THE BELIEF Whilethe Rams retain much of the arsenal from the pass-crazy offense of former coachMike Martz, rookie head man Scott Linehan will balance the attack, clearing thelanes for talented tailback Steven Jackson. The bigger change, however, willcome on defense, where St. Louis hired former Saints coach Jim Haslett ascoordinator and spent most of its $100 million in off-season acquisitions. Itis potentially the Rams' best defense since the 2001 season-the last time theyreached the Super Bowl.
THE REALITYThough Linehan doesn't have an alliterative moniker like Mad MikeMartz-"I'm too boring a guy to have a nickname," he says-he hasoverseen explosive, pass-oriented systems in Miami and Minnesota as anoffensive coordinator. Guiding the attack for the fifth season is the NFL'smost underappreciated quarterback, Marc Bulger, whose career passer rating of90.6 is sixth best in NFL history. Problem is, he has injured his throwingshoulder three times since 2004-an occupational hazard when you throw as manyas 62 times in a game, as Bulger did against the Giants last year.
Now Bulger willlean heavily on Jackson, who has a dazzling blend of speed and power. Plus,Linehan's emphasis on short, quick passes should help. And for a backup, St.Louis acquired 13-year vet Gus Frerotte, who won nine of 15 starts last seasonin Miami and also played for Linehan in Minnesota. The No. 1 wideout is stillTorry Holt, who last year became the first player in NFL history to have sixstraight seasons of 1,300 or more receiving yards.
Before the Ramschallenge for a wild-card berth, however, they have to remake a defense thatranked 30th in the league. They did that in a single season once before: In2000 they allowed a franchise-worst 29.4 points per game, then hired LovieSmith to be the coordinator and gave up only 17.0 a year later. (Smith is nowthe Bears' coach.) Haslett, a former linebacker who brings aggressive schemes,will have at least six new starters to engineer similar improvement. The keyaddition will be Will Witherspoon, an athletic linebacker who is strong againstthe run and pass. He was overshadowed in Carolina by linebacker Dan Morgan anddefensive end Julius Peppers, but he has an opportunity to draw attention whilemaking the transition from the weakside to the middle.
Defensive tackleLa'Roi Glover, who went to his sixth Pro Bowl last season, with the Cowboys,will bolster the run defense and complement Leonard Little (9 1/2 sacks) on thepass rush. The secondary, which yielded the third-most passing touchdowns inthe league, also has to tighten the screws. Free-agent signee Corey Chavous, acerebral safety with the Vikings, should be better on pass coverage thanheavy-hitting Adam Archuleta, who left for the Redskins.
Says Witherspoon,"We're not going to be guys who say, 'Hey, we know the offense is going toscore 50, so as long as we hold [the other side] to 48, we're good.'"
The attack underLinehan won't get close to 50 as often as it used to, which perhaps makes himMartz Lite. It's not much of a moniker, but that doesn't matter. It's thedefense that must make a name for itself if the Rams are to return to theplayoffs.
17 at SanFrancisco
24 at Arizona
8 at GreenBay
29 at SanDiego
5 KANSAS CITY
12 at Seattle
26 SAN FRANCISCODECEMBER
17 at Oakland
NFL rank T15
Opponents' 2005winning percentage .508
Games againstplayoff teams 6
AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE RAMS
> I don'tunderstand the trade of Brandon Manumaleuna, the big tight end, to theChargers. He had the rap about not working and getting heavy, but he's abanger. He's like an extra offensive lineman. If they want to run the ballmore, that big tight end would have come in handy.
> LeonardLittle had a good year with 91/2 sacks, but he's a liability versus the run.He's solid, but he's not worth all the attention that he gets.
> With IsaacBruce getting older, I bet Kevin Curtis is going to have a big season. I lovehis speed. He was a little raw when he came into the league, but he's reallydeveloped into a reliable threat.
> WillWitherspoon is a winner. He's a solid, consistent linebacker who bringsbig-game experience.
They'll be betterwith ex-Viking Corey Chavous at safety. He doesn't make many mistakes.
He was thegiddiest player in training camp. With coach Mike Martz and running backMarshall Faulk gone, the third-year veteran will finally have an expanded role.Last year Jackson rushed for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns, but his 254carries were the fewest among the NFL's top 15 rushers, and he groused abouthis lack of touches. He's capable of sprinting outside, but he reallyflourishes between the tackles. Now-coming off rib and hip injuries lastseason-he must prove that he's durable enough to handle the extra work.
COACH SCOTTLINEHAN (0-0 in NFL), first season with St. Louis
AARON WALKER* --NEW ACQUISITION
SACKS 1 1/2
SACKS 9 1/2
LA'ROI GLOVER --NEW ACQUISITION
SACKS 6 1/2
MATT TURK* -- NEWACQUISITION
FAKHIR BROWN --NEW ACQUISITION
WILL WITHERSPOON-- NEW ACQUISITION
SACKS 2 1/2
(R) Rookie (college statistics) *2004 statistics
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL)
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JOHN BIEVER (WITHERSPOON)
CENTER POINT Moving from outside linebacker to the middle, Witherspoon is tough against the run and pass.
HELMET PHOTO BY DAVID N. BERKWITZ