BY JEFF GORDON
STLtoday.com Sports Columnist
09/21/2005

It is a bit premature to rave about the Rams' defensive front seven.

The team is 1-1, having split with the ***** and Cardinals -– the 31st- and 29th-best teams in the NFL, according to the latest power ratings from ESPN.com. We’re not sure the maturing defensive linemen and revamped linebacker corps have been fully tested.

But there certainly have been some encouraging signs. Opponents are averaging just 3.1 yards per carry on the ground. The Rams have controlled the ball for an average of 34 minutes in the first two games, limiting their opponents to an average of 26 minutes time of possession.

The Rams have forced four turnovers in the first two games, three fumbles and an interception. They have earned 15 stops in 20 third-down situations. Opponents have only rushed for five first downs on the ground.

A year ago, the defensive front seven was routinely gashed for big gains on the ground. The longest run the Rams have allowed this season is 16 yards.

So far, so good.

“The most important thing for us is the W column,” defensive tackle Damione Lewis said before Wednesday’s practice at Rams Park. “You’ve got to win in this league . . . The biggest thing is keeping them out of the end zone.”

The defensive unit did that at the end of last week’s game, allowing the Rams to escape with a 17-12 victory. Kurt Warner drove the Cardinals to the Rams 5, only to get sacked by Adam Archuleta on a safety blitz on what turned out to be the final play of the game.

“Last week’s game gave us some confidence,” defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson said. “I would not have that game end any other way. It served notice to this entire ballclub if our defense comes to play, we can win games like that. There is no extra pressure on our offense that we have to score 30 or 40 points for us to get a win. I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”

Lewis, Ryan Pickett and Jimmy Kennedy have played their best collective football on the interior of the Rams offensive line. They are playing like first-round draft picks, at last. They are feeding off each other’s success.

“We’re all jelling together,” Lewis said. “This is really the first time we really had, this early on in the season, all three of us (healthy) together. Hopefully it will pay off for us.

“We try to get after it. We’re maturing and playing a lot better. Things are coming together for us. Everything is working for us right now.”

Defensive end Leonard Little looks like his old Pro Bowl self. Anthony Hargrove and Brandon Green are making plays at right end. Linebackers Chris Claiborne, Dexter Coakley and Pisa Tinoisamoa have held up as well.

Now the “D” will get a tougher test against the Tennessee Titans, a team with two quality running backs (Travis Henry and Chris Brown), a mobile quarterback (Steve McNair) and several decent passing targets.

The Titans controlled the clock last week against the Ravens, keeping the ball for 33 minutes 6 seconds while outgaining Baltimore 290-183. Henry, the former Buffalo Bill, carried a bigger load because Brown suffered a concussion.

“For most of the game, we worked on their side of the field,” McNair said after Sunday’s game. “That’s a great sign. I think we came out and played excellent, but we just have to finish on offense and drive the ball consistently.”

Tennessee will try to grind it out Sunday and limit how much the Rams have the ball. The Rams will need another lift from the middle of the defense.

“The thing that worries me the most is McNair,” Lewis said. “He hasn’t been running these two games and everybody knows what he can do when he gets in the open field. He runs a lot of (bootlegs) and stuff like that where he gets outside of the pocket. That’s my biggest fear for me, personally. He’s a great runner and he’s a guy you can’t account for.”

Jackson knows all about that. He is eager to lead a solid defensive performance to erase the nightmares from a game much earlier in his career. Jackson had a crack at McNair in the flat and failed to bring him down.

“I’ve got nothing but bad memories,” Jackson said. “On a Sunday night I missed a tackle on a bootleg for about 65 yards and the winning touchdown. I’ve got nothing but bad memories, but I have nothing but respect for the guy.”

If the Rams don’t stay after the Titans on Sunday –- and stay disciplined in the process -– they could get humbled in a hurry.

“We’ve got to do it the hard way,” Jackson said. “We’ve got to show that we can do it over and over and over and over. You see a little success now, but it’s nothing compared to what you’re going to see.”