Throughout the course of a 60-minute Rams game, from down to down you can generally figure out where to find the likes of middle linebacker
But there are two members of the Rams defensive line that could line up just about anywhere at any given time and for the better part of this season have wreaked havoc on opposing offenses from just about every angle imaginable.
Technically, on the unofficial depth chart
“It’s amazing that those guys can just rotate in and the level of play stays pretty much the same,” Laurinaitis said. “They do a great job preparing. They’re tough guys and they do a lot of things for us, especially William. He’ll line up inside, he’ll line up outside, he’ll be all over the place. And Eugene is a guy that since he’s been here I have been his teammate and he’s been 100 miles per hour on every play. He gives it everything he has and when you have those guys, it’s a lot easier to go to battle.”
It’s certainly not unusual to see Hayes and Sims in at their more customary end positions, particularly on running downs against run-heavy teams like, say, the 49ers. Both are stout run defenders but possess underrated pass rush skills that make them difficult to block regardless of down.
Never was that more evident than Sunday’s win against the Niners with Quinn limited as he was still coming back from a concussion and plenty of opportunities for Hayes and Sims suddenly became available.
In 31 snaps, Hayes registered a sack and a half and was downright difficult to budge from the point of attack against San Francisco’s top-ranked rush defense.
“Will’s been playing pretty well the last four to six weeks,” Fisher said. “This was clearly Will’s best game. We moved him around. He played left end, played a little bit of right end, played inside tackle. He had a sack last weekend at nose, so he’s been flexible for us.”
Sims actually picked up the lion’s share of the work in place of Quinn while Hayes moved all over the line. In 65 snaps, Sims posted five tackles, a sack, two quarterback pressures and a quarterback hit and was his usual, disruptive self against the run.
“Eugene’s a good player,” assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said. “He’s done nothing but develop extremely well under Mike Waufle. I think Eugene’s done a tremendous job since we have gotten here. Eugene is a guy that’s a very valuable member of this team.”
For Hayes, the adjustment to the Rams has been much bigger than expected. While he signed in St. Louis in no small part because of his relationship with Fisher from their time together in Tennessee, Hayes was exclusively a standard defensive end for the Titans save for the occasional work at tackle when multiple injuries hit that spot.
Upon signing in St. Louis, Hayes quickly saw that his role would be vastly different. Listed at a solid 6’3, 272 pounds, Hayes has the quickness to rush the passer off the edge but the strength to move into the middle at either spot and offer different looks depending on down and distance.
Not that Hayes has perfected any of his many jobs but he credits Waufle as well as teammates such as Long and
“It’s getting better,” Hayes said. “This is really the first year I have played in this seven-technique type of system so it took me awhile to kind of get used to it but it’s starting to come along. The more I play, the better I get at it.”
For the season, Hayes has made the most of his opportunities in posting 27 tackles, 3.5 sacks, eight quarterback pressures, three quarterback hits and a fumble recovery. At just 27, Hayes seems to be just reaching his prime and realizing his potential.
Although it’s possible staying in one spot would allow him to perfect one position, Hayes has no preconceived notion of what his role should be, saying he’ll do whatever necessary to help out.
“I love being on the field but at the end of the day, it’s just adding more to my repertoire which is a good thing,” Hayes said. “And like I said, it’s better if I can do more to help the team. If they need me to play safety, I’ll do that too.”
While Hayes was a key offseason addition, it’s Sims that is one of the few holdovers from the previous regime who impressed the new staff enough with his versatility and potential to land a roster spot and a role in the defensive line rotation.
The athletic Sims entered the league as a bit of a project out of West Texas A&M and actually earned more of a reputation for his special teams work in his first two seasons than anything he contributed defensively.
In those first two seasons, Sims became something of a defensive line vagabond, bouncing from position to position but never getting much of a chance to settle in. Now, he’s still moving around but he’s also finding plenty of chance to get comfortable.
“The past year I have learned a lot,” Sims said. “I am learning a new scheme and Coach Waufle has really helped me learn how to play defensive line, I mean really play it. I think I have come a long way in this defense.”
First noticed by the previous regime for his quick first step and pass rush potential, Sims has proved a stout run defender willing to stack things up at the line of scrimmage. He credits Waufle with making him a more complete player.
“He really taught me how to play against the run,” Sims said. “Being here the past two years with the coaches I had, I wasn’t really a run defensive end, I guess you would say. They were teaching me more pass rush and actually I have learned more pass rush from Coach Waufle than any other coach that’s been here, due respect to those other coaches. He really breaks it down to what a defensive end is. I have learned so much.”
Sims appeared to be coming on strong early in the season when he was hit by dueling knee and back injuries. Those ailments cost him two games and a bye week before he returned in the Nov. 18 game against the Jets though he felt like he played that game and the following week against Arizona closer to 80 percent than 100.
It wasn’t until this past weekend against San Francisco that Sims felt full strength again as he bolstered his season statistics to 24 tackles, two sacks, four quarterback pressures and five hits in just 10 games.
Going through the injury frustrated Sims but having played well before it only motivated him to get back and start contributing as soon as possible.
“It was nerve racking but I knew that it was something I had to really attack it and get myself ready to play so I can contribute to the defense,” Sims said. “It was that and my back so I tried to look at it as a positive so I could come back and do the things I was doing before.”
With Hayes and Sims at full strength and Quinn returning from his concussion along with the rest of what makes up one of the healthiest units on the team at this point in the season, the Rams defensive line only figures to keep ascending after a game Fisher called that group’s best last week.
Considering that they close the season with four extremely daunting rushing offenses on the schedule, there’s no better time than the present for everyone – Hayes and Sims included – to play their best football.
“We pride ourselves on being a deep unit,” Long said. “William Hayes, I don’t think of him as my backup, I think of him as my other left end. We kind of feed off each other. William and Eugene could start on a lot of teams. That’s great for us to have that depth.”