How They Look - Defense, Special Teams
How they look • Defense, Special teams
BY JIM THOMAS
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
A healthy Leonard Little and a breakthrough year by Chris Long are musts if this unit is to show more than token improvement. Little has had a strong camp and looks quick around the edge, but James Hall had one of the best camps of any Ram. He has shown the ability to get to the passer from both the end and tackle positions. Spagnuolo's MO as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants was to use ends inside in passing situations. Although not as polished a pass rusher, Victor Adeyanju provides similar versatility The question mark remains the interior, where Adam Carriker has yet to play in the preseason because of an ankle injury and Clifton Ryan is trying to step up his game. Gary Gibson, rookie Darell Scott and Hollis Thomas are competing for backup DT jobs.
The starting trio, with Will Witherspoon back at his natural position (weakside), rookie James Laurinaitis in the middle and savvy veteran Chris Draft on the strongside, should at least be respectable. Laurinaitis appears to be making a smooth transition to the NFL. He has decent size and range and is a heady player who takes his preparation seriously. Witherspoon should flourish on the weakside; to some degree his speed was nullified banging around at middle linebacker. Draft is more of a collision player who should help on run defense. Among the backups, Larry Grant has had a good camp, providing much-needed bulk at 251 pounds. Chris Chamberlain, David Vobora and Quinton Culberson must earn their way onto the final roster through strong special-teams play.
Lots of question marks once you get past Ron Bartell at corner and safeties Oshiomogho Atogwe and James Butler. Butler replaces Corey Chavous at strong safety, and although not a burner, he won't be the liability in coverage that Chavous was during his Rams tenure. Atogwe has been the team's best playmaker on defense since moving into the starting lineup in 2006. Bartell has the size (6-1, 206) Spagnuolo likes at the position and is on the verge of establishing himself as one of the NFC's better corners. At the other corner, Tye Hill needs to stay healthy and regain his confidence and aggressiveness. Jonathan Wade has the lead for the nickel back job, but Justin King isn't far behind. The depth at safety remains iffy, with Todd Johnson and Craig Dahl the leading candidates for backup jobs.
When it comes to punter, kicker and long snapper, there might not be a more productive or more consistent trio than Donnie Jones, Josh Brown and Chris Massey. Despite being snubbed for the Pro Bowl, Jones had one of the best punting seasons in NFL history a year ago. Brown has the leg strength to make long field goals and a knack for making game-winners. In seven seasons as the team's long snapper, Massey has made 840 clean snaps in 841 attempts. Coverage units and the return games are where the Rams have been lame for years. Under new special-teams coordinator Tom McMahon, the play of the coverage units was encouraging in the first two preseason games. The return game remains a big unknown, with Derek Stanley the leading candidate on punt returns and Kenneth Darby the leading candidate on kickoff returns to date.