Until yesterday, the St. Louis Rams had been so far lucky on the injury front, avoiding injuries to key starters. Then, news trickled out that all-world middle linebacker James Laurinaitis "aggravated" a pectoral injury. The Rams will know more about Laurinaitis' status after an x-ray. There's no reason to panic just yet. I'm even going to choose to be naively optimistic, even though I have no actual evidence to support such an unusual position for a natural cynic. Optimism aside, let's think for a minute about the Rams' options should they be without James Laurinaitis.
Throw out all the fan hyperbole and sheer homerism, you still cannot overstate the importance of Laurinaitis to the Rams defense. He's the captain, the brains of the whole operation, getting guys lined up with their assignments and making adjustments as needed. Oh, he's also a physical gifted player, capable of stopping plays on his own, and a big reason the Rams defense has shown such improvement in the middle of the field over the last two years, when he's played every down.
Thanks to some smart, low-cost free agent moves the Rams have a very good group of linebackers this year. With players like Zac Diles or Ben Leber on the outside of him, they have scheme-smart guys that can make plays on their own. That should help Laurinaitis be a more effective player by making it harder for teams to play away from him or try to keep him out of the play with blockers at the second level, something we saw too often last year.
One potential replacement for Laurinaitis is David Vobora, a player who has shown some real propensity working on the strong side. Diles could also slide into the middle, with Leber working the weakside and some mix of Vobora and Poppinga on the strongside. Besides having some experience in that spot, Diles is mobile and reads offenses well. Leber could also take some snaps as an inside linebacker.
In front of and behind the linebackers, things have improved for the Rams as well. Up front, the addition of Justin Bannan and Daniel Muir beef up the interior defensive line, a move that should make the outside of the defensive line more potent and allow fewer blockers to get to the second level. A stouter front four gives the Rams' linebackers more room to operate. Behind the linebackers, Quintin Mikell bolsters the safety position, giving the Rams a more effective player supporting the front versus both the run and the pass. With Dahl, they can eliminate some of the killing ground in the middle part of the field.
None of this, of course, is meant to suggest that the Rams will not miss James Laurinaitis should he be forced to miss some time. All the depth in the world can't replace a bona fide superstar capable of changing the game just by being on the field. Even superstars are human, unfortunately, and good teams prepare themselves well for life without that superstar, even if it is a somewhat less ideal life. With a better, deeper linebacking corps and improvements up front and in the secondary, the Rams can weather time without Laurinaitis and still be quite competitive.
That said, I'm still offering up all the live or dead chickens I can get my hands on in the hopes that this aggravated pectoral muscle remains a mere aggravation.