Wednesday, September 29, 2004

By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

Turnovers. The one defining characteristic of the Rams’ defense in their dominant five-year run has been turnovers.

Interceptions and fumble recoveries, no matter the method, takeaways can cure a lot of what ails a defense. Give up 450 yards of offense? No big deal, get the ball. Without them, an opportunistic defense becomes a mediocre one.

A defense that forces turnovers can alter a game in a matter of moments. Last year, St. Louis had such a defense, as they had a league-leading 46 takeaways. That number more than made up for the 315.8 yards per game it allowed. The totals did more than keep the opponent from scoring; it instantly gave the ball back to one of the league’s most prolific offenses.

With three games in the books this season, the Rams find themselves still searching for their elusive first takeaway. At the same stage of the season last year, St. Louis had three fumble recoveries and an interception.

During the offseason, there were a few changes on the defensive coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Lovie Smith left to take the head job with Chicago. Former Arizona defensive coordinator Larry Marmie replaced him. The philosophy didn’t change much, but there is still an adjustment to a new coach and that might have contributed to the lack of takeaways.

Rams’ coach Mike Martz said any time a new coach is added there is an adjustment period.

“I think anytime you inherit a system and he’s very aware of the system, he has to put his own stamp on it and be able to adjust with the personnel,” Martz said. “We’re in the process of going through some of that. I said at the beginning of the year we’ll have some growing pains early, but eventually we’ll be a pretty good team.”

The opportunities for turnovers have been there. Instead of converting, though, those close plays have resulted in near misses instead of big plays, none more than the painstaking almost got it miss by cornerback Aeneas Williams in the Rams’ 28-25 loss to New Orleans on Sunday.

Saints’ quarterback Aaron Brooks fired a pass over the middle into the endzone with his team trailing 17-16 and more than eight minutes to play in the game. Williams broke on the ball, as he has so many times in his career, and appeared to have a game-saving interception. Instead, the ball squirted through the future Hall of Famer’s hands and fell into Saints’ receiver Joe Horn’s for a touchdown.

After the game, Williams shouldered the blame for the loss, pointing directly to that play.

"When I have an opportunity in the end zone to make a play on a ball and don't, that's a serious letdown to my teammates," Williams said. "We wouldn't even be in the situation that we were in at the end of the game. I have to make that play."

That was just one of a series of close calls for a defense that has just missed on turnovers in a variety of ways this season. DeJuan Groce made a big interception late in the opener against Arizona only to have it nullified by a defensive penalty. Those kinds of mistakes have kept the Rams’ big-play defense from complementing their big-play offense.

Defensive end Leonard Little, one of the game’s biggest playmakers from the edge, has struggled some, also, but he has faced multitudes of double teams and chip blocks. That has made it difficult for Little to make the big plays he is accustomed to. Little played well against New Orleans, but said afterward that he is disappointed in his performance thus far.

“We just haven’t been making plays,” Little said. “That’s something that I take upon myself because I am the playmaker on this team and I have got to carry this team at times.”

Little can’t do it alone, but it’s probably a safe bet there will be even more added emphasis to creating turnovers this week in practice. The Rams constantly work on ball drills in practice. Everything from strip drills to interception exercises to chasing down loose balls on incompletion dot the weekly workouts.

Safety Adam Archuleta said the defense’s disappointment is building.

“It’s frustrating because that is part of our identity,” Archuleta said. “That is something we took a lot of pride in last year. I don’t exactly know why or why not it’s happening, but we need to figure it out.”