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Ram Shackled As Donovan McNabb and the Eagles discovered in a hard-fought overtime loss, the once-pathetic St. Louis defense is no longer a pushover

Sept. 17, 2001
Sept. 17, 2001

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Sept. 17, 2001

Ram Shackled As Donovan McNabb and the Eagles discovered in a hard-fought overtime loss, the once-pathetic St. Louis defense is no longer a pushover

Aeneas Williams felt his nostrils expand and his cheeks tighten,
and before he knew it, the St. Louis Rams' cornerback was
grinning beyond all reason. In his first game with the Rams after
10 stellar seasons with the Cardinals, Williams and his fellow
defenders had surrendered a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to
the Philadelphia Eagles, delighting 66,243 fans at Veterans
Stadium on Sunday evening. Now, with the score tied at 17,
overtime looming and momentum in the Eagles' favor, St. Louis
lost the coin toss--which meant that Williams and the Rams' other
worn-out defenders would have to stop Philly's potent
quarterback, Donovan McNabb, or be blamed for squandering their
team's season opener.

This is an article from the Sept. 17, 2001 issue Original Layout

So why was this man smiling? Sure, Williams has been on a nearly
constant serotonin rush since being freed from the futility of
his former NFL life last April in a draft-day trade that sent him
to the Rams for second- and fourth-round picks. This, however,
was more than the thrill of being released from Bidwillian
bondage; Williams was relishing the chance to make a game-turning
stand. As the St. Louis kickoff team jogged onto the field,
Williams realized he wasn't alone. Rams middle linebacker London
Fletcher was smiling, too, as were other defensive players. Even
Lovie Smith, St. Louis's new defensive coordinator, cracked a
grin. Strange as it seemed, these defiant Rams wanted the ball in
McNabb's hands. "I'm so glad it worked out that way," Williams
said after the game, "because as a defense, we were able to show
some resilience. In retrospect we'll be glad we did. This is the
type of thing that can set a tone for the season."

In securing a 20-17 victory over the Eagles on Jeff Wilkins's
26-yard field goal with 7:04 left in overtime, the Rams also
served notice to the rest of the NFL that they have put last
season's failures behind them. Although St. Louis got the
requisite strong performances from quarterback Kurt Warner,
halfback Marshall Faulk and wideout Isaac Bruce, whose gutsy
27-yard sideline catch set up the winning points, the retooled
defense made the loudest statement. "Give the glory to our D,
because it's got heart, man," Faulk, the reigning league MVP,
said. "This was a great test for us, and I think that people who
look at this game have got to be worried. They know we can blow
teams out. Now they see we can also pull out close games."

Credit the tight finish to Philadelphia, a playoff team in 2000
that has evolved into a bona fide contender under coach Andy
Reid. Keyed by a young, stifling defense and the burgeoning
menace that is McNabb, the Eagles made enough big plays to avoid
a blowout of the sort St. Louis habitually produced during its
Super Bowl-winning campaign of 1999. While no one will confuse
this year's Rams with the Baltimore Ravens, at least the St.
Louis defense looked nothing like it did last season, when it
gave up an average of 29.4 points per game, worst in the league.

Seven starters from last year's defense were purged--and only two
of them, it should be noted, were in anyone's starting lineup on
opening day--and holdover defensive end Grant Wistrom was
sidelined by a strained left knee. With eight new starters on
Sunday, the Rams defense was faster, more aggressive and more
fundamentally sound than last year's edition. There was also
something intangible provided by battle-tested veterans like
Williams, free safety Kim Herring, outside linebacker Mark Fields
and defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, each of whom was about as
rattled by the Philly comeback as Tony Soprano would be by a
speeding ticket. "We couldn't have won a game like this last
year, I think," St. Louis coach Mike Martz said, grimacing from
the pain caused by a herniated disk, an injury he aggravated in
the off-season. "We weren't tough enough overall, but we are
now."

Herring, a starter for the Super Bowl-champion Ravens last
season, was one of several Rams defenders who hoped to make a
statement in the opening game. It took all of one play for that
to happen: McNabb fumbled the first snap of the game and St.
Louis tackle Jeff Zgonina recovered at the Philadelphia 12, the
first of three first-half takeaways. Two plays later, Faulk's
deft seven-yard cutback run gave the Rams a 7-0 lead.

Employing a zone-oriented style like the one new coordinator
Smith learned as an assistant to Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay, St.
Louis allowed the Eagles to move the ball but made them earn
their yards. Halfback Duce Staley was held to nine yards in nine
attempts, and though McNabb had impressive stats (32 completions
in 48 attempts for 312 yards, nine rushes for 48 yards), his
scrambling wasn't a factor until Philadelphia's game-tying push
in the fourth quarter. James Thrash, whom the Eagles lured from
the Washington Redskins in an effort to give McNabb a top-flight
receiver, caught only one pass for 11 yards, a testament to
Williams's Speedo-tight coverage.

The Rams' defense aimed to make McNabb throw, rather than
permitting him to run. Smith limited his team's blitzes and used
several defenders in the role of scramble-stuffing spy,
including 301-pound rookie defensive tackle Damione Lewis.
"McNabb's a great player, but he can't beat us by himself,"
Faulk said on the Wednesday night before the game, as he and
several friends, including St. Louis wideouts Torry Holt and
Az-Zahir Hakim, mingled in a luxury box at the Savvis Center in
downtown St. Louis. "I know, because I've been Donovan
McNabb--when I played for Indy, and I had to try to do it all.
You can beat some teams that way but not a good team--and I
think we're good."

Faulk then stopped to appreciate the evening's live
entertainment--a performance by the barefoot, seductive Sade,
who was singing a cautionary tale of romantic involvement. The
song, Smooth Operator, would be a fitting theme for the
28-year-old halfback. On Sunday, Faulk ran for 72 yards, caught
eight passes for 48 more and did many other things that were
hard to quantify. On one third-quarter play he delivered a
perfect cut-block to defensive end Hugh Douglas, and then he
bounced up to catch a pass from Warner and squirted ahead for a
13-yard gain.

Still, Faulk said he derived his greatest enjoyment from watching
the Rams defenders. Inspirational efforts abounded. Fields,
despite suffering fractured ribs on a first-quarter collision
with the hulking Lewis, stayed in the game to make five tackles
and break up a pair of passes; nickel cornerback Dre' Bly jumped
a slant pattern and made a sweet interception of a second-quarter
pass by McNabb; Fletcher (seven tackles, one sack) continually
threw his undersized body into the fray; and Brian Young, a
second-year tackle from UTEP who beat out No. 1 draft pick Lewis
for a starting nod, might have been mistaken for San Francisco
49ers All-Pro Bryant Young on a few occasions, including a sack
of McNabb that helped squelch the Eagles' lone possession in
overtime.

If one play exemplified the defense's newfound spunk, it was the
one late in the first half that set up St. Louis's second
touchdown, a two-yard toss from Warner to tight end Ernie
Conwell. After McNabb hit tight end Chad Lewis with a 14-yard
pass just beyond midfield, Herring zoomed in and batted the ball
free. Another newcomer, rookie strong safety Adam Archuleta,
scooped it up in stride and chugged into Philadelphia territory.
Handling the rock carelessly, Archuleta fumbled after Eagles
guard Jermane Mayberry hit him, but the ever-hustling Williams
recovered at the Philly 30. "Thank God for Aeneas," Herring said.
"Archuleta thought he was Barry Sanders, but he was running more
like Colonel Sanders."

Archuleta will likely get an earful from no-nonsense coordinator
Smith, who is not well known to fans but is a hot property within
coaching circles. "I have a lot of respect for Lovie," Reid said
last Friday as he sat in his office at the Eagles' new practice
facility, across from the stadium. "He had a lot to do with their
success in Tampa [as the Bucs' linebackers coach], and he'll
succeed with the Rams. From watching their preseason film, I
could see he's done a great job, techniquewise, with those
players. From the way they follow their assignments to the way
they swarm to the ball, it's clear he's gotten his point across."

Herring, another underappreciated leader, was a natural choice to
assume the role of defensive signal-caller. A smart, steady
player with Baltimore, he also brings some of the Ravens'
nastiness to a unit that lacked that quality in 2000. "From what
guys have told me, the schemes were confusing as heck," Herring
says. "When I got here, I didn't even watch film of last year's
defense, because I didn't see the point. Lovie puts us in
position to make plays, and it's up to us to do our thing."

Well, usually it is. Despite Sunday's victory and the defense's
final stand in overtime, which came after a pair of McNabb
completions had given Philly a first down at its 35, Herring was
peeved by his lack of contact. "I was kind of mad, because [the
Eagles] weren't throwing it my way at all," he said. "I don't
know if that's just the way the schemes worked it, or if it was a
sign of respect, but I hated it, because I wanted to be in the
mix so badly. I'll tell you one thing, though--when we needed to
score, I had the utmost confidence in our offense, which is a
first for me."

That's why Herring, like so many other St. Louis defenders,
didn't want the game to end before they had their chance for
redemption. "Losing the coin toss was great," Fletcher said. "We
want to be the reason we win, instead of the reason we lose, and
that was our chance to make a statement that the Rams' defense
is for real this year."

Added Smith, "In overtime, rightfully so, we had to go out there
and stop them. When they went on those long touchdown drives, it
was kind of a shock to me. But it's amazing what you find out
about yourself in situations like that."

Nothing was surprising about what happened once St. Louis got the
ball back in OT: Martz made high-risk calls, Faulk picked up
blitzers, Bruce ran picturesque routes and Warner (who for the
game completed 28 of 42 passes for 308 yards) provided pinpoint
throws. After Wilkins made the victory official, and the Rams
rushed onto the field to celebrate, Faulk embraced Williams,
telling the six-time Pro Bowl selection, "I love your approach to
the game. It's a pleasure having you here."

Ask Williams, and he'll tell you the pleasure is all his. Were he
still with the Cardinals, he might have been watching Sunday's
game from a Scottsdale sports bar. (Thanks to its last-place
finish in the NFC East, Arizona had an opening-week bye.)
Instead, he was all over the field in the league's marquee
matchup. Unlike some other outstanding cover cornerbacks of his
era, the 5'11", 200-pound Williams isn't afraid to hit people. He
was more Grime Time than Prime Time during the pivotal plays on
Sunday, including McNabb's one-yard touchdown pass to fullback
Cecil Martin on fourth-and-goal with 10 minutes remaining.
Although Martin outweighs him by 35 pounds, Williams met the
fullback head-on at the goal line and drove him backward for what
looked like a dramatic stop, but after a replay review, officials
ruled that Martin had broken the plane.

"It's hard to describe how happy I am to be here," Williams said
in a nearly empty locker room. "All I can do is thank the Lord
every day that I have a chance to play with guys like this. Just
watching our offense is a treat. It's the greatest show on earth,
and I've got a front-row seat."

Then Williams gathered his belongings and walked down a corridor
to the Rams' team bus. He stopped to talk to several
well-wishers, but he never stopped smiling.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Ganging up The revamped St. Louis defense gave McNabb (center) plenty of attention all day.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS MVP Faulk didn't run wild, but he did the little things--picking up blitzers, gaining tough yards--needed to win.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Kurt reply Douglas got a sack on this play, but Warner had a typical pinpoint passing day, completing 28 of 42 throws for 308 yards.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Safety first Herring's hit on Lewis forced a fumble that was recovered by Archuleta (31), setting up a Rams score late in the first half.
"People know we can blow teams out," says Faulk. "Now they also
see we can pull out close games."
"We couldn't have won a game like this last year," says Martz.
"We weren't tough enough."
Says Fletcher of the Rams' defense, "We want to be the reason we
win instead of the reason we lose."