Laurinaitis Remains Defensive Centerpiece for Rams

Posted Nov 18, 2013

James Laurinaitis is accustomed to being the center of attention in the Rams’ defensive unit. Since establishing himself shortly after being chosen in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft, Laurinaitis has been at the forefront of the Rams’ defense, in both the literal and figurative sense.

The fifth-year middle linebacker has been the Rams’ most recognizable defensive presence since establishing a team rookie record with 144 tackles during the 2009 season. In the years following that breakout rookie campaign, Laurinaitis has become a stalwart on the field, a mentor to his teammates, and the centerpiece of a green-but-growing defensive unit.

“The Bell Cow”

Since staking his claim as the Rams’ starting middle linebacker in his rookie season, Laurinaitis has been arguably the team’s most irreplaceable defensive presence. The personnel around him have changed often. Only DE Chris Long remains from the Rams’ defensive unit from Laurinaitis’ rookie season. Six of the Rams’ current 11 defensive starters have played three years or fewer in the NFL. Through all of that turnover and transition, No. 55 has remained the unit’s steadying influence and its most productive member.

Perhaps Laurinaitis’ best attribute since arriving in the NFL has been his clockwork-like degree of consistency. In his five seasons in St. Louis, Laurinaitis has not missed a single game, and led all Rams defenders in tackles during his first four years, becoming the only Rams player to lead the team in total stops for four consecutive seasons since the franchise moved to St. Louis in 1995. Through 10 games in 2013, Laurinaitis is in line to push that streak to five seasons. If there are concerns to be had for Rams defensive coaches, whether during a game week or in the offseason, Laurinaitis has gone to significant lengths to be sure he won’t be among them.

“I take a lot of pride in my preparation and taking care of my body and being available,” Laurinaitis said. “I take a lot of pride in being a guy that, when coaches go to bed at night, they’re not worried about if I’m going to be in the right gap or whether I’m going to make the right checks on my calls. They have other people to worry about and I’ve always prided myself on that.”

Having a player of Laurinaitis’ caliber and work ethic to setting the tone for a youthful defensive group has been a major boon to Rams’ defensive coordinator Tim Walton. As a first-year coordinator tasked with guiding a youthful defense in the challenging NFC West division, it certainly doesn’t hurt to be able to rely on a veteran with both the eagerness and ability to lead.

“It’s been outstanding,” Walton said. “He’s the captain. He’s our bell cow there to make sure everything goes. His leadership skills have been instrumental in the development of some of those young guys. It takes time. Those guys are coming, but those guys work hard and he’s the guy that’s helping those guys grow.”

The Mentor

Numbers can help to calculate Laurinaitis’ on-field contribution, but quantifying his influence off the field with his teammates could prove more difficult. In filling the leadership position within the defensive unit that Walton and the rest of the Rams’ coaching staff envisioned for him, Laurinaitis has taken naturally to the role of mentor.

While the phrase ‘coach on the field’ can often grow tiresome and cliché in respect to veteran athletes, no player in St. Louis has embodied that label more than Laurinaitis. From his spot at the core of the Rams’ defense, Laurinaitis has made an effort to reach out to each new member of the defense and bring them up to speed. Whether it’s becoming well-tuned in watching game and practice film or preparing mentally each week, Laurinaitis has not hesitated in passing his knowledge of the game to all willing to listen.

His most recent crop of mentees includes rookie linebackers Alec Ogletree, Daren Bates and Ray Ray Armstrong, and safety T.J. McDonald, among others, and it would appear that his leadership has taken hold. After leading the team in tackles for each of his first three seasons, rookie LB Alec Ogletree currently holds that distinction. McDonald was off to a quick start to his NFL career before suffering a leg injury against San Francisco. Bates and Armstrong have contributed in a reserve role and on special teams. Ogletree has credited Laurinaitis, as well as veterans Will Witherspoon and Jo-Lonn Dunbar for speeding his learning curve.

“All of the linebackers have been a help to me,” Ogletree said. “They all try to chip in and help me learn something that they may have seen and I didn't see. Them just being in the league as long as they have, they may know something that I don't know. I just try to take it and use what they give me.”

Laurinaitis can attest to the value of having a veteran presence to turn to. As a rookie, Laurinaitis often sought out the wisdom of veteran safety O.J. Atogwe, who was instrumental in teaching Laurinaitis many of the preparation techniques he uses today, from how to properly decipher game film to how to ready himself mentally each week. With the role of veteran sage passed to Laurinaitis, he has found his pupils to be eager students, which has only hastened the progress of both the individuals and the unit as a whole.

“Alec is hungry to learn, T.J. (McDonald) is hungry to learn,” Laurinaitis said. “All the young guys, they listen to what you have to say and you have to build them up. You’ve got to understand that they’ll make some mistakes because they haven’t seen a lot. When we were young, we made those mistakes, too.”

Since his days at Ohio State, Laurinaitis has received high marks for his efforts in being a student of the game, and has carried that reputation with him to St. Louis. Simply performing as an on-field contributor on Sundays was never the role that the former second-round pick allowed himself to be limited to.

“I think as a ‘Mike’ linebacker, you have to get everybody lined up,” Laurinaitis said. “With that (role), they expect a certain amount out of you. They expect a certain amount of leadership, a certain level of play, a certain amount of accountability. If you’re that guy who has been there and done that, if you want to direct other people, you’ve got to be doing everything well yourself. That’s kind of where I am in my career now. With the youth and the energy around us, it’s a good feeling.”

The Best Has Yet to Come

Individual success has come without delay for Laurinaitis in the NFL, and the progress he has made into his fifth season suggests that he won’t be slowing down any time soon. His 174 tackles in 2012 established a career-high. He also has made strides both in coverage and as a pass-rusher. Through the first 10 games of 2013, Laurinaitis is on pace for his fifth consecutive season of more than 100 tackles, and has also created three turnovers with a pair of interceptions and a fumble recovery.

However, team success—which is the first measure that Laurinaitis looks to—had proven elusive for Laurinaitis and many of his teammates to at the beginning of their careers. Now with a young, talented roster and a defensive-minded coaching staff, the future appears brighter in St. Louis, and Laurinaitis looks forward to being a key part of not only the transition period, but also the future success.

Laurinaitis has been close before. In his second season, the Rams entered the season’s final week in control of their own destiny, needing a win in Seattle to claim the NFC West crown and the team’s first postseason appearance since 2004. Instead, the Rams left Seattle with a 16-6 loss and a taste of what could be.

Under Head Coach Jeff Fisher, the Rams put together a bounce-back 2012 campaign, and with recent draft picks and free-agent acquisitions now establishing themselves in St. Louis, have shown flashes of what the future could hold. Laurinaitis, still a young man in his fifth NFL season at 28 years of age, can see the light at the end of what had been a protracted tunnel to begin his career, but knows he and his teammates have much yet to accomplish.

While the talented youth on the defensive side of the ball can excite with its big-play ability, the process in establishing the standard of consistency that Laurinaitis adheres to has not come without its growing pains. The Rams’ defense stands among the league leaders in both turnovers created and in sacks, and last week in Indianapolis, showed significant strides in shutting down the opposition’s running game—a previous area of difficulty.

“Teams are too good in the NFL to get away with (mistakes),” Laurinaitis said. “They will find them. Every team will.”

The pursuit of the mistake-free performance remains in progress, both for Laurinaitis and his teammates. As always, it will be the presence of Laurinaitis—both in what he achieves on the field and how he prepares himself and his teammates off of it—that will be the fuel behind that pursuit.

“It’s the same routine from Day 1,” Laurinaitis said. “Win, lose, whatever, you keep studying hard, you keep taking notes the way you always have, and you never take anything for granted. There are always guys out there working hard who want to take your job. I love the game too much to ever take a day off.”