Georgia Done brings out the best in Ram's defense, 41-20

Monday, September 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA – Maybe it was the return to the Georgia Dome that rekindled the defensive flame of the St. Louis Rams.

This was the site of arguably the finest defensive play in franchise history – Mike Jones' tackle of Kevin Dyson a foot short of the goal line on the final play of the Super Bowl last January. That preserved a 23-16 victory and gave the Rams their first championship in 48 years. Maybe the Rams were inspired by that memory.

Maybe it was the opponent the Rams found in the dome Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons. NFC West teams have long served as overmatched sparring partners for the division champion – taking punch after punch and throwing few in return. The San Francisco 49ers benefited from the lack of competition in the West in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, it's the Rams' turn.

Maybe, just maybe, it was the inner realization by the Rams that a lack of defense could be standing in their way of winning back-to-back Super Bowls.

Whatever the reason, St. Louis finally started playing some D on Sunday, four weeks into the 2000 season. The Rams hadn't needed defense to this point, nor did they need any Sunday. Kurt Warner continued his assault on the NFL record book, passing for 336 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-20 rout of the Falcons.

But at some point, the Rams will need to play some defense to win a game. Maybe it will be in November when they meet Washington. Or in December, when they play Tampa Bay. Or in January, when they face Indianapolis, Baltimore or Denver in the Super Bowl. Defense still wins championships, as Jones proved with his tackle.

Sunday was the first sign in 2000 that the Rams are still capable of playing championship-caliber defense. They played it a year ago when they led the NFL in run defense and sacks and finished sixth overall.

The players are basically the same from 1999 to 2000 – but not the results. Through three games, the Rams found themselves 30th in the NFL in defense. Only San Francisco had allowed more yards and points. But offensively, Warner & Co. led the NFL in scoring, so the Rams managed to stay unbeaten despite the generosity of their defense.

"There was reason for concern," said Pro Bowl defensive end Kevin Carter. "But we weren't going to scrap the whole defense and start over. We know we still have a good defense. This wasn't something we were going to cry about. But it was something we needed to address."

And address it they did with a more aggressive blitz package.

The Rams managed only seven sacks in their first three games. They collected eight sacks against the Falcons. The Rams managed only five takeaways through the first three weeks. They forced three against the Falcons – and safety Keith Lyle returned one of them 94 yards for a touchdown.

The Rams were allowing an average of 121 yards per game on the ground. They allowed only 68 against Atlanta. The Rams were allowing an average of 388 yards per game. They held the Falcons 102 below that. And the 20 points scored by Atlanta were a season-low allowed by St. Louis.

"When our offense is scoring 40 points," Rams cornerback Dre Bly said, "we should be winning blowouts."

The bottom line is that no team has ever won a Super Bowl with a 20th-ranked defense, much less 30th. The lowest a championship defense has ever ranked in the Super Bowl era was 18th, both the 1987 Redskins and the 1976 Raiders.

Only one team in the 1990s won a Super Bowl with a defense ranked outside the Top 10 – and just barely outside. The Denver Broncos won their second Super Bowl in 1998 with a defense that ranked 11th in the NFL.

So the Rams had to make some dramatic strides to bring their defense back into contention statistically to compete for a championship in 2000. They took some lengthy strides Sunday. End Grant Wistrom led the sack brigade with his first three sacks of the season, and both Bly and Dexter McCleon intercepted passes.

"I'm not saying the problem is fixed," Bly said. "I'm not even saying we had a problem. We made some mistakes [in the first three games]. We didn't make those same mistakes today. We knew we had to start making plays, and we made them. This is the way we all know we can play defense. This was a great confidence boost for us."