Defense leads Rams into second round
ST. LOUIS -- It took the St. Louis Rams nearly all season to learn a new defense. They got the hang of it just in time for the playoffs.
The Rams held the Seattle Seahawks to 20 points in their wild-card victory Saturday, a week after limiting the New York Jets to 324 total yards in a regular-season finale that allowed St. Louis to sneak into the postseason with a .500 record.
Once ranked as low as 28th in the NFL in total defense earlier this season while struggling to grasp the scheme of new coordinator Larry Marmie, St. Louis finished a respectable 17th.
"The thing I like about our defense is we're capable of new things every week," coach Mike Martz said Monday. "Once they bought into that whole concept, it's a whole different ballgame."
The Rams will face Atlanta in the divisional playoffs Saturday in large part because they held Seattle's Shaun Alexander to 40 yards on 15 carries after he gouged them for 326 yards in the first two meetings.
"We did a real good job of stopping Alexander," defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy said. "He took advantage of our mistakes the first two games."
Kennedy, who sacked Matt Hasselbeck late in the fourth quarter to help the Rams hold on, has become a factor lately after missing the first seven games with a broken foot.
"Jimmy has just amazed me," Martz said. "What he did quietly while he was away, the way he redefined himself physically, is pretty remarkable."
This week, the Rams will get a stiffer test. Michael Vick is the most dangerous run-pass threat in the NFL, and he ran for 109 yards on 12 carries and passed for 179 in the Falcons' 34-17 victory over St. Louis in Week 2 at Atlanta.
"He certainly is unique and probably as an athlete is the best in the league, there's no question about that," Martz said. "The first thing you do is you need to account for him."
Vick led the NFL with an average of 7.5 yards per carry and rushed for 902 yards, third-best ever for a quarterback. He'll be well-rested because the Falcons earned a first-round bye and Vick played just three possessions in the regular-season finale.
"When you keep a guy out like that, obviously they've got a plan for him," Martz said. "I know they'll have something different that involves him to a large extent."
The Rams' defense features five first-round picks, three of them on the line. Martz said one of them, nose guard Ryan Pickett, played his best game in four seasons with the team last Saturday. He had four tackles and three assists, a quarterback hit and a quarterback pressure.
"As a nose guard, you just don't get those opportunities to make a lot of plays," Martz said. "When it happens, it's very unusual."
The new defense aims to confuse offenses with multiple fronts. Martz said it's not as complicated as the offense, which for a long time also confused the Rams.
"We just had to go through this," Martz said. "At this point I think they feel very good about the fronts we're running and their responsibilities, and they can rely on their speed and their get-off."
As a result, the Rams are an energized team with their second three-game winning streak of the season. Last season, they earned a first-round bye in the playoffs. But Martz said this team doesn't need the rest.
"For us right now you just wouldn't want to have a bye," Martz said. "We're starting to really get going."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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