NFC West: Jo-Lonn Dunbar

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Before the 2014 season began, much of the St. Louis Rams' success was said to hinge on the week-to-week performance of new coordinator Gregg Williams' defense.

After seven weeks of floundering in the same vat of mediocrity, Sunday's 13-10 victory over the San Francisco 49ers came on the backs of a defense, especially a front seven, that finally lived up to its billing.

"Coming into this hostile environment, it was going to have to be up front," defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. "This team thinks they can bully people up and down the field. We were saying they weren't going to do that to us."

It was the Rams' defense that did the vast majority of the bullying, with Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick on the receiving end. The oft-laughed-at hashtag #SackCity began to populate right away with six first-half sacks, the most in a first half by a Rams team since sacks became an official statistic. They finished with eight, led by a pair each from ends Robert Quinn and William Hayes, the first time the Rams had that many in a game since 2003.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezThe Rams defense had a huge day against the 49ers, especially in forcing a fumble on a goal-line stand in the closing seconds.
Those eight sacks were the most Kaepernick had suffered in his career, coming on seven drives, all of which ended with no points for the Niners. For a team that had all of six sacks in the first seven games, Sunday's performance represented something much closer to the avalanche that Quinn said would follow the first snowflake (sack) just a few weeks ago.

"To have six sacks throughout the first seven games and to have eight today is a heck of a pass rush, especially against a quarterback like Kaepernick who can get out of the pocket fast," Quinn said.

Beyond the finally-in-rhythm pass rush, the Rams held Niners running back Frank Gore to 49 yards on 14 carries, an average of 3.5 yards per attempt. The Niners finished with 263 yards of offense and St. Louis found a way to get off the field consistently by holding the Niners to 3-of-12 on third down.

More important than all of that, the Rams found a way to get the stop to win the game when they absolutely had to have it. It's something they couldn't do in home games against Dallas and San Francisco. This time, it happened in most unusual fashion.

Given just three weeks between meetings with the 49ers, Williams and the Rams didn't have much time to look for idiosyncrasies in San Francisco's offense. With such a familiar opponent, adding unseen wrinkles can be difficult. But as Williams studied the Niners' goal-line tendencies and compared them to his own, he recognized something in his group that could be exploited if he didn't tweak it.

Williams saw a Niners' offense that liked to attack a gap between the tackles that the Rams usually left open as they often favored a look that overloaded the defensive line to one side. But the Niners often would attack that gap with fullback Bruce Miller, leaving a guard head-to-head against a linebacker.

To combat that look, Williams tweaked things to allow the Rams to attack the A and B gaps, leaving a more balanced defensive line and asking the Niners to attack on the edge.

With San Francisco at the Rams' 1 and only 9 seconds to play, Williams called for the changed look upfront.

"We really have three or four fronts in goal line that we have and go into every week, so it was just a great adjustment by Gregg and great instincts," linebacker James Laurinaitis said.

The call worked to perfection as Kaepernick took the snap with the intent of going up over the top for the game-winning touchdown on a sneak. Sensing the sneak before the snap, Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar crashed over the top of the middle of the line with the idea that Kaepernick would have to go high with the sneak.

Kaepernick mishandled the snap, lost the ball and Laurinaitis smothered it to end the game.

"It feels great for the game to be on our shoulders and for us to win the game," Dunbar said. "We haven’t been able to close those games in those types of situations and we have given up big plays, and we didn’t do that today. It feels good to do that and I think it’s something we can build on."

Upon coming up with the ball, Laurinaitis quickly showed it to an official. In his hands was the Rams' third victory of the season. It was a fitting bit of symbolism for a defense that was supposed to have games in its hands all along.

Wounded Rams take it easy Wednesday

October, 29, 2014
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- With so many injuries and a familiar opponent waiting on Sunday, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher took it easy on his team Wednesday.

Instead of a normal midweek practice, the Rams went through an hour-long walkthrough before heading inside for a team activity believed to include some yoga.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher said the different approach was taken as a direct result of the team's lengthy injury report.

"I had 13 people on the injury report and I felt like we needed to back down today," Fisher said. "Our focus is having them ready at 1 o'clock on Sunday."

The 13 players on the injury report is in addition to the season-ending losses of left tackle Jake Long and receiver Brian Quick earlier this week.

Fisher said he felt comfortable going with the different Wednesday approach because of the team's familiarity with the 49ers and the short turnaround between games. The Rams and Niners just met on Oct. 13.

"We're familiar with them," Fisher said. "They've had a week off. We've basically had a day off. We're gonna get going tomorrow and go play."

Because the team participated in a walkthrough rather than a practice, it would seem to make filling out an injury report a tricky proposition. Some players can walk but might not have been able to practice.

Fisher explained that league protocol requires the team to estimate how much practice a player would have done had it been a normal practice. The result was a group of eight players listed as not participating and five more listed as limited participation.

"Because you don't practice full speed, you have to estimate had you had a full practice, what would they have done?" Fisher said. "We went ahead and did that and were accurate with that and we'll get some players back tomorrow I'm sure and then more and more players back on Friday."

Here's the team's full Wednesday injury report:

Did not participate: DE William Hayes (foot), G Rodger Saffold (shoulder), CB Janoris Jenkins (knee), DT Aaron Donald (shoulder), S Rodney McLeod (knee), LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar (toe), C Scott Wells (elbow) and S Cody Davis (concussion).

Limited participation: CB Trumaine Johnson (knee), C Tim Barnes (shoulder), WR Kenny Britt (hip), CB Marcus Roberson (ankle), CB Lamarcus Joyner (hip).
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- After a short rest period before returning to practice Wednesday, the St. Louis Rams had a lengthier injury report than normal. But things got back to normal a little bit Thursday, offering a better indication of who is going to be ready for Sunday's game against Seattle.

Among the players who did not practice Wednesday, running back Zac Stacy (ankle), receiver Austin Pettis (ankle) and defensive tackle Alex Carrington (knee) were back on the practice field Thursday.

Linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who has been dealing with a thigh injury but practiced Wednesday, sat out Thursday's workout.

Here's the full breakdown for Thursday:

Did not participate: C Tim Barnes (shoulder), LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar (thigh)

Limited participation: DT Alex Carrington (knee), DL Ethan Westbrooks (hand), CB Trumaine Johnson (limited), CB Brandon McGee (foot)

Full participation: WR Austin Pettis (ankle), RB Zac Stacy (ankle), RB Chase Reynolds (thigh), OL Barrett Jones (back)

Rams searching for answers against run

September, 19, 2014
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Despite the lingering stench from the St. Louis Rams' Week 3 loss to the Dallas Cowboys last year, the team's run defense turned out to be much better than it showed after running back DeMarco Murray ran all over them.

By the end of the season, the Rams were ninth in the NFL in average rushing yards allowed per game (102.8) and third in the league in yards allowed per attempt (3.7).

With all 11 defensive starters returning this year and coordinator Gregg Williams taking over, that group figured only to improve against the run. Through two weeks, that hasn't been the case.

It's a small sample size, of course, but in games against Minnesota and Tampa Bay, the Rams have allowed 171 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 30th in the NFL. They're also coughing up 5.5 yards per carry, which also ranks 30th.

The reasons for the early regression are many, but the defense to this point has looked more like a group of individuals out to do it all more than handling individual responsibilities for the greater good.

[+] EnlargeBobby Rainey
Jeff Haynes/AP Images for PaniniTampa Bay's Bobby Rainey gained 144 yards on 22 carries against the Rams.
"It’s just a lot of guys trying to make plays," Dunbar said. "We talked about it this past week. It wasn’t a scheme thing, it was just everybody taking their turn... we’re not fitting it right. Somebody took their turn here and there."

In other words, there have been many examples of players not playing sound assignment football and freelancing from play to play. As Dunbar points out, there isn't any single culprit and, in fact, the film shows that almost everyone on the defense has been guilty at some point.

Perhaps most surprising, the young secondary has actually been the most consistent group from down to down.

"I think really the front seven just has to play better," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "There’s no excuses. Missed tackles are no excuse. When we have the opportunity to go and trigger and make plays, we’ve got to make those plays. I like the way that the front seven has been humbled this week."

Missed run fits and blown assignments aren't the only issues. Through two weeks, Pro Football Focus counted 27 missed tackles for the Rams. They had 18 in the opener against Minnesota, meaning they improved some last week against the Bucs, but not enough to keep little-known back Bobby Rainey from gaining 144 yards on 22 carries.

Beyond the tackling, the Rams also found themselves put in some odd positions. Tampa Bay had great success running the ball on second down, many times on second-and-long plays when Williams would dial up a blitz or Rams defenders would be anticipating a pass and get a run instead. With the line and linebackers a bit frustrated by only making one sack through two weeks, that means anything resembling a passing down has left the front seven a bit undisciplined.

"I think there’s a fine line sometimes when you’re in certain coverages where you have to say, ‘OK, am I going to play for the run here or am I going to play for the pass here?’" Laurinaitis said. "If I play for the run, I’m not leveraging the pass. If I play for the pass, I’m not leveraging the run."

Any improvements or fixes the Rams have attempted this week will be put to their biggest test. After finishing 29th in rush attempts last year, Dallas has the look of an NFC West team with its physical and committed approach to running the ball.

The Cowboys have the fourth-most rushing attempts in the league heading into Sunday and are second in the league in rushing yards per game. Murray is off to his career-best start and has rushed for 428 yards on 51 carries in two previous meetings with the Rams.

For the Rams to have any chance at beating Dallas, they're going to have to sell out to stop the run first and sort everything else out afterward. Until it gets solved, that has to be the plan.

"We have just got to get in sync with it, and I’m confident we will," Laurinaitis said. "But that stuff definitely deserves to be talked about until we put the fire out. You can’t sit there, and if you told me before the year we’d have 170 yards averaged against us, I’d be like, ‘Get out of here.’ But that’s where we are right now. I think guys have really swallowed their pride and like, ‘Hey, we need to work at this; let’s go out and work at it.’ No excuses."
For the second consecutive season, St. Louis Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar has made headlines for the wrong reasons near the start of training camp.

Reports from The Associated Press indicate that Dunbar was involved in a fight outside a Miami nightclub early Sunday morning. Dunbar got into an altercation with NBA free-agent forward Donte Greene outside Dream Nightclub, according to Miami Beach Police Detective Vivian Thayer, who said both men were arrested and will face charges of battery and disorderly conduct.

With further details unavailable at this time, this could be nothing deeper than a fight between a couple of athletes. But in Dunbar's case, it's not this incident that is alarming so much as the unsightly pattern that has begun to form when it comes to him and off-field incidents near the start of training camp.

The Rams have seemingly made it through the scariest part of the offseason without any serious issues, and while a fight doesn't really qualify, it does add another negative mark on Dunbar's record as the team opens camp this week.

Last year, Dunbar entered camp as a presumptive starter at outside linebacker, but those plans took a U-turn when the NFL suspended him four games for violation of its policy against performance-enhancing substances. A clearly irritated coach Jeff Fisher made it clear he was unhappy with Dunbar, and instead of keeping him on the roster during the suspension, the Rams released him and signed veteran linebacker Will Witherspoon.

Dunbar re-signed for the rest of the 2013 season after serving the suspension but came back to reduced snaps with Alec Ogletree handling three-down duty alongside James Laurinaitis. Dunbar finished with 39 tackles in 12 games and 10 starts.

Despite the underwhelming season, in March the Rams brought Dunbar back on a two-year deal worth up to $3.5 million with hopes that reuniting him with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who coached Dunbar in New Orleans, could get him back on track.

While more information needs to be gathered and the legal process still has to play out, Dunbar is obviously not doing himself any favors as he attempts to hold down the starting job opposite Ogletree. As it stands, Dunbar is projected to remain the starter, but second-year linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong has impressed coaches enough to get more opportunities to contribute and was already poised to push for an expanded role in 2014.

Whether or not Dunbar faces any further punishment from the team or the league, it's fair to wonder if Armstrong could now get an even closer look when camp opens.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The free-agent frenzy that opened last Tuesday was one of the busiest and most expensive days in NFL history. But the St. Louis Rams stuck to their plan and mostly opted to sit on the sidelines.

Almost a week removed from the beginning of the free-agent period, the Rams have retained a couple of starters and seen their share of departures. The normal waves of free agency usually take longer than this year but it seems teams aren't waiting around to make their moves in 2014.

Here's where we stand after five days:


OL Rodger Saffold

The deal: Re-signed with the Rams on a five-year, $31.7 million contract with $19.5 million guaranteed.

What it means: It was a wild week for Saffold but after one of the most bizarre free-agent scenarios in recent memory, the Rams kept their top offseason priority. Saffold will be the team's right guard moving forward and allows them more flexibility moving forward because of his versatility. St. Louis got lucky on this one but it doesn't matter how it happened so long as Saffold can stay healthy and produce.

LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar

The deal: Re-signed with the Rams on a two-year deal worth up to $3.5 million.

What it means: Dunbar will get a chance to rebound from a lost 2013 season and reunite with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams with the Rams. While Dunbar's role decreased because of the addition of Alec Ogletree last year, the Rams need more production from him when they do have three linebackers on the field. If Dunbar can return to his 2012 form, he fills another starting job and lessens the need for the Rams to add another outside linebacker in the draft.


OL Chris Williams

The deal: Signed a four-year, $13.5 million deal with $5.5 million guaranteed with the Buffalo Bills.

What it means: The Rams lost the one lineman who started all 16 games last year and provided some versatility with his ability to play multiple positions. But Williams was also the team's least effective starting lineman and a clear candidate to be upgraded heading into 2014. The Rams had interest in keeping him but had no intention of offering a similar type of deal. It also speaks to the ability of offensive line coach Paul Boudreau to maximize reclamation projects.

OG Shelley Smith

The deal: Signed a two-year, $5.5 million with the Miami Dolphins.

What it means: The loss of Smith is another subtraction from the Rams' depth on the offensive line but it's also not cause for much alarm. Smith lost a preseason battle for the starting left guard job to Williams and though he showed some ability as a run blocker, he struggled in pass protection and was often overmatched by the bigger, more physical front sevens in the NFC West. Again, Boudreau should be able to coach up someone else to provide similar production and depth to fill Smith's backup role on the interior. That depth could come from current options like Barrett Jones or Brandon Washington or a veteran free agent such as Davin Joseph or Daryn Colledge, both of whom have visited St. Louis.

TE Mike McNeill

The deal: Signed a two-year deal with the Carolina Panthers. Terms unknown.

What it means: Losing McNeill doesn't alter much in terms of the Rams' primary options at tight end but it does remove a versatile piece from the depth chart. McNeill was the team's fourth tight end and played sparingly in the offense. He was a trustworthy backup and a favorite of coach Jeff Fisher's but is a piece the Rams can replace rather easily, perhaps with late-season pickup Justice Cunningham.

CB Cortland Finnegan

The deal: Signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the Miami Dolphins.

What it means: The Rams released Finnegan at the start of free agency, creating valuable cap space and a hole in the secondary. The key here is how much the Rams can gain from this contract based on the offset language they had built in to Finnegan's contract. Depending on how Finnegan's deal with the Dolphins is structured, the Rams could gain an additional $3 million in cap space. Assuming he makes the team or possibly immediately based on a bonus, it's reasonable to think the Rams have a good chance at getting all of that $3 million in space back. The team also has an opening for another cornerback.

QB Kellen Clemens

The deal: Signed a two-year, $3 million deal with the San Diego Chargers.

What it means: We already knew the Rams were planning to grab a young quarterback in May's draft but this should only serve to reinforce that idea. What remains to be seen is whether the Rams want to carry a third, veteran quarterback to handle the No. 2 job until the unnamed rookie is ready. That's a role Clemens would have been ideal for but he did enough in 2013 to draw interest and land a well-deserved deal with San Diego. The Rams now have just two quarterbacks, starter Sam Bradford and Austin Davis, on the roster.
The free-agent market is scheduled to begin March 11 and teams may begin negotiations with those poised to hit the market beginning March 8. We'll countdown to that with a position-by-position look at what the Rams have in place, who is set to hit the market, what they might need and who might fit the bill.

In place: The Rams spent a first-round pick on outside linebacker Alec Ogletree in an effort to give middle linebacker James Laurinaitis a long-term running mate. Both are under contract for the foreseeable future and will continue in their roles as mainstays on the defense in 2014.

Beyond that duo, the Rams have an intriguing group of youngsters who double as the core of the team's special teams units. Ray Ray Armstrong and Daren Bates were difference makers on special teams when they weren't accumulating silly penalties and figure to return to those jobs next year.

Undrafted rookie Phillip Steward is a name that many don't know because he suffered a season-ending injury before the season even began. But the Rams thought enough of him to stash him on injured reserve all year and he could fight for a spot in training camp.

Pending free agents: Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Will Witherspoon

What’s needed: With Dunbar and Witherspoon scheduled for free agency, the Rams need a third linebacker to play when they aren't in their sub packages. While the Rams, like most teams, find themselves playing with an extra defensive back or two more often than not, the need still exists for a player who can be the team's primary option as the third linebacker.

Dunbar or Witherspoon could be brought back as a possible veteran option so long as they're cost effective. Armstrong got a handful of snaps on defense in 2013 and could also figure into the mix though it's questionable whether he's ready for that type of responsibility.

Possible fits: There aren't many solid 4-3 outside linebacker options on the market though Denver's Wesley Woodyard is a good player who might not break the bank. Veteran Jonathan Vilma has ties to Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and would make sense as a fit if the Rams choose to go the veteran route. He also probably wouldn't cost much money though at this point in their respective careers, bringing Dunbar back is probably the more logical option.

Verdict: I expect the Rams to add an outside linebacker at some point this offseason, though it might come via the draft rather then free agency. If the Rams do go the free-agent route, Dunbar's return makes the most sense. Otherwise, an outside linebacker in the middle rounds would also be logical.

Matchup breakdown: Rams-Saints

December, 14, 2013
EARTH CITY, Mo. – A look at three key matchups in Sunday's Rams-Saints game set for 4:25 p.m. ET at the Edward Jones Dome.

Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree (and more) vs. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham

Nobody on the Rams roster knows Graham than linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. The former Saints teammates still work out together in Miami during the offseason.

In other words, nobody knows better than Dunbar exactly the challenge that New Orleans' dominant pass-catching tight end presents.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesJimmy Graham has more touchdowns than any other receiver in the NFL this season.
"He can do it all," Dunbar said. "He's fast, he's strong, he's athletic. He has strong hands, can catch the ball at its highest point. Jimmy can do a lot. He's dangerous. He's one of the reasons why they're successful. He's definitely one of the reasons why that offense works."

Indeed, Graham has put together perhaps his best season in a career that's quickly adding big ones every year. Through the first 13 games, Graham leads the Saints in receptions (74), receiving yards (1,046) and touchdowns (14).

Graham's size and athleticism make him nearly an impossible cover for any one player though Ogletree is the Rams defender most qualified to try given his own size and athletic ability.

More likely, the Rams will look to throw multiple defenders at Graham, who make most of his hay down the seam.

Rams tight end Jared Cook vs. Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro

The Rams have an athletic tight end of their own in Cook though he's nowhere near Graham's league in terms of production. The Saints defense has plenty of players capable of helping on Cook but the most intriguing might be the rookie Vaccaro.

Not many defensive backs have Vaccaro's versatility which allows New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to use him in many ways.

"The young kid, the Vaccaro kid, is playing really good," Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens said. "It's not very often that you see a guy move from strong safety and then come down and play nickel when they go sub. So, it's a testament to his ability."

Vaccaro versus Tavon Austin would be an even more interesting matchup but Austin's injured ankle may prevent that one from materializing. In the meantime, don't be shocked to see the Saints use a few different methods for covering Cook, who leads the Rams in receptions and receiving yards.

Cook has struggled to get off physical press coverage this season so if and when Vaccaro is covering him, don't be surprised to see that matchup initiate at or near the line of scrimmage.

Rams linebackers vs. Saints running backs

This is a bit of a copout since we usually stick to individual matchups but the Saints won't allow for that to happen given their use of three backs in any and all situations.

New Orleans backs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles all bring something different to the table. Sproles is the mighty mite back with the receiver skills. Ingram is the slashing, downhill runner. And Thomas is a sort of hybrid of the two with power to spare.

The Rams run defense has actually been better in recent weeks but it's not just New Orleans' running game they has to concern them.

I've seen those guys do it year in, year out," Dunbar said. "There's no way I would discredit what they do in the backfield. Pierre is definitely a hard working player. He runs the ball physical, downhill. He has this uncanny ability to stay on his feet. Sproles is explosive. He can catch the ball and he can do some things in the backfield. They use them both on screens. They just present so many challenges in the run and pass game."

In addition to standard run support duties, the Rams linebackers have to maintain discipline to keep the backs from hurting them in the pass game. Perhaps most important, they have to be sure tacklers in space to keep short gains from turning into big ones.
 RamsJeff Curry-USA TODAY SportsThe Rams aim to stun the Saints like they did in 2011, winning by 10 in the Edward Jones Dome.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Much has changed since the St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints last met. Coaching staffs and personnel are much different than they were in 2012, let alone 2011.

But as the two teams head toward Sunday's matchup at the Edward Jones Dome, the circumstances of this meeting aren't much different than the last time they met.

That was in 2011, a game in which the 0-6 Rams stunned the 5-2 Saints in surprisingly convincing fashion 31-21 at the Edward Jones Dome. It was a Rams team already essentially out of the race with a backup quarterback taking on a powerful Saints team firmly in the playoff picture.

For the Saints players still with the organization, that memory has them on full alert for the dreaded trap game that could await them in St. Louis. It's a fear heightened by the fact that this meeting comes squarely between two huge NFC South games against second-place Carolina.

"They all concern me," New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said. "They all give me stress. Despite what their record might show, there's just a level of pride and we also know the times where we've gone there and played in '09 and '11 and they've been tough, hard-fought games. Last time we went, we got whooped, no bones about it. And we all remember that, the guys that were here, and we know it's going to take a much better performance on our part this time around in order to get a win."

On the other side of the ledger, it's much easier to spring a trap if you haven't already used it on the same target. More relevant, it's going to take a much better performance than what the Rams have provided the past two weeks to pull of a surprise repeat of 2011.

Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar was on the other side of the matchup and has vivid memories of what happened that day. For those who might have forgotten, the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team had just won the World Series and was honored at the game.

Many of the Cardinals were in attendance and brought the World Series trophy along with them. The mere presence of the Cardinals energized the Edward Jones Dome crowd and, by extension, the Rams.

[+] EnlargeChris Long
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsChris Long sacked QB Drew Brees three times the last time the Rams met the Saints.
The Rams' defense, in particular, put together the blueprint on how to harass Brees, getting to him six times for sacks and spending most of the day in his face. End Chris Long had three of those takedowns and even played to the baseball theme by "hitting a home run" as his sack celebration.

"I just remember their defense making big play after big play and we couldn't get them off the field on third downs," Dunbar said. "I think the Cardinals had won the World Series that year and everybody was pretty loud in there, especially when those guys [the Cardinals] came in. We didn't play well and they definitely got after us."

The Rams went on to a dreadful 2-14 season and that game remained as essentially the only highlight in a season of lowlights. The Saints would go on to a 13-3 finish.

Since, as is always the case in the NFL from year to year, much has changed on both sides. The Rams have gone under a major reconstruction under new coach Jeff Fisher and staff and the Saints have gone through a trying season caused by the suspension of head coach Sean Payton.

As they reconvene Sunday, not much remains from that meeting.

"I think this is a much different team -- well, both teams are, obviously," Payton said. "I think they're a much better team that we're seeing this week than the one we saw in '11 and yet it's the nature of our game, when you turn the football over and you don't protect the quarterback and you have a punt blocked, shoot, that game wasn't really even close in '11. There are a lot of new faces and the rosters are much different."

Past success guarantees nothing in the NFL but there is something instructive from that game that both teams can take away. From the Saints, the lesson is simple, anything can happen in any week, regardless of record or pedigree.

"I'm sure they're aware of it," Dunbar said. "I'm sure it's something Sean has pointed out numerous times so they're going to be ready to play us."

For the Rams, it's the same lesson only from the other angle. For whatever reason, the Rams have consistently played the Saints close in recent meetings. Dating to 2004, the Rams and Saints are tied 3-3 in six meetings and the Rams have outscored them by a grand total of three points in those meetings.

Even in 2007, a 0-8 Rams team went to New Orleans and got its first win of the year against the Saints.

On paper, this once again looks like a bad matchup for the Rams, particularly without starting quarterback Sam Bradford and with a struggling young secondary forced to take on the Saints' high-powered offense.

For all intents and purposes, it's a game that probably shouldn't be close but that's a message the Rams don't want to hear. Their focus isn't on past upsets so much as finding a way to finish another lost season with a flourish.

"I think the guys from this locker room understand that we are trying to end this season with the arrow going up," middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "I think we'd all lie to you if we said this wasn't a disappointing season but we want the arrow pointing up at the end of the year and we want to end on a positive note. If you can't get up to play the New Orleans Saints ... then something is not right in your DNA."

Rams still plagued by penalties

December, 9, 2013
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Buried in a mountain of yellow flags, the St. Louis Rams found themselves searching for answers Sunday after accumulating 11 accepted penalties for the second consecutive week.

"We have really got to stop the dumb penalties and that's all on players," Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "Coach (Jeff Fisher) can say it until he's blue in the face, but that's on players to internally say ‘Hey, we have got to be smarter because we are just killing ourselves.'"

The extent to which the Rams are killing themselves can be seen in the many different ways of looking at how their continued penalty problems set them at a disadvantage in games.

Through Sunday's games, the Rams sit third in the NFL in total accepted penalties with 98, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Those penalties have cost the Rams 807 yards of field position, the sixth-highest number in the league.

Looking deeper into those numbers, the Rams have yielded a first down 38 times from a penalty. The defense has committed 45 infractions, most in the league. That also means all but 10 have resulted in an immediate first down for the offense.

C. Long
"It is a big deal," defensive end Chris Long said. "We need to be more disciplined, myself included. I've had some penalties this year. We play emotionally right on the edge and some of them are obviously up for debate whether they're legitimate or not but that's not my argument to make. It is an issue. There's a lot of those I'm sure we can control."

For the record, it's not just the defense drawing flags, the offense has 29 (26th most in the NFL) and the special teams has 24, which is still the most in the league.

After posting a season-low four penalties in a 21-point win against Chicago, the Rams hit their season high of 11 against San Francisco and followed with an encore against the Cardinals on Sunday.

While opponents have been racking up penalties as well, it's no coincidence that the Rams' net of 79 more penalty yards than opponents the past two weeks has led to a scoreboard differential of minus-30.

Against Arizona, the problems were especially pronounced for a defense that has featured plenty of clutching and grabbing in the secondary but also the occasional emotional outburst that leads to a 15-yard penalty such as end Robert Quinn's mistake for throwing his helmet.

The defense committed seven penalties against the Cardinals.
"That's the most difficult thing to overcome," linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. "We came in here at halftime and said no more penalties in the second half or at least no more jawing and stuff, let's get back to playing ball. Defensively I thought we played better in the second half but it hurts when you do that. When you have that many penalties you are extending drives, you are keeping the offense on the field and they are scoring points."

It's worth noting that officiating in 2013 has been spotty at best. ESPN Insider Mike Sando discussed that notion at length in his Monday morning column.

In Sunday's game, there was an unnecessary roughness penalty against Eugene Sims on a dead ball that hardly anyone in the building knew was dead at the time of the penalty. Instead of allowing common sense to take over, the penalty was enforced.

Despite the calls that have gone against them, there are plenty of teams around the league making similar arguments today.

And it's not like the Rams were the picture of discipline in 2012, either. They had 130 penalties last year, most in the league. That trend continued in this preseason when assurances were made that the problem wouldn't persist because the infractions were being committed by player who weren't going to be on the roster when the season began.

"Things go fast and things move fast," Laurinaitis said. "Sure there are bad calls but there are bad calls every game. You have got to be able to overcome them as a team and I just don't think we were able to overcome our calls today. We really hurt ourselves and I don't think we were able to put the fire out and overcome them. That's the frustrating thing."

NFC West gap grows larger for Rams

December, 8, 2013
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- In the rough and tumble NFC West division, one team was supposed to emerge as a sleeper capable of challenging the powerhouse Seahawks and 49ers.

That team was on the field at the University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday afternoon but it wasn't the one that many thought it would be during the preseason.

In watching the Arizona Cardinals blast the St. Louis Rams for a 30-10 victory, it became quite clear one team has exceeded expectations, and that team is not the Rams.

[+] EnlargeKellen Clemens
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsKellen Clemens was sacked four times in a 20-point loss to the Cardinals.
"I'm disappointed that we didn't play better in the division," coach Jeff Fisher said. "If you're going to do anything in this league, you've got to win football games in your division and we haven't done that this year."

The defeat dropped the Rams to 5-8 on the season and 1-4 in divisional contests, leaving them almost certain to finish in the NFC West basement. Along with that, the Rams must also swallow this sobering reality: They are now one more division opponent removed from being contenders.

This from a team that in 2012 finished with the best record in NFC West games at 4-1-1.

"It's extremely frustrating to me and I don't know if it's a yellow or red flag but it's something you better pay attention to and I think for us quite frankly it's a shot in the gut," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "Last year it was something we could hang our hat, you were like ‘Gosh, we let some slide but we made a statement in our division.'

"As a team you have to look at yourself in the mirror and say ‘Hey, what do we have to do to fix this?' Because that's one place you want to be great is in your division and quite frankly we have been pretty poor there."

A trip to Seattle is the Rams' lone remaining divisional matchup, a game that depending on how the Seahawks approach it could easily leave the Rams with just a single divisional win for the season.

That win came way back in the season opener against these Cardinals, a game that the Rams stole in the closing moments or they'd be staring at a winless divisional record this season. Since, Arizona has been the team making the type of weekly progress many expected of the Rams.

Witness the emergence of a young receiver such as Arizona's Michael Floyd or the continued improvement of a rookie defensive back such as safety Tyrann Mathieu. Arizona coach Bruce Arians has his team embracing his system and making the necessary adjustments to cover for weaknesses on the offensive line.

Arizona punished the Rams on Sunday, winning by 20 in a final score that could have been worse. The Cardinals outgained the Rams by 112 yards, taking advantage of a whopping 11 penalties on St. Louis. The Rams have now been outscored by 59 points in their four division losses.

A year ago, the Rams beat Arizona by a combined 28 points in two meetings. Those Cardinals ended up 5-11 after a dreadful 1-11 finish. After pounding the Rams on Sunday, Arizona is 8-5 and firmly in the playoff picture.

"I'm not sure why last year we did so well in the division and this year we didn't," defensive end Chris Long said. "It's disappointing because we feel like we play good, physical football and that's what this division is about. But we just haven't played well enough in the division. [Arizona] has gotten a lot better, so they deserve their credit. They're a well-coached group of guys and have a lot of weapons. We just got beat bad today."

It's worth noting that the Rams have played three division games without the services of quarterback Sam Bradford, who engineered the comeback win against the Cardinals. Bradford likely could have done enough to get the Rams a win against Seattle in those teams' only meeting.

However, the way the Rams have been pushed around by Arizona and San Francisco the past two weeks, it's hard to say whether his presence alone might have made that much of a difference in those contests.

Regardless, Bradford's injury only adds another element to the discussion of where the Rams currently rate in the division. Carson Palmer's 84 percent completion rate Sunday was the best by an NFC quarterback with 25 or more attempts this season.

That speaks to the Rams' secondary struggles but also the larger point that Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco have less tenuous quarterback situations than the Rams heading toward 2014.

Sunday's loss also officially eliminated the Rams from postseason contention though any of those hopes seemed to ride off on a golf cart with Bradford after he injured his knee in week 7.

"It's a little alarming when you are getting closer to the top like last year and now you are at the bottom of the division," linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. "I think we have a really good team, really good defense, really good offense, we have a really good coaching staff. We have just got to keep getting better each and every week and make sure we better this team for next year."

To keep up with the Joneses in the NFC West, that progress is going to have come much faster.

Resilient Rams refuse to go down easy

November, 24, 2013
ST. LOUIS – After scoring 21 points in the first quarter for the first time since the middle of the 2008 season, the St. Louis Rams looked poised to run away from an opponent for the second game in a row. The Rams dominated the Chicago Bears for the better part of the opening 30 minutes, but just before going into the locker room at the half, a chain of unfortunate events began.

Left guard Chris Williams left the game with a head injury. Running back Zac Stacy soon exited with a similar injury. And at the start of the third quarter, cornerback Trumaine Johnson followed suit. Three of the team’s key starters were out.

[+] EnlargeRobert Quinn
Michael Thomas/Getty ImagesThe Rams pulled away with two late touchdowns, including one on a fumble return by Robert Quinn.
Then, with a little more than eight minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Rams took their biggest hit by delivering one. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers was flagged for roughing Bears quarterback Josh McCown on a sack that appeared to be so fundamentally sound you could almost hear the applause from Tim Duncan in San Antonio.

Instead of a drive-killing stop, the Bears got new life and scored to get to within six points, at 27-21.

“They just kept playing,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.

For those who have seen the Rams of recent vintage, at least pre-Fisher, "just keep playing" would have equated to something like packing up their briefcases and calling it a day.

What this edition of the Rams did was respond with resilience and gumption, a trend that continues to pop up in tiny spurts.

“Seven points, that’s the only thing we were thinking about,” guard Rodger Saffold said. “That’s what we were saying on the sidelines. I can’t lie. Emotions got into it. I was extremely angry, and then the only way to overcome that is to work.”

The Rams' offense immediately put together a seven-play, 80-yard drive for a touchdown, with Stacy’s backup, Benny Cunningham, doing most of the damage. One minute later, Rams defensive end Robert Quinn forced a fumble, recovered it and raced 31 yards for a touchdown and the final margin.

With the game teetering in the balance, the Rams didn’t flinch. They offered an angry stare and pushed the Bears over the edge.

“This team, we are a bunch of fighters,” Saffold said. “We’re a bunch of dogs caged, so when you cut us loose, you see what we can do.”

Sunday’s win gave the Rams a two-game win streak, but how they achieved it might speak to something bigger. The Rams are 5-6 and still sitting on the outskirts of any realistic playoff discussion. But consecutive convincing wins against teams that are firmly in said postseason picture indicate the Rams just might be a team nobody wants to see down the stretch.

Prosperity has been fleeting for the Rams for most of the past decade. What little they’ve had has soon been frittered away and has often spiraled into further despair.

Over the course of the first 11 weeks this season, the Rams have clearly matured to the point where they can not only embrace prosperity but create it in the face of adversity.

“I think that we are starting to believe, which is what you need,” quarterback Kellen Clemens said. “As a whole, we are starting to believe. Coming off a big win at Indianapolis, I was proud of the guys, there’s no letdown. We didn’t come out flat coming off a bye week, a lot of times that happens.”

Even when in-game letdowns seemed plausible, the Rams found a way to get out of it. Witness the goal-line stop by linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar on the first drive of the third quarter. Or the defense managing to keep the Bears out of the end zone on three plays from the Rams’ 1-yard line before they finally scored following Brockers’ penalty.

A game the Rams had in control nearly slipped away on multiple occasions, yet they discovered ways to hang on.

“We have got a bunch of tough dudes in this locker room,” end Chris Long said. “We knew that. Everybody else is starting to figure that out.”

That may not be the sign of a team ready to make a run at the postseason. But it might be one that signals it’s going to take a mighty blow to knock them out.

Three things: Rams-Jaguars

October, 5, 2013
ST. LOUIS -- Three things to keep an eye on as the St. Louis Rams host the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.

1. Revving the run. No, seriously this time.

For the better part of the season, this category has been a staple in this space and until something changes -- not even a drastic change, just a minor one -- it’s probably going to remain here.

[+] EnlargeZac Stacy
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsWill rookie Zac Stacy get a chance to rev up the Rams run game against the Jaguars on Sunday?
There may never be a better chance for the Rams to get their running game out of neutral and at least moving forward than the one they get this week. The Rams are last in the league in rushing, average just over 47 yards per game, but Jacksonville brings in the league’s worst run defense, giving up 164.3 yards per game.

All week, the Rams have been banging the drum about getting the run game going and all that needs to happen for more success to be found.

“The good thing with the long weekend was we were able to look at some things and touch on some things that maybe we can do a little bit better just in terms in some of our concepts and packages and then some of the fundamentals,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “The guys have done a great job this week of working on those things. It’s got to get better and I think it will.”

What isn’t known is which running back will handle the starting duties or how carries will be split up. There have been hints that rookie Zac Stacy will get more work but anyone showing any signs of being productive will likely get the bulk of the work.

2. Slowing the run.

On the other side of the ball, the Rams haven’t had much more success stopping the run than they’ve had running it themselves, especially in the past two weeks.

San Francisco and Dallas combined to average 206 rushing yards per game in the past two games as the Rams have struggled with what defensive coordinator Tim Walton refers to as a fundamentals problem.

Walton expects Jacksonville to come with a heavy dose of running back Maurice Jones-Drew.

“We have to do a better job than what we’ve done the past few games of playing run defense,” Walton said. “They’re going to feature him. They’re going to run him, so we have to get back to fundamental football to make sure we’re in our gaps and we tackle. We’ve got to make sure we tackle well, leverage the ball and get off blocks.”

The return of linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar from his release and suspension should help the Rams defend the run better, but it’s probably unfair to expect him to be a savior.

For the Rams to slow down Jones-Drew and improve the run defense, it’ll require all 11 consistently handling assignments and making tackles, two things that have been absent the past two weeks.

3. Secondary first priority.

The Rams are banged up in the secondary this week after losing starting safety T.J. McDonald for at least eight weeks to a leg injury and have practiced without cornerback Cortland Finnegan (thigh), cornerback Trumaine Johnson (illness) and with a limited Brandon McGee, who also has a thigh injury, for most of the week.

There aren’t many positions on the roster where the Rams actually add experience by going to backups, but safety is one of them. Without McDonald, the Rams can turn to veterans Matt Giordano and Darian Stewart. Giordano stepped in for McDonald last week but the Rams have plans to use both at various situations this week.

If Finnegan can’t play, the Rams will likely start Johnson in Finnegan’s place. Things get a bit more complicated in the nickel package. Last week, the Rams moved Rodney McLeod into the slot corner spot with Giordano and Stewart handling the safety spots.

“We actually have a chance to, I guess, put more experience in the secondary now,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’ll be fine. Our numbers aren’t ideal, but we’ll get through it.”

Getting through it is a good place to start but the Rams also need to get some production. Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert has showed a penchant for turning it over and the Rams need to take advantage if and when those chances present themselves.

Door open for Dunbar's return to Rams

September, 4, 2013
Jo-Lonn Dunbar's spot on the St. Louis Rams' 2013 roster was vacated when he was released from the reserve/injured list early Tuesday evening. But that status isn't necessarily a permanent one.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher discussed the reasons for Dunbar's release Wednesday afternoon and acknowledged the possibility of Dunbar's return.

“We haven’t said this is it as far as his future is concerned here,” Fisher said. “But we felt it was in the best interest of the organization right now.”

Asked directly if there was a possibility of Dunbar coming back, Fisher re-iterated the chances of it happening.

“Of course there's a good possibility,” Fisher said. “Anything is possible.”

In light of those comments, it's hard to view Dunbar's release as anything but a business decision. Teams must be salary cap compliant by late Wednesday night and the Rams were up tight against the cap before the Dunbar move.

According to numbers collected by, Dunbar's cap number this year was scheduled to come in just north of $1.9 million with the realistic chance (before the suspension) of easily obtainable bonuses that could have stretched the number to $2.3 million. A total of $500,000 of that money is rolled over from signing bonus and would count against the cap anyway. That would mean a savings of around $1.4 million but if you remove the quarter season worth of salary he would've lost for the suspension for violating the league's performance enhancing substance policy would reduce that to around $1 million.

Head spinning from numbers yet? Mine too. But here's the easy bottom line explanation. By releasing Dunbar now, the Rams can be cap-compliant tonight and it gives them the opportunity to bring him back after week one on a non-guaranteed contract. The suspension clock begins this week whether Dunbar is with a team or not. Week 5 is still the scheduled return date for Dunbar no matter what team he is on.

Theoretically, the Rams could bring him back next week on a non-guaranteed deal at a reduced rate, place him back on the reserve/suspended list and would then have him back in time for Week 5. They could also bring him back closer to the Oct. 6 game against Jacksonville when he'd again be eligible to play.

Dunbar's departure came under somewhat odd circumstances but Fisher shot down any speculation that something other than the best interest of the team (read: the cap savings) occurred to lead to the move.

"There was nothing," Fisher said. "He and I discussed it, we shared it with you guys, we got it put behind us with the club and his teammates were concerned there was no other issue. It was just a decision we had to make."

In the meantime, Fisher and the Rams are just fine with veteran Will Witherspoon stepping into his place.

"Spoon has done a great job since he's been here," Fisher said. "He's been a consistent, productive player every place he's been. Obviously we brought Will in here with the knowledge that Jo-Lonn was not going to be available."

No matter if Witherspoon holds the role all year or Dunbar returns or someone else steps in, the player in that role will likely be on the field just two downs anyway. James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree seem poised to hold down the nickel linebacker jobs.

So for now, we wait and see if Dunbar returns but there's no question that the door is open.
It was less than a month ago that Jo-Lonn Dunbar was working with the first-team defense in practice at his usual linebacker position. As of early Tuesday evening, he's no longer a Ram.

The series of events that led to the news is a bit on the strange side but the move doesn't come as too much of a surprise given all that's happened since Dunbar's suspension was first announced.

Entering the second year of a two-year deal with the Rams, Dunbar looked poised to have another strong season next to running mate James Laurinaitis and potentially cash in with a nice payday as an unrestricted free agent after the season.

That all changed on Aug. 14 when a league spokesman announced that Dunbar would be suspended for four games because of a violation of the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances. Rams coach Jeff Fisher spoke out the following day and made it quite clear he wasn't happy with Dunbar's mistake.

"First and foremost, we are very, very disappointed in his choices and his decisions," Fisher said then. "It's selfish, it hurts the team but we also see it as an opportunity to learn from a mistake, so we discussed it with the entire squad last night and I think everybody understands the responsibilities that each and every player has as far as taking care of themselves and what you can do and what you can't do."

The Rams moved quickly to demote Dunbar from the first-team defense and plug veteran Will Witherspoon in his spot. Fisher went so far as to say that upon return from his suspension, Dunbar's position would be "re-evaluated" in terms of whether or not he'd get his job back. Apparently that evaluation has already taken place, given Tuesday's news.

Dunbar's workload in the preseason was relatively limited. He played 63 snaps in the four exhibition games, including just three against Green Bay in the second contest. Dunbar's tenuous situation provided opportunities for undrafted free agents Daren Bates and Ray Ray Armstrong to get plenty of work, which each player took advantage of.

Armstrong earned the second most snaps among linebackers behind rookie Alec Ogletree and secured a roster spot with his consistent performance. When the Rams announced their cuts to the 53-man roster on Saturday, Armstrong and Bates made the team, along with fellow undrafted rookie Jonathan Stewart.

All of that came after it had long been established that Ogletree would stay on the field all three downs in nickel packages alongside Laurinaitis, a role Dunbar held in 2012.

While the Rams are clearly high on that trio of youngsters at the position, Dunbar's release probably goes a bit deeper than simply being replaced. Fisher and the Rams have made it repeatedly clear that if given the choice between a veteran and a young player with potential, they prefer not to block the young player from getting the reps needed to get up to speed.

Adding Dunbar's pending free agency to the mix as well as a salary-cap hit that was scheduled to come in at $2.3 million this season for a team tight up against it almost certainly contributed to the move as well. After the suspension, it seemed a near certainty that Dunbar wouldn't be back with the Rams.

Parting ways sooner than later allows them more flexibility under the cap and the chance to develop a long-term replacement opposite Ogletree.