- Nick Wagoner, ESPN St. Louis Rams reporter
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Long before the St. Louis Rams traded for running back Marshall Faulk or hired Mike Martz to run the offense or any of the other moves they made that eventually turned the offense into what is now known as the "Greatest Show on Turf," the Rams' offense was perpetually stuck in the mud. Even in practice.
That's because even as the Rams struggled to win games, they actually had the defensive pieces in place to become a good team if only the offense could keep them off the field long enough to come up for air.
"I just don’t think they talk about our defense enough," receiver Torry Holt said. "We were the No. 1 offense in the National Football League, but our defense was top five in the NFL. But they were so overshadowed by what we were doing offensively and the speed and the points that we were generating, the energy that we created. But I think our defense just didn’t get talked about enough and still doesn’t get talked about enough.
"Some would say there wasn’t a lot of household names. I beg to differ. Todd Lyght, Kevin Carter, Mike Jones, D’Marco Farr, Ray Agnew, Keith Lyle, the list goes on and on of guys that were more than able to start on any team in the National Football League. They played together as a cohesive unit all the time for a long period of time for 16 weeks. They created a lot of turnovers and gave us as an offense the opportunity to get the ball back and generate more points."
As the Rams offense burst on to the scene in 1999, the defense made a similar move to rank near the top of the league in most categories. Though the two were simultaneously impressing on a weekly basis, the defense was quietly flying under the radar by offering big plays and shutting down opponents in blowout victories.
Although it was easy to point to the large leads the offense often staked the defense to as the reason for success, such leads were also a product of a defense capable of getting enough early stops for the points to accumulate. And in many cases, the defense also provided the points.
That season, the Rams were fourth in the NFL in points allowed per game (15.1), first in run defense (74.3 yards per game) and tied for the league lead with 57 sacks. They also finished sixth in takeaways with 36 and scored three defensive touchdowns.
Defensive end Carter posted a then-franchise record with 17 sacks on his way to a Pro Bowl berth. Defensive tackle Farr and cornerback Lyght joined Carter in Hawaii. It was a group that also featured the young versions of future difference-makers London Fletcher and Leonard Little.
"We all did our job," Farr said. "The Greatest Show on Turf thing where it became just about the offense, that’s something else from outside this room. We all worked together. When we stopped them and got the ball back, we knew we were going to score. It was a personal challenge. They’d be up watching us play defense and we’d be up watching them play offense. If you don’t do it, we’re going to do it. If you have a whole group like that, the next thing you know you are in the Super Bowl."
In no place was that more evident than on the practice fields at Rams Park. For the previous two seasons under coach Dick Vermeil, the Rams' defense would regularly dominate the proceedings in practice. Receiver Isaac Bruce remembers the helpless feeling of playing on an offense that couldn't even score in practice let alone in games.
But after the offseason additions of guys like Faulk, Martz, Holt, Adam Timmerman and others, it didn't take long for the defense to realize that things were about to change.
"It’s not like you don’t have much respect for the guys you play with, you do," Farr said. "They’re your teammates, you love them, but we were facing a whole lot better on game day than we were getting in practice. So practice got boring some of those years. We could shut those guys down anytime we needed to, so how were we getting better? Then all of a sudden it switched where we’re on our heels, we’re backing up and you look up and start to recognize signals and demeanor. Then it became something different and they started to compete with us and beat us."
In many ways, the practices became tougher than the games for the defense. Where Farr could once have his way with any nondescript guard on the roster, players like Timmerman and Tom Nutten would offer much more resistance. Tales of left tackle Orlando Pace's dominance of end Grant Wistrom in practice still get talked about anytime an offensive tackle beats an end consistently in pass-rush drills. But Pace's excellence only made things easier for Wistrom.
Though the defense still doesn't get the credit it might deserve 15 years later, there is no denying the Rams wouldn't have even gone to Super Bowl XXXIV, let alone win it, without a strong defensive performance. When the offense finally struggled against Tampa Bay's stout defense in the NFC Championship Game, it was the Rams' defense that rose to the occasion.
The Rams held Tampa Bay to 203 total yards and came up with two turnovers, five sacks and a safety in leading St. Louis to an 11-6 victory.
"We got into a dogfight," Farr said. "It made me respect Tampa more on defense, because if you can slow those guys down, then you can play. But we were more than capable of going into a dogfight with anybody. That type of game is what that defense was used to before the offense took off. It was nothing new to us. It was 'OK, that’s what type of game this is? Great.' We’d been there before. So we were trained for it."
They became champions because of it.
Unit was often dominant, but overshadowed by explosive offense