If one play exemplified the defense's newfound spunk, it was the one late in the first half that set up St. Louis's second touchdown, a two-yard toss from Warner to tight end Ernie Conwell. After McNabb hit tight end Chad Lewis with a 14-yard pass just beyond midfield, Herring zoomed in and batted the ball free. Another newcomer, rookie strong safety Adam Archuleta, scooped it up in stride and chugged into Philadelphia territory I kindling the rock carelessly. Archuleta fumbled after Eagles guard Jermane May-berry hit him, but the ever-hustling Williams recovered at the Philly 30. "Thank God for Aeneas," Herring said. " Archuleta thought he was Barry Sanders, but he was running more like Colonel Sanders."
Archuleta will likely get an earful from no-nonsense coordinator Smith, who is not well known to fans but is a hot property within coaching circles. "I have a lot of respect for Lovie," Reid said last Friday as he sat in his office at the Eagles' new practice facility, across from the stadium. "He had a lot to do with their success in Tampa [as the Bucs' linebackers coach], and he'll succeed with the Rams. From watching their preseason film, I could see he's done a great job, techniquewise, with those players. From the way they follow their assignments to the way they swarm to the ball, it's clear he's gotten his point across."
Herring, another underappreciated leader, was a natural choice to assume the role of defensive signal-caller. A smart, steady player with Baltimore, he also brings some of the Ravens' nastiness to a unit that lacked that quality in 2000. "From what guys have told me, the schemes were confusing as heck," Herring says. "When I got here, I didn't even watch film of last year's defense, because I didn't see the point. Lovie puts us in position to make plays, and it's up to us to do our thing."
Well, usually it is. Despite Sunday's victory and the defense's final stand in overtime, which came after a pair of McNabb completions had given Philly a first down at its 35, Herring was peeved by his lack of contact. "I was kind of mad, because [the Eagles] weren't throwing it my way at all," he said. "I don't know if that's just the way the schemes worked it, or if it was a sign of respect, but I hated it, because I wanted to be in the mix so badly. I'll tell you one thing, though—when we needed to score, I had the utmost confidence in our offense, which is a first for me."
That's why Herring, like so many other St. Louis defenders, didn't want the game to end before they had their chance for redemption. "Losing the coin toss was great," Fletcher said. "We want to be the reason we win, instead of the reason we lose, and that was our chance to make a statement that the Rams' defense is for real this year."
Added Smith, "In overtime, rightfully so, we had to go out there and stop them. When they went on those long touchdown drives, it was kind of a shock to me. But it's amazing what you find out about yourself in situations like that."
Nothing was surprising about what happened once St. Louis got the ball back in OT: Martz made high-risk calls, Faulk picked up blitzers, Bruce ran picturesque routes and Warner (who for the game completed 28 of 42 passes for 308 yards) provided pinpoint throws. After Wilkins made the victory official, and the Rams rushed onto the field to celebrate, Faulk embraced Williams, telling the six-time Pro Bowl selection, "I love your approach to the game. It's a pleasure having you here."
Ask Williams, and he'll tell you the pleasure is all his. Were he still with the Cardinals, he might have been watching Sunday's game from a Scottsdale sports bar. (Thanks to its last-place finish in the NFC East, Arizona had an opening-week bye.) Instead, he was all over the field in the league's marquee matchup. Unlike some other outstanding cover cornerbacks of his era, the 5'11", 200-pound Williams isn't afraid to hit people. He was more Grime Time than Prime Time during the pivotal plays on Sunday, including McNabb's one-yard touchdown pass to fullback Cecil Martin on fourth-and-goal with 10 minutes remaining. Although Martin outweighs him by 35 pounds, Williams met the fullback head-on at the goal line and drove him backward for what looked like a dramatic stop, but after a replay review, officials ruled that Martin had broken the plane.
"It's hard to describe how happy I am to be here," Williams said in a nearly empty locker room. "All I can do is thank the Lord every day that I have a chance to play with guys like this. Just watching our offense is a treat. It's the greatest show on earth, and I've got a front-row seat."
Then Williams gathered his belongings and walked down a corridor to the Rams' team bus. He stopped to talk to several well-wishers, but he never stopped smiling.