Following a breakout season in which the Rams ranked among the league’s leaders in sacks, there’s little question about the ability of coach Steve Spagnuolo and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole to get after the quarterback.
But rushing the passer is a right that’s earned, not given. And though the Rams made significant strides in stopping the run in 2010 – they were 27th in 2009 and moved up 11 spots last season – it was clear when they hit the free agent market that finding big bodies to slow down opposing running games was at the top of the priority list.
In those four additions, the Rams added 1,117 pounds of bulk to their defense.
“There is always an impetus to be better against the run no matter who you bring in, but those guys you are talking about I think have been good run defenders in the past,” Spagnuolo said. “Coach Flajole and all the defensive coaches have been stressing that. We always do.”
Last season, the Rams did make big improvements over the previous two seasons when they were 27th and 29th against the run, respectively. Still, the run defense wore down some as the season went on as it allowed more than 155 yards rushing per game in the final four losses of the season.
Simply put, if the defense was at its best when rushing the passer, it wasn’t getting to do enough of it because opponents were having success running the ball.
Flajole says that though the improvement was certainly encouraging, there are still many strides that can be made, especially in being consistent against the run.
“I think so,” Flajole said. “I hope so, that’s the way I’m going to work. We’re going to assume; we can’t stay where we’re at right now. We’re going to where we want to go, we have to improve our defense and that’s where our focus and where our energy will be. We have to; we can’t just stay the same. I’ll give the guys credit, we made some progress but there is a lot more progress we can make.”
That’s where the team’s newest, biggest bodies come into play.
Heading the list are a pair of defensive tackles with a reputation for clogging up running lanes, occupying multiple blockers and creating havoc for opposing running games in general.
Bannan comes to the Rams after one season in Denver, playing for current Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
The Rams and Spagnuolo actually made a push to sign Bannan away from Baltimore a year ago but he ultimately signed with McDaniels and the Broncos. Undeterred, the Rams pursued him again this year and were able to ink him to a three-year contract.
After starting his career with Buffalo, Bannan has spent time on one of the league’s most feared defenses with the Ravens before last year in Denver. He says the Rams’ aggressive, attacking style is actually quite similar to Baltimore even though people think the Ravens run more of a 3-4 scheme.
“The position I play here is very similar to what I did in Baltimore,” Bannan said. “It’s just a matter of knocking the rust off, learning the defense and just doing it the way they want it to be done.”
In his nine NFL seasons, Bannan has just 6.5 sacks but it’s his presence on first and second down that made him a priority for the Rams. He has 14.5 run stuffs in that same period of time and has regularly drawn enough attention in the run game that opponents have thrown multiple blockers at him.
Although he’s been practicing with his new team for a short period, Bannan has already taken most of his work with the first team defense. Surrounded by pass rush threats such as
“I think I’m better against the run and I take pride in that,” Bannan said. “It’s really just a matter of me coming out and practicing every day and getting in tune with this defense to make it all second nature. Once I am able to do that, we should be pretty stout.”
At 27, Muir doesn’t have the experience of Bannan but he does have a very similar body type. Playing his first five years in Indianapolis, Muir was a bit miscast in the Colts’ penetrating, get up the field defense.
In St. Louis, Muir will get the opportunity to play in a style he believes is more suited to his skills.
“This is smashmouth football, guys trying to come and knock you off the ball,” Muir said. “This is the football I enjoy. That’s what makes it fun, just being able to be out there with the guys and make plays.”
Like Bannan, Muir hasn’t earned much of a reputation for rushing the passer with just a half sack in his career. He does, however, have six run stuffs in five seasons in a more situational role for the Colts. He’s stepped into the rotation right away and will compete for playing time behind Bannan and Robbins.
Muir says he’s a better pass rusher than he was given credit for by the Colts but still knows where his strengths lie.
“It’s a lot different,” Muir said. “Here, it’s keyed more to stopping the run first. And everybody has to play to their strength. Here, our strength here is having big bodies inside clogging up the run first and then we let go with the pass rushers.”
Of course, it doesn’t mean much to have big bodies up front taking on blockers if there aren’t aggressive, down hill tacklers coming from the linebacker spot. Middle linebacker
Early in camp, Diles has worked with the second-team defense but figures right in the thick of the competition for a starting spot on the weak side.
Diles has been in the league four seasons and racked up 12 run stuffs, earning a reputation as a sure tackler in his time with Houston.
“He's got a little bit of leverage and pop to him,” Spagnuolo said. “When I have had an opportunity to see him in the live (tackling) stuff, I think he's got a little bit of explosiveness to him.”
The live-wired Poppinga has been one of the most noticeable new Rams on the roster, running around as though fueled by Red Bull and playing aggressive and physical. He's competing for playing time at strong side linebacker early in camp.
In his six-year career, Poppinga has five sacks and seven run stuffs. But Poppinga believes he’s finally found a good fit for his playing style after spending his first four seasons in a Green Bay system that asked linebackers to read and react rather than pursue the ball aggressively.
“This philosophy, the attacking, downhill, blitz, I mean come on,” Poppinga said. I had a hard time with the first four years in Green Bay. I remember sort of enviously looking at defenses like (Spagnuolo’s) Eagles, like the Giants and the other 4-3 teams saying ‘Man, I wish I could someday get the opportunity to be a part of those defenses and lo and behold that wish came true and here I am.”