NEW ORLEANS – Fans in New England know all about turnarounds after watching their Patriots flip from 5-11 in 2000 to 11-5 this year, a trip to the Super Bowl included. It's hard to imaging St. Louis, just two seasons removed from a Super Bowl title, experience such a turnaround of its own, but such is the case.
A year ago, the Rams defense was dreadful, allowing 471 points in 16 regular season games. As high-powered as the offense was, the defense could not make any lead hold, forcing the team to win every game in a shutout. With the arrival of defensive coordinator Lovie Smith in 2001, that all changed.
These days the St. Louis is nearly as strong a unit as the offense. It was the top-ranked NFC team in terms of yardage allowed with just 279.4 per game, and the total points allowed of 273 was sixth-best in the league. That is 198 points fewer than they allowed the year before.
"I think we just made them accountable to each other," said Smith, who came on board after coaching the linebackers in Tampa Bay from 1996-2000. "From that we talked about what our philosophy was going to be. We wanted to get 11 guys to the football, guys giving maximum effort each play. The motivation came from us saying, 'If you want to be a part of this, you have to do it our way.'"
With Head Coach Mike Martz giving the defensive reigns over the Smith, he was able to enforce a no-nonsense attitude on his players. Using both the draft and free agency to stockpile defensive players, Smith blended in eight new starters with three holdovers to create a unit that came together very quickly.
"I was impressed with his confidence and demeanor and the way he treated you like a man," said defensive end Grant Winstrom, who was second on the team with nine sacks. "He only has to tell you one time to do something, because if you don't do it, he won't hesitate to find somebody else to do it."
One of the biggest acquisitions St. Louis made for the defense was cornerback Aeneas Williams, who was entering his 11th season. After enjoying plenty of individual success (six Pro Bowls) but little team success in 10 seasons in Arizona, Williams embraced the hard-nosed coaching style Smith brought to St. Louis.
"You love the fact that he has no fear of correcting his players, regardless of who they are," Williams said. "It's not a lot of rah-rah or fluff. You know what he's thinking because he tells you. He holds you accountable for yourself, and that's what you appreciate. You have a coach who tells you the truth and requires you to play hard. If you don't play hard, you won't play."
Smith stresses fundamental skills to his players, and apparently they all got the message. The defense lowered its average total yards allowed by more than 60 yards per game, jumping from 23rd overall to third in the NFL. They allowed 44 less passing yards and 20 less rushing yards per game, establishing a balanced and basic defensive approach that dictated success.
"Sometimes in this game we make it more complicated than what it really is," Williams said. "Coach Lovie has done a great job of recognizing the things we can't control and then not worrying about them. He demands excellence in the things we can control.
"He tells us all the time that he is not asking us to do a lot, but what he is asking us to do, he wants done with excellence at a high level. He'll come into a meeting and make a statement that is not disrespectful, but it gets your attention. When he comes into a meeting and says, 'Some guys are making the same mistakes. I'm telling you right now guys we are looking to replace you.' When he says something like that, it is not taking as a slap in the face. It's taken as, 'Okay, Daddy is a little upset. We need to get it right.'"
Still, the defense seemed to continue to be overlooked for much of the season. Even a drastic in-season improvement didn't garner much attention, as the Rams allowed 27 yards per game less over the final nine games of the year (267.6) than it did over the first seven games (294.7).
In fact, it wasn't until St. Louis intercepted Green Bay's Brett Favre six times and forced eight total turnovers in the AFC Divisional win over the Packers that Smith's boys started to get their due.
"We've felt like we had a great defense all year long, but sometimes it takes something crazy like eight turnovers in a game to happen before people really recognize it," Winstrom said. "Every week we hear something new, like we are not physical, so you can run the football on us. We take that as an insult. We go on the field with a chip on our shoulder, and that's how you have to play football."
Smith discounts any thoughts that there is less pressure on the defense to play well because of the offensive prowess of the Rams. Quite to the contrary, he thinks the scoring ability of the offense has forced the defense to shape up even quicker.
"From the time I got here, I just assumed we had to get it done," Smith said. "It's hard telling a Marshall Faulk or Kurt Warner, 'Hey guys, give us a little while. Give us a couple years for the defense to get it together.' People wanted to see it right away.
"We put the pressure on ourselves to get close to where our offense was. Our offense is the best in the history of the NFL. We just want to be considered one of the best defenses in the league."