Rams: Turnover and turnaround?
By Bill Coats
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Jim Haslett heard the skeptics' chortle after the Rams added prominent weapons to an offense that already was one of the NFL's most potent units:
It's a good thing, because with that defense, they're going to have to score 40 points a game to win.
Haslett, the Rams' second-year defensive coordinator, responded with a smile and a shrug. "I hope we do score 40 points a game," he said. "It makes my job a lot easier."
Haslett's job was daunting from the outset. He arrived after the team's 6-10 nosedive in 2005. The Rams wound up 30th in total defense — 28th vs. the run and 23rd vs. the pass — and gave up more points than all but two of the NFL's 32 squads.
Haslett's group made incremental improvement last year, when the Rams finished 8-8. They moved up to 23rd in total offense and eighth against the pass. They also were No. 2 in the league in turnover ratio (plus 14).
Two glaring deficiencies surfaced — an irksome habit of giving up big plays and a general inability to stop the run. The Rams yielded 2,327 yards on the ground, the third-highest total in franchise history and second most in the league. Granted, the Rams played 10 games against teams with 1,000-yard ballcarriers, including four matchups against the league's top three rushers: San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, Kansas City's Larry Johnson and San Francisco's Frank Gore (twice).
Still, Haslett isn't planning on letting the Rams' potentially explosive attack, bolstered by the noteworthy offseason acquisitions of tight end Randy McMichael and wide receiver Drew Bennett, steal all the hype as the team prepares to kick off training camp later this week.
Haslett, ever cautious after spending six years as head coach of the New Orleans Saints, isn't making any bold predictions. But he does believe that his unit can climb at least to the middle of the pack in the league. He bases that assertion on three key factors:
— Significant shift in personnel.
— Expected improvement in several young players.
— Increased familiarity and understanding between players and coaches.
The number of defensive players who have left after spending at least part of last season with the Rams has reached double figures. Included are five former starters: cornerbacks Jerametrius Butler and Travis Fisher, tackle Jimmy Kennedy, end Anthony Hargrove and linebacker Dexter Coakley.
Kennedy and Hargrove were traded, Fisher and Coakley weren't re-signed, and Butler was released. The club used trades, free agency and the draft to replace them.
End James Hall, acquired from Detroit for a fifth-round draft pick, and rookie tackle Adam Carriker, a first-round draft choice, are projected starters.
Hall, 6 feet 2 and 280, averaged about half a sack per game in seven seasons with the Lions. His presence on the right side should free up Leonard Little on the left. Little amassed 13 of the Rams' 34 sacks last year; the other ends combined for only two.
"James isn't a Leonard Little speed rusher," Haslett explained. "(Hall) has a great bull rush, an inside move, and he can turn the corner when he has to. As a whole, I think he's a different type guy than Leonard but can be just as effective."
Carriker, 6-6 and 312, played end at Nebraska, but Haslett said that after the spring workouts and minicamps, "we've seen enough of him inside to say that he can be effective. Can he play nose tackle? I don't know; that's something we'll see when we put the pads on. But I think he can."
Linebacker Chris Draft, safety Todd Johnson and cornerbacks Mike Rumph and Lenny Walls, all free-agent signees, will provide much-needed depth.
In addition to Carriker, the Rams drafted cornerback Jonathan Wade (third round) and tackles Clifton Ryan (fifth) and Keith Jackson (seventh). They also are looking at seven defenders brought in as undrafted rookies.
That adds up to 16 new faces under Haslett's charge. "We picked up some vital parts," he said. "We're going to be a better team for having all those parts."
On the rise
Two rookies, cornerback Tye Hill and end Victor Adeyanju, started nine games each in '06. Another rookie, tackle Claude Wroten, dressed for 15 games and earned increased playing time later in the season.
Second-year free safety Oshiomogho "O.J." Atogwe and third-year linebacker Brandon Chillar became full-time starters for the first time. Second-year defensive backs Ron Bartell and Jerome Carter saw extensive action in the nickel and dime packages.
It's reasonable to presume that experience will pay off in improved performances this year. "We're counting on those guys," Haslett said.
Bartell is expected to open camp as the starter at right corner in place of Fakhir Brown, who was suspended for the first four games for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Brown appealed the ban, but the league has not made a ruling.
"Ron has a good knack for blitzing, and he's a tall guy (6-1) who can run," Haslett said. "It's hard to throw over him."
Bartell picked off three passes last year, sharing the team lead with Atogwe, Hill and Brown. Atogwe and Little tied for the team high in forced fumbles, with six.
Atogwe is "kind of a ball magnet," Haslett said. "O.J. kind of felt his way through the first six or seven games of the year and gave up a couple of big plays that hurt us. But at the end of the year, he didn't give up those plays. ... I think he's going to be a pretty good free safety."
Haslett is planning to rotate Wroten and veteran La'Roi Glover. The staff feels that if the 33-year-old Glover's time on the field is reduced, his effectiveness will increase.
Second time around
In July 2006, first-year head coach Scott Linehan and his freshly assembled coaching staff were hurriedly installing different systems and trying to match faces with names and numbers.
A year later, newness and uncertainty have developed into camaraderie and comprehension, Haslett stressed. That's especially true on defense, where Haslett dusted off a coordinator's cap he hadn't worn since 1999.
"You've got a whole bunch of guys that will be familiar with the whole defense," he said. "That includes myself and how I call a game, and those guys understanding what we're doing."
Last season, Haslett worked at fitting various schemes with personnel; later, he evaluated which components to retain and which to junk. Among those sent to the scrap heap were attempts to blend 3-4 elements with the base 4-3 alignment.
"We're going to focus on the stuff that we thought were effective," Haslett said, "and go from there."