Thursday, November 2, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

If ever there was a week for the Rams defense to go into a game with something to prove, this is it.

One week after San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson ran wild, the Rams are up against another big challenge in Kansas City and the powerful Larry Johnson. With that in mind, Jim Haslett and the defense are doing everything they can to take the steps to ensure that Johnson doesn’t do what Tomlinson did.

“It’s not about Larry Johnson and the Chiefs; it’s about the St. Louis Rams and the defense, and how well we play right now,” said cornerback Travis Fisher.

Indeed it is. When the Rams defense has been on its game this season, it has been a unit capable of running all over the field and forcing turnovers at opportune times. That defense was the one that helped the Rams lead the league in turnovers as recently as two weeks ago.

The carry over of those first five games lasted through the first half against Seattle, but vanished in the second half and last week against San Diego. The turnovers stopped coming and the run defense sprung a leak.

“What they did to us hit our pride and guys are taking it personal and we have to go out there and stop the Chiefs,” defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy. “We just have to go out there fix the mistakes we made last week and move forward. We just need to be a little bit stouter and be disciplined in what we’re doing; just play our game.”

The task at hand this week involves one of the best running games in the league. Johnson and Tomlinson are widely regarded as the top two backs in the NFL. The duo consistently posts big numbers in rushing and total yards, but run with different styles.

“LT is a little bit faster and quicker, but their styles are similar because both of them break tackles and can take it the distance any time,” defensive end Leonard Little said. “They are somewhat different but they are a lot alike when they hit the hole and get downhill. I think (Johnson’s) more physical. He’s a bigger guy and he’s more patient and when he gets downhill, he’s hard to bring down.”

Johnson doesn’t have the speed of Tomlinson, but he is certainly more powerful and capable of shedding tackles. Make no mistake, when Johnson gets in the open field he can take it all the way. This week will be Johnson’s 40th NFL game and in his short time in the league, he has made quite an impression.

Johnson averages a touchdown once every 17 carries and has posted 3,060 yards rushing and 38 touchdowns on only 648 carries. In addition, he has gone over 100 yards rushing in 17 games.

This season, Johnson is third in the league in yards with 644 and has scored eight touchdowns. He has also proved to be a solid receiving threat with 329 receiving yards, leaving him first in the league in yards from scrimmage with 973.

Johnson is as tough and rugged a runner as you will find in the league, according to Kennedy, who was teammates with Johnson at Penn State. Johnson isn’t afraid to tell you so as well and says he basically feels no pain.

“I don’t get hit,” Johnson said. “I give hits. I don’t have to spend extra time anywhere. This is what we do. This is what Big Ten backs and Penn State backs do. We’re not quick slashing type guys that need to run out of bounds. That’s not how my body was conditioned. My body was conditioned to take hits and take blows. So that’s why when people say, ‘Are you sore?’ I’m not really sore.”

The Rams’ defense doesn’t care about whether Johnson is sore at the end of the day, so long as they can bring him down and force him to cough up the ball a couple of times. The key to slowing Johnson is to rally to the ball and get as many hats on him as possible.

Doing that would also allow the Rams to get back to their turnover creating ways.

“Takeaways come in bunches,” safety Corey Chavous said. “We talked about getting the ball all the time. Coach Haslett stresses that and making defensive plays and creating havoc. We didn’t do that the last couple of weeks as much as we would like. I think that’s something that is still the mantra of our defense. And it’s something we have to make happen. I think you make turnovers happen as much as they come in bunches, you have to make them happen.”

The Rams forced 15 turnovers in the first five games and developed a knack for doing it at the best possible times. But they got no turnovers against San Diego and are working to get back to the formula that made them so successful in the first part of the season.

Even after the disappointment of last week’s game, there is a certain sense in the locker room that the loss could serve as a turning point and learning tool for the defense.

“It’s something we can build from,” Chavous said. “You don’t always build from your positives because we have had those this year. We can build from the negatives as well. As a defensive team, that’s certainly what we are trying to do.”