Defense Expects More in Year Three

Posted Aug 18, 2011

You’d be hard pressed to find a defense in the league that has enjoyed the continuity – both in system and in personnel – that the Rams have had for the past two, going on three, seasons.

From the moment coach Steve Spagnuolo took over in 2009 and promptly named Ken Flajole defensive coordinator, the defense has enjoyed a stability that has included a grand total of zero coaching changes on that side of the staff and minimal turnover in terms of the starters.

Now, entering the third year in the aggressive, attacking scheme that Flajole and Spagnuolo have cooked up, the sky would seem to be the limit for a group that made big strides in 2010 and is expecting even more in 2011.

“I think the sky is the limit,” cornerback Ron Bartell said. “It’s our third year. We expect big improvements. We added a few pieces that we expect to help us. As long as guys are staying healthy, I think we will be fine. We are definitely hungry. Last year was bittersweet. We made big strides but we still didn’t accomplish what we wanted.”

The Rams did come up just short on the scoreboard and in the standings, losing a heartbreaker to Seattle in the season finale to just miss winning the NFC West Division.

But one of the biggest reasons they were even in that position was a dramatic improvement made by the defense.

A defensive coach by trade, Spagnuolo and Flajole cooked up exotic blitzes to amp up the pass rush and a number of young players blossomed on their own as they grew more comfortable with that scheme.

When all was said and done, the Rams made drastic improvements by moving to 19th in total defense (up from 29th), 12th in scoring defense (up from 31st) and coming up with the league’s seventh best sack total at 43 (up from 30th).

In addition, the Rams were also greatly improved in some lesser known but key areas such as third down defense (where they ranked second), touchdowns allowed (tied for fourth) and turnover differential (10th).

Despite all of those strides, the Rams have set about this season with the intent to make even bigger moves.

“We know we are not just going to be a great defense because we got gradually got better last year,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “It’s a year by year deal. We have to continue to improve year in, year out. So no matter what happened last year as far as getting better has nothing to do with this year’s outcome. Our goal is to be No. 1 across the board on defense and make the playoffs. So any way we can help our team win the NFC West and get to those playoffs, that’s what we’ll do.”


While encouraging, the type of improvements made in 2010 probably wouldn’t have much chance to be duplicated this year were it not for an influx of depth and talent capable of taking the defense to new heights.

To that end, Rams general manager Billy Devaney went shopping. Starting in April’s NFL Draft, he plucked talented first round defensive end Robert Quinn, safety Jermale Hines, cornerback Mikail Baker, safety Jonathan Nelson and linebacker Jabara Williams.

The trip to the free agent market yielded two massive defensive tackles, a trio of talented, hard nosed linebackers, a savvy veteran cornerback and a play making safety among the best in the league at his position.

“Well, I waved my pom-poms and said, ‘Thanks a bunch,’” Flajole said, laughing. “I cheered Billy on and said, ‘Let’s go!’ It was great and you just never know how this thing plays out. I know it probably looked like we were slow playing it, there at the beginning. As it turned out we ended up getting some guys that can help us, so that’s good for the Rams.”

Indeed, the Rams brought in surefire starters in safety Quintin Mikell and big defensive tackle Justin Bannan. Linebackers Zac Diles and Ben Leber are right in the mix of a competition for the starting weakside linebacker job and Brady Poppinga is pushing incumbent Na’il Diggs on the strong side.

Al Harris provides leadership and depth at cornerback and Daniel Muir does the same at defensive tackle.

That seems like a lot of changes to a defense that made such strides in 2010 but for the first few weeks of training camp, the Rams used a lineup with nine returning starters.

Having those familiar faces around has helped to get the new additions acclimated quickly, a task made more significant by this condensed version of training camp. 

“I’ll tell you what helps is the bulk of our guys are still here, have been through it for three years, can feed it to them,” Spagnuolo said. “And something about this game of football, the players seem to learn better when other players teach them. I don’t know what it is. That’s not to take anything away from the coaching, but I think that helps the new guys coming in meshing with the system that we’ve had for three years and hopefully it will be a good result.”


For anyone that knows Spagnuolo and Flajole, they know that sitting on their laurels is something they simply won’t tolerate. Both are forward thinking football minds constantly looking for ways to improve the defensive scheme.

When it was suggested to Laurinaitis that there might be some new wrinkles in the defense this year, he could only laugh.

“It’s more like waves,” Laurinaitis said with a laugh.

Without giving away specifics of what the Rams are hoping to do different this year schematically, Laurinaitis said that the trust the coaching staff has in the players going into the third year will allow for an approach that doesn’t emphasize thinking as much as it does reacting.

The thought process being that this group is far enough into this system that a lot of the details are now second nature.

“Everything is about being more aggressive,” Laurinaitis said. “It’s not about being gap perfect all the time. It’s ‘How can I be downhill and try to be the hammer and not the nail?’ That’s our focus on defense this year, not just for me or anyone but just the defense in general. We have to make sure we are delivering the punch on defense and attacking downhill and not so much worried about being in this gap or that gap. If you go through the guy and make the play, you make the play. It’s about being aggressive and we’ll correct any of the other stuff as we go along.”

There will be some new wrinkles and looks that the defense will use in the 4-3 scheme. Some players are asked to do things that others won’t.

For example, Bartell is the team’s elder statesman at cornerback but an early camp injury to Jerome Murphy has put Bartell on alert that his services may someday be needed as the nickel cornerback spot should something happen to Justin King.

So Bartell has spent time in camp working in the nickel just in case he’s called upon.

The new additions also bring different skill sets that can bring out an ability a player might not have been able to previously showcase.

“Every year you always tweak what you do a little bit,” Flajole said. “And you always tailor it to the type of personnel you have. Our defensive scheme will probably change a little bit depending… I would hope that our execution this year would be better than our execution was a year ago. People should have a better sense of where they belong in the run game and the pass game and those are the type of things you hope for in the third year in the system.”


So what’s the ceiling for a defense that made big moves in 2010 added some talented pieces in the offseason and is being led by a pair of the game’s finest defensive minds? How high can this group go?

“As high as the leaders on this defense will push us,” Laurinaitis said. “I think that’s the thing. We can’t get complacent. We are realists about the preseason. I think it’s just about pushing forward and getting better every week and as the games continue to come we just get better and better on defense.”

The mix of youth and experience on the defense is a refreshing look that allows the group’s leaders not to be stretched too thin amongst teammates in need of guidance.

Linebackers can turn to Laurinaitis for help while corners can ask Bartell just about anything. Fred Robbins is as knowledgeable about the defense as anyone and defensive tackles regularly sidle up to him in practice with queries. Same for James Hall at defensive end.

And new additions like Mikell and Harris are around to dispense advice, as well.

“I welcome it,” Bartell said. “I have been here for a long time, been in this defense for three years. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good feel for what coach expects and what he wants.”

The time spent in the league and in this defense, in particular helps guys like Bartell and Laurinaitis act not only as a sounding board but also serve as role models by what they do and not just what they say.

If the idea of playing fast is the ultimate goal of a defense, knowing its ins and outs is the best way to get up to speed.

“It’s made a huge difference,” Bartell said. “I think you can see it in the way we practice just being with some of the same group of guys for three years has made a huge difference. It’s been the same defense, we’ve been able to play off one another better, we know what to expect. I don’t think there’s much an offense can throw at us that we haven’t talked about or haven’t seen. It allows everybody to play faster.”

Where the combination of continuity and the new personnel takes this defense remains to be seen but there’s a clear mandate to ensure that the arrow continues to point up in 2011. 

“That’s the way I’m going to work,” Flajole said. “We can’t stay where we’re at right now. If we’re going to where we want to go, we have to improve our defense and that’s where our focus and where our energy will be. We have to; we can’t just stay the same. I’ll give the guys credit, we made some progress but there is a lot more progress we can make.”