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  1. #1
    RamWraith's Avatar
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    Secondary's Finish Signals Strong Future

    Tuesday, January 9, 2007

    By Nick Wagoner
    Senior Writer

    As the Rams finished the season on a three-game winning streak, many took notice of the improved play of the young players on the offensive line. That performance gave the offensive coaching staff plenty of hope about what could be in the future.

    On the other side of the ball, though, there was another unit making enough of a statement to show that the defense could be better sooner than later. With young players elevating their performances at three positions, the Rams secondary set a strong tone for what the future might hold.

    Much like the offensive line, injuries in the defensive backfield created some openings for young players to step in. Cornerback Travis Fisher missed a chunk of the season with a broken forearm, opening a spot for rookie Tye Hill to become the starter. Along with that, Ron Bartell moved into the nickel corner role.

    And with Hill, Bartell and free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe improving every week in addition to the steady presence of cornerback Fakhir Brown and strong safety Corey Chavous, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett likes what he sees even though the Rams fell just short of a playoff berth.

    “I thought at least that the young players made great strides as the season went on,” Haslett said. “Obviously we are disappointed we didn’t make the playoffs and that we didn’t rank higher on defense. But I thought the young guys, the OJ’s, the Tye Hills of the world proved they will be good players in the future. You could really see the young guys turning the corner.”

    Perhaps none of that young talent came around more as the season progressed than Atogwe. After what amounted to little more than a redshirt season last year, Atogwe was handed the keys to the starting free safety job during the offseason.

    The beginning of the season saw Atogwe go through his share of struggles as he occasionally was late to get over in coverage or struggled with angles to the ball as a tackler. But Atogwe clearly got better as the season went on.

    Atogwe finished third on the team with 91 tackles, adding a sack, three interceptions and six forced fumbles. If nothing else, Atogwe established himself as a ball hawk with big play ability.

    “I have always had confidence that I am able to play this game,” Atogwe said. “It just took time. I don’t have any ill feelings about last season because I feel like everything happens for a reason. It definitely helped me to come out and work harder last off-season so I could be out on the field and make a name for myself. I believe that I did.”

    Atogwe will almost certainly retain his role alongside Chavous as the starting safeties heading into next season. And it appears the cornerback situation also has sorted itself out.

    Fisher is an unrestricted free agent and with the development of Hill and Bartell and the presence of Brown, it’s suddenly a crowded area. Cornerback Jerametrius Butler also is still under contract and could come back for depth or be shopped in the trade market.

    First-round draft choice Hill made his first start at an outside cornerback spot against Carolina on Nov. 19. Although Hill had his ups and downs in his first few starts, it was clear he was one of the team’s best cover corners and is well on his way to becoming one of the better corners in the league.

    The always self-critical Hill said he viewed this year as something to improve on.

    “I think I had a rookie year: with a lot of good and a lot of bad," Hill said. "The important thing is, I kept growing every game, and I started to make a few plays here and there. This year was really a building process for me. This was my foundation year. I'm looking to build off this year to next year.”

    Bartell, meanwhile, might have been the team’s most pleasant surprise. He was forced into action last season by injuries but spent most of this year as a man with no true position. When safety Jerome Carter suffered an ankle injury, Chavous moved from his role in the nickel back to safety and Bartell took over at nickel.

    Although he had never played the position,, Bartell only got better as he grew accustomed to his new spot. He finished with three interceptions in the final three games, including two against Minnesota in the finale.

    “He had never played the nickel spot and we threw him in there,” Haslett said. “He’s a guy we found a spot for. I don’t know if that’s his spot or not right now, but he made some nice plays. It’s a learning process. He did some things that weren’t clean (sagainst Minnesota), but he’s a big kid, he can run, he’s willing to learn; he’s willing to be a good player.

    “We have a young guy like (Bartell); Tye, who is going to be outstanding; O.J., who made strides; Fakhir who was steady all year; Corey, even Jerome Carter. You have a pretty good nucleus in the secondary. You have a chance to build on something and I thought that group made the biggest strides of all the groups.”

    With that group seemingly set as the core of next year’s secondary, the Rams believe they can improve on the pass defense that was among the league’s best. St. Louis finished eighth in the league against the pass, in part because teams had such success running the ball, but also because of sound coverage in the defensive backfield.

    Perhaps most important was the group’s ability to come up with turnovers. Hill, Atogwe, Chavous, Bartell, Brown and Carter combined to force or create 24 fumbles (and recoveries) and interceptions.

    Certainly, the Rams will look to add more depth and talent to the secondary in the offseason, but it doesn’t appear that the needs will be as great as they were a year ago.

    “I feel like we have built upon something that will only serve for us in the future,” Atogwe said. “We are going to take this burning desire, this hunger inside us right now, and continue to next year to see what happens then. I am excited about what’s to come. We are definitely excited about coming back and taking our next step forward in our careers, especially with the promising future ahead of us with the guys you just named. So, when we come back next year, our goal is going to be the best secondary in the league.”

  2. #2
    MoonJoe's Avatar
    MoonJoe is offline Pro Bowl Ram
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    Re: Secondary's Finish Signals Strong Future

    ...." So, when we come back next year, our goal is going to be the best secondary in the league.”

    I like that!!!

  3. #3
    tomahawk247's Avatar
    tomahawk247 is online now Registered User
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    Re: Secondary's Finish Signals Strong Future

    i like how Hill is critical of his play, you know he is striving to be one of the best and will do anything to improve

  4. #4
    laram0's Avatar
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    Re: Secondary's Finish Signals Strong Future

    Looks like we will be able to focus even more on our DL and LB issues.


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