While the offense settles, a rising D holds the postseason key

After a week of practicing beneath a blanket of heat and humidity in Earth City, Mo., the Rams were greeted by a refreshing breeze and temperatures in the high 70s when the team hit the field two days before their preseason opener against the Colts. As happy as the players were for the respite, coach Steve Spagnuolo might have been even more pleased.

He rested his elbows on the large desk in his second-floor office at the Rams' facility a half hour after the workout and smiled broadly. The improved conditions meant one less worry for him—earlier in the week quarterback Sam Bradford dropped eight pounds in a single day when the heat index hit 123°—and one less distraction for his players as they embark on what they hope, and fans in St. Louis expect, will be their first winning season since 2003.

Spagnuolo likes what he sees, but one sure way to wipe the smile from his face is to heap praise on his defense, which made dramatic improvements last year, his second in St. Louis. The unit climbed from 30th in sacks to seventh, from 29th in third-down stops to second, from tied for 30th in touchdowns allowed to tied for fourth.

Still. . . .

"Everybody is into stats, and I get that," Spagnuolo says. "People credit us with making a big jump from Year One to Year Two, but the big jump was only because things were so bad in Year One. We've got so far to go. When I broke us down after last year, what I saw was that we played pretty good defense the first half of the season, but I don't think the schedule was as strong. Then the second half of the season, whether we wore down or were playing better teams, we didn't play as well. [The Rams gave up more than 20 points just once in the first eight games but five times in the last eight, including 31 and 27, respectively, in critical December losses to the Saints and the Chiefs.] I don't think we can play that type of defense this season and get what we want."

Much of the off-season attention focused on the arrival of new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and what it means for Bradford, the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, who had a solid rookie season. But the defense will ultimately play a larger role in any Rams breakthrough.

The thinking goes like this: The offense will need time to get comfortable with McDaniels's schemes, assignments and terminology, so the D will have to shoulder more of the load early, when the schedule is toughest (three 2010 playoff teams in the first five games, including the champion Packers). Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney kept that in mind as they analyzed the defense during the lockout and concluded that the outside-linebacking corps needed to get bigger, stronger and more athletic. So they signed free agents Ben Leber (6'3", 244 pounds, from the Vikings), Zac Diles (6'2", 245, Texans) and Brady Poppinga (6'3", 250, Packers) to compete for starting spots.

Then when camp opened, Spagnuolo took a further step and challenged middle linebacker James Laurinaitis to become a more physical presence. A 2009 second-rounder from Ohio State, Laurinaitis led the team in tackles by a wide margin in each of his first two seasons—by 46 as a rookie and 28 last year—but in the staff's eyes he was so concerned about being in the right spot and correctly positioning teammates that he didn't sufficiently move the pile back when he struck a ballcarrier.

"The elite Mike linebackers are the ones who are respected by the [opposing] offenses because they physically create problems," Spagnuolo says. "James is smart, and he's really good at the finesse things we give him, but I want him to take the next step and sometimes not play perfect. Just worry about knocking the guy over in front of him."

Spagnuolo has made it a point of emphasis during workouts, both in team drills and when hitting the blocking sled. The goal is for Laurinaitis to keep his feet moving as he pushes forward, not simply strike and stop.

"A lot of the time, especially the first two years in this system, you worry so much about being in the right gap because there's a lot that goes into playing this defense," Laurinaitis says. "Now that I'm comfortable, it allows me to be more aggressive. Spag's thing is, don't worry about being gap perfect. Just trust your instincts and go downhill. Instead of seeing a power run and getting to the spot and shuffling your feet and waiting on the ballcarrier, take a chance and go."

If he can do that, he might wind up not only in the opposing backfield, but also in the playoffs.

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 26

QB SAM BRADFORD

ATT 590

COMP 354

PCT 60.0

YARDS 3,512

YD/ATT 5.95

TD 18

INT 15

RATING 76.5

RB STEVEN JACKSON

ATT 330

YARDS 1,241

REC 46

TTD 6

WR MIKE SIMS-WALKER

REC 43

YARDS 562

AVG 13.1

TTD 7

WR DANNY AMENDOLA

REC 85

YARDS 689

AVG 8.1

TTD 3

WR BRANDON GIBSON

REC 53

YARDS 620

AVG 11.7

TTD 2

TE LANCE KENDRICKS (R)

REC 43

YARDS 663

AVG 15.4

TTD 5

LT RODGER SAFFOLD

G 16

SACKS 3½

HOLD 2

FALSE 6

LG JACOB BELL

G 16

SACKS 2½

HOLD 1

FALSE 2

C JASON BROWN

G 16

SACKS 2½

HOLD 3

FALSE 3

RG HARVEY DAHL

G 16

SACKS 2

HOLD 3

FALSE 1

RT JASON SMITH

G 15

SACKS 4

HOLD 3

FALSE 5

RB CADILLAC WILLIAMS

ATT 125

YARDS 437

REC 46

TTD 3

RB JERIOUS NORWOOD

ATT 2

YARDS 8

REC 1

TTD 0

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 19

DE CHRIS LONG

TACKLES 29

SACKS 8½

INT 0

DT FRED ROBBINS

TACKLES 28

SACKS 6

INT 0

DT JUSTIN BANNAN

TACKLES 35

SACKS 1

INT 0

DE JAMES HALL

TACKLES 52

SACKS 10½

INT 0

LB NA'IL DIGGS

TACKLES 36

SACKS 0

INT 0

LB JAMES LAURINAITIS

TACKLES 114

SACKS 3

INT 1

LB BEN LEBER

TACKLES 44

SACKS 0

INT 1

CB RON BARTELL

TACKLES 61

SACKS 0

INT 0

SS QUINTIN MIKELL

TACKLES 88

SACKS 1

INT 3

FS CRAIG DAHL

TACKLES 86

SACKS 1

INT 2

CB BRADLEY FLETCHER

TACKLES 71

SACKS 0

INT 4

LB BRADY POPPINGA

TACKLES 12

SACKS 1

INT 0

SPECIALISTS

K JOSH BROWN

FG 33

FGA 39

XP 26

PTS 125

P DONNIE JONES

PUNTS 94

GROSS 45.5

NET 40.0

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics: New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 7--9

September

11 Philadelphia

19 at N.Y. Giants (Mon)

25 Baltimore

October

2 Washington

9 BYE

16 at Green Bay

23 at Dallas

30 New Orleans

November

6 at Arizona

13 at Cleveland

20 Seattle

27 Arizona

December

4 at San Francisco

12 at Seattle (Mon)

18 Cincinnati

24 at Pittsburgh (Sat)

January

1 San Francisco

COACH: STEVE SPAGNUOLO

AGE: 51

THIRD SEASON WITH THE RAMS (8--24)

The defensive-minded Spagnuolo is positive, steady and smart—qualities this franchise will need as it works its way back to respectability. Another strength is his self-assuredness. That's why he was comfortable hiring former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels to run his offense, though others privately wondered whether the two were philosophically compatible.

SPOTLIGHT

MIKE SIMS-WALKER, Wide receiver

In each of the past four seasons—two as offensive coordinator in New England, two as coach of the Broncos—Josh McDaniels has had a receiver gain 1,000 yards and score 10 touchdowns. His next in line: Sims-Walker.

The former Jaguar has had seven TD catches in each of the past two years and piled up a career-high 869 yards receiving in 2009. He has learned each of the three wideout slots, so new coordinator McDaniels will be able to use him in multiple roles and keep defenses guessing. "I'm hoping whenever we need a play, they call my number," says Sims-Walker, a fifth-year man out of Central Florida. "I'm here to make plays and be a good teammate."

Among the St. Louis receivers, Sims-Walker and Danny Amendola (85 catches in '10) are locks to make the squad, and Sam Bradford has a good feel for Brandon Gibson, who was second to Amendola in catches last season with 53. But no other returning Rams wideout had more than 20 catches last year. (Deep threat Donnie Avery missed all of 2010 with a torn right ACL.) Danario Alexander, who gained 15.3 yards per catch as a rookie, has been plagued by knee injuries. Sims-Walker himself is coming off a badly sprained right ankle, but he's healthy and could join Randy Moss (2007 and '08), Brandon Marshall ('09) and Brandon Lloyd ('10) in the succession of McDaniels wideouts who have made the 1,000/10 club.

PHOTOJEFF ROBERSON/AP (LAURINAITIS)FLEX TIME Laurinaitis has used finesse and smarts to lead the team in tackles in his first two seasons; now Spagnuolo wants him to bring more muscle to the middle. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (SPAGNUOLO) PHOTOSCOTT ROVAK/US PRESSWIRE (SIMS-WALKER)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)