With all the preseason hype directed towards Josh McDaniels’ new offense coming to St. Louis, let’s take a look at the other side of the ball and the building blocks of a solid foundation that are slowly being laid.
Coach Steve Spagnuolo has brought a Super Bowl proven defensive scheme to St. Louis. The first year was the weeding out process and the removal of players that didn’t fit the “Four Pillars” and lacked the toughness, competitiveness and intelligence to remain a Ram.
One of Spagnuolo’s first hires was defensive coordinator Ken Flajole, a very good defensive-minded coach who I’ve known since he was a graduate assistant coach at the University of Washington in the late 70s. Better known as “Flage,” he is an attention to detail coach, a motivator and is big on discipline. He has a good sense of his players, knows when to push buttons and also knows when to give them some sugar to pump those egos back up.
He will reap the benefits of the hard work of Billy Devaney’s personnel department, as defensive tackles Justin Bannan (Broncos) and Daniel Muir (Colts), linebackers Zac Diles (Texans), Brady Poppinga (Packers) and Ben Leber (Vikings), cornerback Al Harris (Dolphins) and safety Quintin Mikell (Eagles) were all added through free agency.
Seven out of the 11 unrestricted free agents were defensive players. The Rams did a great job not only filling holes, but also adding starters with experience and in some cases having played in the Spagnuolo scheme. While the linebackers and secondary are extremely important to a defense, and received some major upgrades at those positions, everything starts up front. Winning the battle in the trenches and getting stronger and having the ability to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball with the big boys is the goal of every football team, both college and professionally.
Generally most teams keep four interior defensive linemen when a team plays a 4-3 scheme like the Rams. The defensive line battle at training camp got more interesting when both Bannan and Muir were recently added to the roster. Look for this to be one of the most exciting competitions on the Rams roster, and it will make for some interesting conversation prior to cuts.
The veteran and the anchor of the interior line is Fred “Popsicle” Robbins. The 12-year NFL veteran out of Wake Forest and second-year Ram has established himself as the rock inside. The dogfight is for the remaining three positions, and as we get closer to the first preseason game you can feel and see the level of urgency escalate during drills (team period, one on one and bag drills). Let’s take a look at the group of big men that will battle for three spots:
Justin Bannan — (6-3, 310) Broncos/FA: Good frame with size and pineapple calves. Stout against the run in practice sessions with double arm bar press and lateral mobility. This player might be the missing link in the Spagnuolo defense; can’t wait to see how he plays in a game situation.
Gary Gibson — (6-3, 300) Rams/UFA re-signed: Competitive player, aggressive as a run defender and creates pass rush on his own. Nagging injury history is an issue, and play time fades as seasons progress.
Daniel Muir — (6-2, 312) Colts/UFA: My only true exposure to this player is at this training camp. Good initial quickness out of stance plays with flat back and strong use of hands to create separation from blocker with length. Might be better in passing situations or sub packages. Strong, competitive and ornery attitude with lateral chase and pursuit with pass rush skills. I can’t wait to see him in game mode.
Darell Scott — 6-3, 315) Rams: Third-year player that was hurt most of the 2010 season, but flashed skill-set to ascend into a good player. Mindset doesn’t fit frame and size. This is the type of player you want walking off the bus first. Will need to settle down, stay healthy and increase playtime with production or he could find himself on the bubble despite being a draft pick.
Jermelle Cudjo — (6-2, 299) Rams: Power player, compact frame with tackle to tackle production when given the opportunity to play against the run and pass.
Rookie to watch
John Henderson — (6-1, 301) Southern Mississippi/CFA: Another short stumpy player that does a good job taking up space.