Rams balk at shootout talk

Wednesday, January 16, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- Talk of a potential shootout in their playoff game with the Green Bay Packers on Sunday is rubbing the St. Louis Rams' defense the wrong way.

One TV analyst predicted Kurt Warner and Brett Favre would combine for 100 points. Middle linebacker London Fletcher said that guy must have missed the Rams' startling transformation.

St. Louis (14-2) was No. 3 in the NFL this year, and the NFC's best. The Rams have eight new starters plus a new defensive coordinator, Lovie Smith, who weeded out the dead wood from a unit that finished 23rd in 2000.

Yet it remains the team's afterthought.

"We know we haven't gotten respect around the league and maybe we won't ever get the respect we feel like we deserve," Fletcher said. "But come Sunday we'll be out there humming and show everybody what type of defense we definitely have."

The Rams gave up 471 points last year, the seventh-highest total in league history. This year, they allowed 273 points, sixth-best in the league and a per-game average drop from 29 to 17.

They allowed 4,471 yards, more than a thousand yards fewer than in 2000, and the defense was the difference in low-scoring victories over the Eagles, Giants, Patriots and 49ers. They missed finishing No. 2 on defense, ahead of the vaunted Baltimore Ravens, by only 26 yards.

"In everybody's eyes, they have a great defense," Fletcher said. "Here we are, we're No. 3, and we're just a mediocre defesne.

"Maybe it's a carryover from the taste we left in everyone's mouth last season."

The defense is loaded with emerging stars like Fletcher, who had 189 tackles, and ends Leonard Little (14 1-2 sacks) and Grant Wistrom (nine sacks). There also are plenty of lesser lights such as tackles Brian Young and Jeff Zgonina, who have thrived in Smith's system.

The Rams were rewarded with one Pro Bowl berth, that going to cornerback Aeneas Williams.

"Just look at the Pro Bowl," Smith said. "We don't have anybody there, but they're playing good defense. Why, because they have the right attitude.

"A team can do a lot and a lot of individuals cannot."

Players don't seem to mind playing second fiddle too much.

"You've got a Who's Who of possible Hall of Famers out there," said Zgonina, the team's best run-stuffer. "We've got a great offense and we've got a really good defense.

"If we don't get the respect we deserve, oh well, who cares?"

The Rams are the first team in NFL history to score 500 points three straight seasons and Packers players have nothing but superlatives.

"Hey, they're The Greatest Show on Earth," center Mike Flanagan said. "We're just lucky to be playing them. They've made people look silly."

It's not exactly so with the Rams' defense.

Asked what worried him most about the Rams, Favre said the following: "The fact that they can score 50 points poses a little bit of a problem. We're playing at their place, on turf, in a dome, which hasn't been to our advantage historically. Other than that, nothing really."

Rams coach Mike Martz doesn't appear to care about the slights. He said it's just a matter of time before his defense gets proper credit.

"I think when the season is over with, I think people will reflect back on what this defense has been able to achieve," Martz said. "And I think everybody will be pleased with it."

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