Defense Puts it on the Line

Posted Dec 30, 2010

For as long as he’s coached defense, Steve Spagnuolo has held true to one strong conviction.

“We’ve always believed that to play good defense you’ve got to put it all on that front,” Spagnuolo said.

Much like his defense did in New York, the Rams have put that very same onus on their defensive line in 2010.

What they’ve got in return is one of the most productive defensive lines in the league. Led by the talented trio of James Hall, Chris Long and Fred Robbins and deploying a rotation that sometimes goes as many as nine deep, the Rams front four has become the lead force behind a defensive resurgence that’s seen them make tremendous strides this season.

“Well hopefully it starts up front,” Long said. “That’s our goal. We try to do our best to be part of this defense and be a productive part of the defense but at the same time play within the scheme. I think that’s a big thing is trusting the scheme is going to work and it has.”

The scheme to which Long is referring relies on a group of players rotating in and out as well as asking its players to move all over the line. At various times this season, guys like Long have been asked to drop into coverage while players like Hall and C.J. Ah You have moved inside to tackle on third down.

While Spagnuolo and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole have plenty of exotic blitzes and pressure packages in the defensive playbook, they also prefer to see the front four pressuring the quarterback because of the freedom it allows the back seven.

“It helps a lot, particularly because you feel like you can play a little bit more seven man fronts against some of their personnel groupings where you don’t feel like you have to load up on the run,” Flajole said. “When you can do that, you are able to give the back end people a little more help and your front can take the game over a little bit.”

Seemingly, the Rams defensive line has been able to take over games on numerous occasions this season, particularly at key moments.

Against Denver on Nov. 28, Long came up with the sack that essentially killed a potential game-winning drive for the Broncos. Last week against San Francisco, Long came up with a strip sack late in the game that denied the 49ers and Robbins fell on it to help end San Francisco’s hopes.

Through 15 games, the Rams have racked up 43 sacks as a team with 31 of those coming from the various members of the defensive line. Hall leads the way with 10.5, Long has 8.5 and Robbins has added six.

Make no mistake, though, that trio has received plenty of help from players like Ah You (four sacks), George Selvie (1.5), Jermelle Cudjo (0.5) and Eugene Sims (a safety). And players like defensive tackles Gary Gibson and Darell Scott have been unsung heroes, taking on blockers to help free things up on the outside.

“I think anytime you get a good push in the middle of the line it creates more opportunities for your ends to get singled, guards can’t necessarily help out to a tackle,” Flajole said. “Having a good push inside certainly gives defensive ends a better chance to get one on one blocks and fortunately for us James and Chris have both had opportunities to take advantage of it.”

Nearly from the moment Spagnuolo arrived in St. Louis, Long says he and his linemates knew what possibilities the defensive scheme could bring.

The group Spagnuolo coached in New York was instrumental in the Giants’ Super Bowl victory and featured some of the most productive linemen in the league.

“It definitely did,” Long said. “They won a lot of games in New York off of that D line so if we are good enough as players, the same thing can happen for us. That’s kind of the attitude we have.”

Of course, simply having good coaching and schemes is not enough for a group to enjoy the type of success this one has this year. A lot of that stems from the extreme chemistry and bond shared by the group of guys in that defensive line room with coach Brendan Daly.

Sims arrived in St. Louis as a sixth-round pick out of tiny West Texas A&M, where he played rush linebacker in a 3-4 defense. He arrived in St. Louis hoping to find a way to stick but found himself overwhelmed by the transition to 4-3 end and looked to guys like Long, Hall and the newly-signed Robbins to provide guidance.

“I have learned a lot from James, Chris, Fred,” Sims said. “They talk to me on and off the field. During OTAs I was stressed about a lot of things and me and Chris and Fred had a long talk about things. They told me that I’m a rookie and I will get it but to take my time and it will come.”

Slowly but surely Sims came along, first cracking the active gameday roster on special teams and recently working in on defense more. It’s that unselfish mentality that permeates the defensive line group and has created a fun-loving, loose group that gets after it on Sundays.

That camaraderie carries over from the field into the film room, the weight room and anywhere else where football improvement can occur.

“It helps a lot,” Robbins said. “We did our thing. It started out earlier in this year. I just told guys to do things to help us get better, watch film together, learn how each other plays. I think that helps us up front and kind of trickle down toward the back end once we learn how to play with each other. It all starts up front so once we had our game down and pretty much going in the right direction everyone else can play off of us.”

The experience of players like Robbins and Hall has been invaluable as youngsters like Sims, Selvie, Cudjo and Scott have worked to integrate themselves into the group.

Although those guys haven’t been in the league long and have plenty left to learn to get to the level of the more accomplished veterans like Robbins, Hall and Long, there’s one lesson that has become crystal clear right away.

“Like some people say, it’s the engine of the car,” Sims said. “As a team, we keep it going but on the O line and the D line, that’s where it starts.”