By Bill Coats

As the weeks go by and the losses pile up, one deficiency remains constant, glaring and indisputable: The Rams' defense has serious tackling issues.

According to interim head coach Joe Vitt, that's primarily why the Rams (5-10) will lug the NFL's 30th-ranked defense to Dallas (9-6) for Sunday night's season finale.

"The main reason we've struggled - and we've talked about it for about the last six weeks - is our tackling. It's plain and simple," Vitt said Monday, some 48 hours after the Rams completed their home schedule with a 24-20 loss to the ***** (3-12).

San Francisco sprinted to a 7-0 lead when Maurice Hicks sliced through a gaggle of flailing defenders for a 73-yard touchdown on the first play after kickoff. "I made a move on the safety, and I was free," Hicks said. "I don't think anybody touched me."

After the Rams rallied for a 20-7 lead, Frank Gore scored twice off right tackle. He pushed into the secondary, then plowed over free safety Mike Furrey at the 4 on a 10-yard run. At least four defenders had shots at Gore on a 30-yarder that put the ***** up for good with 4 minutes 5 seconds remaining.

"We have a lot of missed tackles," defensive tackle Ryan Pickett acknowledged.

It's a recurring theme that raises Vitt's hair-trigger aggravation meter each time. "For us to miss the tackles that we're missing ... there's nothing wrong with the scheme," he said. "It's there for the world to see. There's the ball carrier, there's the goal line, tackle the ball carrier."

Although Vitt stressed that he's "never questioned a man's courage yet on our football team, and I don't question it now," he conceded that some players aren't applying themselves properly.

"Tackling is nothing more than angles and timing. And that's why you practice the way we practice, at full speed, so you can get those angles and you can get that timing," he explained. "Some guys when they practice, we have to keep reminding them over and over and over again: 'Hey, this is the way you practice, this is the way you're supposed to do things.' You should only have to be told once."

Vitt said he also suspects that as the errors have mounted, the players' confidence has dipped.

"This is a game of confidence," he said. "You're playing fast, you're playing quick, and you're playing violent. Confidence is contagious, and so is lack of confidence. And when you have lack of confidence playing this game and you play with any hesitancy at all, you're in the wrong sport."

Martin will start

There will be no quarterback mystery this week. Vitt said Monday that 11-year veteran Jamie Martin would start vs. Dallas.

"I thought Jamie really played well" against San Francisco, Vitt said. "He had the two interceptions, which we just can't have. But Jamie all day long gave us a chance to win the game."

Martin, 35, had a 90.4 passer rating after completing 33 of 41 passes for 354 yards and a 40-yard touchdown strike to wideout Torry Holt. But his two second-half interceptions killed promising drives.

Rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick started the three preceding games.

Ill effects

At times last week, the Rams had as many as four players either out or slowed because of illness. Defensive end Anthony Hargrove and running back Steven Jackson sought treatment at a hospital the night before the ***** game.

"I've never seen anything like it," Vitt said. "Every day, when the phone rings or the trainer walks up to my office, I feel like Dr. Phil. I have to sit down and go through all these. ... It's been tough."