Aeneas Williams felt his nostrils expand and his cheeks tighten, and before he knew it, the St. Louis Rams' cornerback was grinning beyond all reason. In his first game with the Rams after 10 stellar seasons with the Cardinals, Williams and his fellow defenders had surrendered a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to the Philadelphia Eagles, delighting 66,243 fans at Veterans Stadium on Sunday evening. Now, with the score tied at 17, overtime looming and momentum in the Eagles' favor, St. Louis lost the coin toss—which meant that Williams and the Rams' other worn-out defenders would have to stop Philly's potent quarterback, Donovan McNabb, or be blamed for squandering their team's season opener.
So why was this man smiling? Sure, Williams has been on a nearly constant serotonin rush since being freed from the futility of his former NFL life last April in a draft-day trade that sent him to the Rams for second-and fourth-round picks. This, however, was more than the thrill of being released from Bidwillian bondage; Williams was relishing the chance to make a game-turning stand. As the St. Louis kickoff team jogged onto the field, Williams realized he wasn't alone. Rams middle linebacker London Fletcher was smiling, too, as were other defensive players. Even Lovie Smith, St. Louis's new defensive coordinator, cracked a grin. Strange as it seemed, these defiant Rams wanted the ball in McNabb's hands. "I'm so glad it worked out that way," Williams said after the game, "because as a defense, we were able to show some resilience. In retrospect we'll be glad we did. This is the type of thing that can set a tone for the season."
In securing a 20-17 victory over the Eagles on Jeff Wilkins's 26-yard field goal with 7:04 left in overtime, the Rams also served notice to the rest of the NFL that they have put last season's failures behind them. Although St. Louis got the requisite strong performances from quarterback Kurt Warner, halfback Marshall Faulk and wide-out Isaac Bruce, whose gutsy 27-yard sideline catch set up the winning points, the retooled defense made the loudest statement. "Give the glory to our D, because it's got heart, man," Faulk, the reigning league MVP, said. "This was a great test for us, and I think that people who look at this game have got to be worried. They know we can blow teams out. Now they see we can also pull out close games."
Credit the tight finish to Philadelphia, a playoff team in 2000 that has evolved into a bona fide contender under coach Andy Reid. Keyed by a young, stifling defense and the burgeoning menace that is McNabb, the Eagles made enough big plays to avoid a blowout of the sort St. Louis habitually produced during its Super Bowl-winning campaign of 1999. While no one will confuse this year's Rams with the Baltimore Ravens, at least the St. Louis defense looked nothing like it did last season, when it gave up an average of 29.4 points per game, worst in the league.
Seven starters from last year's defense were purged—and only two of them, it should be noted, were in anyone's starting lineup on opening day—and holdover defensive end Grant Wistrom was sidelined by a strained left knee. With eight new starters on Sunday, the Rams defense was faster, more aggressive and more fundamentally sound than last year's edition. There was also something intangible provided by battle-tested veterans like Williams, free safety Kim Herring, outside linebacker Mark Fields and defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, each of whom was about as rattled by the Philly comeback as Tony Soprano would be by a speeding ticket. "We couldn't have won a game like this last year, I think," St. Louis coach Mike Martz said, grimacing from the pain caused by a herniated disk, an injury he aggravated in the off-season. "We weren't tough enough overall, but we are now."
Herring, a starter for the Super Bowl-champion Ravens last season, was one of several Rams defenders who hoped to make a statement in the opening game. It took all of one play for that to happen: McNabb fumbled the first snap of the game and St. Louis tackle Jeff Zgonina recovered at the Philadelphia 12, the first of three first-half takeaways. Two plays later, Faulk's deft seven-yard cutback run gave the Rams a 7-0 lead.
Employing a zone-oriented style like the one new coordinator Smith learned as an assistant to Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay, St. Louis allowed the Eagles to move the ball but made them earn their yards. Halfback Duce Staley was held to nine yards in nine attempts, and though McNabb had impressive stats (32 completions in 48 attempts for 312 yards, nine rushes for 48 yards), his scrambling wasn't a factor until Philadelphia's game-tying push in the fourth quarter. James Thrash, whom the Eagles lured from the Washington Redskins in an effort to give McNabb a topflight receiver, caught only one pass for 11 yards, a testament to Williams's Speedo-tight coverage.
The Rams' defense aimed to make McNabb throw, rather than permitting him to run. Smith limited his team's blitzes and used several defenders in the role of scramble-stuffing spy, including 301-pound rookie defensive tackle Damione Lewis. " McNabb's a great player, but he can't beat us by himself," Faulk said on the Wednesday night before the game, as he and several friends, including St. Louis wideouts Tony Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim, mingled in a luxury box at the Savvis Center in downtown St. Louis. "I know, because I've been Donovan McNabb—when I played for Indy, and I had to try to do it all. You can beat some teams that way but not a good team—and I think we're good."
Faulk then stopped to appreciate the evening's live entertainment—a performance by the barefoot, seductive Sade, who was singing a cautionary tale of romantic involvement. The song, Smooth Operator, would be a fitting theme for the 28-year-old halfback. On Sunday, Faulk ran for 72 yards, caught eight passes for 48 more and did many other things that were hard to quantify. On one third-quarter play he delivered a perfect cut-block to defensive end Hugh Douglas, and then he bounced up to catch a pass from Warner and squirted ahead for a 13-yard gain.
Still, Faulk said he derived his greatest enjoyment from watching the Rams defenders. Inspirational efforts abounded. Fields, despite suffering fractured ribs on a first-quarter collision with the hulking Lewis, stayed in the game to make five tackles and break up a pair of passes; nickel cornerback Dre' Bly jumped a slant pattern and made a sweet interception of a second-quarter pass by McNabb; Fletcher (seven tackles, one sack) continually threw his undersized body into the fray; and Brian Young, a second-year tackle from UTEP who beat out No. 1 draft pick Lewis for a stalling nod, might have been mistaken for San Francisco 49ers All-Pro Bryant Young on a few occasions, including a sack of McNabb that helped squelch the Eagles' lone possession in overtime.