Wednesday, October 20, 2004

By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

Tampa Bay’s defense has been one of the league’s best for quite awhile. It has been able to stop the run, defend the pass and create turnovers seemingly at will.

On Monday night, when the Buccaneers played the Rams, it was little surprise to see a defense doing all of those things. It was surprising, though, to see which team was doing the stopping and stealing the takeaways.

Sure, Tampa Bay did its part defensively, holding St. Louis to 324 yards of offense and forcing a pair of turnovers. But it was the Rams defense that looked like the vintage Buccaneers.

St. Louis entered the game with just two takeaways on the season and ranked toward the bottom of the league in total defense, but had the momentum of a thoroughly dominant performance in the second half a week ago against Seattle. In that half, the Rams held the Seahawks to just 85 yards.

The mojo gained from that effort appeared to carry over to Monday night’s game, especially in redzone situations.

“I can’t say enough about our defense,” Rams’ head coach Mike Martz said. “They had their backs to the wall throughout that game, and responded. They had three turnovers created in the redzone. Then, coming out, they create a turnover at the 5-yard line to set up a score. It just doesn’t get any better than that; (just) a terrific job defensively.”

St. Louis finished Monday night’s game with four takeaways, double the output of what it had on the season going in. That low output of turnovers was cause for concern, especially coming a year after the Rams led the league in takeaways with 46.

Martz said it wasn’t like St. Louis was trying to avoid getting takeaways; it was just one of those things that will take its own course.

“We are not doing anything differently than we normally do,” Martz said. “It’s going to happen. You just keep working at it and you can’t get discouraged by it.”

The Rams certainly weren’t discouraged by anything defensively Monday night. After falling behind 14-7 in the second quarter, St. Louis pinned the Buccaneers at their 4 with a perfect punt from Sean Landeta. Two plays and two penalties later, quarterback Brian Griese and center John Wade couldn’t make the exchange and defensive end Leonard Little recovered. So began an avalanche of takeaways that essentially won the game for St. Louis.

That recovery at Tampa Bay’s 5 set up running back Marshall Faulk’s 1-yard touchdown plunge and tied it at 14. That takeaway was simply the precursor for the biggest play of the night.

After quarterback Marc Bulger threw an interception to linebacker Ian Gold that was returned to the St. Louis 15, safety Adam Archuleta decided to make the defense go on the offensive.

On first-and-10, Griese handed to running back Michael Pittman, who darted down the left sideline for an 8-yard gain before Archuleta wrapped him up and dragged him down. In this case, down wasn’t to the ground, though, as Pittman rolled over the top of Archuleta and in the process lost control of the ball before his knee hit the ground.

The alert Archuleta snatched the ball and darted 93 yards to the endzone, turning what seemed destined to be a sure Tampa Bay score into a game-altering touchdown that gave the Rams a 21-14 lead.

Bulger said he was grateful to see Archuleta return to the form that allowed him to make big plays throughout his four-year career.

“Turnovers are the name of the game, and for Arch to bail me out personally with the fumble recovery, that was huge,” Bulger said. “We had a lot of that last year, and it is nice that we are starting to get some more turnovers. We will win a lot of games if we can keep doing that.”

But the Rams defense was just getting warmed up with the takeaways. It came up with two big takeaways deep in its territory and late in the game. After taking a 28-21 lead, Tampa Bay took over on its 23, promptly marching to the St. Louis 21. Defensive end Erik Flowers came up with a sack to push the Buccaneers back to the 29 and, two plays later, cornerback Jerametrius Butler picked off a Griese pass in the endzone, thwarting Tampa Bay’s comeback attempt with 5:51 to play.

Butler wasn’t done coming away with the ball, though. He helped to seal the game a little more than five minutes later as Tampa Bay was driving again. With the game on the line and the Buccaneers at the St. Louis 36, Griese fired a strike to receiver Tim Brown for a 21-yard gain to the Rams 12. As Brown was falling, safety Aeneas Williams ripped the ball loose from behind and it bounced into Butler’s awaiting arms. Butler returned it 2 yards before falling to the ground to secure the win.

The fumble recovery capped an excellent performance from Butler, who finished with the interception, the fumble recovery, 12 tackles and three passes defensed. He contributed half of the Rams’ turnovers and since he had two, there was no doubt about the defense’s productivity, especially considering where the ball was when the takeaways were earned.

“That is what we wanted to do,” Archuleta said. “Everybody knows the more turnovers you get, the better chance you have to win the football game. They haven’t been coming to us early in the season, but we are still working on those little things in practice and keep trying to get those turnovers.”

Most everyone around the league is fully aware of the Rams’ offensive capabilities, but if the defense can continue to create chances for that potent offense with takeaways, it won’t matter much how many yards it allows. For now, St. Louis (4-2, 3-0 in the NFC West) is happy to be back in first place in the division, a spot it is quite familiar with.

Rams’ running back Marshall Faulk said the rest of the division might want to get used to it.

“I believe we won the West last year and in order to win the West, you’ve got to come through us and that’s how we feel about it,” Faulk said. “It’s not bragging or anything. That’s just how it is.