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Ram-tough defense has St. Louis making a playoff push

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James Laurinaitis showed up every Tuesday, on his designated day off, in Steve Spagnuolo's office last year. And every week, he left with something else.

On one side of the desk was a rookie head coach. On the other was a rookie middle linebacker, trying to carry out Spagnuolo's vision.

"I was trying to understand exactly what he expected," said Laurinaitis, a second-round pick in 2009 who's been in on 199 tackles the last two years and has started all 28 games of his career. "We're very similar, we approach things the same way, we're both perfectionists. It's why we get along. It's why he trusts me at that position."

Laurinaitis is at the center of the story, it seems, everyone is missing with the resurgence of the St. Louis Rams.

Has Sam Bradford been fantastic? Certainly. Could the Rams have finally solved their offensive line issues with tackles Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith? Seems that way.

Kevin Terrell / Associated Press
Linebacker James Laurinaitis has led a revival in St. Louis that has seen the Rams rise dramatically in almost every defensive statistic.
Rams defensive ranking last two seasons
  Yards 3rd down Sacks INT FF Scoring
2009 29th 4th 30th T-31st 18th 31st
2010 14th 2nd T-3rd T-19th 3rd 9th

But as the offense has gotten its act together, one big reason Spagnuolo was hired in the first place -- his ability to run a defense -- has reared its head and produced a promising, if still uneven, defense that's showing flashes of the coach's overall vision. The Rams are sixth in the league in sacks per pass play, second in the NFL in third-down defense and, while they still are in the middle in yardage allowed (14th), the unit's strength in those areas double as fingerprints Spagnuolo has left on the guys.

And that trust Laurinaitis referenced is a big reason why this group is on the uptick. The players believe Spagnuolo's scheme is going to maximize their ability, so they give him their best.

"It unlocks everybody's potential," said tackle Fred Robbins, who was part of Spagnuolo's championship group in New York, of the defense. "Everyone can make plays. The key in this defense is not to make every play. It's to make your play. It spreads out the sacks and the interceptions so it's not on one guy. Everyone gets in on it."

The numbers bear that out. Thirteen different defenders have combined for the team's 35 sacks, and six players register among the club's 10 interceptions, and 10 guys account for the team's 18 forced fumbles.

Point is, it's not just a player or two that's benefitting on the defense. Everyone's getting better and, most importantly, being put in position to succeed.

"That's part of good coaching," the coach said. "It begins in the middle with a guy who gets guys in and out of things, and that's what James brings to us, from a communication standpoint. The scheme part, you got the guys up front, Robbins and (ends James) Hall and Chris (Long). If you don't have those spots filled, you're going to struggle, I don't care what scheme you're running.

"Then, you have people who can do certain things, and you put those guys in position, whether it's getting certain rushers on certain linemen, pressing a wideout with a certain corner. You play to guys' strengths."

There might not be a player on the roster that's reaped the rewards of playing for Spagnuolo quite like Long has. The second overall pick in the 2008 draft, the big end and son of Howie had just nine sacks in his first two seasons, and his name was starting to get thrown out there as part of St. Louis' team-building struggles leading into April and the selection of Sam Bradford.

But during that time, quietly, he and Spagnuolo had talked about a plan to make him more comfortable, moving him to the defensive left side, following the departure of Leonard Little. Playing there, often over a tight end, was more analogous to the base end role he played in a 3-4 in college, and since he's got a dominant right hand, he felt he could use a wider array of moves on the left.

Bingo. Long has 6.5 sacks, three passes defensed, and is starting to deliver on his considerable potential.

"I think I've benefitted from it a lot," Long said. "I'm appreciative of the position this defense has put me in, but I know my potential. Playing with James and Fred has helped me a lot, and the scheme, coupled with all that and the hard work we've put in is why I'm playing like I am."

And if you really examine it, the way the Rams have played defense as a whole is a big reason why they're 6-6 and contending in the division fresh off a brutal three-year stretch in which they went 6-42. Proof positive: The Rams have held their opponents to 17 or fewer points in five of their six wins.

If you go back and talk to any of those Giants players that Spagnuolo coached, they'll tell you how much they missed playing for him in 2009, and that plays into a big part of the Rams' maturation defensively. They're playing for their coach, because their coach genuinely wants what's best for them and the team.

"I will say this: I have tremendous respect for what these guys do, the time they put it, and what this game does to their bodies," Spagnuolo said. "We have them here and when you leave this building, you have to be a person. This life isn't easy. People see the glamour, but this is a tough lifestyle they live, it's 24/7, and I get that. I respect it.

"So I've always felt that we're here to serve the players and make them better."

He's seeing that happen these days. Long says it's because "you have to have 11 guys doing the right thing, and we're getting there. Last year, it was 10 or nine with one or two off a little." But just as much, it's about the guy pushing the buttons.

Long and Laurinaitis both said their primary image of Spagnuolo, when they found out he'd be their coach, was of that swarming Giants defense that decimated Tom Brady and Co. in February 2008, while Robbins lived it. Those guys know they aren't there yet, and when asked if they've been shown the tape of that Super Bowl, each says no.

But because of what they've accomplished so far, there's this glimmer of hope.

"Maybe he's waiting," says Long, with Laurinaitis following suit. "He's saving it."

Spagnuolo laughed when he heard that. For now, he's more worried about getting guys to play that way. And judging by the results of this fall, it sure is starting to work.

Going deep

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady lamented the team's wayward leadership after the 2009 season. Bill Belichick scrubbed any relics of the team's glory days of a half-decade ago from the stadium over the summer.

Seems like it worked. One player told me this week that the biggest difference, from a locker-room standpoint, is that where players may have known their roles in 2009, this year, the guys are, to a man, fully accepting those roles.

The result is a team, three-quarters into the season, that has the look of football's best, only with a very different-looking cast of characters surrounding Brady and Belichick.

"We play together -- offense, defense, special teams," said nose tackle Vince Wilfork, in the midst of an all-pro kind of season. "And if you play together, good things will happen. We've been waiting to play together all year, and I think (Monday) was a real good outing for us to play as a team, and I think we did play well.

"I can truly sit here and say it started in practice. Best practices we had all year, not just certain days, every practice was a pretty good practice. We complement each other, offense, defense and special teams."

I'd heard the practices leading up to the Jets game were very loose, but in a confident sort of way, which is just the way any coach would draw it up for a contest hyped like that one was. While the coaches acknowledged the stakes and told the players to seize this opportunity, Brady told me on the Friday leading up to the game that the team had to keep its eyes on the Jets and not the standings.

With that thorough beating, it seems like they had the Jets down pretty good.

What's really interesting is that New England ranks 13th in total offense and 31st in total defense, yet leads the NFL in scoring, is middle of the pack in points allowed, and ranks second in point differential, 11 behind Green Bay and 34 clear of third-place Pittsburgh. The skewing of the stats boils down to the above reference to allocation and acceptance of roles.

The bottom line is that, because of that, Patriots players have been in the right place at the right time when it matters most because guys are taking the coaching and are in the right position most of the time regardless of the stakes. It's obvious for an offense that's humming behind its likely NFL MVP quarterback -- Brady was 91-of-124 (73.4 percent) for 1,203 yards, 13 touchdowns and no interceptions over the third quarter (Weeks 10-13) of the season.

Meanwhile, a defense that's starting three rookies is still leaky, but has come up with timely turnovers to make up for its growing pains and has done enough to supplement an offense hitting its stride.

It's difficult to say whether it can be sustained in January, though Brady and Belichick give this team serious playoff credentials. But for now, at the very least, New England seems poised for another wave of contending years because a) the ethos of those old Patriots is back; b) the roster is younger than it's been in a long time; and c) the club has six picks in the first three rounds of April's draft.

And that all starts with a group of players buying into something that, again, is working at a very high level.

I know this truth ...

For years, much of the nation was deprived of seeing Nnamdi Asomugha, who is -- along with Darrelle Revis, Charles Woodson and Champ Bailey -- one of the few players that has been deserving of the title "shutdown corner" in recent years. And this month, with the Raiders contending at 6-6, you might get the chance to see the guy play.

So tune in, and know he's a guy you can feel happy for.

The Raiders' win total is a high-water mark for Asomugha. The team's first-round pick in 2003, when Oakland was coming off a Super Bowl, has gone 5-11 three times, 4-12 three times and 2-14 once.

Playoff Picture
Nnamdi Asomugha and the Raiders are in the thick of a playoff race. What do they need to have happen in the final four weeks in order to make the postseason? Check out our Playoff Picture.

"Most years, depending on how other teams were doing, hope was slim for the postseason, come December," he said Wednesday night. "There was a year or two in there where we were holding on to our last string of hope, but it would depend on a lot of teams losing.

"It's tough to get to December, and you're watching games and following it, and seeing other teams where they say, 'If they beat this team, they're in,' or 'They win their next two, they're in,' and there's stuff in your newspaper about rebuilding and the coach getting fired and who's coming and who's going."

That's why, on Wednesday, Asomugha stopped for a minute and took it all in. It was raining and ugly out at the team's East Bay facility, and yet the players were running around like it was a playoff week.

"That enthusiasm," he said, "I just thought to myself, 'This has never happened in December.' "

Asomugha says now that he saw it coming, that it felt different going all the way back to the spring. The defense, he explains, had always been competitive, if a little deficient against the run. And the offense, under Hue Jackson, he continued, looked completely different.

His instincts were correct, of course. No, the Raiders don't look like a Super Bowl team. But the offense has been explosive, particularly in the running game, and the defense has grown.

Oakland's ultimate fate is out of its hands. The Raiders need help, and Asomugha knows that. Still, for he and Sam Williams, who came in together in 2003, and long-time Raiders like Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler who were there for the last run of winning seasons in Oakland, this progress is rewarding and something to build on going forward.

"It is rewarding personally to be in the hunt in December, and to get in would take it to another level," said Asomugha. "But just to be in the hunt, after seven years of losing, it's definitely rewarding."

Asomugha then raised an interesting thought to me. The Raiders, he said (and I looked it up), went to AFC Championship Games at the start of each of the last four decades, qualifying in 1970, '80, '90 and 2000. Far-fetched to think that trend will continue? Sure it is.

But Asomugha emphasized this is a team that believes in itself, something that's helped mitigate any potential damage done by an unsettled quarterback situation, and he personally thinks the Raiders are setting themselves up for a bright future.

"I think all we needed was that belief," he said. "That's what changes a culture, a mindset. If you have that, you can build a team and an environment. And from there, you build and build and build. It can't be a one-time thing. Look at New England, they've been winning this whole time. Once you get that belief, you can just plug guys in.

"We're starting to believe, and guys here know of our tradition. It'd be a dream to bring that tradition back."

I don't know a thing ...

About how the Redskins could've missed so horribly on a free agent like they did on Albert Haynesworth, given his track record and reputation from Tennessee. In 2008, the Titans gladly gave the big man a guarantee they wouldn't tag him a second time if he reported under the franchise tender, because they knew they'd get the best of him in a contract drive.

They did, and Haynesworth got his money, and once he collected his $21 million option bonus on April 1 -- giving him $32 million of the $48 million he was due on his four-year deal -- his motivation waned and the problems with Mike Shanahan escalated. The crescendo came this week, and many in the league believe that the coach was simply waiting until now to suspend Haynesworth because by levying the maximum four-game sitdown at this point he would end the player's season.

The interesting thing here is that the Redskins had opportunities to deal Haynesworth. The Titans offered a mid-round pick, thinking returning to their upfield style would excite Haynesworth and playing under line coach Jim Washburn would ignite his effort. But they were quickly shot down, making it clear that the Redskins weren't dealing him.

One theory here (and this is my opinion): The final straw for Haynesworth was the Redskins' unwillingness to sever ties in October in a marriage that clearly wasn't working with other teams sniffing around.

Haynesworth might be a pain in the rear, but he's also astute as a businessman, and he likely felt he had no other choice than find a way out. Now, he has no way out, and the appeals to the Redskins punishment might be more of an attempt to save face and Haynesworth's marketability when he's on the block in the offseason.

The ability that prompted Washington to break the bank is still there in Haynesworth. But the "dog" label could be tough to shake.

"You see inconsistency, plays where he dominates and then plays where he doesn't give a lot of effort," said an NFC scout. "You see plays run at him where he takes a side, and then doesn't give effort in pursuit.

"He's still strong, he can still bend his knees and do all the things you need him to do; he shows that. But he doesn't play with stamina, want-to, whatever it is. It's just not consistent. ... The effort's not the same all the time. His pad level gets high when he's tired, he gets washed out of plays, he can be moved. He's big and strong, but you get him moved in one direction, he's not fighting. Thing is, if he was low enough, he's a strong enough athlete to get out of those. He just doesn't."

If the current staff remains in Tennessee past this year, the best option for Haynesworth to rebuild his name might be to go back there. Haynesworth respects Washburm and takes his coaching, and conversely, Washburn turns Haynesworth loose and lets him play his game.

"You put him in the right scheme, and he's going to benefit you more than he hurts you," said one Titans official. "We did that. You have to know how to rotate him to keep him fresh, too. He's not going to be more than a 50-percent (of the snaps) guy. He was in the 40s for us, and if you put him there at 70 or 80 percent, he's not going to be the same."

The NFC scout added to that, saying, "When he's fresh, he's a (beast) to deal with." So maybe, more than anything, for Haynesworth, it has to be about a team accepting him for who he is.

And right now, that's a player who's not quite worth the cash he was afforded two years ago.

First ...

Two years ago, when Josh McDaniels landed in Denver, I personally believed it was a match made in football heaven. McDaniels got an owner who valued stability and patience, which would allow the then-32-year-old to grow into his role, and the roster was stocked with 25-and-under cornerstones on offense (Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal, Tony Scheffler, Ryan Clady) that would put the coach's acumen to work immediately.

Twenty-two months later, Cutler, Marshall and Scheffler are gone, and now McDaniels is, too, taking the Broncos' reputation for being steady and strong organizationally with him out the door. Plenty of room for second-guessing here -- it starts with the decision to turn over the quarterback position so quickly -- but Bowlen deserves as much criticism as anyone.

First, you have to wonder about choosing a coach so young, and then not having the willingness to see his rebuilding effort through, though the sullying-the-brand charges stemming from the Broncos' videotaping scandal are fair. Second, to further that point, by not seeing McDaniels' vision through, you really might set your franchise back a half-decade, if a new coach wants to blow it up again. And third, while it makes sense to stick to an organizational model that worked for so many years for Bowlen, it didn't make sense to hand McDaniels the responsibility that an experienced Shanahan handled.

No matter how you see it, now a team that was really under one coaching umbrella (Dan Reeves, succeeded by former assistants Wade Phillips and Shanahan) for 28 years, the modernization of the Broncos didn't work. Step 1 in fixing it this time is bringing in a strong GM. That's why, earlier this week on Twitter, I advocated the ideal scenario of having Baltimore director of player personnel Eric DeCosta take that role, with Stanford's Jim Harbaugh in as his coach. I personally think running back to the old way might be a mistake, which is part of my reasoning, and that Bowlen can't take huge risks this time.

... and 10

1. Tim Tebow might want to keep himself educated on the real-estate market. While some have said that Bowlen will have to bring in a coach who's on board with Tebow, the lesson of the Cutler trade back in McDaniels' Denver infancy should tell you that the new coach will likely be the one making the call on the quarterback. Cutler went 14 spots higher in the draft than Tebow, had more than $3 million more in bonus money in his rookie deal, and was coming off a 4,526-yard, 25-touchdown season. The investment on Cutler was greater, and he was gone quickly. Whoever the new coach is, he'll have to quickly make a decision on Tebowm who is due a $6.275 million bonus 29 days after the start of the 2011 league year. That money's guaranteed whether he's on the Broncos roster or not, but who pays it out is up for question. If the new coach and GM decide that Tebow's not their guy, they'll have until 29 days after a new CBA is worked out (or the normal start of the league year, if the league and union somehow buck conventional wisdom and reach a deal earlier) to trade him to a team that might've been interested before the 2010 draft (Buffalo?) and avoid paying that bonus money. At this point, the Broncos have only paid Tebow $2.27 million, and only $975,000 was part of a bonus, meaning that, under the old rules, just $780,000 in bonus money on that five-year deal would accelerate onto a potential 2011 cap. So the Broncos are hardly married to Tebow.

2. Earlier in the week, I wrote on Troy Polamalu's candidacy for Defensive Player of the Year, and one cornerstone of my argument was the difference in the play of the Steeler defense when they have him vs. when they don't. Well, by that logic, I probably should be giving Eagles CB Asante Samuel his props, too. In the nine games the Eagles have had Samuel, they've yielded 1,846 net passing yards, an average of 205.1 yards per game, and opposing passers have posted an aggregate TD-INT ratio of 15-17. In the three games Philly hasn't had Samuel, they have allowed 831 net yards passing, an average of 277.0 per, and a TD-INT ratio of 9-3. This week, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said Samuel's absence has been "huge," emphasizing that the team is missing "that veteran leadership, that experience. When things get out of kilter as they do in the ups and downs of a game, having a veteran player at that corner certainly helps to nail things down." Seems like McDermott and Co. get Samuel back in the nick of time, with big in-division trips to Dallas and New York on tap.

3. The only thing surprising about the sod issue at Soldier Field is it's the home team complaining about. The rugged track of those municipal grounds used to provide an advantage for the Bears, but now it's driving some of them nuts. "With our speed, we would like to get something a little bit tighter, but we probably have one of the worst fields in the league at this point," Cutler told the Chicago press this week. "We did last year, as well. We've got to deal with it, and our guys know it. They are aware of how to cut and how to move on it." The advent of FieldTurf pushed more and more Northern clubs to go to the fake stuff, which is much safer in all conditions than AstroTurf was, and less hazardous in the cold than the real grass. There are 12 cold-weather outdoor stadiums in the Northeast and Midwest. New England, New York, Baltimore, Buffalo and Cincinnati play on synthetic fields. Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Green Bay, Kansas City and Chicago don't. So there are still more teams playing on grass than artificial turf in the NFL's chillier areas, which, in this day and age, doesn't seem right considering all the initiatives on player safety and the desire of owners to use stadiums for more non-NFL events.

4. Last week, we mentioned how the Jaguars might not be the sure thing to flee north Florida that many think they will be, because of a lease that binds them to Jacksonville through 2030. Here's another reason: There's a real good chance that they'll sell out Sunday, and that would mean they'd be 7-for-7 in that department this season. Conversely, a 7-9 team had seven of eight games blacked out in 2009. What's interesting is that this Jaguars team sits at 7-5, which is just where last year's club was after 12 games. What gives? Two things. First, the city and those running the franchise came to realize the club's future was on the line. And second, this team is one that's building a foundation for the future and winning in an entertaining way. A stellar 2009 draft class, headlined by left tackle Eugene Monroe and featuring five current starters (if you count injured right tackle Eben Britton), brings hope, and promising rookie DT Tyson Alualu leads the next crop. Those groups have upgraded the Jags exponentially in the trenches, and revive the tough image that Jack Del Rio's early Jacksonville teams had. And judging by the numbers, the people down there believe that's plenty to hang their hats on.

5. Seems like every week over the last month, I've been writing something about Matt Cassel and, given his improvement, it hasn't been hard to find material. But what's really remarkable is the TD-INT ratio he's posted. Among starting quarterbacks, Michael Vick (15-2) has the league's most lopsided number in that department. Brady is second, at 27-4. And Cassel, the man who backed up Brady in New England and two Heisman winners at USC, is next at 23-4. Not bad for a guy who threw 16 picks against 16 touchdown passes last season, and more over, it's exactly what coach Todd Haley, who had a pretty decent quarterback in Kurt Warner as Arizona's OC, is looking for. Haley said this week, "You can go through years and years of passing yardage and you just can't find a correlation between that and winning and losing, where in turnovers you can. His No. 1 job is to lead the football team. But within that scope, his No. 1 job is not being careless with the football and he has to make good decisions. That is what he is doing." And he's getting better as he goes -- Cassel has 19 touchdown passes and just one interception in the Chiefs' nine games since their Week 4 bye. If he can't go this week because of the appendectomy he underwent on Wednesday, and it's looking more and more like he won't, the Chiefs will go with Brodie Croyle. That's a huge dropoff, considering the way Cassel has played this season.

6. A few weeks ago, when collecting some info on defensive rookies from scouts, Browns CB Joe Haden, the seventh overall draft pick in 2010, kept coming up. It seemed strange at the time -- he'd just cracked the starting lineup -- but those who were watching said Haden was making a statement with his opportunity. Well, as those opportunities have grown, the Florida product has flourished. Haden was voted NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for November, and all this begs the question of why Eric Mangini didn't play him earlier. It's something the Browns coach addressed this week. "He may have gotten in and not played as well and we'd be talking about you know, 'Was it too early for him to get in?'" said Mangini, who knows a little about developing corners, having been around for the early years of Samuel in New England and Revis in New York. "It's really just a function of working and when you get your chance, going in and making a strong case for 'You can't take me out now.'" Safe to say Haden's gotten to that point.

7. The Bears entered this season with a coach clearly on the hot seat. That spot is far less toasty now, and part of the reason for that is a group of players with a real desire to play for Lovie Smith. "I don't think anyone here wants to see Lovie gone -- no one," said safety Chris Harris, who played for Smith the first two years of his career, went to Carolina for three years, and now is back. "He takes care of you, he looks out for you, and guys really respect that. Guys really respect him." Harris then told me a story from last Sunday that really illustrates his hold over the team. The safety said that Smith is almost always "at about a 5," from a demeanor standpoint. But at halftime in Detroit, with the Bears trailing 17-14, Smith rose to what Harris characterized as a "9" -- "maybe the most upset I've seen him." The players responded, as they usually do, and that's something that's been central to the team sticking behind him through a couple rough seasons, and then through a 1-3 October this year.

8. Ben Roethlisberger might not rail on it publicly, but you can visibly see the frustration with the way the game is officiated around him, as opposed to the way games involving Brady or Peyton Manning are. There were several times in the Baltimore game, while Terrell Suggs was undressing Roethlisberger, where Big Ben's frustration boiled over. And then it got to the point where he seemed to just have had enough, when he took a hit, looked at the official and simply gave a dismissive wave, as if to say "Screw it." Roethlisberger has taken 22 sacks, a middling number for a player who's alternately notorious and noted for holding the ball and keeping plays alive. So referees have always had a slow whistle with him in regards to blowing plays dead, and that has probably spilled over to the way flags are thrown. But it did work to his benefit in Baltimore at the end of the game. On first-and-goal from the 9, in the waning moments after Troy Polamalu's epic strip-sack, Suggs got to Roethlisberger, who was clearly in the grasp but fought his way out to throw away the ball. Two plays later, he threw the winning touchdown pass, and if the Suggs play had been blown dead, the whole thing could've been a different story.

9. The word is that QB Matthew Stafford could be back in time to play in Tampa on Dec. 19, but the Lions would be wise to be careful with him. Stafford's taken a beating behind that offensive line in his first two years, and his tough-guy mentality (and that Browns game in 2009 was proof that he is, indeed, plenty tough) is liable to get him severely injured. And he's already had three significant injuries to his throwing shoulder in that time, the most recent being the Grade 3 separation he suffered in November. Detroit has a $72 million investment in Stafford, and the club's ability to deliver on that promise is tied to his development and that howitzer of an arm he has. Clearly, he has gotten into harm's way plenty, and if I'm the Lions, I'm worried about another shoulder injury really getting into Stafford's head or, worse, affecting that special arm strength he has. So my verdict? Sit him, Lions, until 2011.

10. Let's wrap things up with a look at Panthers QB Jimmy Clausen. Taken with the 16th pick of the second round, Clausen has completed 50.5 percent of his passes for 1,056 yards, one touchdown and six picks in nine games. Not good. Now, Clausen faces the very real probability (certainty?) that his coach, John Fox, is in his final month in Carolina. And the chance that the team could have the No. 1 overall pick and a shot at Andrew Luck (who might force a trade if he doesn't like the situation) in April. So Clausen could be auditioning for a) his new boss in Carolina or b) potential trade partners if the Panthers decide to rebuild around a new quarterback. With what's around him in Carolina right now, no one's expecting him to morph into Joe Montana. But his progress over the next four games might just be vital to his NFL future.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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