Thursday, December 6, 2007
By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

It was around the holiday season last year that the Rams finally saw the breakthrough of cornerback Ron Bartell. Shifted into the nickel cornerback role, Bartell played his best football at this level and finished with two interceptions in the season finale against Minnesota.

Bartell has never doubted his ability to be an effective cornerback at the NFL level. After enduring two years of bouncing between corner and safety and never really finding steady work at either spot, Bartell has finally settled into a role for the Rams.

Or so he thought. Just when Bartell was making his impact as the team’s nickel cornerback and even working as a hybrid linebacker rushing the quarterback in certain situations, Bartell is being asked to take over the starting corner job on the outside.

With the season ending wrist surgery starter Tye Hill underwent late Monday night, Bartell has been handed the keys to the starting job. But with opportunity comes the chance to prove he belongs, again.

“I’ve always had the same ability,” Bartell said. “I just think the opportunity has come a lot more often. When you have these opportunities week-in and week-out, you have no choice but get better. If I got worse, I wouldn’t be here. I’m just more confident and I know the defense a lot better. I know where I’ll be playing instead of shuffling back and forth like last year.”

Bartell will hold down the outside job for the rest of the season after Hill was placed on injured reserve, ending his season. Of course, starting on the outside is nothing new to Bartell, even this year.

Bartell started in one cornerback spot to open the season because of the four-game suspension to starter Fakhir Brown. Bartell fared well in those games, coming up with 22 tackles, a sack and two passes defended.

Upon Brown’s return, Bartell moved to the other side to replace Hill, who had suffered a back injury. He made nine tackles with two passes defended in that pair of games.

All told, Bartell has 55 tackles with a sack, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery this season. Essentially, Bartell has been a third starter for the Rams and his performance when given the opportunity has inspired plenty of confidence in coach Scott Linehan.

“He’s played very well for us all year,” Linehan said. “He started, with Fakhir’s suspension, four games. He has basically moved around and played in a number of spots. He’ll be back in that nickel spot and he’ll be back in action at corner. Ron’s become a really solid player for us that we can count on. He has experience now, so there’s no real hesitation or concern for us that he will be able to go out there and perform very well for us.”

Although Bartell has started at nickel the past two weeks, he hasn’t technically started on the outside since Oct. 14 against Baltimore. But though he hasn’t started, his role has actually been larger in recent weeks.

As injuries have decimated other areas of the defense, coordinator Jim Haslett has been forced to find creative and new ways to utilize his talent. To that end, Haslett has been moving Bartell around. At certain points of any game, Bartell can be found working in the slot covering a receiver, up front helping against the run or even blitzing from a type of linebacker position.

And in the past two games, Bartell has probably played his best, most physical football. He posted eight tackles against Seattle on Nov. 25 and followed with seven more last week, including a forced fumble and fumble recovery.

For the time being, Bartell enjoys his many roles.

“It really doesn’t affect me much,” Bartell said. “I always consider myself a starter anyway. I’m a capable starter. It’s going to affect some younger guys. They’ll get their chance to shine now, and we’ll just keep going.”

Speaking of young players with a chance to shine, Bartell’s replacement will be given just that opportunity. Rookie cornerback Jonathan Wade will be heavily involved as the nickel corner with Bartell moving to a steadier role on the outside.

“He’s going through a little bit of what Ron went through early in his career where he learned the position playing special teams and gained confidence from that,” Linehan said. “Now that he’s been able to step back away from it a little bit and hasn’t played as much on defense he’s getting a better feel of what we’re trying to do with the defense.”

Wade played some defense early in the season with opportunities against Dallas and Tampa Bay. Wade has nine tackles this season, but those all came in a span of three games against Tampa Bay, Dallas and Arizona. He hasn’t made a tackle on defense since and has been relegated to special teams work.

But that doesn’t mean Wade doesn’t believe he’s ready for his chance this week against the Bengals.

“That game (in Dallas) gave me a lot of confidence,” Wade said. “I got a chance to play against Tampa Bay and Arizona and seeing those types of talented receivers got me in as much game action as possible to get ready. I am looking forward to the opportunity I will have this week.”

And this week will present a big challenge to all Rams defensive backs. Cincinnati boasts one of the best groups of receivers in the league with Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry.

More often than not, Wade will be matched up with Henry in the slot, but regardless of how those matchups break down, it will be a tall order for the St. Louis secondary.

“This is the time of year for an opportunity for a guy like Jonathan Wade, why we drafted him,” Linehan said. “He’s going to have to be able to take advantage of it. I look forward to watching young players step in for us and play in these key roles. Jonathan playing nickel for us and still helping on special teams, it’s the time of year where you kind of find out a lot more about your young players.”

It was that learning that showed what Bartell could do last year that gives the Rams confidence in him this year. Now, it’s Wade’s turn.