THE HEAT'S ON RAM DEFENSE : A Repeat of Final Two Weeks and Season Ends

Times Staff Writer

For two improbable weeks this season the Rams defied the skeptics who said that you can't stop National Football League offenses with a pasta strainer.

Yet there was the Ram defense, the league's most efficient kitchen utensil.

In a day of blitzing defenses and secret cover zones and stunts and rovers, the Rams dared to keep life and football simple.

The Rams swore they'd stuff the run and avoid the big play and not worry so much about the stuff that seeped in between.

And it worked. The Rams became the NFL's No.1-rated defense after their 20-17 win over Chicago on Nov. 3 and stayed there for two weeks.

And don't think they didn't love it.

Yet all is not joyous these days in Ramland as they prepare to face the Washington Redskins in Sunday's NFC wild-card game at Washington.

The defense that the Ram offense had counted so heavily upon early in the season is wobbling.

The Rams finished the season ranked fifth in the NFL overall, which isn't bad. But these past two weeks have sent the coaching staff running for the blackboards.

Through 14 weeks of the NFL season, the Ram defense had been superb, having allowed opponents an average of only 14.7 points and 283 yards per game.

The final two games, though, were a statistical eyesore. The Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers scored a total of 61 points and gained 914 yards in offense.

"We were bad," Robinson said. "We played against good quarterbacks but we're not functioning as well."

Suddenly, there are leaks at every turn. But the Rams say this is not the time to panic.

"I don't look at our defense any differently now than three weeks ago," defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur said. "I don't see it as a big issue. I don't worry about hindsight. Miami is a dead issue. San Francisco is a dead issue."

The question is, will the Rams become a dead issue?

Shurmur says no, that the Rams just need minor repairs. A turn of the wrench here and a twist there should do it.

It's the little things that are killing them.

Example I--In the Rams' overtime loss to Miami on Dec. 14, Miami won the coin toss and drove deep into Ram territory. They had a second down at the Ram 32 when Dan Marino's pass was intercepted by Mickey Sutton on a play that might have turned the game and the whole Ram season around. Remember, a Ram win would have clinched the NFC West.

It would have been just great except that the Rams were offsides on the play, giving Marino another chance.

Marino quickly turned the chance into a 20-yard scoring pass to Mark Duper to win the game.

The Rams are a team that prides itself on not making mistakes.

Through 10 games this season, the Ram defense had allowed opponents just four first downs by penalty.

It was Shurmur's favorite statistic.

But nothing seems to be going right these days.

Example II--In last Friday night's loss to San Francisco, Montana threw a 44-yard scoring pass to Jerry Rice in the first quarter. Ram safety Nolan Cromwell was right in the receiver's face, but Rice out-jumped him for the ball.

"That's part of those little details," Cromwell said. "That was my job to get back there. I was in the middle. I was there. I should have made the play. You have to eliminate those details. You cannot help these teams."

A few more common theories about what's gone wrong.

MARINO AND MONTANA

In the last two weeks, the Rams have faced two of the top-rated quarterbacks in the NFL in Dan Marino and Joe Montana.

"Obviously, that's a significant factor," Shurmur said. "In two successive weeks we ran into the two most productive guys in pro football. As a result, we needed to respond better than we did. It's that simple."

Marino completed 29 of 46 passes against the Rams for 403 yards and 5 touchdowns. Montana completed 23 of 36 for 238 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Against Marino and the Dolphins, the Rams strayed away from their tried and true zone defense thinking they had to get more pressure on Marino.

Man to man defense didn't work, but it's hard to blame the Rams for trying anything to stop the NFL's hottest quarterback.

Of course, not everyone is buying the first theory.

"We should not start pointing fingers at Marino and Montana," defensive end Gary Jeter said. "We should be pointing our thumbs at ourselves and ask what it is we haven't been doing. And what we haven't been doing is making plays."

LET'S GET PHYSICAL

This is a theory that can also carry over to the offense. The Rams this week returned to full-uniform practices for the first time since late October. Robinson thinks his team may have lost the physical edge that had made the Rams an often dominating team on the ground and on defense.

The whole Ram defense is predicated on stopping the running game, yet the 49ers bullied their way for 170 yards on the ground in last Friday night's win.

"One-hundred and seventy yards rushing," Cromwell said. "That's not the way we play defense. It's not a thing that needs to be expressed. Everyone knows what we've got to do."

LeROY'S THEORY

This one is offered by Rams cornerback LeRoy Irvin, who thinks perhaps that some early season publicity may have gone to the defense's head.

He explained it in an analogy, comparing good press to a wino's liquor.

"When he's on the liquor he's not very good," Irvin explained. "When we think we're good, we're in bad shape. As soon as we get off the wine and play sober, we'll be all right."

Irvin said the Rams are at their best as underdogs and overachievers who have to fight and kick for everything they get.

"We're not a team that can just show up and win," Irvin said. "Sometimes when we win we get that attitude that we can just show up on Sundays."

And frankly, Irvin is tired of talking about it.

"It doesn't matter what I think," he said. "It's a matter of what is done on Sunday. I can sit here and say I'm going to kick (Washington quarterback Jay) Schroeder's butt, but if I don't do it on Sunday, it doesn't mean anything."

No, but wasn't it a nice theory?

Ram Notes

The Rams leave for Washington today and will practice Saturday at RFK Stadium. The Redskins' only loss at home this year was a 24-14 loss to the New York Giants on Dec. 7. . . . Remember when? The Rams are playing down their 51-7 playoff loss to the Redskins in 1983. Coach John Robinson considers the subject irrelevant.

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