By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
MIAMI - First Seattle, then Tampa Bay. Now Miami. For the third week in a row, the Rams are playing a top 10 defense. And for coach Mike Martz, the quality is evident as soon as he pops in the tape.

Even before he starts the particulars of breaking down an opposing defense, Martz looks for signs of intensity, how players run to the ball and finish plays, what's happening on the line of scrimmage and what the technique of the defensive backs is like.

"There's a lot of things I like to look at before I even look at structure, just on the attitude and how they play the game," Martz said. "And these guys, on defense, they look like a 6-0 team. This is a hard nut to crack. They're a really good group."

The Dolphins, of course, are considerably south of 6-0. We're talking tip of Argentina, not far from Antarctica, south. At 0-6, they are the NFL's only winless team. So Martz's words may be nothing more than a motivational ploy designed to prevent any letdown by his players.

But for those who think 0-6 is 0-6, Martz offers these words:

"If you had to line up and put your hand on the ground against Jason Taylor, you wouldn't be worried about their record," Martz said.

No, you'd be worried about survival. Taylor is a two-time Pro Bowl defensive end who has 56 1/2 sacks since the start of the 2000 season. He's joined on the Miami defensive line by tackle Tim Bowens, a two-time Pro Bowler who is tough to budge at 325 pounds. He just returned to the lineup after missing five games with a back injury.

At middle linebacker, Zach Thomas is a five-time Pro Bowler who some observers think is enjoying the best season of his career. At weakside linebacker is future Hall of Famer Junior Seau, who may be on the down side of his career at 35, but remains a productive player, is a threat on the blitz, and is more comfortable with the system in his second season with Miami.

The secondary includes four-time Pro Bowler Sam Madison and two-time Pro Bowler Patrick Surtain at cornerback.

So any ineptness in Miami is strictly limited to the offensive side of the football. As usual, the "D" in Dolphins stands for defense. Miami enters Sunday's game with the Rams ranked No. 3 in the NFL in total defense, and No. 1 in passing defense. Miami is yielding only 17.8 points a game, and no one has scored more than 24 points against them this season. Those kinds of numbers usually aren't associated with 0-6.

"We realize that they're a dangerous team," wide receiver Isaac Bruce said. "They have one of the better defenses in the league. We're going to go in with that mindset, and make sure we play like that. ... We're definitely going to respect them. Because in the NFL, anything can happen. We've seen that many a time before."

From both sides of the fence. In 2002, the Rams stumbled to an 0-5 start. They played host to a 4-0 Oakland team on Oct. 13, an Oakland team that led the league in total offense and was first in rushing defense at the time.

But quarterback Marc Bulger threw three touchdown passes in his first NFL start, Marshall Faulk rushed for 158 yards, and the Rams beat the Raiders 28-13 - a Raiders team that went on to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

Fast forward to Dec. 28, 2003. The Rams, with a 12-3 record and a chance for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, closed the regular season at Ford Field against a 4-11 Detroit team playing for nothing but pride. But Detroit rallied from a 20-10 halftime deficit to stun the Rams 30-20.

In the case of Miami, the Rams know the Dolphins are desperately hungry for a victory.

"We just want to make sure it's not against us," running back Steven Jackson said.

"We don't want to be the first one," linebacker Brandon Chillar said. "Nobody wants to be the first one to give up that win to them."

It's something Martz stressed to the players during the week.

"We don't want to be that starting point," he said. "We just don't."

For those with extremely short memories, Martz adds: "I think Tampa was 1-5. And it was all we could do to beat them."

Actually, the Buccaneers were 1-4 entering Monday's game, but you get the point. The Rams needed a fourth-quarter TD pass from Bulger to Torry Holt, plus a couple of late defensive takeaways in the red zone, to win a nip-and-tuck affair 28-21.

"You just don't know," Martz said. "There are no breathers in this league."

Martz doesn't expect one Sunday in Pro Player Stadium against the Dolphins.

"They're very capable of beating us," Martz said. "There's no question about it."