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Haslett presides over Rams' fresh start

ST. LOUIS -- On his first full day as St. Louis Rams coach, Jim Haslett was impressed by the energy level in practice.

What he experienced was a team eager to distance itself from a sorry 0-4 start that cost Scott Linehan his job, and doing its best to impress the new boss. Reality can wait.

"Things have changed around here, so I would say that it was different," linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa said. "In some good ways."

The bye week is a welcome break for a team worn down from grinding failure after failure. Everyone, coaches included, got four days off before returning to work on Monday.

"In a way, it's a good time for everyone," defensive end Leonard Little said. "To just get away and get a fresh start and breathe some fresh air."

No doubt it's also the honeymoon period for Haslett, the former defensive coordinator whose choice has been widely lauded largely for his fiery nature. St. Louis' poor showing thus far on defense has been minimized by media willing to wait and see what happens when he's in charge.

The 52-year-old Haslett realizes the heavy lifting will come soon enough, and the Rams remain in danger of getting slapped around a lot more. The first three games for the new coach are against the Redskins, Cowboys and Patriots, teams with a combined 8-3 record.

The former NFL linebacker is determined that, at the least, Rams players will approach those games not feeling like underdogs. Perhaps one of his biggest tests is propping up their collective sagging egos.

The positive vibe briefly vanished during the opening practice when Jason Craft intercepted Trent Green and the offense trudged away, shoulders sagging. Haslett lit into players, telling them to shake it off, that mistakes are going to happen and that it's what you do about it that counts.

"We haven't responded well enough to adversity," linebacker Chris Draft said. "If something bad happens, we have to be able to come back, get the momentum back in our favor."

The Saints were bitter NFC West rivals of the Rams when the fiery Haslett was New Orleans' coach, and Haslett was 4-2 against Mike Martz. The Saints beat them two of three in 2000, including the first playoff win in franchise history to knock off St. Louis in a year between Super Bowl trips for the Rams.

"They thought they could come up here and physically beat the Rams up every year," Haslett said. "Whether they could or couldn't, that's the way they played.

"We'll try to get my personality into them as fast as we can, if that's the way you want to look at it. I do like guys who are tough and hard-nosed and love to play the game."

That was part of the message in Haslett's first team meeting on Tuesday, a day after the Rams elevated him to head coach with a shot to last well beyond the final 12 games. He won't tolerate sagging.

"I couldn't think of a better guy to step in," rookie defensive end Chris Long said. "Haz brings energy, a realistic attitude, a guy who's going to shoot you straight, and a guy we can win with and guys will play for."

Beyond the mental, Haslett wants to make sure there's nothing physical about their second-half problems. Players ran sprints after practice both days during the bye week, and Haslett said they'll run on Mondays and Wednesdays the rest of the season.

"There's a reason why we haven't played very well in the fourth quarter," Haslett said. "I don't know what it is, but I'm not going to let conditioning be a part of it."

Haslett already has made changes on defense to prop up a disappointing unit ranked 31st out of 32 teams. In last week's 31-14 loss to the Bills, he reduced 34-year-old La' Roi Glover to part-time status in favor of second-year player Clifton Ryan.

Leonard Little, the Rams' top pass rusher, returned as a reserve after missing two games with a hamstring injury and had two of the team's four sacks of Bills quarterback Trent Edwards in the first half. Draft, who lost a starting spot after being hampered by a back injury, got his job back because the team prized his leadership.

"We made some changes, but we weren't trying to punish anybody," Haslett said. "Glove's getting a little bit older and we wanted to kind of limit his reps, and we wanted to get the young guys out there.

"Obviously it was good to have Leonard back, but those guys were flying around."

Tinoisamoa said the Rams are back to leaning on their speed on defense after straying earlier in the year.

"We've got to use that as an asset," he said. "This is our identity and it's a good feeling. We've got to swarm."

On offense, Haslett restored the status quo by returning quarterback Marc Bulger as starter. Bulger, benched after totaling two touchdown passes in the first three games, is eager to direct the type of go-for-broke offense the Rams unveiled against Buffalo.

New offensive coordinator Al Saunders' scheme is based on rhythm and timing. Ideally, it also is designed to protect the quarterback.

"But it limits other things," Bulger said. "We have to lay it on the table now. It's not about protecting one guy, you have to throw it out the window and go for it."

Players also realize they're not out of it, given every team in the NFC West has at least two losses.

"Certainly, it didn't start out the way we wanted," Bulger said. "But guys haven't quit, and we honestly still think we do have a chance in the division. Believe it or not."

That's the kind of thing Haslett likes to hear.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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