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New defense boosts Rams

Nine new starters help shut down the Eagles' Donovan McNabb through three quarters, and St. Louis wins 20-17 on an OT field goal.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 10, 2001


PHILADELPHIA -- They have walked off the field as friends and teammates, cohorts and confidantes. Often as winners, once as champions.

Yet rarely, in recent seasons, have the Rams offense and defense walked off the field as equals.

That changed here Sunday. Perhaps temporarily but, at least for a day, impressively. A state-of-the-art offense put its faith in a run-of-the-mill defense and came out a winner.

St. Louis survived a fourth-quarter comeback by the Eagles to win its season opener 20-17 in overtime.

It was the first time since 1998 that the Rams won a regular-season game when scoring 21 points or fewer. (Of course, there was that 11-6 playoff victory against a certain swashbuckling southern team two seasons ago.)

"We wanted to come out today," Rams linebacker Mark Fields said, "and shock the nation."

Maybe it is an overstatement to say the Rams defense shocked the nation by yielding 17 points. Then again, maybe not.

This is a team that scored 540 last season, the second-highest in league history, but failed to win a playoff game. That can be explained by a defense that gave up 471 points, the seventh-worst effort in history.

The Rams decided a change was in order. It turned out to be something of an overhaul.

Tampa Bay linebackers coach Lovie Smith was brought in as defensive coordinator, and the Rams went on a shopping spree for experienced defensive help. Aeneas Williams came in a trade from Arizona, and Fields, Chidi Ahanotu and Kim Herring were signed as free agents. In all, the Rams began Sunday's game with nine new starters on defense.

On a day when seven of Marshall Faulk's carries went for 1 yard or less, when Kurt Warner threw more interceptions than touchdowns, when they could not score a second-half touchdown, the Rams still won.

"We came out here trying to make a name for ourselves. To put our own signature on this team," said Ahanotu, a one-time stalwart on the Bucs line. "We needed this kind of game to develop that confidence, that attitude."

Using the same basic philosophies as the Buccaneers -- stretch the field and force the opposing offense to maintain long drives -- the Rams held Philadelphia to three points through three quarters.

Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb rallied his team with a brilliant fourth quarter, rushing for 41 yards and throwing for 127, but the Rams shut him down on the first overtime possession.

Given another shot, Warner came through for the Rams. He connected with Isaac Bruce for completions of 20 and 27 yards to move within range for a 27-yard game-winning field goal from Jeff Wilkins.

"What I liked about this game is we learned a lot about ourselves," Smith said. "We learned in the first half that we can play pretty good ball. And we learned in the second half that we still have a ways to go. But the best part is that we showed character and hung in there at the very end when we needed to get that one big stop.

"I know how hard it is to stop (McNabb). I came in here with a very good Tampa Bay defense in January and was beaten soundly."

With McNabb and the Eagles coming to Tampa Bay on Sunday, Bucs coaches might want to give Smith a call for tips.

Although McNabb ran for 48 yards and threw for 312, the Rams kept the Eagles out of the end zone for three quarters by resisting the urge to overpursue. The defensive ends were more interested in containing McNabb so he could not get out of the pocket and create plays.

It was quite a change for a team that gave up 30 points or more in eight games last season, including a playoff loss to New Orleans.

"The big thing is this wasn't a 38-35 win in overtime," Williams said. "We gave them 17 points. I love what the defense did today."

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