Dec 15, 06:40 PM


By HAL PILGER STAFF WRITER

Heavily obscured by the St. Louis Rams' dismal overall play last Sunday - and the surprising postgame criticism by quarterback MARC BULGER - was the best performance of the season by a Rams kick returner.

Before the 34-20 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, the Rams had recorded just one kickoff return in excess of 30 yards all season. Against the Cardinals, WILLIE PONDER produced six kickoff returns totaling 189 yards - an average of 31.5 yards with a long of 40, tying the 40-yarder earlier this fall by the recently released J.R. REED. Ponder also had a 39-yarder.

"I thought Willie did a great job," Rams coach SCOTT LINEHAN said. "You can see the reason Willie was brought here; he looks like what we are looking for.

"I think Willie was a real bright spot in the game. He hit those returns, which were very similar to the ones we've been running all year. He really had his first chance (in his third week with the Rams), and I think he took full advantage of it. . . ."

Ponder, a Southeast Missouri State product, is in his fourth NFL season after spending three years with the New York Giants, where he averaged 26.9 yards, 25.9 and 24.5, respectively, on kickoff returns the past three seasons.

Before signing with St. Louis on Nov. 15, Ponder played the first five games this season with the Seattle Seahawks. He is third in the NFC with a 24.5-yard average for 34 returns.

* RAMS RIDDLE: The Rams' Monday Night Football game against the visiting Chicago Bears will mark the 87th time the teams have met. The Rams have played only two other teams more often. Who are they? Answer below.

* LITTLE CHANCE: Defensive end LEONARD LITTLE says it has become extremely difficult to tackle a quarterback in the NFL without being called for roughing the passer - something that was called five times during Sunday's game.

"It really is difficult now," said Little, who drew one of those penalties. "The one called on me, the blocker was pulling me down. The only thing I did was dive out and try to grab his legs.

"The league has cracked down on (tackling quarterbacks)," Little added. "The quarterbacks are, quote-unquote, the leading stars in this league, and they don't want any quarterbacks getting hurt because it might affect their season or whatever records they have, whatever. It's the way they're calling the game.

"I'm getting pulled down by a blocker, and, you know, I just can't stop in my tracks and let him throw the ball; that's not my job. My job is to get to the quarterback and try to get him down."

* BARTELL TIME: After cornerback TRAVIS FISHER was lost for the season with a forearm injury, the Rams shifted safety COREY CHAVOUS into the slot position and had reserve JEROME CARTER play safety in their nickel package. But last Sunday, Chavous stayed at safety while second-year cornerback RON BARTELL covered slot receivers as the fifth defensive back - long before Carter left the game with a sprained ankle.

"Corey's been playing (nickel) with the loss of Fisher," Linehan said. "Of course, Corey always gives us his best and does a great job in any situation, but we just felt it would help Corey to play primarily safety and try something else. We've been looking for answers there."

Regarding Bartell, who had an interception erased because of an offside penalty, "He did OK," defensive coordinator JIM HASLETT was quoted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "He'll do better the more he plays in there, but he did better than I thought he would. There's a lot that goes into it. I'd say that's the hardest (position) in the secondary to play."

As in past weeks, veteran cornerback JERAMETRIUS BUTLER saw action only on special teams.

* PRIME-TIME PLAYERS: Since 2000, the Rams have appeared on prime- time television 21 times, going 14-7 - including 10 wins in their last 12 prime-time games and a team-record eight straight wins from Nov. 18, 2002 (21-16 over the Bears) to Oct. 18, 2004 (28-21 over Tampa Bay).

The 21 prime-time games included 15 Monday Night Football appearances. The Rams went 9-6 in those games, including 6-2 at home - where they have won their last five MNF contests.

* RIDDLE RESULT: The Rams have played the San Francisco ***** 115 times and the Green Bay Packers 89 times.

* END QUOTE: Linehan, about Bulger's postgame criticism of some of his teammates after last Sunday's loss to Arizona: "I think the players now can start kind of policing themselves. I think that's a good thing."