Sam Bradford Wants More (stlouisrams.com)

It’s time to win – that’s the plan for the St. Louis Rams. When Sam Bradford expressed his disappointment with the result of the 2010 NFL season for his team, nearly to the point of disgust, it said a lot about the Rams quarterback and his teammates.

Rams fans have been through a lot for the last few years, being forced to watch a lot of bad football. For a long time the team MVP was punter Donnie Jones – he had plenty of playing time over those years. My, how things have changed…

No longer will Rams fans have to look for something else to watch on Sundays after their team goes down by a hefty margin by the end of each first half. No longer will they have to have their children turn away while watching the games in fear of indoctrinating them on how not to play the game. And no longer will Donnie Jones be the MVP. It’s time to win.

As we talked about in my last post, the best sign of the Rams turnaround is the difficulty they had over the past weekend in choosing who they would cut, and who would comprise the new Rams. There were a few surprises, such as the cutting of Donnie Avery and Daniel Muir. But what matters is that they had to cut such players. It shows this team is very deep; and that depth, as we alluded to earlier this week, is the reason this author believes they will be the NFC West Champion.

In our last conversation, we focused on the depth of the offense. After Saturday’s cuts, the depth has not diminished. Avery’s release paved the way for fan-favorite, and Missouri Tigers legend, Danario Alexander to make the team. Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo praised his toughness, saying that “he is one tough sucker. Nobody works harder at it. He never tries to take anything off. He is always out there battling even if his knee is swelling and he can’t really run full speed, he is still out there practicing. I think he deserves a lot of credit for that.”

Alexander probably sealed his spot on the team by making a huge over-the-shoulder catch late in Thursday’s game against the Jaguars. He showed he can be the deep threat this team needs – especially after cutting Avery – on that play, finding separation in single coverage. And he showed his tenacity on that play, as well, since he had a ball go through his hands earlier in the game that might have made many players bury their head in the sand. But DX just came right back to show he belongs in this league.

Alexander's Near Miss (stlouisrams.com)

More on Avery’s cutting, many people are wondering how he (along with enigmatic receiver Mardy Gilyard) doesn’t make the team and Dominique Curry does. It’s as simple as this – the guy is just a flat-out Special Teams dynamo. Coach Spags knows how important that facet of the game can be. After Friday’s practice, he said, “(Special Teams Coordinator) Tom McMahon was in here an hour or so ago. We sat down and just talked more about how he saw the guys. Special teams is really, really important to us and it should be with any team and it always is with us.”

In another surprise move on offense, tight end Fendi Onobun was released despite his freaky vitals and skills, and undrafted rookie from Cincinnati Ben Guidugli was kept. Guidugli has quietly been a dependable blocker and sure-handed receiver. Most of all, he can play some fullback when needed, which makes him a better fit. And he’s played well on special teams. General Manager Billy Devaney said, “He’s another guy that we used in multiple positions. He caught the ball pretty good. He can play fullback, he can play on the line of scrimmage, in motion. He gave us a lot of versatility.”

Probably the most heart-breaking offensive cut for the Rams had to be Thaddeus Lewis. He did everything they asked of him, and constantly proved that he was a winner. But with the amount of quality receivers, running backs (and Coach Spags’ fetish for defensive linemen), there just wasn’t enough reasons to keep more than two quarterbacks. The Rams will hope that Lewis will clear waivers and make the practice squad, but they can’t be upset if he gets a better chance on another team. Another heart-breaker had to be the cutting of Keith Toston, who seemed to get better every game.

Now on to the defense – the real reason for the Rams turnaround last year, and the true key to their run at the NFC West Championship. The kind of quality players they had to cut on defense proves how good this unit could be this year. Now no one here is saying that they’ll be the new Baltimore Ravens, but they could be a top five defense this year – even though they’ll be playing some of the best offenses in the league.

Defensive end George Selvie, defensive tackle Daniel Muir, and linebacker Zac Diles were the major cuts on defense – the latter two were brought in to add to the depth of their positions, and the former showed some promise last year by making 21 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Diles was even forecast as a possible starter at the start of preseason, as he was with the Texans prior to joining the Rams. He just seemed lost out there in the preseason, never fathoming Spagnuolo’s system. But it just shows how deep this defense can be.

At the defensive line, Spags’ linemen fetish (10 last year and 9 this year) could really make it one of the best front lines in the game. Chris Long finally has shown that great talent he inherited from his Hall of Fame father, Howie Long – no, not his acting talent, but his nose for the football. Long had 29 tackles, 8.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles in 2010. He even knocked down three passes, had 16 quarterback pressures and 21 quarterback hits. He is the real deal. No word yet on whether he’ll be starring in “Firestorm 2”. I’m still working on the screenplay…

Chris Long (stlouisrams.com)

On the other end of the line, James Hall is coming off a career year in 2010 with 54 tackles, 10.5 sacks, and 6 forced fumbles. He’s 34 now, but still has plenty of gas in the proverbial tank. His new understudy, 2010 first round pick Robert Quinn, has done nothing but impress.

Quinn had to miss an entire season of football because he received improper benefits at North Carolina (he wasn’t alone in this fiasco), and then had to sit out while the NFL tried to figure out how to split up between owners and players their precious money. But it didn’t take long for him to start producing. After coming so close to getting his first sack in the first two preseason games (I was going to start calling him “Almost”), he finally brought down a QB against the Chiefs in his coming-out party. He later blocked a field goal, and his career officially began – and it looks like it will be a very good one. C.J. Ah You (career high 19 tackles and 4 sacks in 2010), Eugene Sims (2010 6th round pick) round out the depth at DE. On Sims, Devaney said, “Eugene is an exciting young guy to watch. He’s got a ton of ability to rush the passer, and he’s one of our top, top Special Teams guys because he’s unique. A guy that big, and…he has gotten bigger since last year. Like any normal second-year player, he’s taken a step up from his rookie year. We really think Eugene has a chance to help us in a lot of ways this year.”

Lining up between the bookends is another very solid group. Fred Robbins had a career year, as well, getting 28 tackles, 6 sacks, and a forced fumble. He’s certainly no little guy – at 6’4”, 325 – and uses his size at the line to his benefit (he knocked down 7 passes last year). A Super Bowl Champion with the Giants in 2008, Robbins adds valued leadership on the front line.

Next to him is Justin Bannan. Another wide-body (6’3”, 310), Bannan is a brick wall in the middle, and will make running backs think twice about trying to run his way. Gary Gibson (2010 starter) and Darell Scott (4th round pick in 2009) round out the great depth of the DTs. On the decision to cut Muir and keep Gibson and Scott, Devaney said, “Darell had a good camp, and that’s what we’re talking about competition. We signed Daniel Muir during free agency, and we liked Muir and Muir has shown he can play in the NFL. What it did, we had guys like you want to see, Gary Gibson and Darell Scott respond and have tremendous, tremendous training camps. It’s what we said earlier in this process. We’re going to keep the guys we think that give us the best chance to win. Just because we signed a guy as a free agent, if the guys that were here beat him out, then so be it. We weren’t going to let draft status affect whether you made the team or not, whether you were a free agent, were you undrafted. I think we stuck to that pretty good.”

The Rams linebackers have the task of stopping the run, which last year’s squad couldn’t do well enough to satisfy Coach Spags (17th in run defense in 2010). Not much needs to be said about James Laurinaitis. But I will anyway. He led the team in tackles in both of his seasons, and is without a doubt a true leader. As we talked about before, the guy is too smart for football. He talks like a professor, but hits like an animal. The son of the great professional wrestler (and one of my personal favorite wrestling duos, “The Legion of Doom”/“The Road Warriors”), “Animal”, James is as is fun to watch as was his father. “Animal”, by the way never misses a game, so be respectful of the fan sitting next to you – or you might end up getting bodyslammed by a wrestling legend…

James Laurinaitis (stlouisrams.com)

Flanking Laurinaitis are two new veterans who are known for stopping the run – Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga. Leber has always been coveted by Spagnuolo, and for good reason. He’s a ten-year veteran who’s played both outside linebacker positions. He has been a tenured starter on a Vikings defense that has been ranked in the top ten for three years in a row. And he hasn’t missed a start in four years. Though he didn’t get a sack last year, Leber has 24 career sacks, and 12 career forced fumbles.

From Left: Bryan Kehl, Brady Poppinga, Ben Leber (stlouisrams.com)

Poppinga was the odd man out this offseason in Green Bay after Clay Matthews became such a force in Poppinga’s former position in 2009. Last year, his season was cut short by a knee injury. After talking with him, we know his time at Green Bay wasn’t because of a lack of energy. If you’ll allow a personal story, Poppinga was my first Rams locker room one-on-one interview (after the first preseason game), and he was so excited to do it, you’d think he had asked me for an interview. After the second game of the preseason, I was back in the locker room, and he picked me out of the crowd – even remembering my name. But that’s the kind of guy he is – good in the locker room and on the sidelines, constantly revving his mates up. And his extensive knowledge of the game shows. I mentioned that Laurinaitis sounds like a professor when he talks; Poppinga sounds like a motivational speaker.  Don’t be surprised if you see Poppinga broadcasting someday. Here’s the interview I had with him after the game against Indianapolis. You’ll see what I mean…

The depth at this position is so much better than years past. Special Teams anchor Chris Chamberlain is back; his 28 Special Teams tackles in 2009 were the most by a Ram in over a decade. He had 19 last year, despite missing five games to injury. And Bryan Kehl has been a great addition to the team. A fourth round pick by the Giants in 2008, he his 28 career Special Teams tackles will help Chamberlain out. His coverage skills are top notch, as well.

Chris Chamberlain is happy to be back (stlouisrams.com)

Someone who captured a lot of attention this preseason is seventh round pick Jabara Williams (AP Third-Team All-American and Stephen F. Austin’s MVP as a senior). He fell in the draft because of his size, but the guy just produces. He has that seek-and-destroy edge to his game, and had a great camp and preseason (11 tackles). And the Rams thought highly enough of him to cut two good veterans in Diles and Na’il Diggs. Devaney said, “Williams from day one showed, he’s bigger than people thought coming out at 240 pounds. He’s really athletic. He picked things up quickly…He is a tough guy. He is smart. He likes to hit and we thought in the future he has a chance to be a really good player.”

Jabara Williams tackles DuJuan Harris (AP Photo)

The Rams boast a great crew at safety. Quintin Mikell will drive offenses as crazy as his name does my spell-checker. He has quickly adapted to the defensive scheme here, and is actually more suited to the Rams defense than the former resident ballhawk Oshiomogho Atogwe. Mikell is especially great at stepping up on the run and blitzing, something Atogwe wasn’t all that great at. He’s had over one hundred tackles in the last three years, four career sacks and 7 career forced fumbles. And with 15 pass deflections last year and 13 the year before, he’s no slouch in the coverage game.

Quintin Mikell's Interception vs. Indianapolis (stlouisrams.com)

After a tremendous preseason and camp, Darian Stewart stole the other starting job from the stalwartly dependable Craig Dahl (98 tackles, 2 interceptions in 2010). Stewart went undrafted (probably because he’s only 5’11”) in 2010, but made the team, and has continued to progress ever since. His sack against Drew Brees last year proved he could step up to the line well, and with Mikell on the other side, the two of them should be stout against the run. Having Dahl to help anchor the Special Teams and for use in sub-packages makes the safety position one of strength.

Cornerback is where things get shaky, though. Ron Bartell has become a shutdown corner who uses his veteran savvy when his speed falls short. He is a sure tackler, and a true leader, as well. This was the guy who organized team workouts and paid for everyone’s hotel bills to do so, after all. But if he gets injured, the Rams could be in trouble.

Bradley Fletcher has developed into a solid corner, and one thing’s for certain about him – you’ll never catch him arm-tackling anyone. He hits way too hard to be a cornerback. But he’s still learning the coverage game, and has to prove he can shut down wide receivers.
Beyond these two, the Rams could be in trouble if one of them goes down. Al Harris has been one the great cornerbacks in this league for a long time, but does he have another season in him? Justin King has been all right – good tackler – but his pass coverage skills could improve. If the game against the Jaguars is any indication, at least he tries to teach a lesson to anyone who beats him by strangling them when the ball gets close…

Justin King defends vs Steve Breaston (stlouisrams.com)

But the Rams aren’t planning on standing pat with what they have. Devaney said they are seeking to add some more depth at corner, “We’re looking at corners. The problem is there’s a lot of teams looking at corners and they’re not out there. But we will keep looking, I promise you.”

All in all, as we said before, this team is far deeper than past rosters. And it should make a difference this year. Devaney said it best, “You want competition at every position and we’re getting to that point where we are putting a pretty good team together and I expect next year to be even tougher. I’d much rather have those decisions, those tough decisions, than be sitting there and say, ‘What difference does it make? These guys aren’t very good anyways.’ At least now we have decisions to make on really good football players.” And hopefully, that means a really good season of Rams football.

It’s time to win.