ST. LOUIS -- Just one game into the NFL season, much as already been made of the St. Louis Rams' new defense -- and the league hasn't even seen the completed package.
That changes Sunday, when defensive end Grant Wistrom returns to the lineup as the Rams travel to San Francisco to play their chief rival, the 49ers. Wistrom has watched from the sidelines since suffering a partial tear of the capsule in his left knee in the Rams' preseason opener.
"It's just more guys out there running to the football," said cornerback Dexter McCleon. It's his "speed, (his) motor keeps running. He's just a guy who wants it. He'll be going 100 percent on every play."
Wistrom is one of just two starters held over from a defense that allowed a league-worst 29 points per game in 2000. Even after one game, a 20-17 overtime win at Philadelphia two weeks ago, it's clear the changes made by coach Mike Martz were the right ones.
Last year, the Rams held an opponent to less that 17 points just once. Wistrom's return completes the unit that was rebuilt during a flurry of off-season moves, Martz said.
"There is a certain energy that comes into the huddle when Grant comes into the huddle," Martz said. "The fact that he has played so well, and that he is a young player, I think there is some camaraderie there.
"That's not a negative slight on anybody. I think (it's) his energy and just his expertise."
Wistrom, who walked away from reporters and ducked out of the locker room at the Rams' practice facility in suburban St. Louis on Wednesday, was already considered the team's main pass-rushing threat. Martz said he's gotten better after an off- and preseason spent working with defensive line coach Bill Kollar.
"One thing that he was really doing before he got injured, technically, he had become so much better rushing the passer," Martz said. "Bill has done a great job with him in terms of technique and change-ups and all those things.
"I think technically, he's a much more sound player than even what he has been in the past."
Sunday's game against the 49ers, a key division foe in the NFC West, became more significant to the Rams after the NFL's decision to play a complete 16-game schedule.
Playing the games canceled following last week's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington probably means cutting back to a reduced eight-team playoff -- three division winners plus a single wildcard team from each conference.
"If the playoffs are reduced, you can't make mistakes," Martz said. "You can't stumble along the way. That is everybody's focus (now), to win the division."
The league is trying to figure out a way to play a full set of playoff games, with three divisional winners and three wild card teams. But that probably either requires moving the Super Bowl to Feb. 3 or packing three playoff games into eight days.