Rams scramble at linebacker

BY JIM THOMAS
Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Rams have had a revolving door at the weakside linebacker position since the Carolina game on Halloween. Beginning with that 20-10 victory over the Panthers, four Rams players started at the position over a five-game span.

Bryan Kehl started against Carolina, followed by Chris Chamberlain the next two games, then back to Larry Grant (who had started the first seven games of the season), and then David Vobora this past Sunday in Arizona.

That chaos was partly an indication of good competition but mainly a reflection of the fact that coach Steve Spagnuolo and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole were searching for answers at the position.

Now there could be double the chaos. Following the season-ending torn pectoral muscle suffered by strongside linebacker Na'il Diggs against Arizona, the Rams must find starters at both outside linebacker positions. Only the middle linebacker spot, manned by James Laurinaitis, remains a rock of stability.

In Diggs, the Rams are not only losing a starter, they're losing experience. Lots of it. Diggs, who's scheduled to undergo surgery Friday, is a veteran of 139 NFL starts.

"It's real hard to recover from losing a guy like Diggs," Grant said. " 'Diggsy' meant a lot to us in our linebacker room. He was basically our heart and soul. Him being the crafty vet that he is, he knows all the right things to tell us to get us ready for the game.

"During pregame and preparing for the game, when everybody needs something to talk about or needs some help doing anything, they just go to 'Diggsy' because he always had the answer."

In Chamberlain, Grant, Kehl, and Vobora plus David Nixon, who was promoted from the practice squad to fill Diggs' roster spot the Rams have five outside linebackers with a combined 24 NFL starts.

All are young in the league, and none has much pedigree. Kehl was a fourth-round draft pick, but Chamberlain, Grant and Vobora were seventh-rounders, and Nixon was undrafted. Nixon entered the league in 2009; the four others came in in 2008.

They must grow up in a hurry. The Rams are 6-6, in the middle of a playoff race, and travel to New Orleans this week to face the defending Super Bowl champions and their high-octane offense.

"We don't have any time to feel sorry for ourselves or anything," Vobora said. "We've got to keep going and pick it up where (Diggs) left off and not miss a beat. So that's what I'm concentrating on."

So are the rest of the outside linebackers.

"We're all competitors," Grant said. "And we know that every day we come out here you've got to compete if you want to play. With Diggs going down everybody knows if you want to be out there on the field, you've got to step it up even more than what you've been doing."

Rams coaches have two more practice days to sort through their options at the strongside and weakside positions. But at face value, the most logical starting combination would be Vobora at strongside linebacker where he started 10 times in '09 and either Chamberlain or Grant at the weakside position.

Chamberlain has better coverage skills than Grant, so he makes more sense against a pass-happy team such as the Saints. But complicating matters is the fact that Chamberlain suffered a right hand injury against Arizona.

"He's got a little small fracture in there," Spagnuolo said. "It's painful for him, but he's got it casted. I asked him during practice (Wednesday); he seemed to be OK. He said every day it gets a little bit better."

The hand injury came just as Chamberlain was knocking the rust off following a five-game absence because of a fractured toe.

"It's different once you're back out there, getting your eyes right, your feet, just getting the reads back down, and being able to play at the speed you need to," Chamberlain said. "So when I first got back out there in practice, I could definitely tell I had missed some time."

A bit undersized at 6-1, 230, Chamberlain nonetheless is a dependable player who doesn't make a lot of mistakes.

Vobora doesn't wow you with athletic ability, but he's a smart, physical player. After losing his starting job to Diggs this season, he has another opportunity.

"It absolutely is a perfect opportunity," Vobora said. "This game is all about just taking each opportunity and making the most of it. That's what I was able to do in my first two years and I'm going to continue to do it this year."

Opportunity also could be knocking for Grant and Kehl. Grant is an aggressive, physical player but needs to work on being assignment sound and being consistent in his play. Kehl has gone from being a starter against Carolina to being inactive against Arizona. But with Diggs out, Kehl could at least have a special teams role against the Saints.