ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Rams' defense keeps climbing the charts.
The overhauled unit, which surrendered 29 points per game last year, is nearly on an equal footing with the NFL's best offense. The Rams defense is ranked fourth after stifling the Carolina Panthers, holding them without a first down for 2 1-2 quarters, in last week's 48-14 victory. Seven of Carolina's points came on a kickoff return.
Coach Mike Martz, who brought in new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith and eight new starters, claims not to be surprised that it's all happened so fast. The Rams went from 10th to sixth during their bye week, and jumped two more spots this week, and now trail only the Steelers, Packers and Ravens.
"It's just what our expectations were," Martz said. "I know when Lovie came in here, certainly this is what he thought we could do, and the players certainly felt that way, too."
The comparisons to last year's underachieving defense are startling.
The Rams are allowing 276 yards per game, an 84-yard improvement, and gone from 28th to fourth at the same stage last year.
They've given up 191 passing yards, ninth in the NFL, compared with 268 last year, or 30th.
They've almost cut the points allowed in half, going from 252 or 29th best to 129, an average of 16 per game, and tied for sixth.
They've forced 19 turnovers, seven more than last year, and forced 43 punts, 10 more than last season.
They've held six opponents to fewer than 20 points, compared with one all last season.
The performance against the Panthers was one of the team's best in recent seasons. Carolina totaled 146 yards, was 1-for-11 on third-down conversions and had seven three-and-out series.
"I would say if you don't get a first down and get up the field, what else can you do?" rookie safety Adam Archuleta said. "It was one of those games where we were doing our thing, offense was doing their thing, and that's what you look for."
St. Louis gave up one first down rushing, tied for the second lowest in team history. The 146 yards rushing was the best since Nov. 24, 1980, at New Orleans, when the Rams gave up 96.
"How many teams do you know that can bring in eight new guys, all new coaches, and have this kind of success, this fast?" linebacker Mark Fields asked. "I haven't seen anything like this and I've been in the league for seven years.
"If you find a team that's done this, let me know about it."
End Grant Wistrom, linebacker London Fletcher and cornerback Dexter McCleon are the only survivors from last year's unit, which allowed 29 points per game -- the worst ever by a playoff team. The biggest upgrades were six-time Pro Bowl cornerback Aenaes Williams, safety Kim Herring and Fields, plus the Rams drafted instant starter Archuleta at the other safety.
"You can bring in guys and you can have friction," Fields said. "We don't have that, we don't have big-ego guys.
"They did a hell of a job of screening and checking the people they brought in here."
Williams scored his 11th career touchdown and second this season against the Panthers on a 16-yard interception return. He has eight interception returns for touchdowns, tied for second place on the NFL career list with Eric Allen and Deion Sanders and one away from a tie for first.
"It's something I work on all the time," Williams said. "I always try to score in practice."