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On a star-studded Rams defense, Cory Littleton quietly finds a role

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  • On a star-studded Rams defense, Cory Littleton quietly finds a role

    THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- If Los Angeles Rams linebackers coach Joe Barry had his way, he would have started coaching Cory Littleton more than two years ago.

    Barry, a former assistant with the Washington Redskins, implored the Redskins to select Littleton in the 2016 draft.

    "When we were in Washington we loved him," Barry said. "I was on the table the entire third day of the draft to draft him."

    But with more pressing needs, the Redskins passed on Littleton, who made several positions moves in four seasons at the University of Washington, which reflected in a draft grade that labeled him as an in-between player without a real spot in the NFL.

    The other 31 teams passed on Littleton in the draft, too, leaving Littleton, a San Diego native, to sign as an undrafted free agent with the Rams.

    "He made the decision," Barry said, "And I was like, 'Dang! What a bummer.'"

    Barry may have lost out on Littleton in the draft and free agency, but united with him in Los Angeles a year later when he accepted a position on coach Sean McVay's staff.
    Now as the Rams prepare for the 2018 season, Littleton, 24, has gone from an undrafted player to a penciled-in starter at inside linebacker on a defense that includes All-Pros Aaron Donald,

    Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters.

    "It's been a progression," Littleton said. "Just trying to get better every day."

    Littleton's ascension up the depth chart was made possible after a series of offseason roster moves.

    In the first year deploying defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme, the Rams ranked 19th in total defense, giving up the 12th-fewest points and generating the fifth-most turnovers, as they clinched the NFC West for the first time since 2003.

    But they also ranked 28th against the run, allowing an average of 122.4 yards rushing.

    In an effort to better field the 3-4 and provide some salary-cap flexibility, the Rams traded outside linebacker Robert Quinn to the Miami Dolphins and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree -- who last season signed a four-year, $42-million extension -- to the New York Giants.

    Ogletree's departure cleared a path for Littleton to win the starting job.

    "I'm just competing to try to secure it," Littleton said. "I have a lot of tough competition and I'm just going to do my best to try to keep it."

    The choice to part ways with Ogletree, a cornerstone of the locker room and the team's leading tackler the last two seasons, was made somewhat easier by the promise Littleton showed last season.

    "When he played last year, he's the type of guy where you're creating certain packages just to get him on the field when you've got two really good players inside like Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron," McVay said. "Cory's made plays over the course of his career when he's gotten opportunities."

    Last season, Littleton recorded 36 tackles, forced two fumbles, and in a Week 16 victory over the Tennessee Titans, proved himself as a playmaker.

    Starting in place of Barron, who was sidelined because of an injury, Littleton intercepted the first pass of his career, shocking quarterback Marcus Mariota on his opening drive. The turnover resulted in a touchdown. Later, Littleton recorded his first career sack when he took down Mariota in the red zone. The Rams went on to clinch the NFC West with a 27-23 victory.

    "I came in and just tried to perform to the best of my ability," Littleton said. Cory Littleton was a standout on special teams last season, blocking this punt against the Jaguars that Malcolm Brown returned for a touchdown. AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
    At that point in the season, Littleton, also a standout on special teams, had already made an impression on the first-year coaching staff. But his performance against the Titans helped solidify their thought that he could become a full-time starter.

    "Cory has unbelievable awareness and instincts," Barry said. "The things that Cory has been able to work on, and as a coach you can coach a player into doing things better, you can get him to use his hands better, you can get him to get in the weight room and get bigger, fast and stronger ... he's worked on those things."

    The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Littleton arrived at the training facility for the offseason program having gained about 10 pounds, and it was then that coaches notified him that he would be switched from the "Mo" linebacker, the weak side linebacker in a 3-4, to "Mike," or the strong side.

    "There isn't a whole lot of difference," Phillips said of the transition between positions.

    But there is added responsibility. At the Mike position, Littleton becomes responsible for relaying the calls from Phillips heard through the earpiece in his helmet to teammates.

    The level of communication is something that has taken some adjustment for Littleton, who is admittedly a man of few words.

    "Very few," Littleton said. "Very. Few."

    Phillips was pleased with his progress through the nine-week offseason program, as Littleton competed against fourth-year pro Bryce Hager and rookie Micah Kiser, a fifth-round pick, at the position.

    But there is still room for evaluation throughout training camp, given players did not wear pads through the offseason workouts, making it challenging to gauge Littleton's effectiveness against the run.

    "He's done a good job of relaying the signals," Phillips said. "You know, it's harder for inside linebackers in the running game to show themselves with no pads on. He's obviously got coverage skills, and he actually can rush the passer really well from inside, so those are the kind of two things he's doing well, and I think he holds up in the run game too."

    Like a spot in the NFL, Littleton knows there are no guarantees that he will be the starter when the season opens in September.

    But after enduring the journey from undrafted free agent to practicing as a starter, he's willing to put in the work to close the deal.

    "I'm just competing to try to secure it," Littleton said. "I have a lot of tough competition and I'm just going to do my best to try to keep it."

    Let's hope he lives up to the hype !!

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    JUN 04, 2018 | 3:00 AM

    The journey began at the outer fringes of the roster and included a delay in the Pacific Northwest.

    Now Cory Littleton is suddenly right in the middle of the Rams’ defense.

    Two years ago, after he signed as an undrafted free agent, Littleton sat out nearly all organized team activity workouts because he was required to finish the spring quarter at the University of Washington. He pored over the Rams’ playbook in Seattle, and when he finally joined the team he earned a roster spot as a valuable special teams contributor.

    Last year during OTAs, Littleton studied and played behind veteran linebackers Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron, earning a role as a featured back-up and spot starter.

    The Rams traded Ogletree in March, so Littleton has spent OTAs acclimating to new responsibilities.

    He is a starting inside linebacker and signal caller for a remade, star-studded defense that is expected to help the Rams move beyond the first round of the playoffs.

    “Basically,” he said of his role, “the quarterback of the defense.”

    It’s a big promotion for a first-year starter in a unit that will include star defensive linemen Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters.

    Littleton, 24, acknowledged that he was adjusting to fit the role.

    “I’m not the most vocal person,” he said, smiling. “I do my best.”

    The linebacker corps is the biggest question mark for a defense that appears stout along the front and talented and deep in the secondary.

    The Rams finished 11-5 and made the playoffs last season with a defense that ranked 19th overall, 13th against the pass and 28th against the run. They allowed the 12th-fewest points.

    General manager Les Snead made several offseason moves to provide defensive coordinator Wade Phillips with players that specifically fit his 3-4 scheme.

    The makeover began when the Rams traded veteran linebacker/edge rusher Robert Quinn to the Miami Dolphins for draft picks. It continued when they shipped Ogletree to the New York Giants for picks to clear salary room for the acquisition of Talib. And they let veteran linebacker Connor Barwin leave to test free agency.

    Barron, a six-year veteran, is attending but not participating in OTA workouts, the same model the Rams utilized last year to make sure he made it to and through the season without physical setbacks.

    That has provided Phillips, coach Sean McVay and linebackers coach Joe Barry an opportunity to closely assess others.

    Ramik Wilson, who started 17 games for the Kansas City Chiefs in his first three pro seasons, said he was adjusting quickly to a new system and teammates.

    -06-05-2018, 09:41 AM
  • Nick
    After Strong Offseason, Ebukam in Line to Start at OLB
    After Strong Offseason, Ebukam in Line to Start at OLB
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    Tuesday, Jun 19, 2018 12:10 PM

    Heading into the Rams offseason program, the club’s defensive lineup appeared to be pretty settled.

    From the new additions of cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, to the acquisition of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, those outside of the building had a good idea of which players would be starting in the secondary and on the front line. The Rams linebackers, however, was a different story, given the departures of former starters Alec Ogletree, Robert Quinn, and Connor Barwin.

    But as the team looks toward training camp, it seems that at least one question mark from the group has been answered at outside linebacker.

    “I think Samson Ebukam has had a tremendous spring,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said recently. “I just think he’s learned more and more about what he can do and how to do what he does… [He] certainly will have one of the starting positions.”

    Ebukam made a name for himself last season early on as a dominant force on special teams. He also developed quickly as an important depth piece on the outside — recording 31 tackles, 2.0 sacks, and one forced fumble in 2017, having appeared in all 16 games.

    While the coaching staff has been open with Ebukam about their plans for him this fall, the Eastern Washington product has maintained a humble attitude throughout the offseason.

    “They’ve told me that and all that good stuff, but I don’t really pay attention to it,” Ebukam admitted. “I’m just here to earn my spot. It’s another year and I just have to earn it just like everybody else."

    For that reason, he has been focused on delving deeper into the intricacies of the defense and working on his ability to rush the passer more effectively.

    “Definitely the playbook,” Ebukam said of his growth, “being able to play faster on the field and not thinking as much as I did last year. I just feel more loose and more confident now that I know the playbook more because I didn’t have this last year.”

    “I wasn’t here in OTAs [in 2017], so this is all kind of like a learning experience for me and I’ve loved it every step of the way,” he continued.

    Phillips and head coach Sean McVay have been impressed with the young linebacker’s overall development.

    Both mentioned the strides they’ve seen in Ebukam this offseason have given them confidence in his ability to be a starter in 2018.

    “He’s got tremendous speed and he’s learning to utilize that,” Phillips said. “You’ve got to hone in on what you do well [and] he’s kinda found his niche there.”

    “Samson has been a great player for us where you see the bursts, just the way that he’s consistently able to get in and out of different things whether it’s bursting [or] pursuing the football,” McVay...
    -06-20-2018, 06:18 AM
  • r8rh8rmike
    Rams Feel Good About Depth at Linebacker
    Rams Feel Good About Depth at Linebacker

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    Kristen Lago Rams Writer/Reporter@kristennlago With four new additions acquired through the Draft, the Rams have 12 linebackers currently on the roster.

    This offseason, the club traded its starting edge defender Robert Quinn to the Dolphins. Starting middle linebacker Alec Ogletree was then traded to the Giants and starting outside linebacker Connor Barwin remains an unsigned free agent. Inside linebacker Mark Barron is the last remaining starter of the group on the team’s roster from 2017 — leaving three slots likely open for the next season.

    But despite the large holes on defense, coordinator Wade Phillips said he was confident about the club’s depth at the position.

    “We lost two outside backers and one inside backer who were starters,” Phillips told “So, it’s opening places for guys to step up and play. And I think some of these guys that we got were added to help us. I’m looking forward to that, but we [do] feel good about where we are.”

    The group Phillips was referring to includes outside linebackers Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Trevon Young, as well as inside linebackers Micah Kiser and Travin Howard.

    “I think you look at it and you like some of the depth that you’re able to create with some guys that can play on the edge,” head coach Sean McVay said recently. “Then you add interior players that can do some different things and allow us to be a bit more versatile at some of those spots and add some depth.”

    Kiser has been talked about as one of the rookies with the best chances at making an early impact on the defense. The Virginia product led the ACC in tackles for three consecutive seasons, recording 33.5 tackles for loss, 19.0 sacks, and eight forced fumbles along the way.

    “Micah has an opportunity to fit in, I mean we lost our MIKE linebacker,” Phillips said. “We lost our leadingtackler, so hopefully he can come in and step into those shoes, which are big shoes for a young guy.”

    “But he’s got all the talent,” he continued. “I mean hey, those are great things going in and I think it’ll take him a little time, but we feel like he was a really good fit for us.”

    All four rookies will join a linebacker room that already includes Samson Ebukam, Matt Longacre, Cory Littleton, Bryce Hager, Ejuan Price, Garrett Sickels, Carlos Thompson and recently signed Ramik Wilson. Of the group, Ebukam, Longacre, and Littleton have the most game experience, combining for 1,007 snaps in 2017.

    All together — with some significant contributors from last season and a couple of promising newcomers — the Rams linebacker group includes several viable options for 2018.

    “We [definitely] have some guys on the team that can come through for us,” Phillips said. “It’s going to play out, but I feel good about it right now. We have some talent.”...
    -05-10-2018, 10:20 AM
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    Bum Phillips loved to watch his son work. Near the end of a life spanning football's explosive growth, the legendary leader of the "Love ya Blue" Houston Oilers would regularly show up to Texans practice, wife by his side, to see Wade Phillips coordinate Houston's defense.

    "Wade was 65 years old at the time," Los Angeles Rams linebacker Connor Barwin said in an interview this summer, recalling the image of his days playing for Phillips in Houston. "It was so cool to watch his parents come watch him coach. You just saw that love between them, that respect, that love for the game all in one."

    Now 70 years old and ready to embark on his 40th NFL season after joining the 10th pro organization of his career, the Rams' newest defensive coordinator wears that love of sport as conspicuously as his late father once wore a 10-gallon hat. Phillips emerged as the preeminent quick-fix defensive coach of the last quarter-century by honoring his father's principles even when they cut against the NFL norms of the day. When a team needs a defensive boost, they call Phillips, and he delivers every time.

    Phillips and Barwin are more than just coach and player -- the two men regularly grabbed meals together even when Barwin was playing with the Eagles and Phillips was coaching elsewhere. In this era of free agency, cold professionalism and emotion-free press conferences, Phillips believes that coaches and players can be friends. He believes that yelling at players for mistakes amounts to "bitching" and not coaching. He believes that too many staffs overcoach players in an effort to make them all the same. The Son of Bum identifies with players who don't follow all his orders, knowing well that a little independent thinking goes a long way.

    "You don't want players that do exactly what you say because they have no initiative themselves," Phillips told me. "You get some guys who are great young men that want to do everything you say, but they get carried away with that. When you need to make a play, you need to have the initiative to say, 'Hey, Coach told me to do this, but the ball's right there. I got to make the play.' "

    Like so much of Phillips' football philosophy, this sounds deceptively straightforward. Rams players extol Phillips' ability to simplify concepts and teach with clarity so they can learn fast and play even faster. Introduction to Wade Phillips 101 is a defensive self-help course with proven results that rival those of any defensive coach of his lifetime. In Los Angeles, he takes over a defense that had a better reputation than results over the last four seasons, failing to ever finish in the top 10 in points allowed and bottoming out last season, ranking 23rd in that category. Phillips' track record is one reason why Rams fans should expect this defense -- and the 2017 team as a whole -- to...
    -08-25-2017, 08:28 PM
  • r8rh8rmike
    Rams coach Phillips unfazed by Donald's absence, holds out hope for revamped defense
    Wiley Rams coach Wade Phillips is unfazed by Aaron Donald's absence, but holds out hope for his revamped defense

    JUL 30, 2018 | 7:50 PM
    Like everybody working for the Rams, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is eager to see star defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald lined up side by side.

    Donald is still nowhere to be seen at UC Irvine. It’s the second year in a row that he has stayed away from training camp because of a contract dispute.

    Donald’s absence has prevented Phillips from evaluating Suh, the Rams’ marquee free-agent acquisition of the offseason, playing in a lineup with last season’s NFL defensive player of the year.

    Asked Monday if there was a specific time he wanted to see Suh and Donald together on the field, the 71-year-old Phillips was typically deadpan.

    “On yeah, tomorrow would be good,” he said. “But we’re off tomorrow. Hopefully that’s coming up … that’s what everybody’s looking forward to.”

    The Donald situation could continue through training camp, the preseason and possibly into the regular season.

    Phillips remains unfazed.

    He started coaching in the NFL in 1976 and has seen his share of holdouts and other dramas.

    After more than four decades in the league, he still enjoys training camp.

    “It’s always interesting to me, no matter what,” he said. “Even if you have the same guys, it’s a new team every yeah. ... So it’s fun for me.

    “Sometimes it’s a chess game and sometimes it’s just coaching to see if you can improve players no matter who they are.”

    Suh, linebacker Ramik Wilson and cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and Sam Shields are new additions to a team that won the NFC West last season under first-year coach Sean McVay.

    Phillips continues to serve as an understated and experienced sounding board for an occasionally high-strung head coach, McVay said.

    “He’s done it so many different ways,” said the 32-year-old McVay, adding, “He’s able to give his input but it never feels forced.”

    Suh, who was signed to a one-year, $14-million contract, is “right where he needs to be,” Phillips said. He noted that Talib, who won a Super Bowl playing under Phillips in Denver, and Peters are blending and establishing themselves as leaders.

    The linebackers, with Cory Littleton moving into a starting role in the middle, are coming along for a defense that is 70% installed, Phillips said.

    Contingency plan

    Rookie Joseph Noteboom has worked at left tackle as Andrew Whitworth’s backup, but also at right guard as a possible replacement for Jamon Brown, who is suspended for the first two games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

    Second-year pro Austin Blythe is regarded as the front-runner to start at right guard until Brown is eligible to return in Week 3 against...
    -07-31-2018, 06:15 PM