By Bill Coats
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
12/28/2006



During the gloomy 6-10 season of 2005, the Rams first tried Michael Hawthorne at free safety, and then after that experiment fizzled turned to Mike Furrey, a converted wide receiver.

Hawthorne was released after five games and is out of the league. Furrey, a restricted free agent, didn't receive an offer from the Rams and signed with Detroit, where he returned to wide receiver.

Meanwhile, rookie Oshiomogho "O.J." Atogwe mostly sat and watched. Even though he was a third-round draft pick (No. 66 overall), Atogwe was given scant opportunity to prove his worth on defense. He played in 13 games, but almost exclusively on special teams.

Yet one of new coach Scott Linehan's initial personnel moves with the Rams was to anoint Atogwe as a starter. The move, Linehan said, was based largely on what he had seen of Atogwe at Stanford.



Now, Linehan's faith in the 5-foot-11, 210-pound native of Windsor, Ontario, is paying off. "He's starting to really handle the role that he has," he said. "The expectation for him now rises every week."

When Atogwe punched the ball from Washington running back Ladell Betts' grasp last Sunday, he preserved a 31-31 tie late in the fourth quarter. The Rams prevailed 37-31 in overtime, keeping them in the playoff mix as they prepare for the regular-season finale Sunday at Minnesota.

Atogwe also took over the team lead in forced fumbles with six, an impressive number for a defensive back and one more than defensive end Leonard Little. "That's a knack (Atogwe) has," Linehan said.

Said Atogwe: "It's something I definitely think about and work on in practice. A lot of people don't really secure the ball as much as you'd think they would or should."

Because of his limited time on defense in '05, Atogwe was "basically a rookie going into this season," Linehan said. "He had his ups and downs for the first half or two-thirds of the year. But he's one of a number of young players that's started to really come on here at the end."

Atogwe said, "Having those first nine or 10 games under your belt really allows you to get a feel for this league. I've definitely got a lot more confidence, and my comfort level's a lot higher."



Atogwe's three interceptions tie him with cornerbacks Fakhir Brown and Tye Hill for the team lead. Atogwe is No. 3 in tackles, with 84.

First dibs

The Rams haven't scored in the first quarter in six of their past seven games, and haven't produced a first-period touchdown since Nov. 12 at Seattle. Quarterback Marc Bulger is as perplexed as anyone.

"I don't know ... there are probably many reasons," he said. "But one good thing is, we've adjusted well. Once we get in the second or third quarter and we know what they're doing, we start to move the ball."

The Rams have been outscored 69-43 in the first period and 360-326 overall. They have an edge only in the second period, 122-106.

"I think our guys are coming out with a little bit too much of a wait-and-see (approach), instead of trying to take the game to our opponent," Linehan said. "I think we relax and get more comfortable as the game goes on. ... But it would certainly help us to get off to a fast start and maybe take the lead early in a game for once."

Holt rests

Pro Bowl wideout Torry Holt did little work at Wednesday's practice. Linehan explained that he wanted to give Holt's sore left knee a rest, and said that the move was strictly precautionary.

"He's fine; it's absolutely nothing," Linehan said. "He'll work more tomorrow and Friday."

Holt wasn't included on the week's first injury report. Paul Smith (neck) was listed as doubtful; defensive end Victor Adeyanju (arm), defensive tackle La'Roi Glover (ribs), Little (neck) and linebacker Will Witherspoon (knee) were probable.

Ram-blings

The Rams sport six former Vikings on their roster: safety Corey Chavous (2002-05), defensive tackle Jason Fisk (1995-98), quarterback Gus Frerotte (2003-04), linebacker Raonall Smith (2002-05), and offensive linemen Todd Steussie (1994-2000) and Adam Goldberg (2004-05). ... Linehan was Minnesota's offensive coordinator from 2002-04. Assistant coaches Brian Baker, Todd Downing and Randy Hanson also spent time with the Vikings.