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Linebackers and Steve Spagnuolo

This is the face Animal Jr. makes when he watches film on the outside linebackers last year.
This is the face Animal Jr. makes when he watches film on the outside linebackers last year.

Since the draft, some people, myself included, have wondered why the Rams were so hesitant to add a fresh set of legs at the outside linebacker position. Sure, they needed a lot of things, but on a defense that was so surprising last year, OLB was played with such horror that a former Mr. Irrelevant and a special teams ace were starting for us quite frequently. Not that I have anything against Vobora or Chamberlain, who definitely have their uses, but hey, we wouldn't be looking if the play at OLB was great.

So hit the jump and let's see if we can sort through this conundrum together.

So why oh why did the Rams not draft someone to help in an earlier round? Well, being someone who believes in Spagnuolo's defensive system (yes, I actually trust that the people who have invested their lives in football know something about it, so get over it), I thought I'd ask around and see if teams that he used to coach on (Giants) or teams where he learned the tools of his trade (Eagles) ever went all-out for a Marquee OLB either in the draft or FA, and what type of success they had on defense.

I asked JasonB over at Bleeding Green whether or not Jim Johnson's defense ever went for a OLB early, or if the scheme just ironed the weaknesses right out of the player. He wrote back to me, saying:

The Eagles never picked a first round LB and never really spent any money in free agency on outside linebackers in the past decade. So I would say JJ opted for system type players. They've often opted for smaller, faster OLBs who can cover more than rush the passer.

Now, whether that was smart or not is certainly up for debate. There were a lot of people here that disagreed.

Considering that, I took a look at the Eagles defense as far back as ESPN would let me, to the year 2002. They are ranked in terms of total yardage allowed and also by points allowed (per game). Here is what I found:

Year Rank: Yardage Rank: Points/G
2010 12th 21st
2009 12th 19th
2008 3rd 4th
2007 10th 9th
2006 15th T-15th
2005 23rd 6th
2004 10th T-2nd
2003 20th 7th
2002 4th 2nd


They averaged 12th in yards, 9th in points over the 9 year period, which is pretty good. Much better then the Rams have been. Of course, a ten year period is a pretty good time period to build up a defense, and I think you can see through the stats the 1) it takes awhile to rebuild a defense, and 2) Points and yardage given don't exactly correlate to each other. Let's also not forget the Eagles are pretty much annual contenders for the playoffs.

I then asked Ed Valentine over at Big Blue View the same question; was linebacker important to the system Spagnuolo ran there? Did they invest resources in that position? He hit me back saying:

Linebackers? You want to talk linebackers? With a Giants guy? I mean, you are talking about a team that has not drafted a quality linebacker since Jessie Armstead in 1993 -- in the 8th round, which no longer exists.
Scour Big Blue View for five minutes on any given day and you will see reams of complaints -- for years now -- about the Giants lack of attention to the linebacker position. Giants fans are excited that the teams drafted two linebackers this year -- even if it was in the sixth round. That tells you how much they have prioritized it.
The Giants have tended to try and sign veteran linebackers to plug holes -- like Antonio Pierce, Kawika Mitchell, LaVar Arrington, Keith Bulluck and others.

As for Spags with the Giants I don't know that he had much draft influence. Coordinators in New York usually don't. I think the Giants, though, have tended to emphasize pass-rushing linemen and quality cover guys on defense. Spags was all about pressure in New York. Nowadays, they often take at least one linebacker off the field and play with extra safeties or corners.

Which seems sort of the same thing, except a little more drastic. 8th round? That's undrafted territory now (which is about where we've found half our outside linebackers regardless). Like the Eagles, let's look at the stats. I'm not going to throw up a decade worth of records, merely a couple of years before Spagnuolo came on board, and the few years he was DC:

Year Yards Points/G
2008 5th 5th
2007 7th 17th
2006 25th 24th
2005 24th 14th


I'm not going to put up averages here, it's pretty clear what a difference Spagnuolo made. But I think the thing that stands out about the Giants is how much of a parallel they are to the Rams. I think the Rams are at about where the Giants were in 2006- They've put some pieces together, and are starting to move forward. If you look at what Spagnuolo did with the Giants; he already had some pieces in place before he came in, so it was a lot easier to move forward. The Rams were void of pretty much all talent on both sides of the ball, so it's been a longer road then we've hoped for.

However, I think it is clear that if the Rams have the right system in place, one that attacks the QB and disrupts the offensive line, linebacker problems can be minimized. In addition to a physical secondary, which we are already seeing develop, the Rams problems at OLB could be minimized without adding any additional players. That's not to say help wouldn't be appreciated at those positions, you can see how fans of both the Eagles and Giants felt, but with the proper system in place, the Rams probably wouldn't get burned so often. Let's not forget that often it was the offenses ability to put points up that cost us games last year. While the defense wasn't perfect, it more often then not did just enough (or a little more) to give the Rams a chance to win games. Hopefully with the addition of a quicker, more vertical offense, the Rams will have a better chance this year of winning games.