The Rams were already prepared to be without Jo-Lonn Dunbar for the first four games of the season. Now, they are preparing to be without Dunbar for the long run, given the recent news of his release.
Dunbar played an integral role in last year's defense. He was a three-down linebacker, who stayed on the field in nickel packages along with James Laurinaitis. He was also one of the Rams' best defenders against the run. Jo-Lonn played with a nasty streak the defense needed. He had a knack for big hits as well. [re: the concussion-inducing smack on ex-49er Alex Smith]
Replacing Dunbar, in the long term, will be no easy task. He was on the field for 1,088 of the Rams’ defenses snaps last year racking up 115 tackles, 4.5 sacks, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles. Stopping the run was his best asset, having earned an 8.6 grade from PFF. Pass coverage was his weak suit; PFF graded Dunbar at -8.1 when defending the pass.
The Rams will count on Will Witherspoon to man the Right Outside Linebacker spot next to James Laurinaitis. Witherspoon owns the spot, mainly because of his familiarity with Jeff Fisher's defensive scheme. He's played on the Tennessee Titans for the past three seasons, the first of which was under Fisher. Last year, Witherspoon amassed 47 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and one interception. He did not, however, grade well with PFF last season. He garnered an overall grade of -8.2: -10.9 against the run, and positive grade of 1.3 in pass coverage.
Age and mileage are two knocks against Witherspoon. He's entering his 12th season in the league - and having recently turned 33 years old - has earned himself the title of "ol' timer" on the team. He played a total of 393 snaps last season as a backup. He was on the field for 675 snaps in 2011. However, he's not been a full-time starter since 2010, when he played on 1,192 of the Titans' defensive snaps. To count on him for 16 games is asinine.
Directly behind Witherspoon on the depth chart is undrafted rookie linebacker Daren Bates. Bates impressed during the preseason, doing enough to earn himself a roster spot. Though not overly familiar with Bates’ game, one thing is for certain…he’s undersized at the position (5’11, 212 lbs), much like Dunbar (6’, 226 lbs).
Another undrafted rookie to keep an eye on is Ray Ray Armstrong. Armstrong has surely lived up to his twitter name, @boom_king26. Known as a hard-hitting safety in college, Armstrong has given the name credence in the big leagues… albeit in the preseason, against backups. He can bring the nastiness if called upon, though.
An outside linebacker corps consisting of Alec Ogletree and Armstrong - flanking Laurinaitis - presents a frightening front seven with sideline-to-sideline speed. That speed will help contain the mobile quarterbacks in the NFC West, along with screen/dump-off passes that have irked the Rams over the past few seasons.
Even in nickel package downs, it’s been made evident that Ogletree will remain on the field. He was expected to take over that role regardless of Dunbar's suspension-turned-release. Essentially, the nickel eliminates the third linebacker. Ogletree’s experience at safety, and ability to drop into coverage, will be huge for the Rams on 3rd down plays.
The Rams played plenty of nickel in 2012. Rocky McIntosh, the Rams' former OLB, was relegated to being a two-down 'backer because of the amount of nickel the Rams played. Another factor that could have lead to the team's high use of the nickel was that McIntosh played poorly against the pass. Could the lack of NFL-ready talent force the Rams into playing the majority of the time with a third corner in a 4-2-5 defensive alignment?