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.