ST. LOUIS –– When veteran linebacker Will Witherspoon decided to sign with the Rams days before training camp, he says playing time wasn’t a factor.
The 12-year veteran was seeking a comfort zone and the Rams provided it. Not only had Witherspoon spent three-plus seasons in St. Louis, one of his ensuing seasons in Tennessee came when Jeff Fisher was head coach.
“There were so many things here that it was like, this makes sense,” Witherspoon said.
The feeling was mutual.
“Spoon’s familiar with the organization and I have a familiarity with him,” Fisher said. “He has a familiarity with the system. He was out there, had a couple other opportunities and he chose to join us. It’ll be good to have him.”
Adding Witherspoon made even more sense last week. When he signed his one-year deal, the Rams already knew that strongside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar would be lost for the first quarter of the season after a positive PED test. When the official announcement was made last week, Witherspoon gave the team an obvious option to take over as a starter.
“We all have to step up, not just myself,” Witherspoon said. “We all have to fill the void.”
Based on the play of the first-team defense in the second preseason game, the Rams have a ways to go. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and rookie running back Eddie Lacy had no trouble moving the ball against the Rams in their limited playing time. It’s not like Dunbar would have made much of a difference, either. Rams defenders seemed to be in the right places most of the time but were unable to finish the play. After the 19-7 loss, first-teamers admitted they missed too many tackles.
“We gave up more yards (after contact) than we needed to,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “The first few drives, we looked like 11 guys running around trying to figure out what was going on. We settled in around the third drive. We learned from it. We’ve moved on.”
Still, Laurinaitis admits it’s difficult to work on tackling when tackling is not part of practice. You can get the right angle on a ball carrier, generate enough force and make sure your head is in the right place. But when offensive players are darting and dashing all over the field, defensive players are limited in their contact.
“Here the backs know when they get thudded, it’s done,” Laurinaitis said. “I think they run a little harder when they know they can break a tackle so you can only practice it when you go live in the preseason games.”
In what Laurinaitis admitted was a more spirited practice than usual on a hotter-than-it-has-been Tuesday afternoon, players a couple of times took exception to the way they were being hit. Practice was interrupted by at least two skirmishes after plays that involved a little more contact than usual. On one occasion, tight end Jared Cook and Dunbar started after each other, and teammates quickly piled in.
“Just natural,” Laurinaitis said. “Offensive guys don’t like getting hit. People were competing today. That’s good to see.”
The Rams will get a chance to hit someone else Saturday night in Denver when first-teamers are expected to play the first half. The game against Peyton Manning essentially is the final tuneup for the regulars because they typically play very little, if at all, in the preseason finale.
In addition to filling in for Dunbar, Witherspoon was brought in to provide insurance for rookie weakside linebacker Alec Ogletree. The Rams might need an experienced hand because Ogletree has struggled in the first two preseason games, though the team says he is coming along.
“Alec is getting better,” Laurinaitis said. “It’s about doing the little things every single time. We liked the way he used his hands last game. He’s got to continue to work with shock and shed, using his hands to the point of attack.”
The Rams’ oldest player at just-turned 33, Witherspoon says he will use all the work he can this week with the first team. After spending most of his career as a first-teamer, his playing time went down significantly with the Titans last year. He made only five starts and was on the field for about a third of the team’s defensive plays. This year could be more like 2010, the last season he started 16 games.
“I feel pretty ready for it,” he said. “I feel comfortable and am confident in what I’m doing.”
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.