Phifer's Linebacker Play Rises to Occasion : Rams: After sinking on the team's depth chart, he rebounds with the game of his career Sunday against the Patriots.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Guys who play for Chuck Knox eventually learn to pay close attention to what he says to the media. Actually, it's more a case of paying attention to what the Ram coach doesn't say.

For instance: Marcus Dupree rushes for 100 yards in one half of an exhibition game and Knox is asked to assess the performance. "He got some carries and he got some yards," he says. Two weeks later, Dupree is cut.

So, whether he knew it or not, it's pretty obvious Roman Phifer was sinking like a depth charge in the depth chart early last week. Starting right linebacker Paul Butcher injured his foot and Knox started talking about getting the chance to look at Scott Stephen, a former Green Bay linebacker the Rams plucked off waivers Sept. 2.

Knox's responses to questions about Phifer were of the "he's been working hard" variety. He might as well have been ringing a death knell.

Phifer managed a last-second escape from obscurity, however, with an inspired week of practice. Knox changed his mind and named Phifer the starter for Sunday's game against New England.

Well, maybe he didn't really change his mind . . .

"The comments on Stephen, well, a guy just can't learn a new system that fast," linebacker coach Dick Selcer said. "You can't get a guy ready in a week. We're not talking about a down lineman who just comes in to rush the passer. I mean, he could have played and he probably would've blown 18 coverages."

But Phifer got the message.

"I'm not sure what happened," he said. "I guess I was going after it a little better and playing a little harder in practice. I think it was just a mind-set thing. I just decided in my mind that I was going to have to turn it up a notch to get the opportunity to play.

"Then Coach told me I was going to start. I got the opportunity and I think I made the most out of it."

That much was clear Sunday. Phifer, a second-round pick from UCLA in 1991, had a career-high eight tackles and his first fumble recovery in the NFL.

"He was in on a lot of plays and did a good job," Knox said. "He did a good job against the run and his (pass) drops and things were good.

"We told him last week, too, he would be in there as a linebacker in the nickel package and he adjusted to it, accepted the challenge and played well."

Considering that Buffalo's ground attack had steamrolled the right side of the Rams' defense the week before, it was hardly surprising when the Patriots opened the game running in that same direction. But the Rams--and Phifer in particular--were ready and able this time.

In the first quarter alone, Phifer caught running back Jon Vaughn for a one-yard loss on a short swing pass, tackled Leonard Russell for no gain on a run around left end and stopped fullback John Stephens for no gain on a blast off tackle.

"I was fired up," Phifer said. "It was an opportunity for me to play and I went out there and played as hard as I could and was fortunate enough to make some plays.

"We had a good game plan and they didn't do anything that we didn't expect them to. So we were just ripping on them. It's a definite confidence-builder. I just have to keep trying to build on it, to keep improving and hopefully more good things will happen."

Phifer's fumble recovery came after Gerald Robinson used a roundhouse right to punch the ball loose from the grasp of Patriot quarterback Hugh Millen. All Phifer had to do was fall on the ball, but the fact that he had shoved a 240-pound tight end almost all the way back into Millen didn't go unnoticed by the coaches.

Much to his chagrin, the Ram media guide says Phifer "specializes in pass coverage." It's a reputation that Phifer, 6 feet 2, 235 pounds, has been working very hard to dispel. And his aggressive play against the Patriots shows he's diving helmet-first in the right direction.

"One of my goals this year was to erase that reputation of being just a cover guy and not a physical guy," he said. "I want to think of myself as a complete player and I want other people to see me as a good overall linebacker, not just a guy to use on passing downs."

Selcer doesn't know how that phrase got in the media guide and he advises that you don't believe everything you read.

"If you're fast, you're a cover guy, and if you're slow, you're a run guy," he said, laughing. "One-dimensional guys don't play today. If he's only a cover guy, then we can only use him when they tell us they're going to pass.

"Roman's working very hard to become a complete player and we're pleased with his progress. Sunday was the best game he's played for us. Now, he has to establish consistency."

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