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Thread: Strong Secondary a Top Priority
Strong Secondary a Top Priority
Thursday, June 4, 2009
By Nick Wagoner
A simple glance at what the Rams did in this offseason is all it takes to know that they have made the secondary one of their first priorities.
Consider for a moment that in this most recent free agent market, the Rams placed the franchise tag on safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, forked over $28 million to keep cornerback Ron Bartell and inked safety James Butler to a lucrative four-year contract.
If nothing else, it sent a clear message that new coach Steve Spagnuolo, who has spent plenty of time in the league as a defensive backs coach, places a premium on strong secondary play.
And while those financial commitments show plenty of confidence in the players filling out the defensive backfield, the players are showing plenty of confidence that they could be the leaders of this defense well into the future.
“We are the backbone,” Butler said. “We’re young, we all had to work hard to get where we are and I think that’s a good thing. Guys are hungry, guys are working hard to be the best and I think these guys will go out and do a great job this year.”
With the 2009 season still months away, it’s evident from the happenings on the practice field that the Rams are putting a lot more than money into developing the secondary into one of the team’s greatest strengths.
Soon after Spagnuolo was hired, the Rams made it clear that retaining the services of Atogwe and Bartell was at the top of the team’s laundry list.
After some lengthy negotiations, the Rams decided to put the franchise tag on Atogwe, one of the league’s emerging defensive players and the team’s Most Valuable Player in 2008.
Last season, Atogwe posted 109 tackles, five interceptions, eight forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. In the process, he established himself as one of the league’s best ball hawks and the preferred last line of defense for the Rams.
With Spagnuolo at the helm and a new defensive system in place, Atogwe is still feeling his way through the defense but has made it a point to stay in St. Louis and do everything possible to acquaint himself with the scheme.
That process includes gaining a better understanding of making calls in the secondary and an increased focus on communicating with his fellow defensive backs.
“I am still figuring it out,” Atogwe said. “I am still learning the defense and figuring out where I fit in the defense and how I am best utilized in the defense and how the defense can best utilize me and my skill set. It’s a learning phase.”
Helping Atogwe and the rest of the secondary through that learning phase is Butler. After spending two seasons as the starting strong safety in Spagnuolo’s New York defenses, Butler came to St. Louis with an intimate knowledge of the defensive scheme.
“I just bring that experience to the group,” Butler said. “I have been in the system for two years and I can give them the ins and outs of the defense. That’s what I bring. I can give them all of the observation for how the defense is supposed to be run.
“We have a good, smart group of guys. I don’t have to get them lined up a lot. I just have to detail them up on some of the little things and look at different receivers and different things that the defense needs a better grasp of, that’s my job.”
Butler is filling big shoes in terms of leadership as he steps into the job vacated by Corey Chavous, who was released early in the offseason. Although Chavous’ production had slipped in recent years, he was revered by his fellow defensive backs for his knowledge and passion for the game.
Chavous was known to regularly host the defensive backs at his house, cooking for them and running them through a variety of film sessions.
Butler doesn’t want to copy Chavous but says he hopes to build a similar camaraderie in the locker room and on the field. That’s something that likely won’t be a problem for him considering he had a previous friendship with Atogwe, Bartell and cornerback Tye Hill.
“The camaraderie is going very well,” Butler said. “I know a lot of the safeties are going to work out this summer when the offseason is over with and just go to Atlanta and different places to work out. I think the camaraderie is very good here. I think everybody wants to get better and they all see the goal at hand and that’s the biggest difference.”
Butler’s wisdom and knowledge of the defense has already been instrumental in helping his fellow defensive backs. On any given play, Butler and Spagnuolo can be seen giving encouragement and advice to the many young defensive backs such as Jonathan Wade, Justin King and Bradley Fletcher.
That advice has not fallen on deaf ears.
“You are not afraid to talk to each other. James knowing the defense, if he comes and tells us some things, we already know he knows,” Hill said. “We will listen to what he says and that’s what the coaches are trying to tell us. With the addition of James and the guys we already have, it’s something special I believe.”
For defensive backs in Spagnuolo’s system, there are certain things that are done different than in the past. While the previous system asked the cornerbacks to press receivers at the line of scrimmage some, they must do it more regularly in this system.
The safeties aren’t necessarily true strong and free safeties in the Spagnuolo defense, either. That means there is a need for strong communication so while Butler will likely handle the main defensive calls, Atogwe must be well versed in that area as well.
“Being a safety in this league, being a defensive football player in this league you have got to be able to talk through everything,” Atogwe said. “Making calls and talking to each other is part of the game so we all have to be able to do that.”
With Butler, Atogwe and Bartell solid in their positions and meeting the requirement of young, ascending players the Rams will have a heated competition for the other cornerback spot.
As it stands, Hill is the guy getting most of the repetitions at that spot opposite Bartell. Hill has a close relationship with Bartell and Atogwe from the time they have already spent in St. Louis as well as a friendship with Butler that includes the duo’s owning a Golden Corral restaurant in Georgia together.
For chemistry purposes, it would be hard to beat that quartet but Hill is the first admit he has to play some catch up in terms of production to fit in with the rest of the group.
“I think we have the most talent in the secondary,” Hill said. “If you think about it, the guys we have been able to add and the guys we have been able to keep like a Bartell who is an emerging star in this league, OJ is an emerging star in this league, Butler an emerging star in this league. Like I said before, I am trying to work to get to where they’re at and we will be the backbone of this defense.”
Re: Strong Secondary a Top Priority
Nice it is about time from top to bottom, from dime defense to just standard 4-3 We will have an adequate group of corners and safeties. I believe we should not sign a veteran corner, I would love to see Wade, King, and Fletcher just blow it up, give us a great secondary
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