TONIGHT: Pittsburgh's pass defense could bring steel curtain down on Rams


Statistics lie, but worried offensive coordinators seldom do.

Ask Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese about the Pittsburgh Steelers defense his squad will face tonight (9 p.m., Ch. 13), and the respect in his voice comes through as clear as his point.

Unless you are talking about luck as the residue of design, talent and ill-tempered defensive backs, the Steelers have a pass defense that has fought for its No. 1-ranking in the NFL.

"They're the best pass defense in the league," Zampese said. "You watch them play, and they should be [No. 1]. Stats are misleading as hell, but you watch them play and I believe it."

He pointed to the Steelers' defense last week against San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana. "They held Montana to 157 yards -- now who's done that?"

For one, not the Rams any time recently.

So when Zampese studies San Francisco's 27-7 victory over Pittsburgh (3-4) last week, he knows that the Steeler defense, which intercepted two Montana passes, was not at fault. The Steeler offense (ranked 27th) has had its problems. But not its defense.

The Pittsburgh secondary, led by cornerback Rod Woodson, has 11 interceptions -- tied for second-most in the league -- and given up an average of only 159.1 yards through the air and four passing touchdowns.

The Rams and quarterback Jim Everett enter tonight's nationally televised game with the fourth-rated pass offense in the league, having fattened their statistics against an Atlanta Falcons defense that is Swiss cheese against the pass.

If playing Atlanta was "fastbreak football," as Rams coach John Robinson called it, then Pittsburgh is the four corners, the long stall. For comparison, the Rams have given up 14 touchdown passes and scored 14 touchdowns through the air. The Steelers have given up four and scored seven.

So if the Rams (2-4) want to continue their drive toward a wild-card berth, they will have to do it with patience, grace and power on offense -- not with the big plays that produced 44 points against Atlanta. The longest pass Montana completed against Pittsburgh was for 19 yards.

"I'm not trying to make a big deal out of this, but these guys are good," Zampese said of the Steelers. "They are very, very good."

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