. FALLSTROM
Associated Press

ST. LOUIS - During their glory days from 1999-2001, the St. Louis Rams had more than enough offense to make up for any deficiencies on the other side of the ball.

Now, balance might be the calling card as the Rams, somehow a playoff team last season despite a .500 record, retool for another run. The offense has been in the middle of the pack, and most of the team's high-profile offseason moves came on a defense that will have five new starters.

A pair of linebackers, Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley, were the big free agent pickups for a unit that trailed the NFL with a minus-24 takeaway ratio. Claiborne gives the team an inside presence missing for several seasons and the duo, along with mobile outside holdover Pisa Tinoisamoa, should take some of the heat off a defensive line packed with three first-rounders.

"We played pretty well on the defensive line last year and I felt like our linebacker play wasn't what it needed to be," coach Mike Martz said. "We've made the personnel changes, and it was significant. This is as excited as I've been about a defense here."

Claiborne made an immediate impact when he batted down a pass on the first play of the preseason opener against the Bears. The first-string defense did its job, too, holding the Bears to one first down in their first three series.

Martz said Claiborne's physical style could rub off on the rest of the defense.

"It starts with him in the middle, particularly in the running game," Martz said. "He's a hammer for us and we needed that."

Anthony Hargrove, in his second season, is expected to step in for the departed Bryce Fisher at right end opposite pass rushing terror Leonard Little. Hargrove gets a nice practice challenge every day from tackle Orlando Pace.

"He's the best left tackle in the game, in my opinion," Hargrove said. "I have to come out and play hard and if I don't I'm going to get embarrassed."

Question marks remain in the secondary. Cornerback Jerametrius Butler, who has led the team in interceptions the last two seasons, is out for the year with a torn knee ligament sustained on the first day of training camp. Adam Archuleta, hampered all last season by a herniated disc in his back, is moving from strong safety to free safety and must prove he has coverage skills. Fourth-round pick Jerome Carter has been starting at strong safety.

Overall, the team seemed to have a much better grasp of coordinator Larry Marmie's system in the preseason. That contrasted with a horrid playoff loss in which the defense was gouged for 327 yards rushing by the Falcons.

Offensively, the point potential remains if a rebuilt line can protect Marc Bulger. Steven Jackson and Marshall Faulk present a nice 1-2 punch at running back in a changing of the guard that casts Faulk as a backup for the first time in his career. Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce are one of the best wide receiver tandems in the NFL, and there's speedy depth at the position with Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald.

Jackson, a first-round pick last year, gives the Rams a combination of speed and strength that Faulk lacked in his waning years.

"When he has that adrenaline going, he's tough to bring down," quarterback Marc Bulger said. "You give him a little bit of a crease, his legs are so big and he's so strong that he's tough to bring down."

The line has three holdovers, left tackle Orlando Pace, center Andy McCollum and right guard Adam Timmerman. A two-week training camp holdout held back Alex Barron, the team's first-round pick, who had already lost the starting right tackle job Martz had bestowed on him shortly after the draft. Free agent pickup Rex Tucker moved to right tackle while Barron began his career as a backup behind Pace.

Another fourth-round pick, Claude Terrell, has started at left guard in the preseason.

Special teams were emphasized in training camp after Rams' units finished at the bottom of the NFL in every significant category last season. New coach Bob Ligashesky at least gets points for enthusiasm with his upbeat sessions.