ST. LOUIS — Jo-Lonn Dunbar wants nothing more than to play like he did two years ago and hopes the addition of his former coach helps get him there.
Dunbar signed a two-year $2 million contract during the offseason to reunite with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, under whom he played with the New Orleans Saints for his first four years in the NFL. He said the stability going into this season was a welcomed relief after 2013 provided plenty of challenges.
"It’s comforting for me," Dunbar said. "I’m back with a guy I understand. I know what he expects as a player, I know what he expects in his defense and I know what he expects in his coaching staff."
Dunbar didn’t have much stability a year ago. He entered the season facing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance rules. The Rams cut him, then re-signed him after his suspension but for less money. He had a new defensive coordinator — and defense — and an uncertain future.
All of the turmoil showed up in his stats.
Dunbar switched to strong side linebacker from the weak side position and ended up with just 39 tackles and no sacks. He had career highs in tackles with 115 and sacks with 4 1/2 in 2012.
Now, he’s just hoping to contribute to the team, and the Rams certainly think he will regardless of his position. In St. Louis’ preseason opener Friday against the Saints, Dunbar filled in for the nicked-up James Laurinaitis at the middle linebacker spot. He’s expected to be switched around throughout the season.
"It works out good for us, particularly because he understands it," coach Jeff Fisher said. "He can play all three positions. He’s a valuable asset to the defense."
Dunbar is as surprised as anyone to find himself playing for Williams, who is in his second stint as defensive coordinator for the Rams. He came to St. Louis with Fisher before the 2012 season, but Williams never got a chance to coach the team. He was suspended by the league for a year for his part in the bounty scandal while with New Orleans.
After serving the ban, Williams spent last season with Tennessee before returning to St. Louis this offseason.
"It was obviously a surprise, considering when I first got here, the whole thing fell apart," said Dunbar, who first signed with the Rams in 2012. "But as soon as he got the word he gave me a call and that’s always exciting."
Williams’ return to the Rams provided Dunbar plenty of reason to remain in St. Louis and try to jump-start his career as he enters his seventh season.
Dunbar said despite a growing reputation of the Rams being one of the best defensive units in the league, it is clear there is room for improvement. St. Louis allowed the 13th-most points per game a year ago, finished 7-9 and fourth in the NFC West.
It was the 10th consecutive season the Rams failed to post a winning record.
"We made an emphasis on being a better defense; being better than fourth in the NFC West," he said. "I mean, we were fourth in total defense in the NFC West. If you’re fourth, you’re probably not the best defense in that division.
"That’s something that we stressed this offseason, just to make sure we’re one of the best defense in our division and one of the best defenses in the league."