Once an afterthought of the St. Louis Rams' defense, the linebacker position was one of incompetence, regular overhaul and further subsequent ineptitude. Now, those times are over.
As the entire defensive front-seven builds cohesion and continuity, the team is finally putting together a group behind the line of which fans can get used to seeing.
Although playing far below preseason expectations, the defense as a whole has grown substantially as the season wears on, specifically the linebackers. The rush defense is now vastly improved, while the intermediate passing game has been squashed in recent weeks.
How have the linebackers fared at the halfway point of 2013?
It all starts in the middle with mainstay stalwart James Laurinaitis. Going on 73 consecutive starts in the NFL, the former Ohio State Buckeye continues to post outstanding numbers. One of the smaller and least fleet of foot middle linebackers in the NFL, "Little Animal" doesn't make highlights with pure athleticism; it's his instinct and knowledge of the game that help to give him such a high profile.
An every-down, literally every-snap linebacker is a difficult thing to find, but James Lauriniatis is the type of player who never needs to leave the field. He breaks plays at the line of scrimmage and can blanket tight ends down the field.
Now in his fifth year as a pro, Laurinaitis has already posted five consecutive seasons with a notch in the sack category and at least one interception. With 58 tackles through eight games, he is on pace for the lower total of his career, but that should only be attributed to the improved play around him.
The Rams answered the prayers of fans everywhere when they selected a linebacker in the first round of the NFL Draft for the first time since 2002. No longer accommodating to the journeymen turnstile of the position, the team desperately needed an upgrade.
Enter Alec Ogletree, a one-time converted safety with deceptive speed, coverage ability and power all in one relentless package.
As was to be expected Ogletree's transition to the NFL has seen many hiccups. He bites on fakes, over pursues the ball carrier and misses assignments. Nonetheless, he has a nose for the ball and shows nothing but promise. Leading the team in solo tackles (44), he has also already recorded three forced fumbles and four defended passes to go along with a pick-six.
Did I mention that he is really fast?
Although currently far from the conversation for Defensive Rookie of the Year, Ogletree is putting together a very respectable rookie campaign and has proven worthy of his first-round distinction. If he continues to develop at his current rate, the Rams should soon have another perennial Pro Bowl snub on their hands. We can't help but speculate whether the former Georgia Bulldog will behave away from the field, but his performance on the gridiron has been a welcomed addition.
That leaves us with one, er, two more starters -- Will Witherspoon and Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Forced to find another viable 'backer after news broke of Dunbar's four-game suspension, the Rams once again reached out to the overly-seasoned Witherspoon, who quickly showed why he had not already been signed off of the street. After starting three games in the beginning of the year, he has been nearly nonexistent.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar isn't flashy. He won't make highlight reels and stays out of the spotlight, but he grinds out plays, takes on blocks and fights for a shot at the ball carrier. That may not be enough, though, when Dunbar isn't making an impact. He has to make fans forget about his PED mishap, not to mention that he blew a shot at recording a safety in week eight.
Few would be disappointed to see Dunbar's position upgraded in the next off-season, but he isn't a liability and -- typically -- does will in run support. Still, he has yet to return to his impressive 2012 form and isn't a lock going forward.
Undrafted rookies Ray-Ray Armstrong and Daren Bates bring up the depth on the outside. Neither will garner much faith should they be thrust into the starting lineup, but are project players who the coaches really seem to like. Armstrong, when he isn't committing an egregious special teams penalty, has shown promise in limited playing time.
Linebacker isn't a powerhouse unit for the St. Louis Rams, in fact, they're sure to continue to struggle on some occasion; however, the position group is now noticeably better overall than in has been in years and appears to improve each week.
After getting gashed on the ground like a wet paper bag through much of the early goings of the season, the Rams have allowed only 107 rushing yards in their past two contests. Earlier this season, that may have been a respectable total for one game. The Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks, two of the league's premier running offenses, combined for a paltry 2.97 yards per carry against
Because the Rams' defense has shown significant recent improvement, while still taking into account their prior abysmal efforts, we'll give them a passing grade with a small dose of skepticism.
Mid-season grade: C+