By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
10/13/2005






The takeaways have vanished. A once-tight rushing defense has sprung leaks everywhere. As for points allowed, well, they've risen more dramatically than the price of gas.

Three games into the 2005 season, the Rams defense was better on all fronts. But the bottom fell out in a shocking way in losses to the New York Giants and Seattle. Those games were ugly flashbacks to the 2004 season - and the worst of '04 at that.

Missed tackles. Blown gap assignments. Busted coverages. Overpursuit. You name it, the St. Louis defense was guilty in terms of bloopers, blunders and miscues the past two Sundays.

"It can't do nothing but get better now," defensive end Leonard Little said. "We've played the worst that we can play."

Seeing will be believing, because Monday's opponent is none other than mighty Indianapolis. You know, Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison and friends.

"So if we don't fix it, it could be a long night," Little said.

So how do the Rams make it right?

"You work hard," said interim head coach Joe Vitt. "Work's going to win, and wishing won't. We've got to be more detailed. We have to be more disciplined. We can't make the mistakes that we're making."

It may sound like a cliche, but it all begins with better effort and better concentration on the practice field, according to linebacker Dexter Coakley.

"You can't take any shortcuts," Coakley said. "Every time you go out there on the practice field, you've got to practice like you're playing the game. Practice ought to be hard, and the games ought to come easy.

"You've got to approach practice with the attitude that I'm getting ready for a game now. And when a game comes, everything's just second nature. 'I've seen this play before because I saw it in practice.'"

The list of what went wrong defensively against the Giants and Seahawks is a lengthy one.

*In the front seven, the play of the defensive tackles and the linebacker corps has tailed off noticeably the past two weeks after generally strong work against San Francisco, Arizona and Tennessee. The difference is most evident against the run. Granted, it's tougher to stop Shaun Alexander and Tiki Barber than Kevan Barlow and Marcel Shipp. But to go from 67.7 rushing yards allowed in Games 1- 3, to 149 yards allowed in Games 4-5 isn't a dropoff - it's a free fall.

*Missed tackles, particularly in the secondary, have been glaring over the past two weeks. Despite his good work in coverage, cornerback DeJuan Groce missed three tackles against the Giants. Against Seattle, missed tackles by cornerback Corey Ivy and safeties Michael Hawthorne and Mike Furrey resulted in 45 yards of additional offense for the Seahawks. Furrey's missed tackle came on Alexander's 18-yard touchdown run, which gave Seattle a 34-21 lead midway through the third quarter.

*Blown coverages have resulted in several big plays. Hawthorne made three major coverage gaffes against the Seahawks that led to his benching in the second quarter, and his release Thursday.

Hawthorne was supposed to stay deep in coverage on a first-quarter pass that set up Seattle's first touchdown. Instead, he came charging up to help on an underneath route, even though three Rams already were in the area. That left no help for cornerback Travis Fisher, who was defending a post route by D.J. Hackett. The result was a 35-yard pass interference penalty, carrying to the St. Louis 1.

Later in the quarter, Hawthorne got sucked in again when quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was flushed out of the pocket, resulting in a 52-yard catch and run by Joe Jurevicius.

On Seattle's second TD, a 29-yard reception by tight end Jerramy Stevens, Hawthorne was distracted by the receiver Fisher was covering. That left Stevens wide open across the middle.

Furrey, a converted wide receiver, replaces Hawthorne as the starting free safety. Given Furrey's inexperience at the position, it seems certain that opposing offenses will test him, beginning Monday night in the RCA Dome.

*Overpursuit on run defense often makes the Rams susceptible to cutback runs. But against Seattle, it cost them on pass defense. The Rams were so keyed in on stopping Alexander that they bit hard on play fakes all afternoon. Time after time, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck would fake a handoff to Alexander one way, then roll out the other way to complete a pass.

*The coverage problems extend beyond Hawthorne's struggles. Hasselbeck and Eli Manning had a combined passer rating of 116.9 against St. Louis, averaging 306 yards a game. The season-ending knee injury to cornerback Jerametrius Butler may finally be catching up to the secondary. Losing Groce for most of the Seahawks game with a hamstring injury didn't help.

The most obvious way to compensate for deficiencies in coverage is more pressure on the quarterback. But Little, easily the team's best pass rusher, missed most of the Seattle game with a lower back injury and will be less than 100 percent for Indy.

So why not blitz more? After sending extra pass rushers at Arizona's Kurt Warner only four times in Game 2, defensive coordinator Larry Marmie has dialed up more blitzes in recent weeks. According to unofficial count, the Rams averaged nearly a dozen blitzes a game against Tennessee, the Giants, and Seattle.

But the results have fluctuated wildly. Against the Giants, Eli Manning threw three TD passes against the St. Louis blitz. Against Seattle, the Rams sacked Hasselbeck three times on blitzes, but also yielded Alexander's 18-yard TD run in a blitz situation. On Monday, Peyton Manning of the Colts is one of the best in the business at recognizing and carving up blitzes with his trademark checks and audibles at the line of scrimmage.

So there is no miracle cure for the Rams' defensive woes. On the other hand, defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson said there's no need to make the solution more complicated than it needs to be.

"Don't try to overanalyze it, and don't panic," Jackson said. "But play better. When you've got a tackle, make it. When you've got to beat a block, beat it. When you get penetration, get (there). And when you need to be in your gap, be where you're supposed to be and be accountable, so that the defense works."

Groce added: "If you do your assignment, and rely on the next man to do his assignment, everything works out. But if you don't, you try to overcompensate and try to do something else, and that's when everything gets blown up."

Make no mistake, it's been blowing up a lot lately.

"We've got to find a way to get off the field," Coakley said. "We've got to find a way to get these points scored down. We've got to find a way to make a play. Each player has to win his individual battle. And apparently, right now, we're not doing that."

Trouble spots

The Rams defense has fallen way off in several categories in the past two games:

Games 1-3 Games 4-5

Points allowed per game 17.7 (*) 40.5
Takeaways per game 2.3 0
Rushing yards allowed per game 67.7 149.0
Rushing yards allowed per carry 3.3 5.1
Passing yards allowed per game 242.7 306.0
Yards per play allowed on 1st down 6.2 9.0

(*) Average does not include San Francisco punt return for a TD, or Tennessee return of fumble for TD