Sunday, September 4, 2005

By Nick Wagoner

Senior Writer

With the season opener at San Francisco more than a week away, it would have been easy for Mike Martz to give his team the weekend off to not even think about football.

But after the 27-23 win against Kansas City on Friday night, Martz ensured that he let the Rams know exactly what time it was before setting them free for the rest of the weekend.

“It’s 49er week,” Martz said. “We made that clear at the end of that game. It’s 49er week. You can rest assured it’s 49er week. I can promise you that.

“It’s already started last night in the locker room. They understand. The veterans understand, the younger guys don’t yet, but they will by the time we get done.”

As always, 49er week is one of the most spirited at Rams Park. No matter the records or expectations for either team, San Francisco remains the Rams most hated rival. Adding fuel to that already-blazing inferno is the fact that the teams open the regular season against each other this season.

That means the opportunity for St. Louis to get started on the right foot and the ***** to begin life under new coach Mike Nolan has already begun. After the Rams took care of business against the Chiefs to run their preseason record to 3-1, there was nothing but optimism in the home locker room at the Edward Jones Dome.

And why not? While many of the things that plagued the Rams last season might not have been corrected, they appeared to at least be improved.

The injury count is much less than a season ago at this time. Cornerback Jerametrius Butler was the only serious preseason loss to injury whereas last year the team was left without starters Kyle Turley, Dave Wohlabaugh and Travis Fisher. In addition, Jimmy Kennedy was also lost with a broken foot.

Helping matters in that regard was the altered schedule for training camp that allowed the players more down time and moving camp to St. Louis.

“I’m very pleased with the schedule,” Martz said. “We talked about it going into the preseason, I was a little nervous about the amount of contact that we were getting and really the amount of practice time. Reflecting back on it now I just think it was the right thing to do. We came out very well injury wise. I think they are very well prepared. They are in shape, they are conditioned. We got more than what we normally would do. Of course being here was a big boost to morale as well. I’m very pleased with the way things came out in camp.”

While the lack of serious injuries is probably the biggest question in every preseason, Martz and the Rams feel they have answered the rest of the team’s burning questions as the season nears.

The Rams offense has been consistently loaded at the skill positions for most of Martz’s tenure, but sometime that group has not been able to play to the high standards that Martz has for it. Usually, the reason for that has been because of a lack of continuity on the offensive line.

More often than not that lack of continuity has come from the right tackle and left guard positions.

“This has been my nightmare for three years,” Martz said. “There are certainly issues on this football team. We kept losing all of these defensive players and we know that through the draft and free agency we are scrambling around to find secondary people, linebackers and you just keep putting off the offensive line issue, you just try to make due. We have some guys that have played for a long time, guys like Adam and Orlando…so to go through this in the last two or three years and then have it finally settle in with two games left in the preseason I think is comforting for the quarterback and the backs, really.”

The offensive line might be settled now, but it wasn’t settled by the players many might have expected going into the preseason. Before training camp many thought that Rex Tucker would be the man to settle things at left guard, leaving rookie Alex Barron to handle the right tackle duties.

That plan was put to rest when Barron failed to sign with the team in the first two weeks of training camp. After Tucker struggled at guard and rookie Claude Terrell emerged, Tucker shifted to right tackle. Terrell started to hit a wall toward the end of camp, but it was really the emergence of another familiar face in Tom Nütten that signaled the settling of the line.

With Nütten at left guard and Tucker at right tackle, the offensive line took on a familiar feel. In fact, four of the starting five are holdovers from the 2001 Super Bowl line and the other is the brother and nearly-exact replica of the other starter.

That kind of chemistry is invaluable, according to center Andy McCollum.

“It is weird,” McCollum said. “We have had so many guys come and go and then we end up with the same group. It’s good because we are close and we are buddies and stuff.

“I know what these guys are doing, they know what I’m doing and we’ve been together for awhile. We have worked together in the past so I think it will work out real well.”

If the offensive line was the only glaring question for the Rams going into the preseason, there were still plenty of others on defense and special teams.

St. Louis attempted to address the problems it had at linebacker last year by adding physical run-stuffer Chris Claiborne in the middle and the veteran leadership of Dexter Coakley outside.

It hasn’t taken long for Claiborne and Coakley to prove their value as Claiborne looked particularly tough in game three against Detroit and Coakley continues to be a valuable leader.

Martz said the two additions at linebacker have made their presence felt from the day they arrived.

“Probably experience, toughness and leadership, other than that, not much,” Martz said when asked what Claiborne and Coakley have added. “They bring a great deal. They are significant. I think they will probably end up being the center point of our defense to be honest with you, that whole linebacker crew. We went from a very poor linebacker crew I think to a very significant linebacker crew.”

While that group seems to have settled in well alongside Pisa Tinoisamoa, there are still some questions to answer in the secondary.

St. Louis brought in a number of competitors for the various spots in the secondary and most of those spots settled in well early in camp, but there are some developments at free safety and cornerback that could still occur.

Cornerback certainly was settled before Butler’s injury, but there has been some shuffling afterward. By all accounts, DeJuan Groce has been solid in Butler’s stead, but his move has led the Rams to search for help in the nickel spot. Corey Ivy, Ron Bartell and Terry Fair all made the team and St. Louis traded for Chris Johnson, but that spot is still unsettled.

“We are a little bit thin there,” Martz said. “We need to have a guy like Ron Bartell grow up real quick. Terry Fair has got to come into the equation somehow. The depth there might be a little bit of an issue. I am pleased with Corey Ivy. I know he gave up a touchdown the other night but he has done a terrific job for us and he will fit into our defense and special teams in a big way.”

As for free safety, that spot came open again when Adam Archuleta moved back to his normal strong safety position after the San Diego game. That left a competition among Michael Hawthorne, Mike Furrey and Oshiomogho Atogwe for the free safety job.

It appears that Hawthorne has won the job for now, but Atogwe and Furrey made strides and figure into the mix in some way, particularly in the nickel.

“I’m pleased with who we have back there right now,” Martz said. “I just wish we had more time for them to play before we start the season but they are doing a good job.”

As for the *****, St. Louis’ preparation for the first pair of games has been in the works for some time.

“These are two divisional games that we spent some time in the offseason and through camp preparing for them,” Martz said. “On the road against two divisional opponents, you have just got to make sure that everything is right