Rams buying into Linehan's program

First-year head coach Scott Linehan has the surprising Rams playing tough defense and sitting atop their division.

Updated: October 12, 2006, 9:43 AM ET
By Michael Smith | ESPN.com

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- You know how sometimes you just know it isn't going to be your day? Leonard Little had that feeling here Sunday before his Rams even took the field against the Packers. Little felt tired, sluggish, not his usual energetic self. His mouth was dry and, as the game progressed, he was on the verge of cramping -- symptoms of dehydration. Little would limp to the trainer's room afterward and receive two IVs.

But it was a different kind of boost, one of the verbal variety Little received in the third quarter from fiery defensive coordinator Jim Haslett early in the second half, that got the defensive end feeling and performing, if only for one play, like his old, Pro Bowl self. Haslett, the former Saints coach, told Little that he needed him, the Rams needed him, to make something happen.

"I told him I'd do my best," Little said.

And did he ever. The Packers were at the Rams' 11-yard line with three plays and 44 seconds remaining and trailing by 3 when Little got around Green Bay tackle Matt Tauscher and got his right hand on the football, knocking it from Brett Favre's grasp. Jerametrius Butler eventually recovered, preserving a 23-20 win.

And so now, along with the New Orleans Saints, the Rams, with their 4-1 record and first-place standing under rookie head coach Scott Linehan, stand as the biggest surprise of the season's early going. Gone are the days of the Greatest Show on Turf; Linehan's Rams are winning with ball control and -- yes -- defense. Yet they've remained entertaining; each of St. Louis' wins has gone down to the wire, and the combined margin of victory is 20 points. (Middle linebacker Will Witherspoon's deflections in the final seconds preserved wins over Denver and Detroit, and his fumble recovery inside of 2 minutes secured a win at Arizona.)

Whereas the Rams under former coach Mike Martz were widely considered soft, these Rams are best described as resilient.

"This team always fights," Little said after the game. "That's the difference between this team and teams of the past. We fight till the end."

First and foremost, the Rams have one another's backs. There is a camaraderie with this team that players say developed over the course of a physical training camp, one that did not exist near the end of the Martz era, when dysfunction was the norm.

"There was a lot of finger-pointing last year," linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa said. "We pointed the finger at the equipment guy for not giving us the right cleats."

"I think the No. 1 identity," Linehan told the St. Louis media this week, "is that they play well together. We've done a little bit of 'ham and egging,' like you do in golf when you play with a partner [and post good scores on alternate holes]. I think we've done a little bit of that, and I think good teams do that."

In keeping with the golf analogy, Linehan likens the philosophical change the Rams have had to undergo under his watch to Tiger Woods' decision to adjust his swing. St. Louis experienced early success under Martz playing shootout-style football with a defense, under then-coordinator Lovie Smith, that complemented the offense by creating turnovers. But gradually the Rams seemed to grow almost indifferent toward defense. Holdovers on that side of the ball make no bones about their displeasure with former coordinator Larry Marmie's schemes.

Enter Haslett, who before leading the Saints gained a stellar reputation as a coordinator, and four key free agents: "under" defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, safety Corey Chavous, cornerback Fakhir Brown and Witherspoon. The quartet has added talent and veteran leadership, both of which were missing. There is, for the first time since Smith relayed the signals from the St. Louis sideline, accountability in and organization to the Rams' defense. Witherspoon said he could tell that Linehan, a former offensive coordinator, was serious about improving the Rams' defense when the limousine picked Witherspoon up at the airport for his free-agent visit and inside were both Haslett and the head coach.

"We want to win. We're not all about the stats or the numbers we can put up or what record charts we can climb up. Guys are buying into what's going on. We don't have selfish dudes. We've got guys that understand what [Linehan] is trying to do and we've bought into that."
Torry Holt, Rams WR

St. Louis' retooled defense has jelled quickly. The Rams might give up a few yards (22nd in overall defense), but Haslett has them taking the football away. St. Louis is tied with Chicago for the league lead with 15 takeaways.

"We know what we're doing and why we're doing it," nose tackle Jimmy Kennedy said. "I don't think we knew that in the past."

The Rams already knew a thing or two about moving the ball before Linehan arrived. But under Martz, they were careless with the football and often ignored the run. Linehan has made it the Rams' mission to be balanced. Either rushing or receiving (especially lately now that teams are stacking the box), Steven Jackson gets his 20-25 touches. You have to play St. Louis honest now.

The Rams have committed only three turnovers, including no interceptions. Linehan has quarterback Marc Bulger playing more conservatively, checking down more. Bulger has attempted 169 passes without an interception and, dating to last season, has a team-record streak of 214 consecutive throws without a pick.

Sure, St. Louis has struggled a little in the red zone, but the offense remains potent: 10th overall, eighth in passing. Most important, the Rams are setting up for a kick of some kind at the end of drives -- extra point, field goal, punt -- and not kicking themselves after a turnover. Their 15 takeaways and three giveaways give St. Louis a plus-12 turnover margin, tops in the league. Last year, the Rams were minus-10.

"We want to win," All-Pro receiver Torry Holt said. "We're not all about the stats or the numbers we can put up or what record charts we can climb up. Guys are buying into what's going on. We don't have selfish dudes. We've got guys that understand what [Linehan] is trying to do and we've bought into that."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Michael Smith

NFL Senior Writer
Michael Smith joined ESPN in July 2004 as a National Football League senior writer for ESPN.com, covering league news and major events such as the NFL Draft, NFL Playoffs and the Super Bowl, and continues to write breaking news stories. He is also a correspondent for E:60, ESPN's first multi-themed prime-time newsmagazine program, which debuted October 2007.