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The Rams can stop you too

Almost anonymously, the St. Louis defense has established itself as one of the NFL's best.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2000


ST. LOUIS -- In sports, as in war, the best defense is a good offense.

The Rams would seem to have a bonus: the best offense and a good defense.

But surprise! The Rams don't have a good defense. They have a very good defense, one of the best, No. 2 overall in the NFC, No. 6 in the NFL and -- perhaps critically for the Bucs in today's conference championship -- No. 1 in the NFL against the rush.

You may get to see a lot of Pro Bowl defensive linemen Kevin Carter and D'Marco Farr, cornerbacks Todd Lyght and Dexter McCleon, middle linebacker London Fletcher and friends. If you do, and if they are holding on to Tampa Bay bodies or passes, things may not be going well for the Bucs.

"We played 16 regular-season games and we were the No. 1 rush defense in the league," Carter said. "I don't know what else we have to prove. We know, despite a label that we're undersized, that we can defend the run. I think we'll show it again."

This is what confronts the Bucs offense, 28th overall, 15th in rushing and 30th in passing. It rests primarily on the shoulders and feet of running back Warrick Dunn and fullback Mike Alstott.

The X-factor may be quarterback Shaun King.

"Shaun has a lot more poise than a lot of rookies have," linebacker Mike Jones said. "He has started some big games, started on Monday Night Football, plays for a very good team and knows he has a lot of good guys around him.

"Obviously (the Bucs) are going to try to run the football, take pressure off him. ... We're going to have to stop the run, but if we do that we're not going to take (King) lightly 'cause we know he can make plays if you allow him to."

You may not have heard that much about Carter and Co., what with Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch and the rest of the Tampa Bay defense getting so much attention.

But there's more to it than that. There's also the problem, so to speak, of Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, Marshall Faulk, et al. They're the glitz and glitter of the Rams; they make most of the headlines and highlight tapes.

"All the talk this year has been about our offense," Farr said. "We're in the NFC Championship Game and still people are talking about somebody else's defense."

The result: The Rams defense is sort of like the king of the prom when Brad Pitt drops by for the evening -- good-looking, but ...

But nothing.

"We've been overshadowed all year. Doesn't bother us," McCleon said. "We want to go out and show we have a good defense, but we don't have to prove anything to anybody but our coaches."

The Rams had eight defensive touchdowns (Jones scored three) to Tampa Bay's two. They tied for the league lead with 57 sacks to Tampa Bay's 42. Carter had 17 sacks to Sapp's 121/2, yet Sapp was named defensive player of the year.

"The only thing people probably know about us is that Kevin Carter led the NFL in sacks," Fletcher said. "Other than that, they probably don't know much about us. They probably couldn't name six starters on our defense. ... Tampa (Bay) does have a great defense, but if you look at our stats, we compare against anyone else's."

What's more, McCleon said, one aspect of the Rams defense is probably better than the numbers suggest. It is No. 20 against the pass. That drags down the overall ranking. And, McCleon said, it happens because the St. Louis offense is so good.

"We've been in a lot of situations this year," he said, "where we were way ahead in the game and we sort of softened it up a lot and teams piled up a lot of yards or points late in the game."

Bucs coach Tony Dungy agreed. "(The Rams) have a lot of speed in their front seven. It helps that they're ahead most of the time and people have been impatient and have had to throw the ball to play catchup."

Case in point: the NFC divisional playoff against Minnesota a week ago. The Rams rolled up a 49-17 lead and several of their starters came out. Vikings quarterback Jeff George threw on just about every down, and he wound up with three fourth-quarter touchdowns and an artificially inflated 424 passing yards.

The Rams won their games by an average of 18 points. "If we were in tight games," McCleon said, "our numbers would be a lot better than what they were."

That said, the Rams are prepared for the Bucs to stick with what they do best. "A lot of teams get out of their game plan," Jones said. "You know, the other team scores some points and they can't run the ball; they start throwing it.

"Tampa Bay's going to be more resilient, stick with the game plan. They got down 10-0, 13-0, they still kept trying to run the ball against Washington. As long as they keep a game close, with their defense they have a chance to win."

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