ST. LOUIS -- Mike Martz' motivational messages apparently paid off.
He criticized kicker Jeff Wilkins, wide receiver Torry Holt and St. Louis Rams special teams last week, and all came through in Sunday night's 30-28 squeaker over the Arizona Cardinals.
Wilkins, ripped after scuffing the ground on a 42-yard field goal, perhaps a result of his season-long shoe-on, shoe-off tinkering, was 3-for-3 and made the game-winning 26-yard field goal with 20 seconds to go.
Holt, under fire although not by name for dropping a touchdown pass, caught the key 58-yarder from Marc Bulger in the final drive to set up Wilkins' game-winner. Holt finished with seven catches for a season-best 141 yards.
The NFL's worst special teams, bolstered by new punt and kick returners, had what Martz called their best performance in two seasons. Dre' Bly had a 78-yard scoring punt return, Trung Canidate averaged 33 yards on five kickoff returns and the coverage units held the Cardinals in check except for one instance.
The end result: The Rams (6-8) ended a three-game losing streak that knocked the defending NFC champions out of the playoff picture and they head into this week's game at Seattle feeling better about themselves.
Last week, Martz said he'd "lost a lot of confidence" in Wilkins. The coach rarely calls out his players in public, and on Monday he apologized in public.
"I had no business calling him out in the paper," Martz said. "I was angry at him, and usually when you call a player out in the paper it's because of a lack of effort or a lack of preparation. That was frustration on my part.
"I think he's back."
Martz said he and Wilkins discussed his approach in detail last week, and the coach said he noticed the kicker settled down in practice.
"They can over-analyze things, and I think that's where Jeff probably was, to some respect," Martz said.
Wilkins got a big hug from special teams coach Bobby April, also embattled, after the kick, and from several teammates.
"It's kind of bittersweet," Wilkins said. "Obviously it was great to get the game-winner, but that's what I'm paid to do."
Holt's production had tailed off dramatically in recent weeks, and not just on the dropped TD pass. In addition to the 58-yarder, he caught his first touchdown pass in six weeks on a 3-yard grab with two seconds left in the first half.
Martz felt Holt was allowing his role as one of the team captains to affect his game.
"He spent so much time trying to get other guys going, so to speak, I think it really distracted him," Martz said. "My point to Torry is you're a leader based on how you play."
The biggest turnaround, though, came on special teams. Martz ordered defensive coaches to get more involved in the kickoff coverage unit, then he benched kickoff and punt returner Terrence Wilkins due to his inability to grasp the offense.
Bly ended up with four punt returns for a 27.5-yard average and Canidate, the No. 1 draft pick in 2000, made his first contribution in several weeks on kickoff returns to give the offense good field position. Martz indicated both would be in those roles again this week, although he's worried about exposing Bly to extra punishment.
"I've always felt like he was our best punt returner, even with Az (Zahir-Hakim) was there," Martz said. "But he's starting for you at corner and you just don't want to lose him."
Martz was so happy with Canidate's production he indicated he'd start him at tailback ahead of rookie Lamar Gordon this week if Marshall Faulk, who hasn't started in five games due to a high ankle sprain, still can't start.