Undersized (and unhinged) linemen who give away 50-plus pounds yet wear their opponents down—does that sound like fantasy? When it comes to picking your defense, you' d be wise to think way outside the box
A cubby of William Hayes's locker at the Rams' practice facility in Earth City, Mo., looks like a tiny, plastic homage to the Jurassic Park franchise. A shy-looking brontosaurus, a Tyrannosaurus rex, a raptor and a red lizard of indistinguishable genus sit on a plastic rock formation. A toy triceratops, a pterodactyl and another T. rex with teeth bared ride atop a plastic truck. The dinos, 14 in all, are gifts from fellow defensive end Chris Long, a laughing nod to Hayes's insistence that dinosaurs never existed.
"That's some bulls---," says Hayes, 30. "Everybody disagrees with me, but I definitely don't believe in dinosaurs even a little bit.
"If you tell me there was a dinosaur out there, you can't tell me there's [never been] a mermaid," he continues. "There has to have been some s---out there, floating around in the water—maybe a long time ago, prehistoric times. We have not discovered the whole ocean. We find different species every day."
Hayes's point: No one's ever seen a dinosaur, only dinosaur bones. But that doesn't deter him from believing he'll spot himself a mermaid someday. They feed on seal hearts, he says, so all he needs to do is bring some seals to St. Louis....
Among teammates, Hayes's spiel is met with good-natured mockery, but he keeps on arguing—in meetings, in the locker room, whenever one of his similarly unhinged fellow D-linemen will give him an ear. They throw books at one another, share giant bags of popcorn and splay themselves out on the floor during intense film-study sessions. "When you're a defensive lineman, you're not quite wired right," Long, 30, says by way of explanation. "Our meeting room is unconventional—the way we learn, the way we focus. It's kind of like a day-care center sometimes."
A day-care center run by a bald, thunder-voiced former Marine, that is. Mike Waufle's eyes radiate intensity, and he quotes from memory his favorite chapter of the Handbook for Marine NCOs: "Leadership stands out among all character traits because it convinces individuals to perform their duties faithfully and to the utmost of their ability."
An unlikely ringmaster for this St. Louis circus? Undoubtedly. But the dynamic works. Entering his fourth season as defensive line coach, Waufle, 61, cracks the whip for the NFL's best front four, a group that has accounted for 79% of the sacks on a defense whose 184 takedowns led the NFL from 2011 through '14. The unit that coach Jeff Fisher calls his team's "nerve center" is built on the principle of speed over bulk. And last season, in front of an average secondary, the line led the way to two straight shutouts, the first time the Rams had done that in 69 years.
But to assume that former Corporal Waufle runs some kind of military operation, that his charges march in formation? Well, don't. "Units with good discipline," the handbook continues, "display comradeship, or esprit de corps.... A unit that has spirit will stand up to the toughest stress and punishment and still accomplish its tasks."
These Rams have spirit to spare. "We're ..." Hayes says before pausing, seemingly pondering the dichotomy between the coach and his troops. A goofy grin creeps across his face. "We're an unconventional Marine group."
WHEN THE RAMS drafted Robert Quinn with the 14th pick in 2011, they got a pass rusher who should have gone in the top five—and who knows all too well how it feels to have the fun of the game taken away from him. As a senior at Fort Dorchester High in North Charleston, S.C., the defensive end was diagnosed with a dime-sized brain tumor at the top of his spinal cavity; fluid had collected and doctors operated to drain it. They discovered the mass was benign, but even so they told Quinn that his future in sports was in jeopardy. There he was, though, four months later, winning his third state heavyweight wrestling championship. "Tomorrow's not promised," says the 25-year-old Quinn, rubbing the faint scar where his buzz cut meets the right side of his forehead. "Might as well live today to the fullest."
That's why three years later, when Quinn was caught accepting impermissible benefits and ruled ineligible for his junior season at North Carolina, the sitting and waiting ate at him. He entered the draft early and has spent the subsequent seasons showing the 13 teams that skipped him exactly what they passed up: A 19-sack man in 2013, second in the NFL. A guy who Pro Football Focus ranked among its top seven pass-rushing ends in each of the past two seasons. The linchpin of a lethal defense.
Lining up opposite Long, the No. 2 pick in 2008, Quinn gave St. Louis a potent one-two pass rush in their 4--3 scheme. Yet the Rams further fortified their front in the '12 draft, taking LSU tackle Michael Brockers 14th. The next season, when they had Quinn, Long, Hayes and Eugene Sims rotating at defensive end, and Kendall Langford alongside Brockers at tackle, they were the second-best pass-rush unit in the league, behind the Super Bowl champion Seahawks.
What St. Louis didn't have was Russell Wilson. Or Marshawn Lynch. Or any semblance of offense. From 2011 through '13, under coach Steve Spagnuolo and then Fisher, the Rams went 16-31-1 with an attack that ranked 31st in yards per game (323.6) and 30th in points (17.5). Which makes it all the more shocking that last year, after drafting Auburn left tackle Greg Robinson No. 2, general manager Les Snead spent yet another first-rounder on the D-line, taking Pittsburgh tackle Aaron Donald 13th.
At just 6'1" and 285 pounds, the 2013 ACC Defensive Player of the Year is hardly a prototypical NFL tackle. (Most scouts prefer someone closer to the 2014 average of 6'3" and 310.) Even so, when Donald took his predraft visit to St. Louis, Waufle couldn't contain his enthusiasm, dragging him unannounced into a closed-door meeting. "They were breaking down another draft pick, and [Waufle] said, 'Hey, this is Aaron, everybody!'" Donald recalls. "Everyone was like, What's he doing in here?"
Really, though, Rams coaches were licking their collective chops. They'd graded the Pitt senior so high in so many combine drills (where his 4.68-second 40 was the fastest by any DT in the past decade) that Fisher mused that afternoon about how they might best employ his athleticism. Are we going to rush him on third down? Or are we going to move him to nickelback?
Donald began as a backup to Brockers on the right side. In Week 5 he moved to the left, behind Langford. And in Week 6 he started. Putting Brockers at nosetackle while allowing Donald to play the three-technique capitalized on the newbie's speed and pass-rushing skills, and he went on to rack up eight sacks and 25 QB hurries over the last 11 games.
The drafting of Donald, it surely seemed, was the finishing touch for the D-line, which once again excelled despite being put in tough positions by the offense (27 turnovers, 20.3 points per game). Entering this off-season St. Louis had a perennially injured QB, a shaky line and a running-back rotation completely bereft of stars. The front office had to focus on that side of the ball, and it did, trading Sam Bradford for Eagles QB Nick Foles and drafting Georgia running back Todd Gurley No. 10. But in between, the Rams found the time and $5 million to make another pickup: free-agent D-tackle Nick Fairley, the fifth first-round pick on their line.
Fairley, who spent his first four seasons with the Lions, had been in the market for a one-year deal after an injury-shortened 2014. Always heavier than his coaches had liked—he reached 320 pounds in Detroit—he cut out fast food and hired a personal chef, and he reported at 274 when the Rams' camp began this month. Fisher & Co. have set a Week 1 target of 285 to 290 pounds for the 6'4" Fairley, and if all goes according to plan, he'll replace Langford, who was cut last February, on a line that he's admired since he first saw them on tape. "Why can't we be like those guys?" Fairley, 27, recalls Detroit's D-line coach, Kris Kocurek, asking the room, even though the Lions boasted one of the NFL's better front fours at the time.
Fairley's favorable impression only intensified during June OTAs, when his new teammates made him go first in a ball-tip drill. Easy enough. Pass batted, task complete—until Sims came out of nowhere and dunked the ball onto Fairley's head. Welcome to the Rams. You're one of us now.
There's no arguing that, in terms of pure talent, the defensive front leads the NFL—Quinn calls it "breathtaking" to line up at practice and look down the line—but after eight straight losing seasons, not a soul in St. Louis is ready to make grandiose claims about 2015. "We look good on paper," says Quinn. "Now it's time for us to live up to that."
Waufle is tired of the grief he gets from other coaches about his riches. "The No. 1's have to produce," he says. "There's a lot of No. 1's [around the league] that have failed."
SIX YEARS AGO, when he was the Giants' defensive line coach, Waufle grew anxious as he watched the D-linemen work out at the NFL combine. "They looked heavy and fat," the coach recalls. "I was thinking to myself, This is the PlayStation generation coming in. They're watching TV. They're not out playing basketball." These were not the players Waufle wanted to draft. They weren't fast enough, lean enough. Their bodies were built for smothering, not sprinting. That spring New York didn't select a single defensive lineman.
For Waufle, one trait trumps all, and it has nothing to do with girth. "I look for speed," he says. "That's the defining factor in this league." Once he has enough of it, he then rides "the wave"—Rams-speak for sending fresh defender after fresh defender to wear down offensive lines.
Fortunately, Waufle says, the college game has begun to produce more linemen to his liking, even if they have been, on average, getting larger over the past 25 years. The Rams assistant isn't the first to go small. Under coordinators Dave Wannstedt and Butch Davis, for example, the Cowboys' defenses of the 1990s relied on rotation and speed, and they were perennial Super Bowl contenders.
Dallas won its last Super Bowl following the 1995 season, three years before Waufle took his first NFL job, as the Raiders' D-line coach. Soon he began to experiment with using four end-sized players across his line, an idea that struck him after Oakland offensive coordinator Bill Callahan raved about 280-pound Vikings tackle John Randle. Callahan was astonished and annoyed at the mismatches created by the future Hall of Famer, who went undrafted because teams believed him too small, and who started his pro career as an end. In essence Waufle realized that outmuscling an opponent isn't the key to great defensive-line play. Instead, he began to tout leverage, staying low and pushing up and under a larger offensive lineman's pads. He tried to find his own Randle in 6-foot, 280-pound Rod Coleman, and the converted college end rang up 11 sacks in 2002.
Waufle has gone for speed over size ever since. With the Giants from 2004 through '09, he successfully moved 263-pound defensive end Justin Tuck into the A-gap and let Michael Strahan play on the edge at a slimmed-down 251. In '07 that unit anchored New York's title team, leading the league with 53 sacks and taking down Tom Brady five times in the Super Bowl.
Now, in the NFL of 2015, Waufle's speed-centric unit is more of a variation on a trend than it is an exception, and some of the league's best defensive fronts are built on similar athleticism. Still, no other top D-line puts such a discount on density. In Buffalo, for instance, Bills end Mario Williams is a svelte 6'6", 295 pounds—but he lines up outside 331-pound Marcell Dareus and 306-pound Kyle Williams. Jets tackle Sheldon Richardson is a relatively trim 6'3" and 294, but his linemates include 350-pound nose Damon Harrison and 315-pound end Muhammad Wilkerson. Among the players who will see significant playing time in St. Louis, only the 24-year-old Brockers tips the scale at more than 300 pounds. He plays nosetackle at a lithe 315.
A YEAR AGO, before practice, a Rams defensive lineman who prefers to remain anonymous eyed the parking lot at his team's facility and hatched a plan. He called a company that dispatches car transport trucks—the kind that ferry batches of vehicles between dealerships—and asked to have his linemates' rides loaded and driven to an area that could easily be seen from the practice field. The company complied, and as the players began their drills, the linemen spotted their cars, stacked on a truck, on a nearby hill.
They hollered, laughed, cursed. They knew it would take time after practice—and a hit to their wallets—to get the cars back, but they just kept practicing. And silently vowed revenge. After all, this is a group that once filled a linebacker's new car with live crickets and packing peanuts, then plastic-wrapped the thing shut. These men aren't so much invincible as they are irrational, insane. And Waufle's approach capitalizes on that lunacy.
Tell a 265-pound defensive end that he can manhandle a lineman who's 50 pounds heavier than him? Sure; why not? Persuade Brockers—the biggest of the bunch—that he's strong enough to do the work that many teams leave for men 30 pounds bigger? No problem.
The Rams have the utmost faith in Waufle's mismatches, which, combined with feverish rotations, have created a system that's at once frenetic and refined. The resignation of opposing linemen is often palpable. "You can see it in how they come out of the huddle," Brockers says, slumping his shoulders in pantomime.
"Those longer drives, you're out there dying, and then you see a new guy [rotate in]—wow," says Buccaneers guard Logan Mankins, a six-time Pro Bowler. "And now they have Nick Fairley? Imagine him coming on in the middle of a drive."
In this the Rams' goal is to dominate, and they see no real hierarchy between their first and second units. "We can overwhelm offensive lines," says Brockers. "Our quick ends get in the backfield so fast. I know it drives offensive linemen crazy how disruptive our little guys can be. Speed kills."
Smarts are essential too. Inside moves, unorthodox formations, slants, stunts, blitzes—all are parts of St. Louis's repertoire, and all rely on a level of finesse that's difficult to teach. Waufle points out: Though offensive linemen can translate workouts like squats and bench presses into on-field motions, defensive linemen have no such corollaries—especially when, like the Rams, they're less reliant on sheer girth. "There's nothing instinctive about defensive line play," Waufle says, and so he trains his players to develop new impulses, to use their bodies less for brute force and more to set off complicated physics equations.
Waufle's players swear by this system, in part because their unhinged personalities and atypical body types have a place in its rigor. Of course there are times when they go too far—Hayes, for example, says Fisher used to reward him for keeping quiet at practices—but the linemen feel as if they were brought to St. Louis because of who they are, not in hopes they would become someone else. Donald recalls one of his first meetings last year, when Waufle told the tackle to ignore everything he was teaching and to keep playing the way he always had. ("It was the greatest coaching job I ever did," Waufle jokes.) Hayes, too, reflects back on the year before he arrived as a free agent, when Titans coaches asked him to be a different kind of player. He was ready to quit until Fisher called. Now coaches don't urge him to be the best pass rusher or run stopper he can be. Instead, he says, "I want to be the best William Hayes I can be."
Yet Hayes remains a relative unknown despite three outstanding seasons in St. Louis. Long, in seven years with the team, has never sniffed a playoff berth. And Quinn is too often an afterthought in conversations about the NFL's elite pass rushers. No matter how many sacks or hurries it accumulates, the best unit on a losing team never gets its due; what the Rams must do is win. Foles and Gurley should provide a boost, even behind a still-shaky line. Waufle's band of brothers has never been blind to the holes around it, but this summer, more than any one before, it is hopeful.
"I don't think a lot of people know who we are, and that doesn't bother us," says Long. "But there'll be a time when people know. I don't think our best is here yet."
"Our meeting room is unconventional—the way we learn, the way we focus," says Long. "It's kind of like a day-care center sometimes."
"Those longer drives, you're out there dying, and then you see a new guy rotate in—wow," says Mankins, a six-time Pro Bowler.
Points allowed by the St. Louis D between Weeks 13 and 15 last year, in the thick of fantasy playoffs.
Standard-scoring fantasy points accumulated by the defense in 2014, No. 5 in the NFL.
The Rams' average fantasy rank over the past three seasons.
Photograph by Whitney Curtis for Sports Illustrated
A BRAVE FRONT The Rams' line rotation, from left: DE Quinn, DTs Fairley and Brockers, DEs Long and Hayes, and DT Donald.
WAUFLE'S HOUSE Under the former Marine's guidance, every down is a feeding frenzy for sack-happy St. Louis.
DILIP VISHWANAT/GETTY IMAGES
DROP IT LIKE IT'S HOT With Quinn (left) and Long (below) on the edges, the Rams have forced 34 fumbles over the past two years, the highest total in the NFL.
CHRIS LEE/ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH/TNS/LANDOV
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KIM KLEMENT/USA TODAY SPORTS
THE RIGHT STUFFS Some may call it overkill, adding Donald (99), Hayes (95), Brockers (90) and Fairley (not pictured) to an already stacked line.... Well, yeah, that's kind of the idea.
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