Rams' defense passes its first test in overtime

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

ST. LOUIS -- When it counted, the St. Louis Rams' reconstructed defense came through.

The new scheme, which featured nine new starters in the opener, gave up two fourth-quarter touchdowns to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. But it stiffened in overtime to set up the game-winning drive, and the bottom line in points was a huge improvement in a 20-17 victory.

"I can't emphasize this enough," coach Mike Martz said. "When you have that many new people together, to pull off a win like that is pretty big."

Last year, the defense gave up a league-worst 29 points per game and was the main reason the Rams went from Super Bowl champions to first-round wild card playoff losers. Only once last year did they allow fewer than 17 points, that coming in a 16-3 loss at Carolina in Game 13.

Here's how things have changed: On Sunday, they didn't mind losing the coin toss that handed the Eagles the ball in the extra period.

"We were confident," cornerback Dexter McCleon said. "We wanted to make up for our fourth-quarter lapses. We said in the huddle, we'll get the ball back and the game's over."

Plus, they'll likely get defensive end Grant Wistrom back for Sunday's home opener against the Atlanta Falcons. Wistrom, the main pass rushing threat, has been out since injuring his left knee in the preseason opener.

"We should get Grant back," Martz said. "Hopefully we'll get him back."

High points for the defense included an interception by Dre' Bly, a fumble recovery by tackle Jeff Zgonina and a forced fumble by free safety Kim Herring that was recovered by strong safety Adam Archuleta.

The low point was allowing the Eagles to drive 98 yards for a touchdown after a Kurt Warner interception, cutting the Rams' lead to 17-10 in the fourth quarter.

Martz blamed both offense and defense for that one. Warner's intended receiver had been well-covered fullback James Hodgins, never thought of as one of the team's offensive weapons.

"We should have never let them off the 2, and we should have never turned the ball over at the 2," Martz said. "That took a little bit of the wind out of our sails, but we regrouped, and that's what's most pleasing about this group."

In fact, Martz said the end result was perhaps the best team victory he's ever had as a head coach or an assistant.

"It's just a complete win by everybody," Martz said. "We bend a little bit, we get hurt on defense, and the offense comes back. The offense doesn't do what they need to do, the defense gets the ball back for them, and special teams created some opportunities."

The defense was most impressive against the run, allowing only 57 yards. Donovan McNabb got 48 yards on nine carries, but Duce Staley had only 9 yards on nine attempts.

McNabb was largely neutralized by a defense that concentrated on hemming him in.

"We know we have to gel fast because the season's here and it's time to go," McCleon said. "There's no time for growing pains."

NOTES: Warner suffered a strained right thumb, but the injury is of little concern to the team. Warner was hurt in the fourth quarter of the 20-17 victory when he struck the helmet of a pass rusher and bent the thumb back. "But I don't think that's going to be an issue," coach Mike Martz said Monday. "It's not broken, it's just real sore for him right now."

Rams backup safety Matt Bowen will be sidelined at least six weeks after fracturing a bone in his right foot. Bowen, a sixth-round pick in the 2000 draft who started two games last year, underwent surgery Monday. He was injured playing on special teams during a punt return in the second quarter.

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