NFL

Spagnuolo putting mark on Rams' defense

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ST. LOUIS (AP)

Choosing the St. Louis Rams in free agency last winter was a natural for Fred Robbins. The veteran defensive tackle got to play for Steve Spagnuolo again, and help build a defense that would make the boss proud.

The 325-pound Robbins has been the anchor of a line that's the starting point for a unit that's made huge improvements in its second season under Spagnuolo. Robbins, in his 11th season, was a key member of the 2007 Giants, where Spagnuolo was the defensive coordinator and the team won the Super Bowl.

''He's been a great leader, had some very good production, come up with some big plays at some good times,'' defensive coordinator Ken Flajole said. ''Having a good push inside certainly gives the ends a better chance to get one-on-one blocks.''

Robbins is among five players from that Giants team reunited with Spagnuolo, including safeties Craig Dahl and James Butler, cornerback Kevin Dockery and linebacker Bryan Kehl. Robbins has started every game, Dahl has made 12 starts and the other three have combined for eight starts.

''I know what to expect from him, what defense he runs, what he wants,'' Robbins said.

The Rams are holding opponents to 34 percent on third-down conversions, fourth best in the NFL. They're tied for sixth with 31 touchdowns allowed and their 25 takeaways are plus-5 from last year.

One of their better games came in a 20-3 victory over Seattle (6-9) at home in October, when Matt Hasselbeck was sacked four times, threw an interception and lost a fumble. Before that, the Seahawks had averaged 29 points during a 10-game winning streak in the series.

Along with being a run stuffer, Robbins has a career-best six sacks. End James Hall, also in his 11th season, is among the league leaders with 10 1/2 sacks and had two last week against the 49ers.

''They're doing awesome,'' end Chris Long said. ''I don't know what it is, but they're playing out of their minds.''

Long has emerged as a force, too, in his third season. The second overall pick of the 2008 draft and son of Hall of Famer Howie Long has played exclusively at left end after often switching sides his first two seasons. He has consistently terrorized quarterbacks with 8 1/2 sacks.

Long helped finish off the 49ers last week with a sack and forced fumble on Alex Smith, and in one midseason stretch had six sacks in six games. The 49ers were just 4 for 16 on third-down conversions against a defense that was able to play it straight more often than in the past.

''Obviously you've got to be able to stop the run and put some pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz all the time,'' Robbins said. ''When you can do that, it makes it harder to game plan on you.

''It all starts up front.''

Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis heads the second line of defense, leading the team in tackles for the second straight season, and got his fourth sack last week. The secondary features safety O.J. Atogwe and cornerback Ron Bartell, who've both been with the Rams since 2005.

Whether Matt Hasselbeck or Charlie Whitehurst starts for Seattle makes no difference to these guys. Flajole said the schemes don't change depending on who's taking the snaps.

''I don't care who's at quarterback,'' Bartell said. ''At the end of the day, who cares? I still have to cover, I still have to tackle.''

When it's working, it's a complementary effort.

''We watch each other's backs,'' Bartell said. ''When we're covering well, they have the pressure. When they pressure, we're able to cover.''

Get a little cushion and the offense tends to go vanilla with Steven Jackson handoffs, protecting rookie quarterback Sam Bradford a bit while putting the onus on the other side of the ball. Last week, Spagnuolo was content to burn time off the clock and just stop the 49ers, who had two possessions in the final four minutes and didn't come close to the end zone.

''Spags is going to lean on us,'' Long said. ''And we like that.''

Tagged: Rams, 49ers, Seahawks, James Hall, Fred Robbins, Matt Hasselbeck, Ron Bartell, James Butler, Chris Long, James Laurinaitis

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