By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
09/10/2006

If it doesn't work out for the Rams' defense this season, it won't be for lack of trying. In the offseason, the Rams invested a potential $73.5 million in free agents Fakhir Brown, Corey Chavous, La'Roi Glover, and Will Witherspoon. They added budget free agents such as linebacker Raonall Smith and tackle Jason Fisk to improve depth.

Three of the Rams' top four draft picks were defensive players, headed by first-rounder Tye Hill at cornerback. As a topper, former New Orleans head coach Jim Haslett was hired for $1 million a year to coordinate the defense.

In short, it has been the most extensive -- and most expensive -- makeover for a Rams defense since the move to St. Louis in 1995. Only the 2001 makeover, which included free agents

Aeneas Williams and Kim Herring; draft picks Adam Archuleta, Ryan Pickett and Tommy Polley; and defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, comes close.

Haslett quickly has earned the respect of the players. This will be a faster, more aggressive, better tackling defense than the 2004 or 2005 units.

"We became better with our acquisitions in the offseason," defensive end Leonard Little said. "We're automatically better. But we've got to go out there and play like we're better."

Particularly when it comes to stopping the run. A year ago, the Rams finished 28th in the NFL in run defense. They allowed a whopping 4.7 yards a carry, which tied for last in the league. On seven occasions, opposing running backs topped 100 yards.

"We can't help but go up," Little said. "We emphasized that during training camp -- stopping the run. This will be a good test for us this week."

On a schedule littered with the likes of Edgerrin James, Shaun Alexander, Larry Johnson, LaDainian Tomlinson and Clinton Portis, the best rushing team the Rams face just might be the Denver Broncos, Sunday's season-opening foe in the Edward Jones Dome.

That's right, the Broncos of Mike Bell, Tatum Bell and Cedric Cobbs in the backfield.

Who?

Well, Mike Bell is an undrafted rookie from Arizona. At 6-0, 220 pounds, he isn't a burner, but he's quick to the hole with enough wiggle to make you miss. He's expected to start Sunday.

Tatum Bell is a third-year player from Oklahoma State with 1,317 career rushing yards. With 4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash, he's a home-run threat but doesn't break many tackles. He'll probably be the Broncos' change-of-pace back Sunday.

As for Cobbs, he has 50 career rushing yards in the NFL, gained in 2004 for New England before leg injuries slowed his career. He spent the 2005 season on Denver's practice squad.

In the exhibition season, Cobbs led Denver with 195 yards on 36 carries. Mike Bell was next with 187 yards on 35 carries. Tatum Bell followed with 134 yards on 31 attempts. All three averaged at least 4.3 yards a carry.

With that kind of balance and production, no wonder Rams coach Scott Linehan says, "Their running backs are all good in my opinion."

But with no disrespect intended, Linehan quickly adds: "They're running game is the biggest challenge we have. They've proven over the years that no matter who's back there, it's a lethal weapon."

Since Mike Shanahan took over as Denver's coach in 1995, the Broncos have rushed for more yards (25,022) than any team in the NFL. They have had a 1,000-yard rusher in 10 of the 11 seasons, from Terrell Davis, to Olandis Gary, to Mike Anderson, to Clinton Portis, to Reuben Droughns.

"It's the system," Rams defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy said. "No matter who they put back there, those guys are always going to be successful because it's the blocking scheme."

The Broncos' bread-and-butter run is the "stretch" play.

"Everyone knows those guys run the stretch," Kennedy said. "Their (blockers) turn sideways and look like elephants on parade, and they just run toward the sidelines. That running back is making one cut and taking it downhill."

It's almost as simple as that. Usually, there are three lanes to choose. The back picks one and cuts upfield hard. If he waits too long, the lane closes.

It takes a tough, disciplined runner to execute it, which explains in part why "divas" are not the ideal fit for the scheme. Second-rounders Tatum Bell and Portis (now with Washington) are the highest draft picks to play running back for Shanahan in Denver.

Helping the continuity is the fact Denver has had the same running backs coach since '95 -- Bobby Turner.

Led by center Tom Nalen, a five-time Pro Bowler, the Broncos have an experienced, mobile offensive line known for its distinctive -- almost controversial -- cut-blocking style.

No defensive lineman likes it when blockers go at his legs. But that's standard operating procedure for Denver's offensive linemen, frequently drawing the ire of opponents.

"Well, it's been effective for them," Glover said. "And it is a legal block. So we have to prepare ourselves to defense that."

But if the Rams lock in too much on the run, that's when quarterback Jake Plummer will burn them with play-action passes, rollouts and bootlegs. It's a system that has served Shanahan well for more than a decade. Denver is the NFL's highest-scoring team since the start of the '95 season.

For openers, it all makes for a formidable challenge.

"The Denver Broncos are a great team," defensive end Anthony Hargrove said. "Nobody thinks much of us. But if we can come out and beat these guys in our first home game, it's going to definitely open some eyes of people around the league."

jthomas@post-dispatch.com | 314-340-8197