During his four seasons in the NFL, including the last three as a starter, Rams safety Oshiomogo "O.J." Atogwe has watched the Seattle Seahawks run up eight consecutive wins over the St. Louis Rams. And they'll be hosting the talented defensive back and the Rams this weekend as the NFL kicks off the 2009 season.
Atogwe has certainly done his part to help the Rams be successful. After an attention-getting college career at Stanford, he's started 48 consecutive games over the past three seasons, putting up startling numbers that make you wonder how he's been overlooked for Pro Bowl recognition--especially over the past two seasons.
To put the 28-year-old player's achievements in perspective, all you have to do is compare his numbers over the past three seasons with a man that few would dispute is one of the most respected safeties in the NFL--Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens.
Like Atogwe, Reed hasn't missed a start over the past three seasons. According to the NFL's statistics, the Ravens safety has intercepted 21 passes and recovered four fumbles for a total of 25 turnovers. He's also defensed an impressive 54 passes.
Meanwhile, Atogwe put up big numbers of his own with 40 passes defensed, 16 interceptions and five fumble recoveries. His 21 turnovers during the past three years are just four off Reed's pace, or roughly one per season.
But get this--the Rams defender has forced 11 fumbles versus just two by Reed during that stretch. And he's logged 232 tackles, including a career-best 85 last year, versus just 139 by Reed. That's a difference of nine forced fumbles and 93 tackles.
Bottom line? Based on the past three seasons, Atogwe definitely belongs in the same breath as Reed when people discuss the top safeties in the NFL.
I caught up with O.J. this week for an exclusive interview. The humble and friendly man talked about his career, his teammates, the Seattle Seahawks, and a fresh start for the Rams under new head coach Steve Spagnuolo.
Ed Thompson: During the offseason, the team put the franchise tag on you. That’s a tremendous acknowledgement by the Rams and your new head coach of the contributions you've made and how much they value you as a player.
Atogwe's eight interceptions in 2007 was second-best in the league.
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
Oshiomogo Atogwe: I agree with that. Not too many players get dubbed the franchise player in their career, so when the St. Louis Rams named me as their franchise player, I took it as an honor, especially with having the coaching change and pretty much the front office change. With the Rams going in a new direction, to feel that they wanted me to be a part of that new direction was humbling, and I felt very appreciated.
Thompson: You forced 11 fumbles over the past 3 years. If you were to talk to some younger players and tried to give them some tips on what they need to do to have that kind of success in forcing fumbles, what would you say?
Atogwe: I would just tell them it’s a mindset. Anytime you're able to get around the football, you have a chance to have an impact on that play. Football is all about who has the ball and how do you get it from them. Turnovers are big in our game. I think you have to go in to the tackle thinking there's a possibility you can get the ball out--either the running back isn’t holding the ball very strongly or the receivers are loose with the ball. It’s just something you have to constantly think about. And when you're making the tackle, make an attempt to knock the ball loose.
Thompson: Let’s talk about interceptions, because you've had 16 over the past three seasons. I’ve talked to lots of safeties and cornerbacks about their approach to their positions. Some guys will say it’s their breaking ability on the ball, others will say it’s their game-film study, others talk about how well they're able to anticipate the quarterback. What 's helped you be so successful?
Atogwe: Truthfully, I believe that interceptions come from great team defense. We play against tremendous quarterbacks in this league, guys who are able to put the ball--with pinpoint accuracy--to a moving target, a stationary target, short, deep. It’s hard to get a bead on these quarterbacks we’re playing against. The only thing that really affects their ability to throw the ball is the type of looks you give on defense to confuse them, or the pass rusher getting up front, or the blitzes you are sending to rattle what they’ve been working on day-in and day-out, which leaves them susceptible to throwing an errant ball, which I've been blessed to pick off during my career.
Thompson: O.J. let’s talk about this Rams team and what you think people are going to notice about them versus last year’s club when you guys go out there for your opener this weekend.
Atogwe: I believe they'll see a more confident team, a team that believes in themselves, believes in the hard work, dedication, and preparation they’ve put in thus far. That's going to translate into us playing with a lot more energy, a lot more passion. We really believe that we’re capable of winning the game, that we’re capable of being a good team in this league. I know that will be different from what they’ve seen in the past--by the way we play, by our style of play.
Thompson: What are the biggest changes under Steve Spagnuolo for the defensive players either in terms of your scheme, the way you approach practice or the game-planning?
Atogwe: I'd say all of the above. Coach Spagnuolo is really big on details, the finer points of each defense, the finer points of each of the linemen, the assignment, the technique. That carries over into how he coaches and essentially how we play defense. When you look around this league, there is a lot of parity, and you can beat any team on any given day. It’s the team that makes the fewest mistakes, that is most accurate in the details of their assignments that normally gets the win.
Thompson: I've got to believe that after training camp and your preseason, your juices have to be flowing a little bit as you prepare for that season opener at Seattle--especially since they hold an eight-game winning streak over the Rams. And that means you’ve never had an opportunity to help give them a loss, right?
Atogwe: That is correct. We’re all very excited. December 28th is a long way away, which is the last regular season game. Preseason was fun, it allowed us to work out some of our kinks and polish what we had been doing. But now it’s time to get back to business because regular season is here, which you worked so hard for all those many months ago. Everybody is excited and ready to go.
The Rams' defensive leader is confident that the team will see better results in 2009.
AP Photo/Kyle Ericson
Thompson: I can tell that you love this game. What is it that gets you excited about waking up every day, working out and getting ready for another football season?
Atogwe: I’m just very thankful and grateful for the blessings that I’ve been given. God blessed me with the talent, work ethic, and the ability to play this game. It’s just a pure joy to be able to do something that you truly have been blessed to do and enjoy doing. And while I’m doing it, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability, put forth my best effort.
Thompson: Give us some insight on one of your rookie teammates, linebacker James Laurinaitis. I had an opportunity to interview him before the draft, and he's a special guy who lives and breathes this game as well.
Atogwe: That is correct. James is a great kid, a great young man, a very high-character guy who also loves football. It’s not just in talk, but in action and preparation and how he commits himself to the game. He came in studying extra hard to try to learn the defense as fast as possible so that by Week One he would be ready at a level that was equal to the teammates that he would be playing with. I think that’s what makes him special--he really cares, really believes in himself and believes in the guys he is playing with.
Thompson: Marc Bulger returned to practice this week. Talk about what that means to your ball club as you prepare to head to Seattle this weekend for a big divisional matchup.
Atogwe: Marc Bulger is our quarterback. Kyle Boller did a phenomenal job during the preseason keeping the offense going, and I know Marc's very appreciative of that. We're excited to see Marc go out there and return to form after some rough years--they weren’t very telling of how good of a quarterback he still is. I know he’s going to go out there and show people just how capable and how talented he can still be in this league.
Thompson: Let’s talk about the other quarterback in this matchup. Matt Hasselbeck is healthy after missing more than half of the 2008 season with injuries. His return to the starting lineup is a huge boost for them. You’ve worked against him quite a few times, so what makes him a tough quarterback to defend against?
Atogwe: He's a very tough quarterback. He's very intelligent. He has been in this offensive system for so long, there’s not too much he doesn’t know about it, not too much he hasn’t seen. It’s really a chess match, so to speak, to try to rattle him and get in his mind, because he’s been doing it for so long at a high level. In my eyes, he's still a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback. It’s tough, because he's going to be one step ahead of you, even when you think you're one step ahead of him. It’s a back-and-forth chess match.
Thompson: O.J., any other thoughts on this weekend’s matchup, or the Rams in general, that you want to make sure the fans know about?
Atogwe: I just thank them and encourage them to continue to support us. We are excited about this game. The Seahawks are a very talented team--great offense, great defense, a lot of playmakers on their defense. It’s going to be a great game and I'm excited to go out there and play.
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A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com.