Defense makes strong opening statement by busting Broncos

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

St. Louis' maligned defense collected four sacks and forced five turnovers.

ST. LOUIS -- St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy broke his right hand on his second play, had a cast put on and got back on the field as soon as he could.

"It's nothing major, no setback," Kennedy said. "Just keep going."

Nobody wanted to miss a snap of the team's surprisingly dominant debut. The Rams defense, ranked 30th overall in the NFL a year ago, pushed around the Denver Broncos in an opening 18-10 victory on Sunday.

The performance made new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, head coach of the Saints the previous six seasons, an instant hero. Haslett's aggressive schemes and ability to rapidly blend five new starters bailed out an offense designed by first-year head coach Scott Linehan.

"You know what, players made plays," Haslett said Monday. "They want to be one of the better defenses in the league, and they work at it."

Defensive end Leonard Little, the best of the holdovers, had been reading all summer about how that side of the ball was again going to be the Rams' liability. The Broncos, annually one of the league's best offensive teams, found out how much the defense has progressed.

"Nobody on this planet gave us a chance to win this game," Little said. "It really got me going, and it's going to keep me going the rest of the year just to try to prove people wrong and try to prove critics wrong."

The Rams' first-team offense, which did not score a touchdown in 11 preseason possessions, again came up empty in the opener, leaning on Jeff Wilkins' franchise-record six field goals. St. Louis won without scoring a touchdown, and was 0-for-5 inside the 20 -- not counting kneel-downs at the finish.

St. Louis forced five turnovers, setting the tone with takeaways on three straight possessions in the first half.

"That's not surprising," Little said. "This defense is based on getting turnovers. That's what Coach Haslett said from the get-go."

They fleeced a team that committed only 16 turnovers all last season while going 13-3 and making it to the AFC championship game. Little, held to 9 1-2 sacks last year, had two in the first half while forcing a fumble.

Some of the Broncos still aren't believers.

"They were soft at the point of attack," running back Tatum Bell said. "We could have run on them all day, we just got behind."

Wide receiver Todd Devoe echoed those thoughts, saying, "It was more of our offense turning the ball over, making them look better than they would have looked."

Haslett doesn't care what the Broncos think. He and the rest of the Rams' defense know what they accomplished.

The Broncos' highly respected running game broke two long gainers of 39 and 36 yards, but otherwise was held in check.

"That's a good team we played and a lot of people were predicting them to go to the Super Bowl," Haslett said. "But anytime you can get one of those types of wins, especially when you're the underdog, there's something to at least build on."

As for Kennedy, a first-round pick in 2003, his desire impressed the coaches. Linehan said he graded out well despite the broken hand.

"Your players, you want to see how they respond," Linehan said. "He never blinked."

Linehan took the blame for the offensive woes, but pointed out that there were no turnovers. Quarterback Marc Bulger was 18-for-34 for 217 yards.

"Marc managed the game beautifully," Linehan said. "I think you saw a guy who knows he'll play better, but knows he hung in there and didn't lose the game."

Linehan didn't feel the offensive drought was important enough to allow Bulger to go for a touchdown at the end of the game after driving to the 6.

"The game was over," Linehan said. "The red zone success or lack of, it had no bearing on it."

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