SEATTLE (AP) – For the rest of the world, Joe Vitt may be an anonymous football coach. Seattle knows better.

Vitt, for the last month the St. Louis Rams’ interim coach in place of the recuperating Mike Martz, spent 10 of his 27 NFL coaching seasons in Seattle. It’s where he cultivated a personality that Rams running back Steven Jackson this week called “scrappy.”

Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren called Vitt “a consummate football coach.”

Indeed, Vitt’s Seahawks days from 1982 through 1991 weren’t exactly the silver-spoon way up the league’s coaching chain.

Try iron barbell.

Vitt, 51, joined the Seahawks in 1982 as their strength coach after three seasons in the same capacity with the Baltimore Colts. Try finding another man who is leading an NFL team with that pedigree.

“Back then there was no cutting edge of strength training,” said the engaging Vitt, who was St. Louis’ assistant head coach/linebackers coach.

He was speaking days before today’s pivotal NFC West showdown between his resurgent Rams (4-4) and the high-flying Seahawks (6-2) at sold-out Qwest Field.

“It was really kind of a part-time job for me,” he said of his Seattle gig.

When no-nonsense, meticulous coach Chuck Knox took control of the Seahawks in 1983, he had Vitt weighing in players. He also had Vitt doing what is now called “quality control” – cataloging game and practice film, providing administrative support to producing game plans, etc.

“When Chuck Knox came to Seattle, he was absolutely not going to have a strength coach,” Vitt said. “Chuck is old school. He was going to teach people fundamentals and how to tackle and block, and he really didn’t care about lifting weights.”

So that first year, Knox – Seattle’s all-time leader in coaching wins with 80 – pulled Vitt out of the weight room and put him on defense. But Vitt said Knox had him do “nothing but break down film.”

Three years later, Knox gave Vitt players to coach instead of videos. Nineteen years and five teams after that, Vitt is preparing for the biggest game of his month-old career as a head coach. And some things are weighted in his favor.

The Rams are coming off a bye. They are getting back from injuries starting quarterback Marc Bulger, receiver Torry Holt and perhaps wideout Isaac Bruce (out five games with a toe injury), who will be a game-time decision. Defensive end Leonard Little returns after missing two games when his brother was killed.

The Rams have won two straight games. A third consecutive victory against a team they have beaten four of the last five times, including last January’s NFC wild-card playoff, means St. Louis is just a game behind the Seahawks.

But Seattle has won four straight for the first time since 1999. A win Sunday would give it essentially a four-game division lead with seven games left in the regular season, because Seattle would own the head-to-head tiebreaker for the division title; the Seahawks won 37-31 at St. Louis last month.

And the Seahawks will be playing before their 21st consecutive home sellout. They are 16-4 before a packed Qwest Field in that span.

Holmgren has called this the biggest game he’s had since he arrived in Seattle in 1999.

His unlikely, unexpected counterpart Vitt called it “critical. I think it could be a defining moment for both teams.”

But he hasn’t said much about it to his players.

“I think they know already,” Vitt said.

What the Seahawks know is this is not the same Rams they beat five weeks ago.

Back then, Martz was in his last day leading the offense before a heart virus sent him to a hospital, then home for the season.

As usual, Martz had Bulger throwing the ball 40 times that day, for 336 yards and two touchdowns. Eight of those catches for 126 of those yards and one of those scores went to Holt.

Jackson, St. Louis’ first-round pick in 2004, rushed 17 times for just 77 yards.

Since then, Vitt has resembled his old mentor. He has reverted to Knox’s “Ground Chuck” offense by necessity.

Bulger, Holt and Bruce being out forced Jackson to tune in. Over the last two games, wins over New Orleans and Jacksonville, Jackson has rushed 45 times for 276 yards, including 179 last week.

But Holmgren’s guess is that with Bulger and his passing buddies back, the Rams will return to winging the ball against Seattle’s improved defense (26th overall last season, 14th now) and vastly improved pass rush (second in the league with 27 sacks, led by former Ram Bryce Fisher’s seven).

Jackson, however, doesn’t think so.

“I don’t expect anything to change,” he said. “I still expect us to pound the ball like we have. Why go against something that works?”

On defense, St. Louis’ 30th-ranked unit must contend with NFC rushing leader Shaun Alexander (949 yards), efficient quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and the league’s top offense, averaging 387 yards to the Rams’ 370.

Then again, as Fisher said of his employers from the previous three seasons, “The Rams organization pretty much doesn’t pay attention to other teams. They think, We’re going to do the things we pretty much always do, regardless.”‘

Like have a former weight trainer lead them back from chaos and injury and into the NFC West race.

AP-ES-11-10-05 1733EST


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