EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Here's a thought experiment for all of you armchair offensive coordinators:
Imagine you are facing the Rams defense. Robert Quinn (19 sacks last year) is at right end, Chris Long (8.5 sacks in 2013, 50.5 over six seasons) at left end. Michael Brockers, with 5.5 sacks last year and 325 pounds at all times, is between center and guard. At three-tech, between your guard and tackle, is either Kendall Langford, a hulking veteran with five sacks last year, or Aaron Donald, a Tasmanian Devil of a rookie who won nearly every trophy a collegiate defensive lineman could win.
How do you block that?
"You gotta ask an offensive coordinator," Donald said when cornered with the question. "There's a lot of playmakers out here."
Before you answer, keep in mind that barbarian chieftain Gregg Williams is calling the defensive plays. That means those four linemen are sliding all around the formation and bringing buddies with them on the blitz. Speedy linebackers James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree will often join the the attack, most likely with Laurinaitis in the middle and Ogletree pressing from Quinn's left flank.
So Ogletree and Quinn are both threatening your quarterback's blind side. What's your plan? "I'd probably have the whole line come to [Quinn] and just try to do the best I can with the rest of them. But get him first," Ogletree suggested. "That's the sack man."
That's a better plan for Ogletree -- who would likely share a sack with Long or one of the others if five blockers focused on Quinn -- than for an opponent.
The Rams front seven represents a multiple choice test with no correct answers. The Rams' front four is the best in the NFL. The overall defense ranks in the top 10, possibly the top five, though it may only be the third or fourth best in the division.
Blessed with a phenomenal pass rush and extra draft picks this offseason, but faced with a sputtery offense and the nastiest division in professional sports, the Rams chose to spend as many resources doubling down on defense as repairing their offense. The Rams may be better on offense with huge lineman Greg Robinson and workhorse runner Tre Mason joining the roster. Yet they are clearly stronger on defense with the additions of Donald and Williams, plus the maturation of players like Brockers and Ogletree.
Maximizing a strength can pay quicker dividends than improving a weakness. The Rams did a little of both, but as they strive to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004, they are clearly counting on their front seven to lead the charge.
Doing the Bernie
Robert Quinn has a personal sack goal in mind. But he does not want to share it. "I can't tell you because it would put too much pressure on me."
Does that sack total begin with a 2? "Maybe."
Is the NFL's all-time single-season sack total on his mind? "Can I plead the fifth?"
Quinn earned All-Pro honors last season. He ranked 13th among the NFL Network's Top 100 players in the spring. Yet there is still a sense that he operates under the radar. Veteran Robert Mathis edged him on the sack leaderboard last year. Luke Kuechly beat him for Defensive Player of the Year honors. Such is the fate of a great player on an also-ran team in a smallish market, but the lack of appreciation is even palpable at training camp. Quinn jerseys were not yet available at the camp store this weekend, due to a shipping error. That sort of thing doesn't happen to Tom Brady.
Williams' arrival means even more sack opportunities for Quinn. "There's a little bit more in the playbook," Quinn said after the first full-squad practice. "He has a variety of packages in there. He can call anything at any time for anybody, so you have to be on your toes."
The Rams already had some schematic wrinkles to free Quinn: Blitzing a linebacker like Ogletree from the edge to occupy a left tackle, sliding a defensive tackle toward an outside gap to confounded protection assignments, and so on. Williams' expanded playbook, with its roots in old Buddy Ryan systems, promises even more mayhem. Both Ogletree and a safety blitzed from Quinn's left in one drill. That shouldn't even be legal.
So what happens to Quinn's goals if opponents follow Ogletree's suggestion? What if double and triple-teams cause Quinn's sack total to plummet while the team's total grows? "That could be successful," Quinn said. "We have a bunch of great guys that can put up numbers on any given day. It will be hard to just focus on one guy. Teams that try to focus on me, any guy on our defense the way Gregg plays it is going to cause some chaos back there."
Appreciation is rolling Quinn's way, starting with his NFL Network ranking. Fans will receive Quinn bobbleheads at one Rams home game; the figurines perform a variation on Quinn's sack dance, the "Bernie."
And of course, teammates know who the sack man is. "Robert Quinn is my hero," Laurinaitis joked. Laurinaitis once had an action figure of his own, but he sounds eager to share the stage. "My action figure would tear some things if he tried to do the Bernie."
Pretty freakin' quick
Despite his height, Aaron Donald is not easily overshadowed. The 6-foot-1 rookie defensive tackle -- short by lineman standards -- won the Outland Trophy, Bronko Nagurski Trophy, and Chuck Bednarik award, among other collegiate hardware. He was a consensus All-America selection and the 13th pick in May's NFL draft. He was one of the most dominant players at the Senior Bowl all-star game. At 6-foot-3, he would have been a top five draft pick.
Here in St. Louis, he plays mostly on the second string, with some pop-up reps in place of Langford. If Quinn cannot get the attention he deserves, Donald does not stand a chance. Quinn and Long are the stars of the line. Left tackle Greg Robinson is the Rams' top draft pick, so Donald does not get top billing among rookies. Among rookie defensive linemen, Michael Sam is the guy with the cultural cache. For all his accolades and ability, Donald cannot crack the opening credits.
That doesn't bother him at all. "I'm not a guy that wants to be in the spotlight," he said.
Donald was the star of rookies-only practices, routinely whizzing past undrafted blockers who could barely lay a hand on him. Donald's dominance continued when the veterans arrived: He knifes into the backfield on play after play, often beating linemen on both sides off the snap by more than a heartbeat.
Veterans have taken note. "He's on the shorter side, but he's quick and tough for O-linemen to put their hands on when he is moving back and forth across their face," Quinn said. "He can get into the backfield."
Laurinaitis put it more succinctly. "Aaron Donald is pretty freakin' quick."
On other teams, Donald might have been asked to serve as the centerpiece of the defensive line, with all the rights and responsibilities that go with it. But Donald is happy to be part of a very talented crowd. "Coming to this organization, it fit me well. This scheme fits the way I play the game perfectly. I couldn't ask for a better team to pick me up."
Brockers and Langford may force Donald into a rotation role, but a rookie cannot ask for a better on-field faculty. "Any time I have a question, they're there," Donald said of the starters. "That's the best thing about having a defensive line like we've got. You can ask anybody along the defensive line and you know they've got the answer."
It is hard to estimate the marginal gain a great line can get from 40 snaps of Aaron Donald when staring at a depth chart. It is easier to see on the practice field. Donald is unlikely to ever see a double team. He is capable of beating veteran blockers with his initial move. The Rams defensive line achieved a kind of critical mass in several games last year, most notably a demolition of the Saints. Donald will allow the line to do that more regularly, to dictate the entire flow of games and make life ridiculously easy for an offense that always appreciates the help.
The addition of more variety and more blitzes could take that critical mass to super-critical.
Method to the Madness
Gregg Williams is best known these days for his role as the voice of unreason in the Bountygate saga. He served a one-year suspension, then a second year in quiet exile as a senior assistant for the Titans. Whether you consider the sentence too light or too stiff depends on whether you consider Williams' "kill the head" comments as an incitement to brain injury or leftover tough-guy patois that did not raise an eyebrow in Williams' coaching youth. Either way, the time has been served, and the Rams now have the coordinator they actually hired before the dawn of Bountygate in 2012.
"Since Gregg stepped in the room, seeing the excitement that he put in the guys from Day One, it makes it more fun to come out here and work and better yourself," Quinn said of his new coach.
Ogletree is also enthusiastic. "Guys are really enjoying it. We're starting to understand what he wants us to do. We're playing a lot of different positions. We've got a lot of different calls."
"I think I'll be blitzing more this year," Ogletree added.
Every defensive coordinator in NFL history has promised to make his units more "aggressive" and "attacking," so all of the offseason and early-camp discussion of an exciting new scheme usually comes with a grain of salt. But it is easy to believe that the Rams will, in fact, be far more creative and blitz oriented behind the architect of the defense that helped the Saints win a Super Bowl.
The Rams went without a defensive coordinator when Williams was suspended in 2012; head coach Jeff Fisher led a three-man decision making committee on defense. Tim Walton, a young up-and-comer, took over the chores last year. Walton got results, but he lacked Williams' deep roots in tactical history and motivational spark.
Williams engaged defenders in the up-and-down drill in the early days of camp. It's a Buddy Ryan-flavored old-school exercise: four defenders sprint to recover two footballs after banging pads at the line of scrimmage, with the two defenders who come up short forced to do some extra "up and down" conditioning. (Brockers, a behemoth who stands no chance in a sprint, stops running to the ball about halfway and just jogs over to begin the up-and-downs). Cornerbacks clutch tennis balls when isolated against receivers to prevent them from grabbing. And there is blitzing, blitzing, and more blitzing in full-squad reps, even on day two of practice, with no shoulder pads.
It's not all fun and games. "There's a method to his madness," Laurinaitis said. Williams has defenders study the Rams offense to get into the habit of preparing for opponents, telling them to make a book on Brian Schottenheimer coaching tendencies, according to Laurinaitis.
Laurinaitis, Quinn, and other defenders stressed the constant challenges Williams makes of his defenders. Challenge is another of those attacking and aggressive buzzwords, but again, the veterans sound invested in the change. "Guys are pushing themselves to be better than ever," Quinn said. "He challenges you to be the best that you have ever been. He puts everybody in the right positions to make plays. He allows us to have fun."
The Rams defense appears to be having genuine fun at the start of training camp. The offense, on the other hand, has its work cut out.
Nothing is Easy
The Rams defense projects to be so great that, under normal circumstances, it could propel a slightly-improved Rams offense into the playoffs. But there are no "normal circumstances" in the NFC West.
Laurinaitis acknowledged the reality of life in the shadow of the world-champion Seahawks and perennial powerhouse 49ers. "They deserve all the respect they're getting right now. We have, on paper right now, the most talented roster we've had. But that's all it is right now: on paper. Until somebody does something about it, to dethrone the Hawks and Niners, and quite frankly the Cardinals, they deserve all the talk."
This defense is capable of toppling thrones. But will the offense keep up? Sam Bradford is back from injury, practicing with a small knee brace. The offensive line is restructured, the skill positions talent-laden but unproven. Early no-pad drills always favor the defense, but the situation is extreme at Rams camp, where the only thing keeping Bradford and his backups vertical on most plays are their red jerseys.
Bradford expects the Rams defense to hone the offense. "Going against that group every day makes an offense better. There's nothing easy against those guys, especially that front seven."
He may have a point. If the Rams can block their own defenders, they can block anyone. Even the Seahawks and 49ers.