When the NFL suspended St. Louis Rams outside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar for violating the league policy on performance-enhancing substances, head coach Jeff Fisher called Dunbar “selfish,” according to Joe Lyons of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The public bashing didn't stop there.
He went on to say Dunbar’s suspension left him disappointed and hurt the team. Without question, Fisher was trying to send a message to all the other players on the team. He was adamant that a situation like this was entirely unacceptable.
Despite the four-game suspension, few believed the Rams would part ways with one of their most productive defenders. In 2012, Dunbar tallied 115 total tackles and 4.5 quarterback sacks, and he forced two fumbles. Additionally, the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) had the six-year veteran down for five quarterback hits and nine quarterback hurries.
As you can see in the chart, his coverage skills needed work, but he was an above-average player who made the Rams defense a more complete unit. However, the offseason additions of first-round pick Alec Ogletree and undrafted free agents Ray-Ray Armstrong, Daren Bates and Jonathan Stewart made cutting Dunbar a whole lot easier.
Even though there’s a possibility general manager Les Snead and Fisher will bring Dunbar back after his suspension, the Rams are excited to see what their four rookies can do once they hit the field.
Yes, veteran linebacker Will Witherspoon will see a majority of the reps right away, but don't be surprised if you see Armstrong and Bates work in with James Laurinaitis and Ogletree. Witherspoon isn’t exactly a sound player anymore. Last year, he graded out as the 76th-best outside linebacker in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
To put it nicely, that’s not very good—which means either Armstrong or Bates could take over as the starter at right outside linebacker sooner rather than later.
Armstrong would be the obvious favorite if Witherspoon was indeed pulled. He offers good size for a converted safety, and he plays the run exceptionally well. Additionally, he shows a good burst while pursuing the opposition.
Let’s take a look at the tape and analyze Armstrong’s preseason strengths. This will give us a better idea of why the organization is so excited about the 22-year-old hard hitter from the University of Miami.
On this first play against the Green Bay Packers, the Rams defense was in a Cover 1 look. Armstrong was lined up on the left side of the formation. His assignment was to create pressure by blitzing the B-gap. By blitzing the B-gap, he was hoping he would have a free run at the quarterback.
Unfortunately for Armstrong, he didn't have a free run at the quarterback, but he did get a favorable matchup against running back Angelo Pease (No. 39).
Armstrong made quick work of Pease by utilizing a top-notch pass-rushing move. After he swatted down the blocker's hands, he came over the top with a swim move. This, in turn, gave him the opening he needed to pressure the quarterback.
Even though Armstrong didn't record the sack, he stopped the play dead in its tracks when he hit quarterback B.J. Coleman’s arm.
All in all, it was a beautiful play. Armstrong displayed great speed around the corner and a strong pass-rush move. This particular play was exactly what Coach Fisher and the defensive coaching staff wanted to see from the undrafted rookie.
This second play hones in on Armstrong’s most coveted trait—his ability to cover pass-catchers.
The Baltimore Ravens offense deployed a “21 personnel” look, and the Rams defense countered with a 4-3 “stack” set that called for zone coverage. Armstrong was responsible for the lower left quadrant of the field based on the fact the left cornerback was playing off-man coverage.
As the play progressed, quarterback Caleb Hanie essentially had two options. He could have either thrown the ball to fullback Kyle Juszczyk (No. 40) or running back Delone Carter (No. 38). Hanie chose to throw the ball three yards down the field to Carter.
Armstrong read the play perfectly. He watched Hanie’s eyes and tracked the ball before he even threw it. His superb instincts allowed him to get a great jump.
The end result was a pass breakup that led to an incompletion. Armstrong couldn't have played the pass any better. He showcased his speed, athleticism and physical nature.
On this third and final play versus the Denver Broncos, Armstrong shows he is a complete player by shedding an offensive lineman and defeating the ball-carrier for a minimal gain.
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase's offense was in “22 personnel,” and the St. Louis defense was in a 4-3 “over” look. If Denver decided to run up the middle, it was up to Armstrong to shut down the play.
Lo and behold, it was a run up the middle. Right when running back Lance Ball was cutting the play back up field, Armstrong was attempting to disperse two blockers and work his way back to Ball’s cutback lane.
Armstrong proved to be successful in his pursuit when he stopped Ball for a three-yard gain.
Making a play of that caliber isn’t always easy for NFL linebackers. Learning to properly shed blockers takes time and repetition. It just so happens Armstrong has apparently caught on more quickly than some of the other rookies.
For a guy who changed positions and was out of football for a year, he has made the switch to outside linebacker look easy. Furthermore, his outstanding preseason play has made Snead and Fisher look like geniuses.
Sure, Armstrong’s off-field issues will loom over his head for a while, but that doesn’t mean he won’t succeed. The Rams are putting him in a position to excel. There won’t be any pressure to start the season, but you and I both know St. Louis wants to see him flourish as the season goes on.
Rightfully so, the Rams are taking a shot on a guy who was kicked out of Miami for being dishonest during an internal investigation. Armstrong knows he isn’t going to get two or three chances in the league.
He’s off to a good start. He made the team, and he has the coaching staff excited about his potential. Here’s what Fisher told Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He’s just a really good athlete.”
Fisher’s right. He is a really good athlete. Once his knowledge of the outside linebacker position catches up with his athleticism, the Rams won't be able to keep him off the field. He will be in the starting lineup, and Dunbar will be nothing more than an afterthought.
Mark my words.