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'O.J.' adds juice to Rams' defense
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
During an unprecedented spending spree last March, the Rams invested a potential $73.5 million on free-agent pickups Will Witherspoon, La'Roi Glover, Corey Chavous, and Fakhir Brown.
So it's easy to understand how Oshiomogho "O.J." Atogwe could be lost in the shuffle. But like his more celebrated €" and wealthier €" new teammates, Atogwe is being counted on to help resuscitate the St. Louis defense.
After a frustrating rookie campaign in which he quickly landed in the defensive doghouse, Atogwe finds himself starting for the Rams this season at free safety. Basically, the job was handed to him last spring by new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. So far, Atogwe has made that look like a good move.
But after what happened to him in 2005, Atogwe is taking nothing for granted. Advertisement
"I've wanted to play in the NFL all my life, so to be playing now and to be a starter is a blessing," Atogwe said. "It's definitely exciting. So I'm going to approach it in that manner and play like it's my last play."
Atogwe's first opportunity didn't go well. In the Rams' 2005 season opener, against San Francisco, he made a couple of special teams mistakes. As a result, he spent the next four weeks on the inactive list and rarely played from scrimmage the rest of the year.
"It was a tough experience for me to go through," Atogwe said. "The NFL's a tough game to play. You've got to take your hills with your valleys, and you've got to just keep rolling and pushing through it. And know through all of it that there's a purpose for you."
However, it was hard to find a purpose to Atogwe's rookie season. His use €" or maybe it was misuse €" characterized the dysfunctional nature of the Rams' defense a year ago. Despite being the fourth safety taken in the entire draft €" he was an early third-rounder €" Atogwe couldn't beat out Michael Hawthorne or Mike Furrey.
Hawthorne was nothing short of a disaster, getting cut after five games, and no longer is in the league. Furrey, a converted wide receiver, is back to playing wide receiver with former Rams head coach Mike Martz in Detroit.
"Definitely there were times when I was low, and I was down," Atogwe said. "But you've got to keep the faith." MORE RAMS
Atogwe finished the season with just five tackles on defense. (He also had seven special-teams stops.) On the rare occasions when he played safety, Atogwe usually made something happen. The native of Windsor, Ontario, had a key sack in overtime of the Rams' comeback victory over Houston. In the regular-season finale against Dallas, Atogwe's fourth-quarter interception of Drew Bledsoe led to a field goal in a 20-10 Rams victory.
"A lot good came out of last year," Atogwe insisted. "It taught me to take this game and be more professional at it. Treat every play like it's your last play. It's a long season, and you never know when your time's going to be called. When you're in the game, you've got to make your play."
In looking at game film from last season, the new Rams coaching staff couldn't believe that Hawthorne, and then Furrey, played ahead of Atogwe.
Haslett and his staff in New Orleans had high grades on Atogwe entering the 2005 draft. In St. Louis, Haslett made Atogwe the starting free safety from the first minicamp of the spring.
The early results have been encouraging.
Haslett has not been available to the media for interviews during training camp. But Linehan offered the following analysis of Atogwe's play:
"I think O.J.'s done outstanding," Linehan said. "Free safety's like corner or quarterback. If they make a mistake, it's pretty obvious. I think he had only one error in the (Indianapolis) game the other night. He was pretty solid for the first game."
That error came on the first series against the Colts, when Atogwe was caught out of position on a deep pass. (So was Brown at cornerback.) The result was a 31-yard completion from Peyton Manning to Reggie Wayne, setting up the Colts' first touchdown.
"It was a heck of a throw and catch," Linehan said.
Wayne barely caught the ball in bounds; in fact, the Rams considered challenging the play via instant replay.
That play notwithstanding, Atogwe has the range and ballhawking skills to be an effective free safety. He has shown more of a physical presence, particularly on run support, than he did a year ago.
"He hasn't acted or looked like a guy that didn't play last year," Linehan said. "He's maturing and he's improving every day."
Re: 'O.J.' adds juice to Rams' defense
The safety position is my biggest concern. Hopefully OJ and Mr. Chavious provide the 1-2 punch these position have lacked since archuletta and william....
Re: 'O.J.' adds juice to Rams' defense
His lack of playing time last year sounds like another example of the total ineptness of our former DC.