By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
08/26/2007

Talk to veteran league observers, or scouts around the NFL, and there's a consensus on the St. Louis offense:

>>Marc Bulger is firmly among the top half-dozen quarterbacks in the league.

>>Steven Jackson is among the top two or three running backs.

>>Torry Holt remains among the NFL's elite receivers.


>>Orlando Pace is entering his second decade as one of the game's premier left tackles.

>>The addition of Randy McMichael will significantly upgrade the team's tight end position.

>>The addition of Drew Bennett will help the team in the red zone and over the middle.

With all that going for them, how can the Rams NOT make the playoffs in 2007?

Even Jay Zygmunt, the team's president of football operations-general manager, concedes: "We have a chance to be quite outstanding on offense."

Alas, it takes more than offense to win — or at least win consistently — in the NFL. The 2000 Rams, for example, had one of the most potent offenses in league history. But at a time when the Greatest Show on Turf was in its prime, the Rams barely squeaked into the postseason because of porous defense.

In recent seasons, defensive deficiencies have been compounded by special teams woes. So even though the St. Louis offense should once again rank among the league's best, the 2007 Rams will go only as far as defense and special teams take them. If the Rams are only average on defense and special teams, that should be enough to get them into the postseason for the first time since 2004.

Seeing will be believing, but Rams players on both sides of the ball sound convinced that things will go differently on defense this season.

"I think there's a lot of people that are going to be very surprised because they haven't had their eyes open," said linebacker Chris Draft. "When you look at the additions we've made, we've really kind of addressed all the areas of concern. And that's what you want to be able to do."

Draft is one of those newcomers. He will begin the season as a backup, but really gives the Rams four starting-caliber linebackers. In the secondary, free-agent pickup Todd Johnson at safety and rookie Jonathan Wade at cornerback provide depth. Up front, first-round draft pick Adam Carriker at nose tackle and veteran James Hall at right end should shore up a line that was one of the team's weak spots a year ago.

"Going into each season, the goals don't change," said veteran defensive tackle La'Roi Glover. "You try to be in the top five or the top 10 of the National Football League in total defense."

The Rams haven't finished better than 17th in total defense and 28th in run defense since coordinator Lovie Smith left St. Louis to become head coach of the Chicago Bears following the 2003 season. So is that a realistic goal?

"I think so," Glover said. "I mean, you've got to shoot for the stars. ... If we talk about it, and we go out and we kind of prepare that way, then I think our chances of success will go up."

But sooner or later, you have to do it. The same holds true for special teams, where with the exception of kicker Jeff Wilkins, the performance has been just short of disastrous for years. (Punter Matt Turk, now with Houston, did have a strong year in 2006.)

During the offseason, the Rams added role players such as Draft, Johnson and running back Travis Minor to help the coverage and return units. The pre-draft trade with Kansas City for Dante Hall brought one of the league's most accomplished kick returners to St. Louis. It remains to be seen if Hall can regain his Pro Bowl form from a couple of years back. But even if Hall performs at less than a vintage level, he should be a significant upgrade over what the Rams have had in recent years on kickoff and punt returns.

Rams coverage units had some major breakdowns in the second preseason game against San Diego. The worst of which was an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown by Darren Sproles. So until proved otherwise, Rams special teams deserve to be looked upon with skepticism simply because they've been so bad for so long.

Which brings us back to the offense. McMichael, the former Miami Dolphin, offered an interesting perspective — almost an outside perspective — as the new tight end.

"Isaac (Bruce) goes about his business every day," McMichael said. "He runs every route and does everything like it's in the game mode. Torry (Holt) is a great technician, very smart. He's just so smooth. ... It looks effortless to him.

"You look at 'Jack' (Steven Jackson), and 'Wow.' To be as big as he is, and to get at top speed as fast as he does, I mean, you just don't see that in the NFL. And of course, Marc Bulger's probably the most accurate quarterback I've ever been around or have seen."

Put it all together, and you have the makings of a dynamic offense. But that's just the starting point for the '07 Rams. The play of the defense and special teams will determine where they finish.