Defense ready to step up for Rams

Saturday, September 6, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- A high-octane offense got the Rams to two Super Bowls in a three-year span. Now, perhaps, it's time for the defense to step up.

A line that features four first-round draft picks started to assert itself in the preseason. Linebacking has been solid after a shaky 2002, and the secondary has retooled with cornerback Aeneas Williams moving to free safety.

In the first two preseason games, the defense handled the Raiders and Bucs -- the two teams who played in the Super Bowl last February when the first-stringers were on the field. That far overshadows an overall 1-3 preseason record.

"We're thinking it's going to be our year," defensive coordinator Lovie Smith said. "We like the talent we've got."

Improved play by a defense ranked 13th in the NFL last year would take a lot of pressure off the offense, largely to blame for a 7-9 season last year that followed two Super Bowl teams in three seasons.

"I think we're all excited," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "The whole team has to show up to win a championship."

The Rams used to be known as the Greatest Show on Turf, leading the NFL with 500 or more points three straight years behind the dazzling play of Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. The last few years, though, the franchise has invested heavily in defenders to balance the package.

In the first round of the 2001 draft, the Rams took tackles Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett, plus strong safety Adam Archuleta. Last year, they got linebacker Robert Thomas in the first round. This year, they took another tackle, Jimmy Kennedy, in the first round, and got outside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa in the second.

The arrival of the speedy Tinoisamoa has allowed Thomas to move to middle linebacker, his natural position. Another high pick, 2001 second-rounder Tommy Polley, is the other outside linebacker.

A questionable secondary

The secondary remains the biggest question after the free-agent departure of Dre' Bly and Williams' slow recovery from torn ankle ligaments, a broken leg and persistent turf toe. Jason Sehorn, who was supposed to be the new starting free safety, broke his foot early in camp and backup Kim Herring broke his forearm and subsequently was released.

Travis Fisher, a second-round pick last year, is typical of a very young roster aside from the big stars. There are 13 rookies, although Tinoisamoa is the lone first-year starter.

"You just can't afford all these guys so you have to replace them with young players and coaching and development," Martz said. "You're going to take your lumps, but hopefully you're good enough to overcome it."

The offense isn't exactly in tatters. The big-play principals remain in place for a unit that slumped to 13th in the NFL last year, now that All-Pro Orlando Pace has ended his holdout and returns as the anchor of a rebuilt line.

Pace made his debut in the final preseason game last week against the Chiefs. The line features offseason pickups Kyle Turley at tackle and Dave Wohlabaugh at center, who'll play despite a broken left hand at the start of the year.

Players believe they can reach 500 points once again. A big reason is a healthy, confident Warner, who was neither last year while going 0-6 as the starter and missing significant time with a broken pinky and broken hand.

There's no friction, either, between Warner and backup Marc Bulger, who emerged from obscurity and went 6-1 as the starter last year. Warner clearly re-established himself as the No. 1 quarterback in training camp.

"All me and Kurt think about is the St. Louis Rams," Bulger said. "It's not about Kurt or Marc or anything like that.

"What I did last year is in the past, and I have to improve this year and make this team better if something happens to Kurt."

Players feel last season is an aberration. They've put it behind them and are acting like contenders.

"When you're good, which we are, it doesn't really matter what anyone says," defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson said. "It doesn't even matter what the other guys are doing.

"We're tending to the Rams, we're putting the building blocks together."

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