don't
make the plays. So we have to look at the players and say: Are we playing well
enough to win? The answer is no on defense. Can we? Sure. Of course we can. And
will we? Yes. I believe so, no question about it.
"But you don't need to look at the coaches, or the scheme, or anything else.
Just look at the players."
By the numbers, the Rams defensive performance isn't all that different from
the '03 version after three games. Last year at this time, the Rams had allowed
71 points. This year, it's 72. Last year at this point, the Rams were yielding
5.2 yards per carry in the running game. This year, it's 5.4. The Rams were
26th in total defense and 24th in rushing defense a year ago at this point
compared to the current 30-30 ranking.
Of course, one big difference is turnovers. The Rams had five takeaways last
year at this time, compared to zero at the moment.
Big plays also are hurting the Rams' defense. Already this year, the Rams have
allowed 27 "big" plays - which is defined as pass plays of 20 yards or more, or
running plays of 10 yards or more. Last year at this time, the Rams had allowed
21 such plays.
"In every game here the last two weeks, we've given up several big plays,"
Martz said. "It's not a succession of a lot of (plays). It's two or three real
big runs. Or you get two or three big passes. You're looking at about half a
dozen plays that you just need to eliminate."
Despite all of Vick's running around two Sundays ago, remove Justin Griffith's
62-yard catch and run (after a missed tackle by Archuleta), and Alge Crumpler's
33-yard reception (on a near interception by Jerametrius Butler), and the Rams
win that game. Or at least take it to the wire.
Against New Orleans, the Rams were playing fairly well defensively until the
Saints caught them in a blitz on Stecker's 42-yard touchdown run midway through
the second quarter.
"We play a single-gap defense," defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. "So if one
person is out of place, the whole defense breaks down. We have to eliminate
that one person being out of place."
Blown gap assignments - where a defender isn't in the proper gap (between
blockers), or gets there too late - usually leads to busted plays. That's
particularly true on blitzes.
"Coach Marmie has a different twist on things," linebacker Robert Thomas said.
"He likes to attack a little bit more (than Smith). That's what makes the
defense a little more risky. If we attack one way and they run the other way,
it can be a big play."
By unofficial count, the Rams blitzed 12 times in the opener against Arizona,
nine times against Atlanta, and 14 times against New Orleans. That may not seem
like a lot, but it's more than Smith did. The Rams would like to blitz even
more often than that. But they've been hesitant to do so with Travis Fisher and
then DeJuan Groce (knee) sidelined by injury, because blitzing puts a lot of
pressure on cornerbacks in coverage.
Better health in the secondary, and at linebacker - where all six LBs have
missed at least part of one game with injuries - might help free up Little to
get to the passer. Little has faced considerably more double-teaming and
chip-blocking by tight ends and running backs than he has in the past.
"There's no question," Martz said. "In fact, a lot of the protections are
turned toward him."
On game tape, it's clear the Saints took it a couple of steps farther,
frequently grabbing his jersey and even tugging on his facemask once to keep
him away from quarterback Aaron Brooks.
So how do you counter the extra attention on Little?
"You try to get other guys involved, and you have to do different things with
him," Martz said. "And we are. As we get some guys healthy, we're going to move
into a different area, in terms of defense, and do some different things."
All along, Martz planned to have the Marmie defense evolve beyond Smith's Cover
2 zone concept into a more multiple scheme.
"We're doing different things," Archuleta said. "I think we have much more in
our package than we ever did, as far as our zone dogs and our blitzing. We're
doing more. And we have more multiple fronts."
So there has been an adjustment process, and some hiccups along the way. But as
Archuleta points out, the Rams are far removed from minicamps, and more than
two months removed from the start of training camp.
"You'd think we should be adjusted by now," he said. "I mean, I would hope.
We're professionals. But I think it's just a matter of trusting our teammates,
understanding that our guys are going to be there, and just playing hard, going
full speed. If you shoot your guns, do it full speed."
But so far, the Rams are shooting too many blanks
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