Friday, August 5, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

While the Rams’ defense watched as the Falcons shredded through them on the ground in an NFC Divisional Playoff game, the need for help at linebacker became more pressing than ever. St. Louis jumped into action, moving quickly on a pair of veteran linebackers with the intent to change the face of the defense.

With those moves come a changing of the guard in the team’s linebacking corps, a change spearheaded by the addition of Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley, a pair of tough linebackers that will join Pisa Tinoisamoa to form what could be one of the league’s orneriest linebacker trios.

As free agency approached, it was no secret that St. Louis had to make upgrading the linebackers a priority. Robert Thomas was not physical enough inside and the various players tried at the outside spot opposite Tinoisamoa did not make enough plays to hold on to starting roles.

Free agency presented a number of intriguing options, each with varying monetary values. The likes of Baltimore’s Edgerton Hartwell could be had, but at a big sticker price or more cost-effective options such as Claiborne could be had.

Instead of blowing whatever salary cap room they had on one player, the Rams decided the situation was at a point where multiple good players were needed.

In signing linebackers, St. Louis wanted to get more physical and add toughness and leadership. When Dallas cut three-time Pro Bowler Coakley on March 1, the Rams wasted no time in pouncing. Although Coakley didn’t exactly fit the bill in the physical department, he more than made up for it with toughness and leadership.

St. Louis had so much interest in Coakley that members of the coaching staff, including Mike Martz, were there to greet him at the airport. It didn’t take long for Coakley to realize the opportunity that was being presented to him was a good fit for what he was looking for.

“It was a good chance to come in and come into a situation where you have a chance to be a starter,” Coakley said.

Coakley wasted no time signing on and was almost immediately named a team captain. His presence is already felt in camp and it shows in the way he takes charge on the field. Coakley has missed just one game because of injury in his career and finished in the top three in tackles every year he was in Dallas. That kind of production is more than enough to overcome his relative lack of size (he’s listed at 5’10).

Claiborne, on the other hand, has been viewed as almost the opposite of Coakley. Size is not a problem for Claiborne, who is 6’3. The knocks on him before he signed with St. Louis stemmed from his lack of production in Detroit and Minnesota.

In fairness to Claiborne, though, he has played outside linebacker at both stops and been plagued by injuries. After nearly signing with St. Louis two years ago, Claiborne finally landed with the Rams when he was given the opportunity to be the middle linebacker.

That news left Claiborne with one feeling…joy.

“I am so happy,” Claiborne said. “It has been a long time coming. I haven’t played there since college and that’s what I have always wanted to play. I got to the league and moved around a bit. Just being here, I am just happy with the offense and the points they put up allows you to be aggressive on defense. I am looking forward to it.”

With Claiborne providing a more physical presence in the middle and Coakley adding toughness and leadership to the outside, the defense could have a different vibe this season.

Defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy said the two newest additions bring something that was lacking last season.

“These guys bring an attitude to the squad,” Kennedy said. “Right now, we don’t care who is behind us if they make plays.”

With those spots pretty well set, that leaves another spot for incumbent Tinoisamoa. Tinoisamoa has earned a reputation as a fan favorite in St. Louis for his warrior mentality and fearless approach to the game.

Tinoisamoa estimates that he dislocated his shoulder eight times last year, but not once did he complain or ask to sit out. He returns this year after leading the team in tackles for the second year in a row with 145.

Coakley and Tinoisamoa might be a bit on the small side, but neither is afraid to provide a lick and both possess excellent speed. That should make them impressive complements to the size and run-stopping oriented Claiborne.

Another positive aspect of bringing Claiborne and Coakley aboard is the depth it will provide the team at the position. Players such as Thomas and Brandon Chillar, who were starters at times last season can now work as solid backups and give the special teams a much needed boost.

Martz said that might be the best thing about bringing in the new duo.

"Well, the depth issue primarily (helps us),” Martz said. “We went through that last year. You lose a guy and your fourth linebacker has to pick up for two and three. When you don’t have to do that, when something happens from an injury standpoint, that guy is a lot more familiar for the position. In the past if you have three or four linebackers that you feel are game ready that’s pretty good. I think we have more than that this year, hopefully. I think the competitive situation makes the first guy a lot better.”

Trev Faulk, who was one of the team’s best special teams players a year ago returns and will compete for a roster spot. His contributions to the coverage units should help him in his pursuit of a roster spot. Drew Wahlroos also played some last season, also contributing on special teams.

Jeremy Loyd, who suffered a torn pectoral last year, is back to full strength and could compete. Louis Ayeni, while a long shot, is also in the mix to land a spot.

With more competition at linebacker than a year ago, the group will have an excellent chance to improve and, with a little luck, could turn one of the Rams’ biggest weaknesses into one of its’ strengths.