New Show In Town: Rams' defense dominates Denver
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
So who needs offense, when you've got defense and special teams?
Over the years, the Rams have won plenty of football games with gridiron theatrics. The "Greatest Show on Turf" was a high-wire act of highlight-reel catches and world-class speed.
But with the St. Louis offense struggling all afternoon, particularly in the red zone, the Rams won the old-fashioned way Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome with a defense that dominated at times and special-teams play that made sure field position wasn't a problem.
Thanks to six Jeff Wilkins field goals and five takeaways by the Rams' defense, Scott Linehan's head-coaching debut produced an 18-10 upset victory over Denver. It marked the first time in "St. Louis" Rams history that the team had won a game without scoring a touchdown.
"I couldn't be more proud of our football team," Linehan said. "Mainly because, you know, there's no such things as style points in winning. And sometimes you get caught up with that."
On this day, almost all of the speed -- and most of the playmaking -- was displayed by the St. Louis defense. Newcomers Fakhir Brown, Corey Chavous, and Tye Hill all came up with interceptions against Denver quarterback Jake Plummer.
Another newcomer, middle linebacker Will Witherspoon, forced a fumble that led to a first-quarter field goal. And with Denver mounting one last threat from the St. Louis 28 late in the fourth quarter, Witherspoon tipped a Plummer pass intercepted by Brown. Denver never got the ball back.
Denver broke off runs of 39 and 36 yards in the second half Sunday. But the Broncos, 13-3 last season and the NFL's most productive offense over the past 11 years, were limited to 259 yards by defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's unit.
"We've been so horrible around here on defense," end Leonard Little said. "To come out and beat those guys, and hold them to 10 points is a big feat for us."
But to a man, Rams defenders realized they could do better.
"We're not going to get a big head right now and go up in the clouds," tackle Jimmy Kennedy said. "It's just one game. Did we play well? Yeah, we played great. But did we play perfect? No, we've still got to fix a couple of areas."
Certainly, the Rams' offense can do a lot better.
The Rams went zero for five in the red zone Sunday. Time after time, they were handed the ball in great field position by the defense. But one bothersome trend in the preseason carried over to the regular season. Namely, the Rams' first-team offense still hasn't scored a TD, preseason or regular season.
"We still have a long way to go," said quarterback Marc Bulger, who was one for seven for one yard in the red zone. "We've been working on it, I promise you. We'll get there."
But Sunday, they couldn't get there despite starting series on the Denver 3 and the Denver 17 following takeaways by the St. Louis defense. At one point in the first half, the Rams ran 23 consecutive plays -- counting penalties -- in Denver territory in a span of four possessions but couldn't score a touchdown.
"We just need to relax a little bit down there (in the red zone)," Linehan said. "We really put a lot of emphasis on it, and I think there's a little bit of trying too hard. I take total accountability for it. I'm calling the plays down there, and I've got to do a better job for the offense."
But on this day, the defense, and Wilkins' franchise record six field goals, saved the day. The Rams' pass rush got to Plummer four times, with Little recording two sacks and three quarterback hurries. Strangely, the Broncos tried to stop Little with just one blocker.
"They played me straight-up," said Little, who saw constant double-teaming or chip-blocking the past two seasons.
On Little's second sack, which resulted in a lost fumble by Plummer, Denver tried to block him with only rookie running back Mike Bell.
"I wasn't surprised, because sometimes they start a (pass) protection like that," Little said. "I was surprised that he tried to take me high. ... So I just threw him out of the way and was able to make the tackle."
Brown registered one of those sacks from his cornerback position, sniffing out one of Denver's bootleg plays.
It was all part of Haslett's bag of tricks. Denver was challenged by a variety of blitzes, and saw a three-man front in nickel situations, an alignment rarely used by St. Louis over the past 11 seasons.
"Haslett's got so many plays in his defensive scheme," Brown said. "You never know what he'll pull out."
Haslett also has attitude, at one time getting into a jawing match with Denver tight end Stephen Alexander after Haslett complained about a call.
"He was very excited, pumped up," Brown said, speaking in general of Haslett's mind-set Sunday. "He looked like he was about to play. He already knew that the defense they put together, and the guys that they brought in, fit his defensive scheme. He was just excited to see how we would do (Sunday). Turned out pretty good for him."
And for all the Rams.