Dunbar’s PED suspension a blow to Rams defense

ST. LOUIS — When asked about the NFL’s slow yet steady march toward HGH testing on July 25, St. Louis Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis encouraged the punishment of cheaters.

“Let’s make this thing as clean as possible, because everybody wants an even playing field,” he said at the time. “I do, at least. You want everybody to be the exact same, no advantages.”

Turns out a dirty player was lining up right beside him, at least according to the NFL. The league announced Wednesday that Rams starting outside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar will miss the first four games of the 2013 regular season because he violated its performance enhancing substance abuse policy. That verdict, looming for no less than three weeks, dealt the Rams defense a considerable blow.

“First and foremost, we are very, very disappointed in his (Dunbar’s) choices and his decisions,” Fisher said Thursday. “It’s selfish. It hurts the team.”

Dunbar told reporters Wednesday he had not taken a performance-enhancing drug. But the man who started 16 games in 2012 and finished second on the team in tackles declined to discuss specifics of how he had failed a test. His message to teammates must have made more sense.

“He told us when this stuff was kind of being talked about,” Laurinaitis said. “He just let us know he was sorry. He’s regretful for his decision.”

“After the four games is served, we will be ready to welcome him back in. He regrets his decision. And I know Jo-Lonn as a person. He truly does. He has accepted it, and it’s time to move on.”

Whether or not Dunbar will return as a starter remains to be seen. Fisher didn’t guarantee as much Thursday. He also said the Rams could seek outside help at the position.

Meanwhile, Will Witherspoon will be thrust into Dunbar’s vacated spot. The Rams signed the 32-year-old veteran to a one-year deal on July 22. Originally, Witherspoon’s role appeared to be a depth-builder who could help mentor rookie starter Alec Ogletree. Not anymore.

“Will is a seasoned vet,” Laurinaitis said. “He’s seen a lot of football. He’s a good leader. Obviously, we need him now more than ever.”

Any cushion Witherspoon might have offered a struggling Ogletree is now gone — at least for games against Arizona, Atlanta, Dallas and San Francisco.

“Alec realized you’re not drafted in the first round if you’re not expected to play,” Laurinaitis said. “There’s more responsibility now. You’ve got to know your stuff. There’s not four guys now, there’s three.”

Three really isn’t much of an understatement. Look behind the trio of Laurinaitis, Ogletree and Witherspoon and depth now becomes a serious concern. Fourth-year linebacker Josh Hull is the only reserve with game experience, and that is limited to one start. Four undrafted rookies (Daren Bates, Jonathan Stewart, Ray-Ray Armstrong and Joseph LeBeau), along with second-year player Jabara Williams round out a cast of untested options.

Dunbar seems to have earned his teammates’ forgiveness. But he’s put them in an undesirable spot.

Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at frederickson.ben@gmail.com