Stealing The Show Emerging from the shadow of the vaunted offense, the defense turns the Rams into a two-headed monster

January 28, 2002

In meetings Pro Bowl cornerback Aeneas Williams is the St. Louis
Rams' answer to Harry Potter bookworm Hermione Granger. He sits
attentively in the front of the room, taking copious notes and
frequently asking questions. On the field, though, he's the
schoolyard bully. Forty minutes before Sunday's NFC divisional
playoff with the Green Bay Packers at the Dome at America's
Center, Williams huddled with his fellow defensive backs during
warmup drills and pounded home his message. "Guys, this is our
moment, and we have to seize it," Williams, a Rams captain and
an 11-year veteran, growled. "What we need to do is cause some
turnovers, so let's go out and get that ball."

Once the game began, Williams was the ringleader in a run of
leather thefts that would have made Tony Soprano proud. St.
Louis's underrated defense forced eight turnovers in its 45-17
victory, more than compensating for a surprisingly tepid effort
by the Rams' offense, to advance to next Sunday's NFC
Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles in St. Louis.
After scoring three touchdowns and setting up a fourth,
coordinator Lovie Smith's devastating defense got its due. "We
were bad, and it didn't matter," running back Marshall Faulk
said of the Rams' offense. "Trip on that for a minute. I don't
know if people thought what our defense did all season was a
fluke, but those guys are better than good. They didn't help us
win the game; they won the damn game."

In fact, Williams, who turns 34 on Jan. 29, nearly produced more
points than the Green Bay offense. He opened the scoring by
intercepting a Brett Favre sideline pass and racing 29 yards for
a touchdown with 9:18 left in the first quarter, and gave St.
Louis (15-2) its final points on a 32-yard interception return
with eight minutes to play. In between, early in the third
quarter, Williams stripped wideout Antonio Freeman and took that
fumble recovery to the house, but after a replay review Williams
was ruled down by contact at the Rams' 31. "A guy like Aeneas
can lift a team, and that's what he's been doing all year," St.
Louis linebacker Don Davis says of Williams, who was acquired
from the Arizona Cardinals in a trade last April. "He's brought
a work ethic to this team that's unfathomable."

The swarming and speed of the Rams' defense appeared to catch
the Packers by surprise. St. Louis's top-ranked offense is
usually the unit that overwhelms opponents with its speed. "When
a team hasn't played against this offense, it's like a boxer who
has watched Mike Tyson on film and formulated a plan," Rams
wideout Isaac Bruce said last Friday. "All of a sudden you're in
the ring, and he hits you a couple of times and your plan is
worthless." But while the offense mustered a season-low 292
yards against Green Bay, the defense administered a beating that
resounded all the way to Philadelphia.

Or did it? "We'll get our five minutes of fame," said middle
linebacker London Fletcher afterward. "Then everyone will focus
on Philly's great pass defense versus our great offense, and
we'll be like that hero who saves the day and disappears into
the night."

Their performance may have been screaming for attention, but
Lovie's Eleven enjoys operating on the down low. Shaped by a
magnificent first-year coordinator who seldom raises his
voice--"When Lovie says you messed up," Fletcher says, "it's
like you let your father down"--the Rams' defenders gently prod
one another to meet a strict standard. Last week, for example,
end Grant Wistrom reminded free safety Kim Herring of their
respective interception totals (two to one, in favor of the big
guy), and other teammates teased rookie linebacker Tommy Polley
about his maiden status in the same category. Message delivered:
Herring returned a second-quarter interception 45 yards to the
Green Bay four, and midway through the third quarter the
long-armed Polley, nicknamed Wings by his teammates, swooped
into the end zone from 34 yards out with the first of his two
interceptions.

After Polley's score Williams, the Rams' lone Pro Bowl selection
on defense, shed what Smith describes as his "A-student
demeanor" and gave in to the thrill of his second career playoff
victory. Mimicking the Packers' Lambeau Leap, Williams launched
himself into the stands behind the end zone and absorbed head
slaps from the fans in the front row. "It was totally
unplanned," he said, as he led his father, Lawrence, toward the
dome's exit. "Before I knew it, I was jumping, and when I made
it over the railing, I was shocked."

After Sunday's show of force, nobody will be shocked if, on Feb.
3 in Williams's hometown of New Orleans, the Rams win their
second Super Bowl in three years.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO SIX-PACK Williams had two of St. Louis's half-dozen interceptions of Favre, and he returned both of them for touchdowns.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)