1-30-02, 8:25 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
NEW ORLEANS _Ron Meeks, who coached the last Bengals' Pro Bowl cornerback, doesn't want to hear about talent on the eve of his second Super Bowl.
Not after Meeks coached Aeneas Williams this year in the Rams' secondary. Not after watching the seven-time Pro Bowl cornerback in what Meeks thought was a Most Valuable Player season on this generation's greatest offensive team. Not after he saw what Williams did on 33-year-old legs with an 11-year NFL head:
Calling out scout team wide receivers if they didn't give him a good look in practice. Reading the film to pick up tendencies of the opposing quarterback so the Rams' secondary could read his eyes during the game. Becoming the first player in NFL history to return two interceptions for touchdowns in a playoff game against the unfortunate Packers. Spending the next week counseling the secondary not to leave their receivers when Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb scrambled from the pocket.
"That's why we're here," said Meeks Wednesday morning, nodding at Williams here before the first practice of Super Bowl week. "A lot of the reasons we're here is because of that guy right here. He won games for us and he helped some of the other guys win games because of his work habits. He meant that much to us."
Meeks coached Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Cincinnati (Ashley Ambrose), Atlanta (Ray Buchanan) and Washington (Deion Sanders), but he'll tell you Williams is the best he's ever coached.
"Not the best talent," Meeks said. "But as far as work ethic and preparing yourself and getting ready to play the game in practice and (in the class room), yeah."
If there is anyone who knows what it takes to win, Meeks has a pretty good idea. Ever since the fire several years ago that wiped out everything Meeks owned in his Cincinnati apartment, his career took off.
This is his second Super Bowl in four seasons since leaving the Bengals as secondary coach after the 1996 season.
And after getting here with the no-name Falcons defense in '98 and the new-name Rams defense now, Meeks admits the fire turned his head a few ways about life.
"I've moved past that," Meeks said. "But you start thinking that you
could have been in there and not made it and it makes you look at things a little differently and appreciate some things."
To Meeks, there is more to a fire than power.
"It takes good team chemistry and this team has that and we had it in Atlanta," Meeks said. "Don't tell me there's a lot of great players on this defense. But they understand the game and they understand what we're trying to do. They've bought into what we're trying to do and we have no selfish players. Honestly, I can say that there are no selfish players on the defensive side of the ball."
What the Rams have bought in to is first-year defensive coordinator Lovie Smith's black-and-white scheme of speed, speed and more speed.
In this Summer of Lovie with eight new starters, the Rams' defense has gone from allowing the most points in the NFL last season to a No. 3 ranking this year. The secondary that allowed 32 touchdown passes in '00 allowed just half that this year.
"This is a very disciplined defense," said Meeks of the renaissance orchestrated by the 43-year-old Smith. "He brings a sense of calm. He's an intelligent young man who has a structure; a way of doing things. He understands the big picture. When you call defensive plays, you've got to have a feel for what is going to happen a few plays ahead of time and he can do that."
The swashbuckling Rams' offense has had to share the headlines with a defense that has shaped their two post-season victories. They intercepted Brett Favre six times two weeks ago before suffocating the Eagles on 74 second-half yards last week
"If something isn t right, let it be black or white. Don't be gray and that's what we've done," Smith said. " If there is somebody you don't like, you better get someone else."
Smith got Meeks after Rams head coach Mike Martz hired him away from Tampa Bay at the end of last season and told him to do whatever it would take to make a woeful defense worthy. After Meeks got let go last year in Washington, Smith hired him after consulting with former Falcons defensive coordinator Don Blackmon.
"He told me everything I need to know about Ron Meeks," Smith said. "He teaches fundamentals, he's a good motivator and players really respond to wht he says."
Meeks has a knack for getting something out of top players. From Ambrose to Buchanan to Sanders, Meeks didn't care if they went to the Pro Bowl. He was going to teach them his cornerback technique and if they didn't like it, they could take a long, slow boat to Hawaii.
After a decade of misery in Arizona, Williams has enjoyed the way Meeks gets in players' faces no matter who said player is.
"What Lovie and Ron Meeks bring to the table is the accountability factor," Williams said. "You're required to know your assignment and hustle to the ball every play and if you don't do it, then you won't play and I think those are two essential ingredients that have been added to this team.
"Ron is an excellent motivator," Williams said. "He knows what he's doing and he's demanding. He wants you to have fun and enjoy the game, but he demands more out of the guys. He wants us to achieve what we're capable of achieving. He's always talking about that."
Meeks, 47, thinks the tough times in Cincinnati have helped him. From 1992-96, Meeks lived with seven different regular starting cornerbacks, ranging from Rod Jones to Roger Jones.
"It was a tough place to coach," Meeks said. "There was some fun times. There was some good people, but it was always a grind. A lot of it was we didn't have the right players, but we didn't have the right people, too."
The Bengals have done things to change that with a defense now ranked in the NFL's Top Ten. And after two trips to The Bowl, Meeks can tell you who the right people are. And it's not always the best players. Asked if Williams has lost a step from his younger days, Meeks shrugged.
"Whatever speed Aeneas Williams has," Meeks said, "I know I'm going to get it. Every play. It won't be half speed, it will be full speed."
Which is why Meeks is here. Again.