New Rams defenders have a lot to learn

BY JIM THOMAS
Thursday, August 18, 2011 12:15 am

As the Rams reeled in one free agent defender after another, defensive coordinator Ken Flajole was more than just an innocent bystander. He led the cheers.

"I waved my pompons and said, 'Thanks a bunch!'" Flajole said, laughing. "I cheered Billy (Devaney) on and said, 'Let's go!' It was great."

Then he added, perhaps only half-joking, "I think it helps that we have a defensive-minded head coach. He's going to make sure that he helps us on our side."

As it turned out, seven of the 12 veteran free agents signed by the Rams were defenders. So were five of the eight draft picks. That's a lot of players to integrate into a complex defensive scheme, and integrate quickly, particularly because four of the veteran free agents probably will end up starting. To help speed the adjustment process, the Rams have changed their approach during the defensive installation period.

"It's forced us to maybe, I won't say water it down, but spend a little bit more time with each call from practice to practice instead of getting real aggressive with our installation," Flajole said. "Because we do have some new guys with us (who) are coming from different systems."

In that sense, having a walk-through session nearly every morning during training camp a byproduct of no longer having traditional two-a-days has helped. Flajole said it has allowed the defense to "maybe spend a little more mental time, kind of having a meeting on the field, so to speak."

The core of Rams defenders who are entering their third season in the scheme, players such as Chris Long and James Laurinaitis, are helping the newcomers get it down.

"Something about this game of football, the players seem to learn better when other players teach them," said Steve Spagnuolo, the "defensive-minded" head coach. "I don't know what it is. That's not to take anything away from the coaching, but I think that helps the new guys coming in meshing with the system that we've had for three years. Hopefully it'll be a good result."

It has not always been an easy adjustment. For most of the veteran newcomers, Wednesday marked only their 10th practice with the Rams (plus, of course, the preseason opener against Indianapolis). Linebacker Zac Diles, who spent his first four seasons with Houston, said his head was spinning early on.

"First couple days was a rough stretch," Diles said. "But it's expected a little bit coming to a new system and trying to learn it. It's been interesting.

"It's a little different than what we ran down in Houston. But as more and more days go by, and I get more reps, it's definitely becoming easier. I'm learning my keys and where they want me to be, and what the concept of the defense is."

Even so, Diles realizes time is of the essence. The regular-season opener, against Philadelphia, is just 3 weeks away, And at the moment, he's third on the depth chart at weakside linebacker behind holdover Bryan Kehl and newcomer Ben Leber.

"Right now it's a short learning curve," Diles said. "It's training camp, so you have to get in there and get it down or you'll get passed up."

Diles has gone over the defensive playbook with Laurinaitis and done the same with the defensive coaches.

Overall, Laurinaitis believes the free agents are coming along well. In the secondary, safety Quintin Mikell comes from a similar system in Philadelphia which has eased the transition. At defensive tackle, there are some adjustments for Justin Bannan and Daniel Muir, including how the Rams run their stunts and "games."

"But for the most part when you're a d-tackle, you've just got to figure out what gap you're in and you've got to go," Laurinaitis said.

For the linebackers, there are general rules about proper alignment and gap responsibility, which makes on-the-field communication important. Those are some of the things Diles, Leber and Brady Poppinga are dealing with and learning.

"Alignment is the most important thing," Laurinaitis said. "Alignment will help you get where you need to be faster. If you're misaligned, you're giving yourself a tougher down than you need."

Spagnuolo is big on bonding and team chemistry, which is one reason why he wanted to get away and hold training camp in Rolla, Mo., or Carbondale, Ill. But they are at home this summer. There has been little time for bonding, thanks to a 4-month lockout that wiped out the entire minicamp and OTA session in the spring, and turned free agency into a form of speed dating.

Laurinaitis does know several of the new defenders by reputation. He might not know them very well yet as people, but he already has come to appreciate their approach to their craft.

"It's exciting to be able to work alongside those guys," Laurinaitis said. "There's just a sense of confidence, but there's also a sense of professionalism. It's a different vibe. Guys are ready to come to work."

For Flajole and the Rams' defensive coaches, the work is just beginning. The challenge ahead is deciding which players earn jobs at contested positions, such as both outside linebacker spots and nickel back. In addition, there will be pressure involved in reaching the 53-man roster limit, making sure the right guys are kept and the right guys are cut.

"Absolutely," Flajole said. "That's why we've got to make sure they get a fair chance in these (exhibition) games now. We've got to make sure we allocate the reps such that we can get good evaluations on guys where the races are tight.

"We're going to have to let some good football players go. Now, two years ago when we cut to 53, there may have been one or two guys where you said, 'Gee, it'd be nice to have kept him.' Here we're going to get rid of a lot of guys. And that's where you want to be, I think, as an organization."