Linebackers Look to Fill Void

Posted Dec 8, 2010

As they prepared to take their places with the first team defense at the strong and weak side linebacker positions in Wednesday’s practice, David Vobora and Chris Chamberlain couldn’t help but think about how far they’d come since they entered the league as seventh round draft choices nearly three seasons ago.

“We actually got a laugh in pre-practice about that today,” Vobora said. “We came in as seventh rounders together and we both have focused on working and making the most of our opportunities. That’s what we will try to continue to do.”

After placing injured starting strong side linebacker Na’il Diggs on injured reserve Tuesday, the Rams promoted David Nixon from the practice squad to fill the void.

In the process, the Rams are now searching for a replacement for Diggs and someone to step in on the side opposite him as well. While no final decision has been made, Vobora and Chamberlain got the first crack at filling those roles with Vobora sliding over from the weak side to the strong side and Chamberlain jumping back in on the weak side.

Diggs was present at Wednesday’s practice and there’s little doubt the Rams would like to have his knowledge and experience available as a resource for their young linebackers the rest of the season. He’s scheduled to have surgery on torn pectoral Friday.

“He’s a veteran,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “He wants to be a part of it. He doesn’t want to all of a sudden check out. He’s a pro.”

Vobora and Chamberlain are also pros, pros who have almost three full years in the league, a proud accomplishment for guys who entered the league as seventh-round picks in the 2008 NFL Draft.

And while both Vobora and Chamberlain have been given opportunities to play in the defense, both have been able to stick around behind strong performances on special teams and providing depth at the three linebacker spots.

For Vobora, the chance to fill in for Diggs on the strong side shouldn’t provide too many tricks along the way.

In two full seasons and 12 games this season, Vobora has started 12 of 32 career games. He got his first start of the season and the first of his career on the weak side last week, giving him starts at each of the three linebacker positions.

This week, it appears Vobora will be going back to the spot where he has made the majority (10) of those starts, the strong side.

In his 12 games last year, Vobora posted 41 tackles, a pass defended and a forced fumble.  Because of that experience, Vobora says he does feel a bit more relaxed back on the strong side.

“I have probably done it more so I maybe feel a little more comfortable,” Vobora said. “Both are pretty similar. They both have their same things on the outside so you hear coach say if you know the SAM you have got to know the WIL and vice versa.”

The shift back from one side to the other doesn’t change, according to Vobora. Playing the weak side, a linebacker finds himself in open space a bit more but with offenses that shift and move as much as New Orleans; generally there isn’t much of a difference.

Not that Vobora cares much where he lines up so long as he’s getting a chance. As far as he’s concerned, this week is just another opportunity to prove himself.

“Yeah, wherever it is,” Vobora said. “I knew going into this season that I was going to be a utility guy and fill into those spots. I am just coming with my ears open in meetings and being able to listen and take notes on all three positions just to make sure I am sharp so if something like this happens, I am ready to go.”

Chamberlain, meanwhile, hasn’t quite gained the experience of Vobora in his first three seasons.

To this point in his career, Chamberlain has been known for his special teams acumen, leading the team in special teams stops each of the past two years.

But the opportunity to prove himself on defense hasn’t really presented itself for Chamberlain aside from the occasional chance to play in the nickel package in more of a coverage role.

Prior to this season, Chamberlain had posted just five tackles on defense while racking up 47 stops on special teams.

A toe injury at the beginning of this season put Chamberlain on the sidelines for the better part of the first six weeks. After that, Chamberlain worked his way into the defensive rotation, working again in the nickel and has since earned a pair of starts on the weakside including a five-tackle outing against Atlanta on Nov. 21.

For the season, Chamberlain has posted eight tackles but with the chance he’ll get another shot this week, he’s hoping to step in and prove capable of doing the job.

“I feel like they know I can play on special teams,” Chamberlain said. “They know what I bring to the table and now I’m looking forward to not just getting in there but playing well and showing them that I can play well on defense.”

Chamberlain suffered a small fracture in his wrist last week against Arizona but played through the injury. He’s wearing a small cast on it this week and has no designs on letting the injury slow him down even if it limits what he can do in terms of catching the ball and shedding blocks.

“I will have to see how that goes,” Chamberlain said. “I think it will be more of a nuisance than anything, limiting my movement and use of my right hand so we’ll see. Hopefully I can fight through it.”

Chamberlain and Vobora both figure prominently in the mix but that also doesn’t mean that the Rams won’t need all hands on deck against a potent New Orleans offense. Larry Grant, Bryan Kehl and Nixon will have to be ready to contribute.

The unknown of the group is new addition Nixon, who though he hasn’t played for the Rams this season, does have experience in the league.

Nixon played in three games as a rookie with Oakland last year and three more this season in Houston before coming to the Rams practice squad.

For his part, Nixon is well versed in both of the outside linebacker spots but knows that any contribution he makes right away will likely come on special teams.

“I am getting there,” Nixon said. “I have been studying the SAM linebacker spot and getting a good look at that. Special teams, I feel like I have found my niche. Wherever they need me, whatever they need me to do, hopefully I will be ready and just help any way possible to contribute.”

However the linebacker spots shake out flanking middle ‘backer James Laurinaitis, the Rams will need whoever steps in to help out and make a difference.

The Saints boast one of the league’s best and most versatile offenses while Kansas City brings its potent running game to town next week.

This late in the season, injuries are part of the game and the teams that can put the next man up in and not lose much are the ones that can separate from the pack.

“It’s getting to a point in the season where injuries are part of it,” Chamberlain said. “I think we have a lot of quality linebackers, that’s the thing. So there are a number of guys who can step up and fill the role.”

The first chance to prove it comes Sunday.