Linebacker Additions Create Competition

Posted Aug 15, 2011

In training camps around the league right now, competition for roster spots, jockeying on the depth chart and ultimately livelihoods are taking place on a daily basis.

Coaches hope that competition breeds success and the players respond accordingly by playing at the absolute highest level of the game. While the competition at receiver here in St. Louis is drawing the bulk of the attention, there’s an emerging situation on the defense generated by a trio of free-agent acquisitions.

There is no question about who will start and lead the defense from the all important middle linebacker position. James Laurinaitis owns that spot and serves as the defense’s quarterback.

But with three preseason games and less than a month until the regular season opener, there figures to be a battle to see which two players get the opportunity to flank him from the outside positions.

Before all is said and done, free agent signees Ben Leber, Brady Poppinga and Zac Diles could have a say in the matter. 

“(There’s) a lot of competition there,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “It takes a little while to pick that stuff up. Those guys will have their opportunities to play and show us what they can do.”

In Saturday night’s preseason opener against the Colts, the Rams started incumbent Na’il Diggs on the strong side with Bryan Kehl (who started a game last season) on the weak side. With Laurinaitis out, Josh Hull stepped in for the start in the middle.

Diggs is a proved commodity and played just six snaps in an effort to help preserve him some for the season. Kehl played about 15 snaps. But the Rams made a concerted effort to get a look at two of their newest additions while the other watched from the sidelines.

Poppinga worked on special teams and played about 13 snaps at strong side while Diles got the most work, stepping in and playing more than 20 snaps on the weak side.

Coming to the Rams from Houston, Diles was one of the team’s top priority additions at linebacker. In the Texans’ 3-4 scheme, Diles was asked to play a variety of positions and proved stout against the run as a solid tackler.

Early in this preseason, he’s showed Spagnuolo some of that production that the team expected when it signed Diles.

“He has a little bit of leverage and pop to him I think,” Spagnuolo said. “(He’s) thick in the lower body. When I have had an opportunity to see him in the live and the padded stuff I think he has a little bit of explosiveness to him. He has to show up on special teams, that’s what he is working through with (Special Teams Coordinator) Tom (McMahon), and then find out where he’s at as a WIL linebacker.”

Diles made 82 tackles for Houston in 2010 and is regarded as an emerging player who could fare better in a 4-3 scheme such as the one in St. Louis.

But Diles acknowledges that he had a hard time grasping some of the defensive concepts with the Texans because he was asked to move around to different positions so much.

In St. Louis, the transition to a different defensive scheme, particularly one as complex as the Rams’, has made his adjustment a bit difficult.

“It’s a little complex,” Diles said. “It’s different from where I was at in Houston. It’s changed as far as checks and there’s a lot of stuff going on between every rep. As soon as you get all that stuff down and the terminology and the verbiage and what they want to get done conceptually as a defense, I’ll be good. But it is complex, I’ll tell you that.”

Fortunately for Diles, he is not being asked to play anywhere besides the weakside linebacker spot, a job that is up for grabs in this camp. Right now, he’s working with the second team behind Kehl but also has Chamberlain and as of Monday’s practice, Leber, battling him for playing time.

“I have settled in pretty much at the WIL position here,” Diles said. “And it definitely is easier when you don’t have to worry about the other spots. You still want to know what everybody is doing on the field but right now I am just trying to focus on the WIL position. I am a little behind the eight ball so I am trying to take as many mental reps and reps out on the field as I can.”

Also finding his way in a transition from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 system is Poppinga, who spent the first six years of his career with the Packers. After playing in a read and react version of that 3-4 in his first few years, the light came on the past couple when Dom Capers took over and installed more of an attacking style of defense.

While the fronts are different, Poppinga says the philosophy of what the Rams do on defense is quite similar to the Packers. When he hit the free agent market, it was quickly evident to him that the Rams’ scheme is well suited to what he does best.

“This is like putting on a pair of comfortable shoes and going with it,” Poppinga said. “I’m really liking the scheme. It’s a downhill, aggressive attacking style scheme and that’s really my game to a T. I think I’m on an upward swing and just trying to continue to make progress and advance to where it becomes second nature to me. I feel like I’m getting there, I feel like I’m on the right path and taking the next steps.”

Poppinga has made himself noticeable on the practice field almost from the moment he arrived. The type of guy who seems like he has red bull running through his veins, Poppinga is a bit of a live wire who is not afraid to stir it up.

“I am an aggressive, downhill, attacking sucker,” Poppinga said, laughing. “I like to hit you in the face, get off the ball and make plays. That’s what I have done since I’ve been here and I’m going to continue to do that.”

Like Diles, Poppinga is still adjusting to his new environs and is working behind the consummate veteran Diggs on the strong side. Diggs’ leadership and dependability will make him tough to unseat but that doesn’t mean Poppinga won’t do what he can to push him in this camp.

“Brady’s a physical guy,” Spagnuolo said. “He’s been impressive with what he’s picked up. He’s been in a different kind of system there in Green Bay in a 3-4, and I’m kind of impressed with what he’s done at this point. He is a very aggressive football player. We like that.”

Making his debut on the practice field Monday, Leber was the last of the new linebackers to sign but also the one with the most impressive resume.

In nine NFL seasons, Leber has been a part of some outstanding defenses in San Diego and Minnesota. To wit, from 2005-2008, he was a starter on the league’s top-ranked run defense.

Signed late last week, Leber waited much longer than expected to sign a deal but says he’s actually excited to be in camp.

“Has anyone ever said they’re excited to back in training camp?” Leber said, laughing. “It’s hard to put a number on it. I’m extremely excited to be here. To be a part of such a good historic organization and a team that we have a lot of special things going. I’m excited, I’m hungry I just can’t wait to get back out there.”

With 481 tackles, 24 sacks and five interceptions to his name, Leber comes from a Vikings team with a scheme quite similar to the one being used here. It’s expected that he’ll pick up the system and be ready to contribute quickly, probably on the weak side.

“I’ve just been told to come in and learn the system,” Leber said. “I’m a guy that has always prided myself on being versatile. So I’ll try and learn all three positions and wherever they need me.”