Defense hopes to show its progress

Sunday, December 5, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- At long last, St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz believes his beleaguered defense is ready to stand alongside his still somewhat high-powered offense.

How he came to that conclusion is unclear because the Rams (5-6) have shown zero progress lately. The Packers rang up 45 points on Monday, the Bills scored 37 the week before and there have been seven 100-yard rushers against St. Louis. The last four opponents have totaled 703 yards rushing.

"I know it sounds silly after the last few weeks," Martz said. "But I'm really encouraged."

Their next chance to show they're ready comes today against the lowly 49ers (1-10).

"Every week is an opportunity," Rams defensive end Bryce Fisher said. "It's going to be important for us to go out there and prove ourselves."

When Lovie Smith left to become head coach of the Chicago Bears after three successful seasons as defensive coordinator in St. Louis, the Rams made the transition from a bending cover-2 defense to one with multiple schemes and featuring more pressure. But the transition to new coordinator Larry Marmie has been rocky in part because players had become attached to the old ways.

Martz blames himself for introducing the new defense gradually instead of making a clean break, an approach that has contributed to the Rams losing four of five.

"It wasn't fair to Larry and it took a while for these guys to completely accept what we're doing," Martz said. "Now, the change is complete.

"They've accepted it, and they're trying to learn it."

Week after week, players have noted that minor breakdowns in gap coverage in what essentially is an eight-man front have resulted in huge gains for the offense. This week, they hope, they will seal those gaps.

"We've just got to play our technique and our assignment," Rams defensive tackle Brian Howard said. "We've got to stop them this week. There's been a lot of extra emphasis on it."

Martz, always optimistic, sees a lot of positive signs.

"When they execute the defense, that ball doesn't get past the line of scrimmage," Martz said. "It just doesn't."

On the other hand, he said the defense has been far too tentative. But there's still time because despite their slide and sub-.500 record, the Rams would be the sixth seed in the playoffs.

They're one game behind the Seahawks for first place in the weak NFC West, and own both tiebreakers over Seattle.

There might be a few more lineup changes, too, as the tweaking process continues. Antuan Edwards, acquired off waivers from the Dolphins on Nov. 11, will make his first start for St. Louis at free safety. Howard could make his second career start, and second in a row, over underachieving former first-rounder Damione Lewis. Or Martz could give Jimmy Kennedy, the first-round pick last year, his first career start at that tackle spot.

Progress might be difficult to gauge this week because the 49ers are on a six-game losing streak in which they've been outscored 183-101. The Rams beat them 24-14 on Oct. 3 in San Francisco.

"There has to be a lot of self-motivation, and that has to come from within the team," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said. "We need to make evaluations when this year is over with and decide which direction we're going.

"So, a lot of guys are playing for their jobs, or a lot of guys need to improve."

Stopping the Rams' offense will be difficult. Last week they scored only 17 points because they stopped themselves, wasting 448 yards passing from Marc Bulger.

That's been the case to a certain extent all year. Bulger leads the NFL with 3,267 yards passing, 71 more than Peyton Manning. But Manning has 41 touchdown passes and Bulger has just 17.

The 49ers always have incentive in this game because the Rams are their biggest rival, dating to the decades when both teams were in California.

"You always want to beat the Rams," San Francisco tight end Eric Johnson said. "We wouldn't mind taking them out of the playoffs. The more we keep focusing on how many losses we have, the more depressed and long the season will be."

The game matches two of the least opportunistic teams in the NFL, combining for a minus-30 in turnover differential, The Rams trail the NFL with only four interceptions and 10 total takeaways, and the 49ers aren't far ahead with only 12 takeaways.

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