You want sack dances? Then go find Arthur Murray, because the Ram defensive line hasn't been doing the two-step over too many blockers in recent years. Truth be known, their last real instructor was Mr. Jack Youngblood, who waltzed his way into opposing backfields for 14 years.
But Youngblood retired in 1984, leaving the Rams with the task of discovering Youngblood II.
They're still looking.
In the meantime, Ram coaches have devised something called the Eagle defense, which is sort of like the one Buddy Ryan took with him to Philadelphia, which is sort of like the one he introduced to the Chicago Bears in the mid-'80s.
Anyway, it works. The Bears used it to maul their way to a Super Bowl victory in 1986. The Eagles used a version of it last season and got 57 sacks, second in the league to--you guessed it--the Bears. The Eagles also tied for first in the league in take-aways (interceptions and fumbles).
And the Rams? Only the Cincinnati Bengals had fewer take-aways. As for sacks, don't ask. Either that, or thank Pete Rozelle that the Atlanta Falcons are members of the NFC. The Rams had 38 sacks, which looks good next to the Falcons' 17 but bad when compared to the rest of the conference. Only the Green Bay Packers, the San Francisco 49ers and the Falcons had lower totals than the Rams.
The Rams knew they had problems. They sensed it in 1983, when they acquired defensive end Gary Jeter from the New York Giants. Jeter has averaged 6.7 sacks a season since the trade, which isn't bad for someone entering his 12th season in the league.
But Jeter alone isn't the solution. And Donald Evans, the Rams' first choice of the 1987 draft, went from The Great Rush Hope to fullback to being cut in just more than a year.
All of this left the Rams in a jam. Last season, as the team struggled to a 6-9 record, Ram coaches decided enough was enough. The Eagle was born. Make that reborn.
"There was a lot of time for us to think," said Fritz Shurmur, Ram defensive coordinator. "We were off some, playing the replacement games and all that. But I think it's been apparent that we needed to increase our ability to rush the passer other than nickel situations. As a result, we had to come up with some method by which we could best utilize our personnel and have a scheme where we could practice our pass rush more as part of our regular routine."
Translation: The Ram pass rush needed mouth-to-mouth. And please hurry.
So the Rams tinkered with the idea of two down linemen and five linebackers. Their Eagle was a hybrid of sorts, a combination of the Bears' and the Eagles' defense. Rather than borrow directly, the Rams altered the defense like tailors, the better to suit their own team. To do otherwise, Coach John Robinson said, to simply imitate, is "one of the great tragedies in coaching."
"You've got to try to win in the way that you can," he said.
Which means you adapt. The Rams don't have a Richard Dent, a Bear defensive end who can dominate a game. But they do have lots of good-to-very-good linebackers. That explains Robinson's decision to create an Eagle defense that was heavy on linebackers and light on linemen.
Instead of say, Greg Meisner or Alvin Wright at nose tackle, linebacker Mark Jerue, who used to play nose tackle until his senior season at Washington, is lined up over the center in the Eagle. Now that they're back with the team after extended holdouts, linemen Doug Reed and Shawn Miller are positioned between the offensive guards and tackles. Linebacker Mel Owens is placed over the tight end. Linebacker Kevin Greene lines up slightly outside of Owens. Linebacker Carl Ekern is behind Reed, while Mike Wilcher, the fifth linebacker, lines up on the weak side, just outside the off-tackle.
The rest of the Eagle defense features cornerbacks Jerry Gray and LeRoy Irvin, strong safety Vince Newsome and free safety Johnny Johnson.
"It's a little different wrinkle," Robinson said. "It's not that dramatic."
Jerue at nose tackle? Jerue able to battle the center or drop back into a pass coverage? Just two down linemen? The two best rushing linebackers the Rams have--Greene and Wilcher--in the game at once?
This isn't one wrinkle, it's a prune's worth.
"But we don't even know if it's going to work," Robinson said.
There are risks, all right. The Eagle, while swell against the run, lends itself to big pass plays. It is, said Shurmur, basically designed for first- and second-down plays.
"When you go to this kind of scheme, you do increase your possibilities of making big plays," Shurmur said. "But nothing's for nothing in this life, including defensive schemes of football. You not only increase your ability to make big plays, but you also increase your exposure, too.
"You're playing more man coverage. You're heavily reliant on the rush to get there more than you would, for example, on zone, where if they hit one, it's a seven-yard gain underneath and it's no big deal. Here if they hit you on one, it might be 55 yards and the big one."