Rams ride roller coaster to top of NFC West

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

An inconsistent season continued with a victory over Seattle.

By Jim Salter ~ The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS -- Nine games into the season and the St. Louis Rams remain a hard team to figure out.

Is it the team that lost to otherwise-winless Miami and blew a late lead at home against New Orleans? Or is it the team that has twice beaten potential Super Bowl contender Seattle en route to a 5-4 record and a tie with the Seahawks for the top spot in the NFC West?

Coach Mike Martz believes the inconsistency has been the result of fundamental mistakes and a lack of understanding by some younger players about what is expected of them. That's part of the reason he went to full-pad workouts last week for the first time in his five-year tenure, a practice that will continue.

"There's a lot to fix and get better at," Martz said Monday, a day after the Rams beat Seattle 23-12. "But as long as they play with that type of attitude and enthusiasm you can accomplish an awful lot."

It has been a roller-coaster season for St. Louis, seeking a fifth playoff appearance in six seasons. After squeaking by Arizona in the opener, the Rams lost two straight, including a home game against the Saints in which they scored the go-ahead touchdown with 28 seconds left, only to allow a game-tying field goal and lose in overtime 28-25.

They turned it around by winning three straight, including a 33-27 overtime win at Seattle in which the Rams trailed by 17 midway through the fourth quarter.

That was followed by two blowout losses -- 31-14 at Miami and a 40-22 home loss to New England when the Patriots were so short of defensive backs they used receiver Troy Brown.

An angry Martz last week called out his players, saying it was time for them to step up, and instituted the full-pad practice that is a throwback to the Vince Lombardi era.

"Our approach last week was not one of retribution or anger with our players," Martz said. "The problem was we needed to get back to basic football."

Apparently, the players got the message.

"I don't think it's what he did, it's how we responded," said running back Marshall Faulk, who rushed for 139 yards against the Seahawks.

Sunday's win was probably the Rams' best overall performance. St. Louis outgained Seattle 462-372, controlled the ball for 34:27, had balance on offense (202 yards rushing, 260 yards passing), and allowed Seattle inside the red zone six times but allowed no touchdowns.

There is room for improvement. Though they rank sixth in total offense, the Rams' 22.6-points scoring average is down from 27.9 last season and well off the days of the "Greatest Show on Turf." The defense ranks 29th and is dead last in rushing defense. The turnover ratio is minus-8. And the special teams continue to struggle, especially on both sides of kickoffs.

Still, St. Louis owns the divisional tiebreaker with the Seahawks by virtue of sweeping them. The remaining opponents are a combined 28-34. At 31, Faulk is looking spry and healthy. Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce are among the NFL's leading receivers. And Marc Bulger is second in the NFC in passing yards and completions and fifth in passer rating at 92.9.

Noteworthy

* Martz said offensive tackle Orlando Pace clearly didn't mean to knock over an official as the teams scuffled following Faulk's third-quarter fumble Sunday. Martz doesn't expect Pace to be suspended.

* First-year defensive coordinator Larry Marmie has come under some criticism, but Martz said of him, "There isn't a better defenisive coordinator in the game. You can put that one in the bank."

* Four of the Rams' next five games are on the road. Martz said it will be up to the veterans to help guide the younger players through the stretch.

* Martz said he felt for former Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, who was benched by coach Tom Coughlin Monday after the Giants' third loss in four games. Martz said he has sent messages of encouragement to Warner through a mutual friend. Warner has also offered encouragement for his old coach this season, even sending Martz flowers after the New Orleans loss, Martz said.

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