By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
Wednesday, Nov. 24 2004

When Robert Thomas suffered an ankle injury in Game 3 against New Orleans, he
tried to play through it for a couple of weeks.

"I wasn't quite productive on it," Thomas said. "So I gave it a little time
off."

He ended up with a lot more time off than planned - about three games' worth.
After sitting out the Tampa Bay and Miami games because of the ankle injury,
Thomas returned from the Rams' off week rested, healthy and ready to go.

There was just one problem: Trev Faulk had moved ahead of him on the depth
chart at middle linebacker. Against New England (Nov. 7), Seattle (Nov. 14),
and Buffalo last Sunday, Thomas was reduced to a backup role. Other than a few
plays from scrimmage against the Seahawks, Thomas was limited to special teams
duty.

"Being a competitive athlete, obviously it's tough," Thomas said. "But Trev,
he's a great player, who plays with great enthusiasm. I was behind him, and
helped him, and was doing what I had to do to get where I'm at now."

Which is back in the starting lineup. Thomas, the Rams' first-round draft pick
in 2002 out of UCLA, will start for the team at middle linebacker Monday
against Green Bay.

It's not that Faulk embarrassed himself as a starter. He plays with a lot of
heart and isn't afraid of collisions. But Faulk isn't as gifted athletically as
Thomas.

"It's a speed issue," Martz said. "Robert is very unique in his ability to run.
He gives you something that most 'backers don't have."

After a spotty rookie season, Thomas showed he belonged in the league in 2003,
registering 102 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. Even though he missed
four games with a groin injury, Thomas had just 19 fewer tackles than Pisa
Tinoisamoa's team high.
This season was supposed to be the year in which Thomas asserted himself as one
of the young leaders of the defense. The early signs were encouraging. In
training camp, new linebackers coach Joe Vitt praised Thomas for his huddle
presence and play-calling demeanor.

Three weeks into the season, Thomas was again among the Rams' tackling leaders,
with 27. Then came the ankle injury, and apparently, some frustration by the
coaching staff about Thomas' missing time.

Martz, for example, was asked Wednesday what he wants from Thomas now that he's
back in the lineup.

"I'd like to see him stay on the field," Martz said, bluntly.

For his part, Thomas wants to make the most of what amounts to a second chance
to prove himself.

"I just want to be a part of it," Thomas said. "I've got another opportunity
here, and I'm going to take full advantage of it."

As for a season that began with such high hopes ...

"It's not over with," he said. "We've got a lot of football to play yet. And
we've got a lot to play for. I'm looking forward to it, and am excited about
playing and doing anything I can to help this team win."

In part because of injury and in part because of performance issues, the Rams
already have started five lineup combinations at linebacker.

And Thomas' return to middle linebacker isn't the only lineup shuffling that
will take place in Green Bay. Martz announced Wednesday that offensive tackle
Grant Williams will return to the starting spot at right tackle, which was
manned in Buffalo by Blaine Saipaia. Williams has struggled of late, but also
has been slowed by elbow and shoulder ailments.

On the defensive line, rookies Anthony Hargrove and Brian Howard could be
moving closer to starting assignments. Both players got plenty of practice
repetitions with the No. 1 defense Wednesday - Hargrove at right end and Howard
at tackle. But neither player has been told he is starting against the Packers.

"Honestly, it'd be nice," said Howard, who had four tackles, including one for
loss, against Buffalo. "But that's not really on my mind right now. I'm just
trying to get ready for Green Bay."

Until sitting out the Buffalo game with a stinger, Hargrove had been getting
more playing time recently at the spot normally manned by Bryce Fisher.

"I'm trying to go back out this week and get back to my mind-set of playing
hard," Hargrove said. "If I get the starting job this week, I get it.

"My playing time has gone up a lot ever since the Monday night game against
Tampa. Hopefully, I can come back (against Green Bay) and have a good
performance. The game's really starting to slow down a whole lot more. Now, I'm
really understanding our defense."