While a change in offensive system can be quite an adjustment for a quarterback, there is a spot on defense where a drastic scheme change can be almost as difficult.
“It’s the same for a middle linebacker,” Rams assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said. “Especially a middle linebacker that is going to have to make the checks.”
In the Rams’ case, that player manning the middle is
And while it’s no secret how much quarterback
Ten games into his first season in a scheme that has asked Laurinaitis to play less downhill, run to the ball football and more Cover 2, flow over the top coverage work, Laurinaitis has done nothing but impress his coaches and teammates with his ability to adjust in relatively short order.
“James Laurinaitis is the captain of this defense,” McGinnis said. “He’s done a really, really good job. Coming in and being asked to digest an entirely new defense and not only get himself squared away with it but to get everybody else on the same page, this defense has adjustments within a base framework and we rely on James weekly to put everybody in the right positions. He’s an extremely studious player. This is very, very important to him and as a middle linebacker, you have to be a guy that everybody trusts and our defensive players trust him implicitly to put them in the right spots.”
Indeed, Laurinaitis is having one of his most prolific seasons through the first 10 games. He’s posted 117 tackles, a sack, three passes defended, three quarterback pressures and four quarterback hits.
At his current pace, Laurinaitis would set a new career high for tackles at 187, which is more than 40 more his previous career high set during his rookie season.
That Laurinaitis has been so productive while learning a new defense that is so opposite of what he’s done in the past and still making sure he knows all of the proper adjustments and lining his teammates up in the right place from down to down has been a labor of love for Laurinaitis.
From the moment coach Jeff Fisher and his staff arrived and began installing the new defense, Laurinaitis has spent most of his time trying to grasp all of the things that are asked of him.
In his first three years, Laurinaitis’ responsibilities were mainly focused on running downhill to the ball and making plays at the line of scrimmage. He proved adept in coverage but wasn’t asked to do it nearly as much as he is now.
In Fisher’s defense, Laurinaitis has the same full boat of responsibility in terms of pre-snap checks and reads, but he’s also asked to do much more away from the line of scrimmage.
“I think it’s just a fact of when you play to the scheme, we play some Cover 2, where you are lined up deeper and the outside linebackers play downhill and you flow over the top and you are kind of the cap off guy,” Laurinaitis said.
As part of that job to play more off the line and drop back in coverage, Laurinaitis knew he’d need to be in peak physical condition to run sideline to sideline and cover tight ends and backs on a more regular basis.
In the offseason, Laurinaitis made it a point to shave about eight pounds off his frame and be ready to run all over the place. It’s a change that perhaps has made Laurinaitis less of a force in stuffing the run but allows him to do more while still providing the sure tackling and leadership he has in the past.
“This league anymore requires your linebackers to be able to play in space,” McGinnis said. “The days of everybody packing all 22 guys in a 5-yard framework and just hammering the ball are over. So to be able to play in this day and age in the NFL as a second level defender, you have to be able to operate in space and he’s done a good job with that.”
Of course, what this defense demands of Laurinaitis mentally goes far beyond the physical aspects.
While Laurinaitis has to be on point in terms of his checks and ensuring his teammates are lined up properly, there are also some elements of creativity in the mix as well.
Based on matchups, Laurinaitis has to make the proper read and then play accordingly. For example, when opponents are in single back sets, he can play more downhill, stick to his gap to help fill against the run and ensure that he keeps the middle of the field closed down.
But if, for instance, the Rams are playing a team with an athletic tight end like San Francisco’s Vernon Davis, Laurinaitis has to use his film work and judgment to ensure that he doesn’t get sucked up on a play action pass and get beat deep down the seam.
“That’s what I like about this system,” Laurinaitis said. “It gives you the freedom to say ‘Hey, this week you didn’t really feel threatened against Team Blah to use play action and beat you down the pipe so you can tighten up. And some weeks you have to make sure that we call ‘2’ because this is my number one job and then you react to the run. So through camp and OTAs it was different, it was hard to learn, just a different mindset from the last scheme. I am enjoying it.”
From week to week, Laurinaitis is also saddled with the task of adding new wrinkles to the defense that he must ensure his teammates are on the same page for. Occasionally, those wrinkles will be added in game.
“He started early and he spends a lot of time in there,” Fisher said. “He has a really good feel for what we’re doing. He understands the book. He welcomes adjustments week to week and he can also handle adjustments on the sideline.”
That’s not to say Laurinaitis is entirely pleased with how he and the defense as a group has fared this season. Nobody has been more disappointed with the team’s recent takeaway drought than Laurinaitis.
As the Rams have gone the past five games without forcing a turnover, Laurinaitis has consistently lamented the lack of impact plays from himself and his teammates.
“I think right now we have got to find a way to get more turnovers,” Laurinaitis said. “We preach that a lot and I don’t know what we do to get more. We just keep attacking it.”
Still, as the season goes on, Laurinaitis has seen plenty of improvement in his play as well as that of the entire defense.
“As you go through this thing, we have grown a lot,” Laurinaitis said. “It’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t show up on Sundays. But we have grown, we have talked a lot. I am enjoying playing in this scheme, I really am. It allows you to be creative and it allows you to play fast and trust what you see. I think it’s been a growing experience for everyone.”
Considering how different the scheme is and his job within it, Laurinaitis is doing just fine and only going to get better.
“All middle linebackers in this league - and I’ve been associated with some great ones in my 27 years in this league – but I know the guys who have a presence in the huddle and the trust of their teammates,” McGinnis said. “That’s what you are looking for in a middle linebacker and you want a guy you know is going to be there down in, down out and that’s what James is.”