Yesterday evening, we learned that the NFL had suspended Jo-Lonn Dunbar for the use of PEDs, forcing the Rams’ “power hitter” to miss the opening four games of the regular season. Regardless of the “whys, whats, and hows” in the situation, the St. Louis Rams will still be missing a vital part of their defense. With the drafting of Alec Ogletree, the hope in St. Louis was that the linebacker corps would be a “strength” of the team. That still very well might be the case, but with one of the key member gone for the first quarter of the season, St. Louis will have to wait to see their dynamic trio in action.
In the NFL, there is a “next man up” policy: when a player goes down, the next man on the roster is expected to step in an fill that void. For the St. Louis Rams, the “next man” is a bit of a question mark at this point. So, how might the Rams fill the Dunbar-gap from Week 1 to Week 4?
According to NFL sources, the St. Louis Rams were made aware of this situation long before it was announced to the general public yesterday. Thus, the acquisition of veteran, all-round linebacker, Will Witherspoon, now appears to be more a preemptive strike than a lucky, last-second pickup.
In his last “full season” with the Tennessee Titans, the veteran tackler tallied 54 tackles and 8 pressures on the quarterback from the weakside linebacker spot, with two of those pressures resulting in a sack. He also managed to snag an interception, and battled three passes while allowing only 354 yards in coverage.
Witherspoon is more than capable of filling in at the outside linebacker spot, especially at the beginning of the season with “fresh legs” and going against premature offenses still attempting to work out the bugs with new players and coaching personnel. Moreover, he will be playing behind the best defensive line rotation in the NFL, and in front of, potentially, one of the best secondaries in the league.
If the Rams’ choose to go with the “quick fix” method, look for Witherspoon to see plenty of reps at “rightside linebacker.”
Last season, the St. Louis Rams’ defensive roster was void of any competent strongside linebacker. The lack of talent was so immense that Jeff Fisher, literally, changed the defense to avoid have to insert Mario Maggan or Rocky McIntosh into the lineup. Fisher made this change by relying heavily on the “nickel package,” essentially subbing a defensive back for an outside linebacker.
Luckily for the St. Louis Rams, they have a $50 million, top-of-the-line slot corner on the roster; one that led all defensive backs in tackles last season. A 4-2 front with Cortland Finnegan on the inside, and Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson on the outside, might just be the Rams’ “base defense” for the opening quarter of the season.
This works especially well in the absence of Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who had been the “odd man out” at camp thus far, with Alec Ogletree, a converted safety, figuring to be “the man” in the nickel. Dunbar struggled mightily in coverage last season, allowing a 84.1% catch rate (39th out of 43 qualifying 4-3 OLBs), 507 yards after the catch (42nd), and 5 touchdowns (T-42nd). The Rams’ will undoubtedly miss their “enforcer” in run defense, but some of that might be alleviated by the feistiness of Finnegan playing as a make-shift outside linebacker. It certainly worked well, in spurts, last season!
The Other Guys
On the Rams’ current depth chart, there are six players listed as “outside linebackers,” including both Alec Ogletree and Jo-Lonn Dunbar. With the impending suspension, Jeff Fisher will undoubtedly throw more reps at some of the depth players.
Someone like Ray Ray Armstrong, who was impressive in his rookie debut against the Browns, could find themselves seeing more snaps with the 1st- and 2nd-team units at camp. If they can impress, the Rams’ coaching staff is renowned for putting the best players on the field, regardless of their prestige, draft status, or salary.
In all honest, a combination of Will Witherspoon and the nickel package will likely be used to remedy the loss of Jo-Lonn Dunbar. However, every year there is a player or two in the league that leaps “onto the scene” as a result of an injury or suspension. It certainly would not be the end of the world to have multiple, talented linebackers fighting for playing time in Week 5.