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Rams Mid-Season Report Card: Linebackers

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We continue the mid-season report card grading with the St. Louis Rams’ linebackers.

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Led by middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, this crew - which includes Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Alec Ogletree at outside linebackers - has been in the spotlight the entire 2014 season. Opposing teams dreaded the Rams front four, so virtually every opponent has made "throw the damn ball quick" its lead game plan. It's worked, and the Rams' linebacker crew has borne the brunt of the ensuing wreckage. "Quick passes" are shorter, and put pressure on linebackers to help defensive backs in that under the safeties zone, and out in the flats. It's splits job descriptions; dividing rush defense responsibilities far more often than would be a considered norm.

In 2013, Jeff Fisher called Alec Ogletree the Rams' "Patrick Willis", due in large part to a stellar second half of his first season in the NFL. Olgetree stacked up tackle numbers as he tried to learn the NFL game. Yet, in his second season with the Rams, he's still caught watching plays unfold often; especially when he has to decide between run defense and pass coverage. Taken with the #30 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, his learning curve hasn't really found its end.

Ogletree has glaring issues, but he also shines. I can see why Jeff Fisher and Les Snead made one of their many 2013 draft day moves to snap him up.  He has the speed and size to make any head coach drool. Where he's still "on the outside looking in" is in the area of instinctive play. I've come to believe this key attribute isn't far up Jeff Fisher's college player resume talent list? Like most - if not all - the young Rams players, physical talents are there, but every one of them looks like a "we can teach him to (fill in  the blank) when he gets here."

A good example of a player who possesses instinct to match his physical skill sets is Baltimore's C.J. Mosley. As a rookie (middle linebacker), he shown remarkable instinct and maturity. His draft day stock dropped due to injury issues, and if these weren't there any number of NFL teams would have swarmed on him. The Ravens' talent wizard Ozzie Newsome took a chance, and it's payed off. In the recent 49ers game, Ogletree had a pretty good game, especially in pass coverage. On one play, he deflected a Colin Kaepernick pass at the last second. This was pure physical talent, because as Kaepernick tried to drop the ball in-between coverage, Ogletree was turned around. At the last second, he turned his head and reacted. There aren't many NFL linebackers who could make this kind of play. Yet, if you rewind the play a bit before the pass, you can see Ogletree's slightly out of position; most likely trying to contain Kaepernick from running. This is both a great and bad thing for Ogletree, in that it shows he has amazing skills, but it also says he may very well be a guy destined to have his... er, uh? Let's call them "moments" in a game. Every player does I guess, but Ogletree's are going to be a given( Not unlike Janoris Jenkins?).

Grade for Ogletree so far in 2014: B

Jo-Lonn Dunbar is very talented for a 6', 226 lbs. outside linebacker. Tough and agile, he's responsible for fending off pulling guards, and covering basketball player-size tight ends. Dunbar is a "high motor" guy, not unlike defensive end Chris Long. If Long is a "rolling ball of butcher knives", Dunbar succeeds by being the guy who inflicts thousands of cuts. He just keeps pounding away, daring teams to have at him. They would, but there's this guy named Robert Quinn on the same side of the line as Dunbar. In fact, Jeff Fisher perfectly paired these two. Dunbar is quick and vicious, so he's capable of reacting to an unfilled void left by Quinn sweeping out wide on a pass rush. The speed of Quinn coming at a quarterback also leads to plays flowing away from him. It forces a quarterback to either check down and away from receivers on Quinn's side of the field, or throw across their bodies; loosing some touch and accuracy.

Dunbar has limitations. When the Rams' defense faces an offensive line who blocks well at the second level - releasing initial blocks on the line to hit linebackers - Dunbar's limitation become kind of glaring. His lack of size works against him, but he makes up for it with sound tackling technique. The problem, is he winds up tackling a running back after substantial gains, and not at or near the line of scrimmage. This is just my own, personal observation, but Dunbar seems to have better games when he has a quick defensive tackle playing next to Quinn? It appears the longer a tackle can keep a lineman occupied, the better Dunbar shines? In truth, this is how a defense is supposed to work. But go back and watch plays where Michael Brockers isn't pushing a guard or tackle back, and instead holding his ground. Linemen release and head straight for Dunbar with an "inside-out" path; sealing Dunbar off. Next, watch plays where Aaron Donald is shifted to Quinn's side, or Brockers bull rushes. Dunbar flourishes, and can use his speed to cheat inside a tad to help the ever-deep playing James Laurinaitis.

The bottom line: Dunbar plays well with a limited tangibles skill set. Yet, for the Rams defense to really take that next step, I think a guy like San Francisco's Ahmed Brooks - 6'3, 259 lbs. - will be on the Rams shopping list. It would allow Ogletree to shift to the right side, and give the Rams a more active, instinctive run stopper to play outside Chris Long.

Jo-Lonn Dunbar's 2014 grade: B-

James Lauriaitis is one of the few hold overs from the Spagnuolo-Devaney days. Taken in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft (#35 overall), the Ohio State, son of a Pro-wrestler has been a great addition for the Rams. I must admit, I'm a Laurinaitis fan. If there's a guy in the NFL who tries harder, is smarter, or with more heart than Laurinaitis... This is a guy who brings class and professionalism to every game. Forced to morph from a traditional NFL middle linebacker mold by woeful past Rams defenses, he plays deep off the ball, and it's cost him. He never gets the due he deserves among his peers, or in the media. No one - outside of Rams fans - seems to notice how when he intercepts a pass, he's somehow as deep as a safety? Few realize he's generally the second guy to hit a receiver who's caught a pass., and not another defensive back which would seem to be the norm... Absolutely none appreciates how he comes up in rush defense from seven, eight or nine yards off the ball to fill a hole. Laurinaitis takes his skills, and divides them to be the "do-everything" guy on the field, so he rarely makes highlight reels. No other linebacker in the NFL is asked to do all the things Laurinaitis is, each and every Sunday...

The Rams rewarded their defensive leader with a big pay day in the off season. He'll make somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million this year (I demur to Frank to give exact numbers), and it may very well be both a blessing and curse for Laurinaitis. For this kind of "ka-ching-$$$", he may very well have put a salary CAP target on his back. Ranked #30 at his position by NFL.com, he won't be going to Pro-Bowls. It's by defensive design Laurinaitis stays quietly in the background; emerging every now and then to make a spectacular - and very smart - play like he did in the last seconds of the San Francisco game.

James Laurinaitis' Grade for 2014? I give him an "A", while others will slather reasons why he deserves far lowers grades. My reasoning is simple: James Laurinaitis is the kind of humble, smart and passionate football player EVERY team needs. He won't wow you with statistics, or make booming head first tackles that hurt opposing players. He's technically near perfect, and film of how he tackles should be "must watch" info for every young football player. His pass coverage skills could possibly be the best of ANY middle linebacker to EVER play the game of football. That's not an overstatement, and if you doubt me, just ask a guy like Jeff Fisher who's seen a linebacker or two in his day. If you ask him to compare Laurinaitis to Chicago's Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary, he'll give the nod to the beady eyed Bear overall. But if you ask for who is/was better in pass coverage, Fisher will give a knowing nod to Laurinaitis.

*****

There's glaring depth issues for the Rams when it come to linebackers. They don't have anyone behind Laurinaitis on the depth chart, and Ogletree or Dunbar have little in the way of quality back-up. Look for the Rams to spend some high draft assets (rounds 2 to 4?) on at least middle linebacker depth. I'll have to ask 3k about the linebacker pool for the 2015 NFL Draft? If you don't know this by now, 3k is a college scouting phenom. He can tell you the shoe size of the long-snapper for Yuri's Poly Tech in Siberia, and his draft charts are just this side of O.C.D. obsessive.