Claiborne glad to be the man in the middle

Team has to do better job stopping the run

BY STEVE KORTE

News-Democrat


ST. LOUIS - In middle linebacker Chris Claiborne, the St. Louis believe that they've found the kind of run-stuffing dynamo that their defense has been lacking since London Fletcher defected for the Buffalo Bills after the 2001 season.

"I think Claiborne has that presence in the middle that we have been looking for since London (Fletcher) was here," Rams coach Mike Martz said. "We're going to have that. It's not a hope and a prayer, we're going to have that in the middle."

The Rams ranked 29th in the NFL in rush defense last season, allowing 136.2 rushing yards per game.

Eleven times an opposing player rushed for 100 or more yards in a game against the Rams. That list included Atlanta's Michael Vick (twice) and Warrick Dunn, New Orleans' Aaron Stecker, Seattle's Shaun Alexander (twice), New England's Corey Dillon, Buffalo's Willis McGahee, Green Bay's Najeh Davenport, Carolina's Nick Goings and the New York Jets' Curtis Martin.

The Rams signed the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Claiborne to a three-year, $10.5 million contract with the intent of plugging their porous run defense.

"We've put all of our marbles in his pocket," Martz said. "He's our guy. He has responded every bit as well as we hoped he would. I am very pleased with him."

Claiborne is happy to be back manning the middle after playing outside linebacker during much of his previous six NFL seasons.

"I played one year in the middle in Detroit, which was one of my best years, before moving outside," Claiborne said. "I hated playing outside. I like being in the middle hitting. On the outside, you have to be a little more cautious at times."

Claiborne racked up 167 tackles and four sacks after an injury to Stephen Boyd forced the Lions to move him to middle linebacker for the final 12 games of the 2001 season.

Claiborne left Detroit after becoming an unrestricted free agent following the 2002 season.

The Rams were one of the Claiborne's potential suitors, but he ended up signing with the Minnesota Vikings.

"They wanted to do a one-year contract, but I didn't think the deal at the time was good for me," Claiborne said of the Rams' offer. "It worked out perfect. I went away for two years, learned some different things from the coordinator in Minnesota, Ted Cottrell, and then I came back. I am here at the right time. We're about to make a good run at the playoffs and the Super Bowl."

Claiborne signed with the Rams the day after the team signed Dallas outside linebacker Dexter Coakley.

Claiborne said Coakley's signing clinched his decision to sign with the Rams. Claiborne and Coakley have become good friends since joining the team.

"Almost that same day at about the same time, it happened for both of us," Claiborne said. "(My decision was) helped by (Coakley) and Pisa (Tinoisamoa) and the coaching staff and the offense.

"I have played with some good offenses the last two years in Minnesota, and it gives you the opportunity to make a lot of good plays on defense. People get behind and you can go after them and be aggressive."

Claiborne said he's getting more comfortable with Rams defensive coordinator Larry Marmie's scheme. He said he's also learned a lot from Rams linebackers coach Joe Vitt as he works toward fulfilling his personal goal of receiving a Pro Bowl invitation.

"He's helped me with my technique, and that's what is going to enable to get over that water to Hawaii," Claiborne said of Vitt. "My goal is to get to the Super Bowl, but I also want to get to the Pro Bowl. He's going to help me get there."