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Ram-tough defense has St. Louis making a playoff push ..
* By Albert Breer NFL Network
James Laurinaitis showed up every Tuesday, on his designated day off, in Steve Spagnuolo's office last year. And every week, he left with something else.
On one side of the desk was a rookie head coach. On the other was a rookie middle linebacker, trying to carry out Spagnuolo's vision.
"I was trying to understand exactly what he expected," said Laurinaitis, a second-round pick in 2009 who's been in on 199 tackles the last two years and has started all 28 games of his career. "We're very similar, we approach things the same way, we're both perfectionists. It's why we get along. It's why he trusts me at that position."
Laurinaitis is at the center of the story, it seems, everyone is missing with the resurgence of the St. Louis Rams.
Has Sam Bradford been fantastic? Certainly. Could the Rams have finally solved their offensive line issues with tackles Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith? Seems that way.
But as the offense has gotten its act together, one big reason Spagnuolo was hired in the first place -- his ability to run a defense -- has reared its head and produced a promising, if still uneven, defense that's showing flashes of the coach's overall vision. The Rams are sixth in the league in sacks per pass play, second in the NFL in third-down defense and, while they still are in the middle in yardage allowed (14th), the unit's strength in those areas double as fingerprints Spagnuolo has left on the guys.
And that trust Laurinaitis referenced is a big reason why this group is on the uptick. The players believe Spagnuolo's scheme is going to maximize their ability, so they give him their best.
"It unlocks everybody's potential," said tackle Fred Robbins, who was part of Spagnuolo's championship group in New York, of the defense. "Everyone can make plays. The key in this defense is not to make every play. It's to make your play. It spreads out the sacks and the interceptions so it's not on one guy. Everyone gets in on it."
The numbers bear that out. Thirteen different defenders have combined for the team's 35 sacks, and six players register among the club's 10 interceptions, and 10 guys account for the team's 18 forced fumbles.
Point is, it's not just a player or two that's benefitting on the defense. Everyone's getting better and, most importantly, being put in position to succeed.
"That's part of good coaching," the coach said. "It begins in the middle with a guy who gets guys in and out of things, and that's what James brings to us, from a communication standpoint. The scheme part, you got the guys up front, Robbins and (ends James) Hall and Chris (Long). If you don't have those spots filled, you're going to struggle, I don't care what scheme you're running.
"Then, you have people who can do certain things, and you put those guys in position, whether it's getting certain rushers on certain linemen, pressing a wideout with a certain corner. You play to guys' strengths."
There might not be a player on the roster that's reaped the rewards of playing for Spagnuolo quite like Long has. The second overall pick in the 2008 draft, the big end and son of Howie had just nine sacks in his first two seasons, and his name was starting to get thrown out there as part of St. Louis' team-building struggles leading into April and the selection of Sam Bradford.
But during that time, quietly, he and Spagnuolo had talked about a plan to make him more comfortable, moving him to the defensive left side, following the departure of Leonard Little. Playing there, often over a tight end, was more analogous to the base end role he played in a 3-4 in college, and since he's got a dominant right hand, he felt he could use a wider array of moves on the left.
Bingo. Long has 6.5 sacks, three passes defensed, and is starting to deliver on his considerable potential.
"I think I've benefitted from it a lot," Long said. "I'm appreciative of the position this defense has put me in, but I know my potential. Playing with James and Fred has helped me a lot, and the scheme, coupled with all that and the hard work we've put in is why I'm playing like I am."
And if you really examine it, the way the Rams have played defense as a whole is a big reason why they're 6-6 and contending in the division fresh off a brutal three-year stretch in which they went 6-42. Proof positive: The Rams have held their opponents to 17 or fewer points in five of their six wins.
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If you go back and talk to any of those Giants players that Spagnuolo coached, they'll tell you how much they missed playing for him in 2009, and that plays into a big part of the Rams' maturation defensively. They're playing for their coach, because their coach genuinely wants what's best for them and the team.
"I will say this: I have tremendous respect for what these guys do, the time they put it, and what this game does to their bodies," Spagnuolo said. "We have them here and when you leave this building, you have to be a person. This life isn't easy. People see the glamour, but this is a tough lifestyle they live, it's 24/7, and I get that. I respect it.
"So I've always felt that we're here to serve the players and make them better."
He's seeing that happen these days. Long says it's because "you have to have 11 guys doing the right thing, and we're getting there. Last year, it was 10 or nine with one or two off a little." But just as much, it's about the guy pushing the buttons.
Long and Laurinaitis both said their primary image of Spagnuolo, when they found out he'd be their coach, was of that swarming Giants defense that decimated Tom Brady and Co. in February 2008, while Robbins lived it. Those guys know they aren't there yet, and when asked if they've been shown the tape of that Super Bowl, each says no.
But because of what they've accomplished so far, there's this glimmer of hope.
"Maybe he's waiting," says Long, with Laurinaitis following suit. "He's saving it."
Spagnuolo laughed when he heard that. For now, he's more worried about getting guys to play that way. And judging by the results of this fall, it sure is starting to work.
Re: Ram-tough defense has St. Louis making a playoff push ..
Defense will be a bigger part than offense of why we make the playoffs this year if we do.And for us to even think about winning a playoff game we must play solid Defense.That being said offense needs to improve a little as well especially when it comes to sustaining drives.Good read
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Re: Ram-tough defense has St. Louis making a playoff push ..
If anyone still doubts that The Rams are getting noticed, go watch the video that accompanies this article on nfldotcom.
Excellent video breakdown of what's working on both sides of the ball & consequently making The Rams, according to Mayock, a team on the rise.
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