Defensive end no longer just a pass-rush specialist

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- The key to the St. Louis Rams' pass rush is giving opponents cause for concern on every down.

Leonard Little had five sacks in the first four games, tied for the NFL lead entering the weekend and giving him 31 1-2 since becoming a full-time player in 2001. He's a small handful for offensive linemen given his remarkable speed for a 260-pound player, and has greatly improved his game against the run.

"If he continues to have this kind of season, there's no question it's hard to find a player who's more productive at that position," Rams coach Mike Martz said. "He's playing as good as anybody in the league."

Little was among the league leaders with 12 sacks last year after finishing second in the NFL with 14.5 in 2001. Beyond those numbers, he's made an all-around impact to the point that teammates and his coach are already touting him for his first Pro Bowl invitation.

A third-round pick in 1998, Little has been more impressive for the Rams (2-2) than Grant Wistrom, a first-rounder in 1997. This, despite making only his 20th career start on Monday night against the Falcons (1-4).

"If he doesn't end up in Hawaii, it's just ridiculous," defensive tackle Tyoka Jackson said. "To me, he's the best left end in the league right now."

Little is coming off his best game of the season, playing a pivotal role in a 37-13 victory over the Cardinals Sept. 28. He stripped Jeff Blake on a sack early in the fourth quarter, helping the Rams pull away, and also had seven tackles and three quarterback pressures.

The statistics are even more impressive considering the Cardinals had the ball for only 36 plays.

"They've got a very quick defensive pass-rush group and Leonard Little is one that is outstanding," Falcons coach Dan Reeves said.

Little had at least one sack in each of the first four games, including two last month against the Seahawks. He had seven multisack games in his career.

There's no secret to his pass rush skills: it's all about blazing speed. He was a pass-rushing linebacker in college before bulking up, somewhat, for the NFL.

"You can speed someone the whole game and they'll eventually get tired," he said. "By the fourth quarter, you'll be able to get some good rushes."

Little has put on nearly 30 pounds since joining the Rams, but it hasn't slowed him down much. He leads the line with 27 tackles.

"A lot of his tackles, he's chasing them from the far side," Martz said. "He's done that time after time."

Little also has 16 quarterback pressures and three forced fumbles. He's adept at causing turnovers perhaps because of his tendency to wrap up around the waist on tackles.

"He's a huge key to what we do," Jackson said. "There's some kind of misconception that this is some kind of guy like me who comes in on third down."

Little can run down any quarterback, although he was happy that the Falcons' elusive Michael Vick didn't play on Monday while still recovering from a broken leg.

"Two years ago, we played against him and he got away from us a lot of times," Little said. "He's real slippery."

Falcons backup quarter Doug Johnson remembered Little from college.

"He gets off the ball well, just like he did at Tennessee," Johnson said.

At times, he bedevils his own quarterback, too.

"In practice he helps me work on getting up in the pocket, he's so fast," quarterback Marc Bulger said. "He runs with the running backs most of the time and he can beat a lot of them, so he's special."

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