EARTH CITY, Mo. -- It's nearly a week into training camp, when players start to wear down as the physical and mental overload start to grab hold. After reading and hearing about how hard first-year coach Steve Spagnuolo was pushing the team, it wouldn't have been surprising to see the Rams simply grind through things Thursday. And with a scrimmage on Friday, watching guys on cruise control was what I expected. So did Spagnuolo.
"I was waiting for it," he said.
Instead, the Rams staged one of the most aggressive, fast-paced, physical practices I've seen in years. There was non-stop live tackling, full-bore hitting in nearly every drill and a tempo that forced every player and coach to be attentive because, at any moment, Spagnuolo could call for a special teams intervention.
"How can you tell if a guy can tackle? How can you tell if a running back can break a tackle," Spagnuolo said about putting his team through "live" workouts.
The interesting thing, players seemed to embrace the demanding workload.
"Spags is trying to change this whole mentality," rookie linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "This will be a physical team. We're not just going to talk it. We're going to go out there and do it and practice what we preach. If you're not going to be able to be physical, you're not going to be here."
Working in Spagnuolo's favor is the fact that the Rams are such a young group, most players don't realize that the majority of teams don't get after it consistently the way St. Louis has in training camp. There are 23 players on the 80-man roster who are 23 or younger. There are only four players over 30.
Besides establishing a physical tone, Spagnuolo said he believes players need to hit early in training camp because starters play so little in the preseason.
"I've always believed that if you don't get it done at some point, you'll be behind when the season starts," Spagnuolo said.
"Spags, he is definitely challenging us," said center Jason Brown, who signed as a free agent from Baltimore. "He knows what it takes to come in and build a winning program. The main thing, when you're starting off, especially with the players getting to know the coaching staff and the coaching staff getting to know the players, we have to build a foundation on faith. It's blind faith. We don't have those working relationships years on end. That's why it takes faith. We have to have that blind faith that whatever our coaching staff tells us, we're going to say, 'Coach, whatever you tell us to do, we're going to do it.'"
» The move of Alex Barron from right to left offensive tackle figured to be a temporary experiment once second-overall pick Jason Smith got acclimated to the NFL. The experiment isn't temporary. Barron remains atop the depth chart on the left side while Smith is working as the No. 2 right tackle behind Adam Goldberg. The plan is for Smith to eventually take over for Goldberg, but he's not quite ready yet. Smith has been solid in the run game but is still trying to gain traction in pass protection. He struggled to slow down end Leonard Little in practice and, unlike other players in a one-on-one pass protection drill, Smith, on one occasion, was forced to go four consecutive plays until he got things right.
"It's a big transition, the great thing for me is I can adjust," Smith said. "I get a chance to go against Leonard Little, a guy who doesn't miss a step. He is precise with his hands and what he does. It makes you play at a higher level which makes you either blow or go. You either get good enough to block him or not be good enough to where he beats you. I'm working with a good group of guys who help me, help each other and work together to form that fist to go out there and fight."
» The West Coast tendencies being implemented by offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur seem like a good fit for quarterback Marc Bulger and running back Steven Jackson. Bulger, whose completion percentages and overall numbers have plummeted the past two seasons, looks sharp throwing shorter routes and seems far more comfortable than a lot of his contemporaries at getting the ball out of his hands quickly. He just needs for his receivers to hang on to the ball. As for Jackson, the cutback run scheme could be huge for him because in a lot of cases, he's going to be running through backside creases with an escort from a fullback. During practice, things didn't look as fluid as they will eventually, but you can see, conceptually, that if the line gets the principles together, Jackson could have a big year.
» Though Chris Draft is the starter at middle linebacker, second-round pick James Laurinaitis is being groomed to take over the job. Laurinaitis looks the part. At 6-foot-2, 244 pounds, he is an imposing player who is not afraid to step into a whole and stuff an offensive lineman in order to clog things up for other players to make tackles. He also looks fluid running to plays, which he said comes in part from him being such a meticulous study of the team's playbook. He's also watched loads of video of Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, who played under Spagnuolo in New York.
"After OTAs, I copied the playbook, took it home with me, went over my notes and went through it over and over, so I knew the plays and the calls" Laurinaitis said. "When I came back, it was a night and day difference. Obviously, there are still some things that are unfamiliar but it's about registering, taking notes and moving on. I feel pretty good about where I am mentally."
» Second-year wide receiver Donnie Avery is on a mission. A surprise player last season, Avery said he has big things to accomplish, including a 1,000-yard season.
St. Louis might have found a complementary receiving option in third-year player Laurent Robinson, who was acquired in a low-profile trade with Atlanta over the summer. The 6-2, 200-pound Robinson is working in the top-three receiver rotation, playing wide and out of the slot. He is a deep threat but is also a solid catch-and-run player, which is ideal for St. Louis' West Coast system. He had a solid rookie season with the Falcons after being taken in the third round of the 2007 draft, but injury problems and a lack of physicality in the running game made him expendable in Atlanta. His upside could provide the Rams with some needed help.
Spagnuolo likes what he's seen from Robinson, but he's withholding judgment until he watches him play in preseason games.
During a full-speed, full-contact red zone drill the morning practice, an exuberant fan -- one who clearly favored the defense -- screamed out "stick 'em," on every play. He'd mix in "stay low," and shout "pass" every now and then, but without fail, he'd scream out "stick 'em." Players, reporters and team staffers took turns checking out the exuberant fan, some of them clearly annoyed. I loved it. I'm all for it. The fact that somebody is that enthusiastic and supportive after the product the Rams have delivered the past few years should be welcomed with open arms. "Stick 'em."
"With our offensive line, you're going to see some big things out of us. In order to protect Marc [Bulger], the way he should be protected, we can't just like the guy. We've got to love the guy. You've got to take it personal. Nobody's going to touch him." -- Center Jason Brown
It's a small world
It's always good to visit the Rams because I grew up in St. Louis -- the Rams were in Los Angeles and the Cardinals (now in Arizona) were my home team. I get to see friends and family and grub at Lions Choice, Hacienda and Imo's. As I was walking the practice field Thursday morning, someone in the fan-area called my name. It was my old high school (Parkway South) baseball coach, Fred McConnell. We chatted a bit and caught up on some people we both knew/know and then we went our ways. Pretty cool that he still remembered me after all these years (he coached me in the early 80s). I guess all those blown saves and inning-ending double plays I hit into were hard to forget.
» Brown, the Rams' major free-agent acquisition this offseason, is going to solidify the interior of the offensive line. The 6-3, 320-pounder, was flat-out dominant against his teammates, stunning them at the point of attack and physically mauling them from that point on. His brute tactics and nasty style are a perfect fit for the Rams' tough guards, Richie Incognito and Jacob Bell. If there are any issues with the offensive line, they likely won't come from the trio in the middle.
» At first, some of Spagnuolo's in-house moves -- changing the locker room and players lounge, implementing more structure throughout the building -- were met with uncertainty by some team employees and veteran players. Now, those and some of the other changes are being hailed. Players are being lodged at a nice Embassy Suites near the team facility and the accommodations have been a welcome benefit, some players said. Spagnuolo also had a new artificial turf installed on a practice field that ended up being unusable because of poor drainage and shoddy footing.