Los Angeles — Forget that Los Angeles Rams at one point in the current National Foorball League season were 5-6 and struggling. Forget that nine starters, including first-string quarter- back Pat Haden, missed part or all of the year with injuries.
Forget that some fists were thrown this season in the locker room and that some shouting and pushing matches between teammates occured on the sidelines during at least one game. Forget that owner Georgia Rosenbloom fired her stepson, Steve, as general manager early in the season and that there were often rumors that Head Coach Ray Malavasi was about to be axed.
The thing to remember is that when the defending world champion Pittsburgh Steelers line up for Super Bowl XIV in Pasadena on Jan. 20, their opponents will be the Los Angeles Rams.
And while nobody can be really sure whether the Steelers will be playing a football team or a soap opera in cleats, one thing the Rams do not have to apologize for is their defense. It carries a Stalingrad label.
Los Angeles used all its defensive weapons, including great individual pursuit, to blank the surprising Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 9-0, in sunday's NFC title game at Tampa Bay. The Ram defense, led by the Youngbloods, Jack and Jim, along with Mike Fanning, Fred Dryer, Rod Perry, Nolan Cromwell, etc., took away the run and pass and put the Bucs on hold for at least another season.
So thoroughly did L.A.'s mesh defense do its job that Tampa Bay finished with only seven first downs and 177 yards overall. The Buc's starting QB, Doug Williams, completed only 2 of 13 passes for 12 yards before leaving the game with an injured thowing arm midway through the third period.
His successor, Mike Rae, was also 2 for 13, and running back Ricky Bell, who gained 142 yards on 38 carries a week ago against Philadelphia, was held to 59 yards as the Rams recorded their 13th shutout since 1973.
As Dallas Cowboy Coach Tom Landry said after the game: "Los Angeles dominated play a lot more than the score indicated. Defensively they made every big play they had to make, and their offensive line was also outstanding."
For two weeks in a row now L.A. has gotten a polished performance from QB Vince FErragamo, the former Nebraska star who took over several games into the regular season after Haden injured the thumb on his throwing hand.
Because Ferragamo stays in the pocket and doesn't scramble much, and because his inexperience sometimes shows, there was a tendency to wonder how he would hold up in pressure games. How effective would he be, for example, if the Rams got into a catch-up situation where he had no alternative except to throw? Well , Vince did a good job in the Rams' upset victory over the Dallas Cowboys nine days ago, and although Tampa Bay defensed him well, he still completed more than 50 percent of his passes, for 163 yards.
In recent weeks the Rams have also come up with a powerful 1-2 ground attack in Cullen Bryant, who has the bulk to make yards inside, and Wendell Tyler, who has the speed to run outside.
Bryant gained 108 yards Sunday against Tampa Bay, and also scored an apparent touchdown that was called back because of illegal procedure, while Tyler gained the most important 87 yards of his young career.
Although the Rams' only points against the Bics were scored on free field goals by Frank Corral, remember, they were facing one of the toughest overall defenses in pro football.
Give Tampa Bay Coach John McKay a mountain of credit for getting a four-year expansion team into the playoffs and all the way to the conference championship game. Part of McKay's problems Sunday was that his quarterback, Williams, had a poor game.
Williams wasn't hitting his receives; he wans't reading the Ram defense (particularly the blitz) too well; and most of his passes were thrown with so much velocity that nobody could hand onto them.
L.A. Coach Malavasi, who at game time always looks like a guy who suddenly remembers he has three more key questions thn he has answers. He continually sent in the right offensive plays from the bench.
While almost nobody thinks Los Angeles can beat Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl, negative opinions at ths point should have little effect on Malavasi and his staff. They know the feeling of being underdogs. But they also know what can heppen when a team just puts it all together on defense.