When it comes to the St. Louis Rams’ defense people are still wondering who exactly will be making the decisions on game day. Is it Dave McGinnis, who has head coaching and defensive coordinator experience? Or will they lean on one of two young and bright assistant coaches in Blake Williams (son of Greg Williams) or Chuck Cecil (NFL coaching experience and playing background)? The answer could be all the above, per Coach Fisher it will be done by committee. Let’s break down the Rams defensive battles that I find very intriguing, and these coaches will have to make decisions about.
Linebackers; The bell cow of the defense is James Laurinaitis, the Rams’ middle linebacker. He should have been a Pro Bowler the last few years, but fell short because of the Rams’ overall record. Laurinaitis, or ‘Double Nickel’ is fine-tuned and ready to deliver in 2012. Who will be Laurinaitis’ back up is a question no one is talking about, because he has not missed a game in his career. Josh Hull, who the Rams drafted in 2010, has been plagued with a list of injuries in his short career thus far. He is athletic enough and has good enough instincts to play weak outside and middle. He played both at Penn State. The linebacker with all the hair, that caught the eye of all the women at Ladies Day at ContinuityX Training Center last week, is rookie Alex Hoffmann-Ellis from Washington State University. This young player is very active in all the drill work, extremely focused and has a good motor. He had great interception production at Washington State with several returned for touchdowns. I look for this player to excel on defense and special teams. He wears number 54, but just look for the hair hanging out to the back of his helmet.
Where things start to heat up among the linebacker corps is at the two outside backer positions (weak and strong). While Jo-Lonn Dunbar lacks the ideal height and weight for the position, I like his toughness, awareness in space, football instincts and athletic skill set. Because of his size and his ability to play in space, Dunbar will most likely be penciled in at the weak outside linebacker position. Coach Fisher gave Dunbar great praise on ability and knowledge of the scheme.
The battle behind Dunbar involves Rocky McIntosh, a street free agent signed in June, and rookie draft pick Aaron Brown, from my home state of Washington and played his college ball at the University of Hawaii. McIntosh is still feeling his way thru the terminology and scheme which was much different than the Washington Redskins. He has a chance to contribute as a back-up and special teamer.
Competition comes from the rookie Brown, who is on a mission each and every time he steps on the field. I like this young player’s movement skills, attitude and motor that takes him to the ball carrier. Game time brings a fever pitch that takes everything up a notch. The difference between making the team and getting cut could be their play on special teams.
When I look over at the strong linebacker position, the coaches are using a nice rotation between Mario Haggansa, a ten year vet signed in May as an unrestricted free agent, and Justin Cole, who the Rams signed off the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice squad in November 2011. I like Haggans girth at 270 pounds and his ability to rush the passer. It brings an added dimension. He may, however, be a liability in coverage when required to change direction. Defensive coordinators for most, if not all, NFL teams will pull the strong side backer in sub packages (nickel& dime to add defensive backs) so this shouldn’t be an issue. Justin Cole, a former college DE at Fresno State, has rotated with Haggans with the number one unit. He is athletic with good lateral chase, pursuit and awareness in space when in coverage. Sunday against the Colts will start the separation between these two backers. A rookie that has caught my eye just based off height, weight and movement is Sammy Brown from Houston. Brown has the size, of 6’2 -245 the length with the long levers and movement skills for a young player. I want to see him in game time situation, cutting it loose attacking the line of scrimmage playing down downhill and contribute on special teams.
Cornerbacks; Last year it was the Achilles’ heel of the team. This year it is the strength of the defense and is the position with the most depth on the team. Coach Fisher grabbed one of his former pupils in Cortland Finnegan via free agency. He is tough, competitive and plays the game the way it is supposed to be played with violence, tenacity and works to break the will of a receiver on each and every play. He is a true football player that also brings leadership to the Rams locker room.
In the second round of the draft, Rams’ General Manager Les Snead and Coach Fisher teamed up to draft Janoris Jenkins, a player that 31 other would not take the risk on in the first round because of several off the field issues. Jenkins has made a huge impact early in training camp. This young player has veteran instincts and awareness in space. He has great feet and is always well balanced. He has the ability to flip his hips and mirror the receiver both short and deep, with stop and start and change of direction quickness. Jenkins’ over aggressiveness tends to get him in trouble when biting on slants and slug-go (double move) routes, but he has progressively improved from OTA’s through training camp.
Former starter, Bradley Fletcher is fighting for the third corner position. Fletcher is coming off IR after suffering another knee injury in his short career. So far, this smooth and aggressive cover corner has shown up in all drill work during camp and has a chance to make a statement during the pre-season and let everyone know, ”I’m Back”.
The Rams drafted another corner in Trumaine Johnson out of Montana. Many folks think he should be moved to the safety position because of his size, I say, “no!” Fisher and Snead drafted him as a corner because they saw size, length, awareness and speed for the position. So far, Johnson has not disappointed in practice and showed up big in last Saturday’s scrimmage. NFL GM’s and coaches covet tall corners that can run and Johnson fits in that category. It will be fun to watch him develop and adjust to this level of competition.
The other two corners that are battling for a spot are Josh Gordy and Jerome Murphy. Gordy was waived by Green Bay in 2011, and the Rams signed him to the practice squad and later added him to the 53 man roster last season. He performed very well for a position that was decimated by injury. Murphy a third round pick in 2010, was slow to develop but showed good promise last season but landed on IR (injuried reserve) with a broken ankle. He is a tough, hard nose corner that has the skill set and positional attributes for this level of play. He was productive on special teams and is still in the mix.
When asked if the defensive side of the ball was ready to go, Assistant Head Coach Dave McGinnis said, “the defense is installed and again, we had it installed in OTAs. What we did is we came back and then we went through it again, but we also let the coaches break it down very finite to their position groups. The only way you can play fast on defense is you have to know exactly what you’re doing and you have to have it down cold, and that was the objective coming into this camp is get this defense down cold, so we can play fast.”
Sunday’s first preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts will start the true evaluation process and the players will help make the coaches’ decisions easier based off their mental errors, assignment busts, desire, second effort and production in all three phases.