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Thursday, August 6, 2009
Rams getting physical under Spagnuolo

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- Steve Spagnuolo has the Albert Pujols approach to the Rams: multiple-hit days. Each practice in Spagnuolo's first training camp features some live hitting. On Wednesday, for example, he unleashed his defense on the Rams' running attack. Backup linebacker Chris Chamberlain whipped his body low, catching halfback Steven Jackson below the left knee.

Jackson went down with a thud but bounced back up for the next play. Spagnuolo directed his defenders to make sure they hit a little higher, then moved on to the next play. The former Giants defensive coordinator is trying to break the Rams' recent funk -- the Rams have lost 27 of their past 32 games over the past two seasons -- with extra contact. So far, players are buying into it. Despite the extra contact, only fullback Mike Karney, who has an ankle injury, is sidelined.

Apparently, the Rams are taking to the battering. Here are five observations from camp:

Steven Jackson
Steven Jackson has taken steps to ensure better health and steady production in 2009.

1. Jackson's healthy outlook: Jackson should have a monster season. As a running back, Jackson is a machine. He'll average more than 4 yards a carry and he'll catch between 43 and 90 passes a season. Unfortunately for the Rams, the machine has broken down in recent years. He has missed four games in each of the past two seasons and averaged only 245 carries a season over the past two. Jackson has made adjustments to ensure better health. He's done more dead lifting with weights this offseason to strengthen his legs and tighten his upper body. The guy is a specimen at 6-foot-2 and 236 pounds with 5.1 percent body fat.

The biggest thing helping Jackson is the addition of a fullback. To be honest, Jackson hasn't been the same since the Rams cut fullback Madison Hedgecock two years ago. Jackson prefers having a fullback blocking ahead of him, and the Rams gave him a good one with Karney, formerly of the New Orleans Saints. Karney fits the Rams' West Coast offense well because he can also catch the ball. Jackson hopes to get back to the 1,300- to 1,500-yard rushing level.

2. Questions at wide receiver: It's going to take time to replace Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, who have been released over the past two seasons. The Rams are hoping the quickness of 5-11 Donnie Avery and 6-0 Antwon Burton can fill some of the void. The trend in the NFC West is to get bigger at wide receiver. The Cardinals lead the way with two physical receivers, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. The Seahawks got bigger with T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the slot. The 49ers drafted Michael Crabtree to add size to their passing offense.

Of course, the Rams play eight home games on turf, so they can't sacrifice speed. Avery is the quickest off the ball and the quickest to develop from the Rams' 2008 draft class. He caught 53 passes for 674 yards as a rookie. In his second camp, he's moving fluidly and confidently. Burton's status isn't as certain. He had 13 catches for 172 yards as a rookie and is in a dogfight with Laurent Robinson and others for the starting job at split end. The Rams made a solid trade in picking up Ronald Curry from Detroit to play the slot. Curry will help in the transition, even though injuries have taken away some of his speed.

3. Time to man up: It's pretty clear Spagnuolo plans to implement the man-to-man cornerback packages he used with the New York Giants. Ron Bartell and Tye Hill are the starters and are well-suited for man coverage. Third-round choice Bradley Fletcher (6-0, 196) looks similar to some of the corners the Giants drafted in recent years, such as Corey Webster and Aaron Ross.

The Rams have high hopes for Fletcher, although at the moment he's fourth in the cornerback rotation behind Bartell, Hill and Jonathan Wade. The more successful the Rams are in man coverage, the more Spagnuolo can do in applying pressure with his linebackers, safeties and defensive linemen.

4. End of the line woes? The Rams' offensive line is no longer a fixer-upper. The team has invested $136.45 million in five offensive linemen -- tackles Alex Barron and Jason Smith, guards Jacob Bell and Richie Incognito, and center Jason Brown.

Bell received a six-year, $36 million deal last year to settle the Rams' left-guard woes, and Brown got a five-year, $35.2 million deal in March to anchor the line at center. At 320 pounds, Brown can handle nose tackles in the 3-4 and punch holes in the middle of defenses on running plays. Smith, the second pick in the draft, is making the switch from left tackle at Missouri to right tackle for the Rams. It's taking him time to adjust his stance and his blocking style, which is why he's temporarily playing behind Adam Goldberg. Once Brown moves into the starting lineup, the Rams could potentially have one of the most talented lines in football.

5. Good news for Bulger: The commitment to the offensive line is a big relief to quarterback Marc Bulger, who's been sacked 124 times over the past three years and has missed four games because of injuries. The Rams' accurate passer is making the biggest adjustment of his pro career, going from a Mike Martz-Air Coryell-type offense to the West Coast offense called by Pat Shurmur, who learned under Andy Reid in Philadelphia.

The numbering system is different. The pass plays are less vertical than what Bulger has grown accustomed to, but he seems as accurate as ever throwing to his receivers. What should make the transition easier is that the Rams plan to focus more on the run than the pass this season.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.